When you say “newspaper,” you think “cloak and dagger”: Politika’s baffling palace coup(s)

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 17.05.03Everyone will tell you, Politika is the oldest newspaper in the Balkans. They say it is influential too, but this is probably an exaggeration. Of the remaining people who actually read newspapers, more seem to prefer the lurid tabloids chock full of conspiracy theories (Politika does okay on that count) and assorted body parts of people who are recognisable from television. So what is the grey mass good for? Well, like “newspapers of record” in other countries, it is a place where editors perform the boundaries of what officials think people ought to know about, where respectable-seeming people give a pretty gloss to whatever line of thinking is dominant at the moment, and where folks who want to cement their wobbly positions in some future elite display their fetishes. It also has a surprisingly good –literate, diverse and comprehensive – arts and culture section on the weekends. Ah yes, and its weather predictions and death notices are impressively accurate.

Politika’s editor, Ljiljana Smajlović, has developed a habit of entering and leaving that job in strict covariance with the strength of her political connections. Last week she caused a minor subset of exquisitely tweezed eyebrows to raise when she announced her resignation. Her obliquely worded letter informed readers that:

My resignation is a protest against a management that prevents the editor in chief to independently direct the journalists

and suggestively notes that:

…real editorial freedom does not exist in those places where the editors have been completely disempowered and the management acts without control.

There is nothing in the text, or in the ones that followed, that specified how she was prevented from independently editing the paper or where those places are where the management acts without control (or, more importantly, who this “management” is). So nobody will be surprised that the decision was followed by a lot of speculation. A bit about the speculation below, but there is something more fascinating.

As soon as the editor announced her resignation – as a part of the same article, in fact – the paper, which she continues to edit, began a campaign with the goal of persuading her to change her mind or for the resignation not to be accepted. Early on in the campaign, it was joined by the Association of Journalists of Serbia (UNS). This wholly independent organisation offering its support to Ljiljana Smajlović is headed by Ljiljana Smajlović. It competes for authority with the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS).

Today is, as those of you follow calendars will already know, Sunday. This is the day when newspapers put out larger editions that stress their chosen themes for the week, and Politika is of course no exception. The lead story is about high school students choosing to go into trades rather than continuing their education, but the columns on the side tell you all you need to know about the paper’s priorities: two essays of praise for the editor and her stellar character, and sandwiched in between them an interview with the leader of the main ethnic Serb party in Croatia, mostly about EU accession. So who is praising Smajlović now, and what are they saying?

The leading item comes from sometime film director Emir Kusturica, who made exactly two good films (one in 1981 and one in 1985) and then spent the next thirty years marketing predigested stereotypes about the Balkans to an inexplicably delighted French public. Recently he made news by claiming that he is the victim of an endless witch hunt  (fun fact: in the Balkans they hunt witches by hurling massive quantities of public money at them). Today he says in a text that is mostly hyperbolic praise for the editor that Politika is:

Simultaneously in the service of freedom and of the state

adding that:

In difficult moments it is apparent who is a hero and who is an eccentric poltroon and how much a wise editor can in turbulent moments be helpful to our cause. And our cause is founded on the state and on principles, but also on freedom!

So, there you have it. Freedom.

Kusturica’s effort got reinforcement from the curious Željko Cvijanović, a journalist with an interesting/uninteresting past whose main activity has involved trying to make the shift from being Radovan Karadžić’s in-house mouthpiece to securing a similar position in a recognised state. Cvijanović makes an appeal for the state to resume ownership of the paper, which would presumably guarantee that regardless of the character of any government, it would continually maintain its subservient ideological role.

A few other people got into the act. There’s Matija Bećković, a fellow who always wanted to the national poet in the spirit of Constantine Cavafy or Vaso Pashë Shkodrani, but who is notable principally for wearing a funny hat. For good measure and completeness, here are a couple more – one guy who prescribes Politika for the maintenance of psychological health, and one who compares its quality to the other things you can buy at a kiosk (chewing gum?).

What is fascinating about the whole publicity campaign, in which the editor who resigned has for days dedicated large chunks of the front page to people “spontaneously” begging her not to resign, is that no ordinary reader will be able to discern what it is about.

Is it about politics? Who knows, but I will say probably not. Politika has traditionally been a place for people close to state structures and the political right to market their opinions, and is not in the habit of straying from that position much. When it does it is in the direction of more pronounced extremism, and the role of Politika in the 1990s in promoting the rise of Slobodan Milošević and his quasilegal elite, together with ethnic hatred and violence in general, has been thoroughly documented. In that regard Ljiljana Smajlović has continued, with a slightly larger dose of respectability, in the footsteps of her predecessor Dragan (“Electricity”) Antić.

