The thin ice separating purportedly “democratic socialism” from authoritarianism is melting in Serbia. It is impossible to understand the modern political landscape of the Balkans without understanding the region’s enormous historical complexity. It literally has been the crossroads of East and West – the place where Western Christianity, Eastern Christianity, and Islam have collided over the course of 1,000 years, creating often-hidden fault lines that produce dramatic consequences in the present day. The Yugoslav Wars, which were so brutal they were marked by war crimes, ended less than 20 years ago, so much of this complexity does not emanate from ancient history.
Serbia’s president, Aleksander Vučić, emerged from this period having been a leader in the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) before joining the newly formed Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Many members of the SRS have been suspected – or, like their founder and present leader, convicted – of war crimes by international tribunals. It is with this baggage that Vučić comes to the presidency of the largest nation in the region. Each of the Balkan states is diverse, with many minority ethnic groups having strong nationalist bonds to others scattered across the region. Given this history, it is easy to understand why so many citizens of Serbia distrust the president, his party, and the government that he has formed.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that monitors global democracy, described Serbia as “free” as recently as 2018. But it noted troubling developments. In 2019, Serbia was downgraded from “free” to “partly free” due to election irregularities, attacks on the free press, and Vučić’s accumulation of power exceeding his constitutional role.
Unfortunately, 2020 has not brought improvement. The free press and political opposition groups face continued harassment and, most troubling, this year’s parliamentary election was plagued by serious questions of fraud. The elections had been scheduled for April 2020, but due to a state of emergency declared as a result of COVID-19, they were delayed until June 21. With so many extraordinary measures in place due to the pandemic, Vučić had significant opportunities to manipulate many facets of the process. By mid-May, the leaders of several opposition parties called a boycott of the elections, and less than 50% of Serbs turned out to vote. Vučić’s party ended the night holding more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, giving it absolute and unfettered control of the country. Predictably, there have been riots across Serbia and calls to invalidate the results in favor of a new election.
Unfortunately, this type of leadership is not uncommon in the region. Some Balkan states are more stable than others, but all have measures of corruption, instability, and unresolved ethnic tensions. Leaders like Vučić and others in his party manipulate these ethnic resentments only to sow fear and distrust. In the process, they trade a prosperous future for a turbulent but self-serving present.
Frankly, there is no Balkan nation that exerts influence beyond the region. Each competes with the others for resources, influence, and prestige. A prominent place on the international stage for these nations is admittedly elusive. Within the European community, these nations toil in the shadow of the prosperous nations of the north; no Balkan nation has a population that exceeds seven million; and all have relatively low per capita GDPs.
But it is not a small population or distance from the centers of international power that have handicapped Serbia. It is the type of postwar leadership provided by leaders like Vučić. They have exploited ancient internal prejudices for their own agendas, created corrupt governments, and presided over an underperforming economy that makes it virtually impossible for the nation’s civil society to develop. Communist governments intentionally and systematically destroy competing institutions, and the Yugoslav Wars created so much chaos that voluntary associations never bloomed. But even in postwar Serbia, there is government resistance, if not outright hostility, to the evolution of a healthy and independent civil society that would allow citizens to identify problems and work together to find solutions without the leaders’ intervention.
The culture in the Balkan states is highly relational. Every city and town, no matter how small, has coffee bars where friends, acquaintances, and even strangers socialize well into the early morning hours. They value social bonds in ways that are certainly absent in the United States and even in other parts of Europe. While generalizations always fall short, as a group the people of these nations are well-educated, inquisitive, and innovative.
Culturally and socially, Serbia and the other Balkan states provide fertile ground for cultivating a powerfully strong civil society. In addition to the structural aspects of the states that impede their flourishing, there is a surprising lack of national confidence that lies beneath what outsiders (and even insiders) perceive as nationalistic hubris. “We are such a small country,” they commonly tell their American friends in their unguarded moments, “and we have such a violent past.”
Nations at their best are political communities oriented toward a common good which all citizens see as an authoritative common vocation, and which they express uniquely through their individual vocations. To realize this, politicians must seek to be inspirational leaders who unify their citizens rather than ambitious demagogues who sew discord and distrust as part of their strategy to divide and conquer.
Political legitimacy is dependent upon trust, or else it will be replaced by political power backed up by force. So far, postwar Serbia has not enjoyed the peace and prosperity that is the fruit of virtuous leadership but has been plundered by leaders like Aleksander Vučić, leaders who pursue sectarian and tribal priorities at the expense of the common good. A free, stable, and strong Serbia is not an unrealistic vision, but it is unattainable unless Serbs invest in the types of civil society institutions that are stifled at present. They have survived and sometimes even thrived through communism and a decade of brutal conflict. Just imagine what the nation could be with leaders virtuous enough to recognize their own nation’s potential.