Protests in Belgrade – an endless series of frustrations

Photo: Savez za Srbiju / Facebook

Problems that really concern citizens cannot be represented with songs on the opposition’s playlist.

In Belgrade, for the past month, every Saturday, citizens protests take place and try to express dissatisfaction with the political and economic course, economic perspectives, diplomatic blunders, the increasingly dangerous politics of Kosovo, and the political practice of the current ruling party…

This list can certainly be continued and it seems that this list – both unfinished and impossible to finish – is one of the useful tools for interpreting the confusing and still unclear phenomenon of the 2018-2019 protest. It is not very clear how these protests are generated – they began as the sole protest against the brutal beating of Borko Stefanović (the founder of the political party Levica Srbije), but it seems that the response of the citizens was far greater than what organizers had hoped and it is lasting far longer than the opposition had the capacity to absorb. The general impression is that the opposition is not able to consciously plan and bring together the amount of people who turn up at the protest every Saturday. Among other things, the opposition is now also incompetent and unable to articulate the dissatisfaction of a large number of citizens.

Therefore, it seems that the only truly precise answer to this question is: protests have generated themselves, they are an expression of authentic dissatisfaction which may be difficult to articulate, but which is not difficult to identify (and this takes us back to the list at the beginning – it is easy to say that a whole series of problems exist, but it is difficult to complete the list, it is impossible to count everything and it is almost impossible to cover everything with one single requirement: the dominant political and economic ideology is designed exactly like this – it cannot be encompassed). The protests began a few weeks ago; at first the initiative came from the opposition bloc around the Alliance for Serbia, and it is more or less still formally behind it, but probably only because now it would be a really silly move to stop pretending it is behind them. However, it is clear that the protests are not actually under the control of the opposition. This is even more inconvenient because the standard opposition parties (and especially the ideological and party scene of the Alliance for Serbia) do not know how to adequately absorb such authentic expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of the citizens.

The surprise caused by a completely unexpected number of citizens taking part in the announced rallies escalated on the occasion of the second one, when opposition leaders announced that the next one would be held on January 16. Soon they realised that this is not how the situation with protests was going to unfold. They changed their mind, agreed with the public opinion, and agreed to continue with the protest’s flow. However, when something becomes history, it is hard to go back: not knowing what to do and how to continue, opposition leaders have used the implicit demand for the depoliticisation of resistance to hide behind it.

Precisely because opposition leaders go with the flow rather than the flow going with them, and because of the above-mentioned inability to absorb an authentic political language, they very soon began regulating and disciplining the protest, returning it to the mainstream, and again shifting it back to the existing order.

The dangerous tendencies of this series of protests can be seen against a specific internal discipline of protest: during the first protest, the main scandal was the cancellation of the speech by actress Mirjana Karanović and coach Dule Vujošević, already announced in the program. Once again, the shadow of Koštunica (a former Serbian politician, former President of Yugoslavia from 2000 to 2003, and Prime Minister of Serbia for two terms) and of Serbian patriotism can be felt, and it seems that Dveri (a far-right political movement and a member of Alliance for Serbia), once a rather marginal subject, has quite successfully been transformed into so-called “pacemaker” of the opposition’s activities. To be frank, it was expected that the Democratic Party, with all its history of mingling with the nation and privatisation, would end up in the pact with nationalists such as Dveri.

The implementation of this so-called “discipline” was not limited to satisfying big names and their sensitive patriotic taste: already during the third meeting, an unofficial organizing committee rejected the request of the citizens’ initiative “Krov nad glavom” to distribute their leaflets during the protest. Therefore, there might be no place for Mirjana Karanović, but neither is there a place for the alternative to the quasi-articulated politics of the nation and market competition.

This, however, has been the situation for the past thirty years, indeed this state was built as a defensive rampart for those who have benefited from the wars of the nineties: a trend established in the early nineties dictated by reactionary political forces continues today – and the opposition, of course, could not think of anything smarter and better to do than to play according to the rules of the party that succeeded (by the way: this is the true strength of the SNS – the current governing party) in sublimating and appropriating all the reactionary garbage from the beginning of the nineties on which today temporary coalitions are formed, thanks to shady friendship connections turned into political-economic empires. In the end, this is what happens when you try to deliver your hopes for alternatives in the form that is already used by the party you are fighting against and which is, at the moment, the dominant one.

In short: there may be no explicit messages and requests, but there is an implicit language, ideological formatting, and unspoken messages. When there is no articulation of speech that can be read or heard from the stage, then one just listens to music. Thus, the same playlist that was played during the opposition protests in the 1990s was played again at the recent protests: Đorđe Balašević, Rimtutituki, Par godina za nas, Svečane bele košulje. Not one step forward in thirty years, no millimetre gained from the old positions, and the organizers (somebody must have chosen that music), still imagine resistance against authorities as some kind of a middle age crisis, a way of going back to youthful force and mythical youth: Crni Bombarder against the red band, Dragan Bjelogrlić against Petar Božović.

But let’s analyse the situation starting from the other side: precisely because regulation is needed, there is the potential for the political problems to be articulated differently. However, problems must not be allowed to be articulated in any other way. This can be explained with one single tweet. Former Serbian president Boris Tadić noted on Twitter that events have far more political weight – the murder of David Dragicević in Banja Luka, months of protests in the Republika Srpska and are, ultimately, connected with recent undefined chaos taking place – which is disastrous for the credibility of the Republika Srpska (sic!). Therefore, the same old (old, wrong and cowardly) priorities, once again we hear the refrain “do not spoil our image in the world,” and not one step forward towards the question “what is the image of politics?”.

The death of David Dragičević has a different political weight because it reflects the amount of arrogance of the political elites and the politics of fear as a central mechanism: we can kidnap you, kill you, leave you in the gutter and get away with it. Here’s one thing the opposition should remember: such a level of arrogance, dismemberment of institutions and societies simply cannot go unpunished, and so the opposition might consider the proposed framework for the criminal punishment of the political elite that is in power in Serbia today.

Also, let’s take a look at one final figure in these protests: Barbara Životić – who continues to be the subject of numerous jokes, online and live. Barbara is a hated figure, something like a “true personification of this regime”: not very bright, an amateur, who occupies a position without proper qualifications. Those jokes, however, miss one thing: Barbara is a personification of existentially unsecured youth, anxiously thirsty for miserable symbols of wealth. She gave up her work for those symbols, she found a market niche, and she’s doing everything that she’s being told to do. So let’s perform a mental experiment and ask for Barbara’s emancipation from existential needs, and for a start demand her economic independence, and let’s see what she has to say and what she thinks; let’s demand economic freedom of journalists and then see what they report; let’s demand freedom from the hierarchical relationship between capital owners and workers – and from there let’s start building politics. Once freed from existential needs, perhaps citizens will have something else to demand, and when freed from the burden of economic and international imperatives – perhaps politics can actually be different.

Translation from Serbian: Hana Grgić and Emma Catherine Gainsforth

This piece was originally published in Serbian at Mašina.

The translation was first published by Political Critique

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