One of the characteristic features of Politika under Smajlović has been a series of feature columns by a rotating cast of writers (none of them are very good, and none of them lasted very long) attacking writers for independent media and a whole set of personalities associated with the long-dormant “Other Serbia,” a loose association of anti-war and anti-regime intellectuals from the 1990s (I wrote about them here a while ago) . The most recent assemblage of texts involved a series trying two present two live historians and one dead philosopher as “autochauvinistic.” In short, there is nothing in the political direction of the paper under its editor that sets it apart from the dominant tone of media in the country, which has nothing that sets it apart from the dominant tone in the 1990s, except that then the offerings were more diverse. Emir Kusturica may think Politika is “critical,” but you could fit the things that Emir Kusturica thinks into a couple of heavily subsidised fake historical sites.

So to the degree that politics is involved, it is not anything that anyone would recognise as substantive politics. This is partly because in an environment where everything is about politics it is equally true that nothing is about politics, and partly because due to the successful work of Politika and similar outlets over the last few decades, there is no substantive political disagreement about anything in the media mainstream.

There may well be another kind of politics involved, however, if we keep in mind that the politics of media is business and that the business of politics is media. As the state council against corruption in Serbia warned several times (twice in 2011, here and here, and once in 2015 here), major media in the country are owned by unknown actors, shell companies, and networks with no mechanisms of accountability. Since the German publisher WAZ decided it wanted out of the domestic marketplace in 2010, it looks as though an assemblage of political entrepreneurs and economic operators have been trading back and forth. This happens in an environment in which the government shows evident favour to a few media outlets whose editors have personal connections in positions of power, and where there is an occasional effort to bring discipline to the rest.

The whole vague business with an editor resigning, engaging a campaign to prevent her own resignation, and assembling a gaggle of dubious figures to intervene is probably best understood outside of the context of substantive politics and inside the context of “deep” politics where lucrative favours are traded. But the promise of understanding does not amount to much after years of assiduous effort to keep the facts unknown.


Tales of the unexpected: Moving the goalposts with Ivica-love

A child's watch. A child's jumper. A bullet.
A child’s watch. A child’s jumper. A bullet.

People should know, and so other people are there to help them, and so they will. On 28 March 1999, members of the “Scorpions,” a reserve police unit, paid an uninvited visit to the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo. By the time the visit ended a few minutes later, fourteen members of the Bogujevci family, the Lugaliju family and the Duriqi family were murdered by gunshots. The visit by the “Scorpions” was not part of a battle or a fight against terrorism. At the ages of two and four respectively, Albion Duriqi and Mimoza Duriqi had not had the chance to join any organisations, paramilitary or otherwise.  Shehide Bogujevci, at the age of 67, and Hamdi Duriqi, at the age of 72, were past the age for active military service.

Some of the five children who survived the massacre participated in collecting and giving evidence. Fatos, Saranda and Jehona Bogujevci gave evidence at the trials of Vlastimir Djordjević (convicted and awaiting appeal) at ICTY and of Saša Cvjetan (convicted and sentenced in a domestic court in Serbia) and Dejan Demirović (turned protected witness). There were a few more trials of members of the “Scorpions” unit, and the surviving children gave testimony at all of them. Other than Vlastimir Djordjević, none of the people who supplied, financed and commanded the “Scorpions” have been charged.

This is probably about as far as courts and prosecutions are likely to go. The limits on criminal justice are, in a word, overdetermined. But resolved that the people who ought to know about the crime should know, the surviving family members put together an exhibition, “Bogujevci – visual history,” (the PDF catalog) which made its way this week to the Belgrade Cultural Centre. The exhibit is disarmingly simple. A visitor enters and sees first the living room of the family home, looking very much like typical family living rooms across the region. The next room gives details of the killings through photos and lists of the victims and recollections of the survivors. Visitors then move on to the hospital room where the survivors were mistreated, and finally to a room showing documentation of the trials. The surviving family members explain the exhibition in terms of the need of people to know the truth. The director of the Cultural Centre explains that she was willing to (fight to) host it so that “as a society we can show that we are ready for dialogue.”

Is it necessary to say that not everybody in Belgrade was enthusiastic about the prospect? The responses ahead of the exhibition ranged from the loopy papers like the extreme-right Pravda (“Albanian provocation in the centre of Belgrade”)  and Kurir (“Albanian propaganda: Artists from Kosovo make an exhibition in the middle of Belgrade!”), to the finger-yellowing tabloid Telegraf (“Scandal: An Albanian exhibition right in Knez Mihailova”) and the whatever-the-fuck-they-are Novosti (“Albanian propaganda right on Knez Mihailova”).  So if you peek at the range from subconscious-official to hyper-official media, you could get the feeling either that there is a broadly shared consensus in opposition to information out there or that under conditions of austerity they are all sharing the same headline writer. The fact that on the evening of the opening only a few dozen members of the Horst Wessel community choir showed up to shout insults at the attendees might be taken to suggest that the latter is the case.

But there was a surprise attendee. Prime minister Ivica Dačić came to the opening, let the members of the Bogujevci family take him on a tour, gave a statement affirming the importance of the exhibition, and expressed his sympathy with the victims of violence. That would be the same Ivica Dačić who was the principal spokesman for the Milošević regime at the time that the massacre took place. Throughout the evening and into the morning, there were expressions of Ivica-love from the most unexpected quarters. He was praised for courage, for showing his readiness for reconciliation, and for placing officialdom on the side of open exchange.

And it’s a bit hard to disagree, all that is great, especially in comparison to what could have happened, and may very well have happened not much earlier. Maybe the gesture was transformative and meaningful enough, and we can agree with Woody Allen (did I just say that?) that 80% of life is showing up.

Or maybe not. Let’s have a look at what Ivica Dačić actually said.  First he gave a statement minimizing the number of perpetrators and their sponsors, saying:

“They asked me when I came here about an apology, my answer is that everyone who is guilty has been convicted and that I would like all of the guilty people for all of the crimes from all sides to be convicted. That is much more meaningful than an apology. I offer my sympathies to the families of the victims of crimes; for the sake of reconciliation and the continuation of our shared life that is the way it should be in all of the major parts of the former Yugoslavia.”

So, he makes it a little bit interesting. In a few sentences he tell us 1) that anybody who has not already been convicted is not guilty, 2) that guilt for crimes depends on reciprocal guilt for crimes from other formerly warring parties, and 3) that states not involved in the conflict of which the massacre that is described in the exhibition was a part have some obligation to the ones that were involved. The narrowing of responsibility brings with it a broadening, and gle čudo both of them are transparently self-interested.

But that’s not all that Ivica Dačić said. He continued:

“It would be a shame if an exhibition like this were taken to imply that we are talking about our crimes or their crimes, because victims are victims. The guilty people did not do what they did in the name of Serbia, nor did anyone authorise them to do it.”

This is a bit interesting because Dačić knows better. He knows, for example, that the trial chamber judgment in the Djordjević case explicitly addresses the authority given by the Interior Ministry to the “Scorpions.” He knows that Interior Ministry personnel involved with similar crimes are still employed in the Interior Ministry.  He knows that the “Scorpions” were a reserve police unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

But yes, I can anticipate you saying, sure, Interior Ministry this, Interior Ministry that. Dačić was there not as a technical official of government, but in his symbolic role as Prime Minister. Perhaps if the Prime Minister wants answers, he could share some of his thoughts with the Minister of the Interior. I think they might know one another.

Apologies for being a little contrarian here, it’s not really in my nature. It’s great that Ivica was thoughtful enough to roll himself into the gallery. He took one small step for humankind. And along the way placed one little kick in the butt of justice.


Notes on the afterlife of Sloba: from anathema to eczema

caligari01Necrophilia is nothing new in politics or commemorative practices, of course. It is enough to follow discussions on the names of public places, look at the monuments to “our fallen heroes,” see who gets funerals and anniversaries observed, and you can see that the zombie invasion has been with us for so long that we might even call it a cohabitation. In postsocialist politics especially, attention to the “cosmic” dimension of dead bodies, which “serve as sites of political conflict related to the process of reordering the meaningful universe,” has marked an ongoing current of discussion since Katherine Verdery published her by now iconic work, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies in 1999.

Dead bodies have a special valence in the states of former Yugoslavia, where historical figures are flown around, removed and reburied (a recent instance involved Petar Karadjordjević, the hapless teenager who was King of Yugoslavia for eleven days in 1941), war victims are shifted around and hidden and their photographs used in an alarming variety of contexts, and speculation about where they might be located continues to (de)mobilise whole sets of institutions.

The body of Slobodan Milošević has been no exception, even before he was dead. When he was in power he dressed it up in informal gear to show that he was a little bit unlike the men without qualities who marked the old nomenklatura. When he was on trial he deployed its frailty to influence the timing of proceedings. And when he died halfway through presenting his legal defence, necromance flowered into necropassion.

First came speculation that the indictee had been murdered by the Tribunal, which remained popular in some rarefied political circles for a while. Then came the question of how his life would be represented – with one answer offered by the popular daily paper Blic, which offered a front-page photomontage summarizing his life and times: the wreckage on the Ibar highway from the attempted murder of opposition politician Vuk Drašković, the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija, the pyramid-scheme “banker” Dafina Milanović, the protests at electoral fraud in 1996 and 2000, and the antiregime demonstrations of 9 March 1991. Then came the war of newspaper necrologues, which pitted praise from his political associates and Scheveningen neighbours against condemnation from cultural elites, and a cameo by Mile s Čubure.

The contention intensified once the body made its way back to Serbia. The Mayor of Belgrade refused to provide a spot for him in the “alley of worthy citizens” in the city’s New Cemetery, on the ground that “the Alley of Worthy Citizens should be used for the burial of people who have, by their character and engagement, left a positive, noble and human trace in this city and in our country. The traces that the Milošević regime left behind it are the reason that I believe that he in no way deserves the mantle of a worthy citizen, neither in the Alley nor in Serbian history.” The military declined to provide a burial with ceremonial honours. As the question of his burial began more and more to resemble the plot of The Trouble With Harry, the decision was eventually made that rather than packing the corpse off to Moscow where it was likely to be welcomed, it could be planted in the garden of the Milošević family house in Požarevac.

With no public funeral, competing public rallies were held instead. A few retired generals compensated for the military’s refusal to provide a ceremonial guard by showing up in other people’s uniforms that they had borrowed. There were addresses by some interesting folk: paraphilosophers Milorad Vučelić and Mihailo Marković turned up, and so did the Austrian politician-manque Peter Handke. A high point was the public reading of a letter from Vojislav Šešelj by his deputy Aleksandar Vučić (whatever happened to him? Somebody should include him in one of those “Where are they now?” features).

Meanwhile his old opponents organised their counterdemonstrations. One politician made a round of visits to the graves of several of Milošević’s prominent victims. In Belgrade an “antiburial” was held to coincide with the supporters’ rally, with colourful balloons released into the air under the slogan “Overi” (Make certain [that he is dead]).

If the fascination with the good or bad (depending on your political tastes) qualities of the deceased looks a little bit like one of the most enduring contributions of Balkan folk culture to global commercial culture, the vampire legend, this resemblance was not lost on people in Serbia (nor was it lost on two of my friends who wrote very different books bringing together political conflicts and the vampire legend). One year after Milošević died, one person made the symbolic point very dramatically, breaking into the garden in Požarevac and driving a stake into the grave.

In the years since, a small and shrinking group of diehards has come to do their version of Yahrzeit every March. Milošević’s party stopped participating when Boris Tadić rehabilitated them by bringing them into government in 2008, but the stalwart something or other Milutin Mrkonjić has held firm. But this year even Mrkonjić has been skipping out on rituals held over the body of Milošević.

The risk was emerging that the most polarising set of remains in all Braničevo could fall into forgetfulness and neglect.

Leave it to the tabloid press to borrow a page from the interlife of Radovan Karadžić, who spent the time between committing his crimes and being arraigned for them as a pseudonymous faith healer. The always delightful and by no means evocatively named daily Pravda has emerged with a new story.  According to, um, somebody’s neighbour in Požarevac, a plant has grown out of the grave that magically cures difficult skin disorders!

The theme of healing with sacred plants carrying the spirit of a person is of course far from unknown in folklore – it might be thought of as a variant on entheogen. It is also hardly unique to a particular region, as one recent case attests. It is probably fairly new to contemporary politics. But this is a brave new world, and gardening is a challenging old skill.


Now at every good bookseller

15141Warning: This blog post contains material promoting my new book.

Guilt, Responsibility and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

It has taken a long time, but the book is finally out! This means that if you order a copy you will actually receive a book as opposed to receiving a promise of a book in the future.

A funny thing: although most people will probably agree that predicting the future is not really a goal of social science, I did make one prediction in the book (a really easy one!) that turned out to be true:

…a situation that is ongoing can change unexpectedly. Some events that took place while the research was ongoing compelled me to revise the entire manuscript and research plan. They changed again between the time the manuscript was submitted and production of the book began, and will have changed again by the time the book reaches the reader’s hands.

To put that into context — the completed manuscript was sent to the publisher in July 2011. I made some revisions after that, mostly shortening the text and responding to suggestions from the reviewers, but made the decision not to revise continually to make the final product up to the minute, mostly because that would have been an impossible task. But I do remember watching, together with my students in beautiful Forlí, the live broadcast of the trial chamber’s judgment in the “Operation Storm” case in April 2011, and putting the details into the footnotes of Chapters 6 and 7 just as the judge was reading them out. That day I revised intensively to account for the new facts, continuing after the security person came by to tell me I had to leave my office because they were closing the building for the night. I could not have guessed at the time that the conviction in that case, like in the Momčilo Perišić case, would be reversed on appeal. And I certainly would not have guessed that the reversal would lead to a mini-rebellion in the judicial chambers or that one odd letter would inspire a fascinating crop of conspiracy theorists.

Hey, I’m just a simple country sociologist, not a Balkan prophet.

Still, here’s the basic argument of the book: the prospect of a large-scale confrontation with the violent legacy of the 1990s was always a difficult one, and what would have made it possible were sustained processes in which the public was well informed, engaged, and encouraged to participate. There were a whole lot of reasons why that did not happen, from structural to political ones, but many fascinating and partial things happened instead. I don’t think that any of the surprising things that happened at ICTY during the last year did much to undermine the applicability of that argument. If I were ambitious I might even argue that they strengthened it.

With any luck this year will mark a moment when people doing social research will have a lot to say about public memory in the region. I discussed some recent research in another post. But 2013 really has a bumper crop. There’s this one from Hariz Halilović, this one from Jelena Obradović.  In December there will be a new one from Elissa Helms. The discussion that was confined to lawyers and IR folks could be opening up, and that can only be a good thing.

Here comes the hardsell promotional bit:

A little bit of material, the table of contents and the preface, is available for preview here.

There is a page on Facebook which you are welcome to join for reviews, news, announcement of talks and other events.

The edition that is out is a hardcover edition — depending on how much interest it generates a paperback should be available before too long at a much lower price. So what to do about prices? One option is to order the book directly from the publisher. If you enter the promotional code P5P9 you will get a 20% discount. People in the UK might get an even better deal from The Book Depository which is offering it at a 24% discount. These are the best price deals I know about for now.

Ways to save even more money? If you ask your library to order it then they will spend money instead of you, and more people will get the chance to read it. If you are an instructor wanting to use it for a course or a reviewer who wants to say (maybe) nice things about it, you can request copies from the publisher (they ask you to pay a small amount for shipping).


Who’s on second?

PFJWas there ever really a “Druga Srbija”? The term spread in the 1990s as a catchall for the anti-war, antinationalist intellectuals who did their best to argue that the murderous (or in terms of the ICTY, simultaneously murderous and nonmurderous, and consequently not specifically directed to murderosity) regime of the 1990s did not represent the values, traditions and orientations of people in Serbia, particularly (this is where a lot of the critique of “Druga Srbija” comes in) its highly cultured and altogether very fine urban intellectuals.

The term “Druga Srbija” (it can be translated as “the second Serbia” or as “the other Serbia” – the people who coined the name preferred the translation as “other,” but “second” seems to be a more widespread usage) comes into circulation as the title of a book edited in 1992 by Ivan Čolović and the late Aljoša Mimica, a collection of the texts of addresses presented at meetings of the Belgrade Circle of Independent Intellectuals. The tone of the dialogue is probably pretty well suggested in the titles of the two essays that open the collection: Radomir Konstantinović contributed “Living with the beast” and Latinka Perović offered “The patriarchal response to the challenge of modernisation.” Add in the following contribution, Filip David’s “To be a traitor,” and you get the main idea: here was a group of people prepared to make a claim on moral leadership that drew its force from horror and a principled rejection of the atmosphere in which they were compelled to live.

But was it a unified and cohesive group? Already at the fourth meeting, Nataša Kandić offered a contribution titled “There is no other Serbia” (Nema druge Srbije). There is no very compelling reason to impose an imaginary collective identity on a group of people who came together in 1992 to reject the imaginary collective identity of nationalism. It’s a little bit useful to think of a “civic” or “other” or some alternate type of Serbia, but it is probably more helpful to consider that a society that is divided might be divided into more than two parts.

This could explain why “Druga Srbija” survives more in the way that it is attacked than through anything it does. An initial sustained attempt came in 2003 from the sociologist Slobodan Antonić, whose curiously baroque ressentiment would transform him into a lightning rod for the loony national right. He launched a salvo at what he called the “missionary intelligentsia,” accusing them of everything from ineffectuality and snobbery to self-hatred and treason. He hasn’t stepped away from the attack in the ten years since, but has developed it in a couple of directions: 1) he has offered a theory that political and social life in the country is subject to competition between two rival elites, one (his!) that is patriotic and essentially representative and another (theirs!) that is effete and foreign-oriented, and 2) he has turned “Druga Srbija” into an epithet, lavishing his opponents with the adjective “drugosrbijanski.”

In the meantime there has also appeared, here and there, an effort to transcend the divisions between a “Prva” and “Druga” Srbija in an abstractly conceived and broader “Treća Srbija” (see this analysis by Ivana Spasić and Tamara Petrović). This could continue. There are lots of numbers in the world.

To the degree that it survives, what is “Druga Srbija” really? It is something not entirely unimportant: a small and not very cohesive group of intellectuals who sustain independent media and produce critical works of art and analysis. Some of them are political activists and some are not. But the members of this group are not really members of a group, they do not all do the same thing, and they would do the stuff they do whether you want to call them “Druga Srbija” or not.

Not cohesive, you say? No surprise. It’s been thirteen years since there appeared to be a change of regime, and ten years since the murder of the figure who personified the possibility that there could actually be a change. There has been erosion, there have been defections, not everybody has survived. But the term, in both its affirmative and derogatory usages, has survived. This is partly because a long-lasting refusal to address legacies of the past has meant that a declared orientation toward to the Milošević regime and its satellites still functions as a pretty dependable dividing line in Serbian society. And it is partly because it offers a convenient shorthand for the fact that there is strong fundamental disagreement, breaking down along fairly predictable social lines, on just about every question of major (and minor) public importance.

Some of the defections have been deeply felt, though – in particular the transformation of B92, once the iconic alternative electronic media source, into a hulking foreign-owned conglomerate that produces news material entirely indistinguishable (and frequently copied) from the information sources to which it once offered bold competition. The cult political talkshow Peščanik bolted the station and went internetto after B92 offered an hourlong discussion programme to genocide apologists Kosta Čavoški and Ljiljana Bulatović in 2010, and since then independent media outlets have engaged in occasional outbursts of recrimination over who is going the sorry direction of B92.

If all of this sounds like inside baseball or People’s Front of Judea material, that’s because it is. Much of it has to do with who can still claim the authority to represent a heroic intellectual moment in 1992. People in Serbia can often be excused for feeling as though it is always 1992, but the calendar says it is no longer 1992.

So what has happened in the meantime? Let’s not start counting from 1992 but from 2000. The period since then has seen the demise of (part of) the 1990s regime, a few orderly transfers of power, and at least one restoration of the 1990s regime, depending on how you count. A lot of the poison in the environment derives from two basic facts.

The first is that the good guys are, disappointingly, not all that good. Especially after Zoran Djindjić was killed and Boris Tadić consolidated his position in the Democratic Party (DS), that party assiduously sought to rid itself of the remains of anything that was progressive and position itself as a single unifying party of permanent power. Nobody can forget that it was DS that brought Milošević’s party back into government in 2008, and that the egregious Vuk Jeremić was (nominally) a DS cadre. The Democratic Party is not likely to recover from its surprise defeat in 2012 principally because it is not a democratic party. The party that was formed to represent the option that Tadić excluded from DS, Čedomir Jovanović’s LDP, has turned out to be an even bigger disappointment, not allowing its consistent failure to get enough support to influence policy prevent it from behaving like an uncontested party of power.

The second, even more distressing, fact is that the bad guys are not nearly bad enough. At worst they are guilty of having the qualities and motivations that their opponents always accused them of having but also had themselves. And at best, if you are really charitable, they have been succeeding in delivering some big goals – peaceful agreement with neighbouring states, EU candidacy – that their opponents, in their desire to be all things to all people, could always be counted on to wimp out over.

It might be the case that while a lot of people have no difficulty accepting the fact that the politicians they supported are pretty useless, it is really shocking that the ones that they opposed for years are turning out to be less evil than they hoped.

What is left is (as far as anybody can tell) a conflict over who is or is not sufficiently pure. Although there were signs of people going different directions and criticizing one another for the directions before then, the big turning point appears to have been the 2012 elections, where the by now traditional “hold your nose” strategy was challenged by a picturesque election boycott and an even more picturesque set of gestures of “strategic” support for SNS from a few very prominent individuals (and publications) who were longtime opponents.

This is in some way most of the conflict, involving some people who used to agree with one another on most questions, and who are now divided over how they accept what will turn out to have been the short-lived personality cult of politician Aleksandar Vučić. Some people insist that he should be appreciated for pulling an unwilling Serbia in the general direction of Europe. And some prefer to always remember him as the liver-lipped ingénue who imposed a drastically restrictive law on public information and tried to create a “Ratko Mladić boulevard.”  It’s ordinary political prepucavanje, and is the sort of disagreement that most diffuse discursive communities can handle.

This community is not handling it. Once-interesting independent publications are filled with recrimination about who has sold out, flown over, or whatever. And do they use some salty language? Oh yes they do. And do they get some passionate expressions of support or rejection? Why certainly. And does anyone feel obligated to explain what is at stake? No they do not. And does it matter? Probably in the end not overmuch. If you are not a member of one of the small groups involved in the fight, then you do not care and nobody can tell you why you should.

We academics enjoy watching this sort of thing because it is like a soap opera about our professional lives, where the tensions are inordinately high because the stakes are inordinately low. Do you want some insight into our sense of prosaic dramatic beauty? Imagine matte lighting and a fuzzy filter on the scene when Lucien Goldmann fires his backhanded appreciation at the relentless obscurantism of Jacques Derrida:

I feel that Derrida, whose conclusions I do not share, is playing the role of a catalyst in French cultural life, and I pay homage to him for this reason. He reminds me of when I first arrived in France in 1934. At that time there was a strong royalist movement among the students; and all of a sudden there appeared a group that was also defending royalism, but by demanding a Merovingian king!

The worst thing about a war between e-Novine and Peščanik, or any other of the region’s small number of surviving independent media sources, is that to the extent that folks in these camps are concerned with one another they are not concerned with producing interesting and useful texts that can inform debate about genuine issues. Otherwise, yeah. Ko voli neka izvoli, and ko razume shavtiće.


Something big comes this way

184480_10151695994523524_1233554755_nRemember the Nineties? It was an awesome time for essentialists. National chauvinists briefly got the upper hand in politics in the region, told knowledge-free internationals that their extreme politics were a product of nature (which functions differently in countries you know nothing about, dontcha know), and got away with it.
As a result we had years of apparently serious discussions about what was being done by “the” (insert nationality here) to “the” (insert slightly less despised but disparagingly pitied nationality here). One guy even had something close to a bestseller with it. Remember Robert Kaplan? He was a guy who talked to a bunch of taxi drivers who managed to persuade him that everything was caused by ghosts. Then he wrote this bizarre book that projected his fantasies about geography onto the faces of people he described. In between play sessions with his cigar, even the president of the United States read that book. Dependably, big news creates a good scene for charlatans.
That story about how everyone on a particular territory was always unified by the same bad ideas looked pretty saleworthy for a while. It certainly provided a useful lesson to predatory politicians: whatever you want to get away with, pitch it as a response to the nation being threatened. That way everybody will believe everything and nobody will demand anything from you, least of all that you respond to the public’s needs.
The nationalists’ claim to a monopoly on public sentiment was always bogus, but for a period it was a successful political strategy. If anyone was looking for a sign showing that it no longer is, look no farther than some key protests of the past month.

First in Belgrade, a group of right-wing parties joined up with a politicised faction of the Serbian Orthodox Church to organise a protest against the agreement that had been signed between Serbia and Kosovo. Not too many people turned up, but the ones who did were in for a surprise. One defrocked bishop offered a thinly veiled death threat to the prime minister, and a serving bishop acted as though the death threat had already been carried out, performing a funeral oratory for the government.
The response was not delight. The prime minister garnered a good load of sympathy by asking what God had done to deserve such earthly representatives. The head of the Church rushed to declare that neither he nor the Church had anything to do with the bishops’ shameful performance. In one analysis Sonja Pavlović characterized the overreaching of the bishops, following on a series of scandals involving shenanigans of all kinds in the Church, as a “death blow for the extreme right.” Meanwhile the satirists at had “hooligans abandoning the meeting in terror” following the bishops’ addresses.
There was a time in Serbia when hatred and fear provided a pretty reliable recipe for political success. It’s not working anymore, once people have been offered a chance for peaceful settlement and a bit of hope. The politicians who decline to learn the new rules can look forward to a long and well deserved sojourn in the wilderness.

Then this week in Bosnia citizens began making their point again. The catalyst was the health of Belmina Ibrišević, a three-month old girl urgently requiring medical treatment that is only available abroad. But she could not get it, why? Because she could not get a passport or an official medical record, why? Because the representatives of the two entities that make up the state have been unable to agree over control of the issuance of identity documents to new citizens, and have not issued these documents since February. First citizens in Sarajevo came to protest at the parliament, eventually surrounding the building with a human chain and telling the parliamentarians inside that they would be let out of the building until they resolve the problem. The parliament responded with a “temporary solution” that would allow an ID number to be issued to the baby girl in question. The protestors rejected the move and demanded that the parliament agree on a way for the state to accomplish the simplest and most essential job it has.
With dramatic exceptions, among them the chair of the Council of Ministers Vjekoslav Bevanda who surrounded himself with bodyguards and muscled himself out of the building to a waiting car, smacking concerned citizens out of the way, a good number of the parliamentarians were willing to comply with the protestors’ demands, particularly as groups of celebrities, artists, athletes and Sarajevo’s mayor came by to support the protest. A more dramatic exception was provided by a group of RS deputies, loudest among them Aleksandra Pandurević, who claimed (falsely) that the protest was aggressive and directed against Serbs, and who sought guarantees of security and armed escorts to get them away from their workplace. A group of special forces police made their way over from RS but thankfully any potentially awful incident that could involve them was avoided. Pandurević herself, together with her colleagues who claimed to be threatened, were ridiculed universally, by people of all nationalities in both entities.
Again, real interests were at stake. Nobody was prepared to believe that an expression of disgust at an entitled political class unprepared to protect (or even officially acknowledge) the state’s youngest citizens was anything other than what it was. The effort to turn it into a national incident failed.

If the old days ever were what they appeared to be, they are over now. The national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.


When politicians are narrow but not very deep: why the Kosovo negotiations repeatedly fail

pregovarački timOne more round of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo ended without agreement last week. The remaining point of disagreement is the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to the municipalities in the north where a large minority of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population is concentrated. On this point the difference in official positions is small enough that compromise between legitimate governments that have an interest in reaching an agreement is entirely possible: it comes down to who is involved in the operation of local police forces and courts. It is the side and symbolic issues that present a dilemma for the Serbian government, in particular the question of whether they can step back from lucrative parallel structures that have been built up over the years, and whether making an agreement with a state they have declared an intention never to recognise carries an unbearable political cost.

So what happened after the failed negotiations? The members of the Serbian government went back home to consult with their political parties and something that describes itself as the “state leadership.” A bunch of people made a bunch of statements to the press, and a little far-right group had a listless rally after which they played Boy Scouts by camping in a central square of Belgrade. Government spokespeople have promised to come out today with a final resolution in which they will say “yes” or “no” to the agreement.

The government is more likely to come out with a “no” than a “yes,” but it makes no difference what they say. The result will be the same: negotiations will continue, and a compromise will be signed that acknowledges the sovereignty of Kosovo over its territory while providing some degree of self-government to the disputed municipalities. The frenetic activity going on now is not about whether this will happen, but when.

So why is it so difficult for Serbia to agree to a foregone conclusion that recognises the reality on the ground? And why despite the difficulty will they agree to it anyway? Step by step.

Why is it so hard to agree?

  1. This government lacks authority and legitimacy. It was assembled in a hurry after a close and surprising election result that followed a campaign in which the status of Kosovo and the northern municipalities was not an issue. The obligation to make an agreement was made without public involvement in private meetings between the prime minister and EU and US diplomats. The prime minister leads a minority party poorly placed to make commitments, which is why a last-ditch effort to rescue the negotiations involved flying his more powerful deputy over to Bruxelles. A government that never said what it would do, does not know what it wants, and can’t figure out who speaks for it is not likely to be able to do much.
  2. For years the ground was prepared for the opposite outcome. A series of post-2000 governments engaged in rhetorical escalation and immobility. The constitution was altered to include a hardline negotiating position the preamble. When he was prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica created institutions in the northern municipalities designed to compensate for his party’s lack of an electoral base. The teaching of history and culture was handed over to the farthest-right elements in educational and religious institutions. And nobody was told what was in the proposals on the table – the Ahtisaari plan, which provided everything that Belgrade is demanding now, was presented to the public as an imperial ultimatum, just like this one. Propaganda has defined the discourse for the past twenty years, and it is only an informed public that can back away from propaganda.
  3. The parties in power are trapped by their legacies. Who is the president? The former leader of a party that organised paramilitaries. Who is the prime minister? Milošević’s former spokesman. Who is the foreign minister? A fellow lots of people say is a very nice man but who has no involvement in the making of policy. Who is the grey eminence? Milošević’s former minister of information. Who is the largest opposition party? A party whose foreign minister built a bridge from the democratic centre to the nationalist far right. Every party that is in a position to influence the debate has a record of supporting the Milošević regime’s policy toward Kosovo before 2000 and of trying to pick up Milošević’s voters by continuing his policies afterward. They have no room to maneuver and no credibility.

What happens when no agreement is reached?

If we follow the pattern that can be observed in every previous instance, when a little bit of time passes the government agrees to terms that were angrily rejected shortly before, and go on to do quietly what they earlier refused to do loudly. Since all of this happens without authority from the public and behind closed doors, it is undertaken insincerely. Then the main political energy goes into undermining agreements that have already been made.

It’s an ugly situation. It produces unevenly implemented agreements designed by outsiders who lack knowledge and engagement, and who look to satisfy the interests of political parties and profiteers at the cost of the interests of the local residents. This is not the product of imperialism or strongarm politics, but is entirely the product of the irresponsibility of political actors who had every opportunity and motivation to make agreements themselves, and only cynical reasons not to.

Why will the result be not much of a result?

The fundamental reason that the agreement will be signed sooner or later is that the Serbian government cares more for the benefits it can receive from the EU than it does for a long-cultivated public opinion that is increasingly hostile but only occasionally relevant. This result should be satisfying to absolutely nobody. It demonstrates the power of the EU to eventually compel resolutions, but also the fundamental weaknesses of EU policy. They imagine that they are more powerful than inertia. They imagine that they are more attractive than they are. And they imagine that there is a limit to the irresponsibility of politicians.


Novosti rediscovers the joy of pendrekmetaphysics

Na majcinom grobu

“The paper that openly says what SPS secretly thinks” must have had a boring time of it when SPS was out of power. The periodic essays where Večernje novosti set out the boundaries of approved thinking were deliciously baroque (and always a bit more SRS than SPS anyway) in the days of Milošević – remember the Uroš Predić painting they passed off in 1994 as a photo documenting an imaginary victim? Classic, in order to be taken in the reader had to be ignorant of a wide variety of topics, from painting and history to real-world events. Later they were reduced to whining about how the bad old days are perceived as bad. Beyond the brief flurry of articles in 2003 advancing theories about how Zoran Djindjić was killed, if not by himself, then at least by anybody other than the people who did it, they really only produced one supershiny fake gem in the post-2000 period. It was a rich one, though: after the release of the Scorpions film in 2005 Željko Vuković’s Srebrenizacija Srba i Srbije” set out the road map for the shift from denial to metadenial. The long gestation period did wonders, that’s one you can go back to a hundred times and always find something new. But basically they had a long, boring decade, no really programmatic DB-bespoke pieces for long stretches of time.

No more, though! These are the days of the restoration of the old regime and all its tricks. The old criminals, far-right “thinkers”, sponsored thugs and SRS-youthcell politicians are out in force! That dull decade of pretending to a newspaper left a mass of pent-up hatred and resentment just aching for release. Dear Novostarians, your typing hands have been kissed anew by the gods of conspiracy theory, freaky days are here again!

There ain’t no screed like a Novosti screed cause a Novosti screed don’t stop at ordinary distortions of reality. That kind of lying is for amateurs, and it has a short shelf life, too vulnerable to somebody pointing out what conditions in the actually existing world are. Professional quality agitprop – the kind that can claim access to long-term institutional sponsorship – does much more. It postulates an alternate universe where the dimensions are not of time and space but of minders, where relations of cause and effect are suspended by apologetics, where sponsored experts in nonexistent fields parade their advocacy as authority. Come with me for a little journey through the synapses of Novosti, where disputes between human rights groups and neo-fascists appear in ways they appear nowhere else, because they are refracted through the lens of kavurmametaphysics. We have more than a polemic calling human rights advocates foreign agents here; we have an alternate account of a physical and moral universe. A brief overview of its main propositions:

On categories of things: There are two types of groups, “patriots” and “mercenaries”. Of the first type, they identify two, the clerical-fascist groups “1389” and “Naši.” No indication is given of what makes them patriots, though, it’s enough for Novosti to say so. The other kind are “non-governmental organisations with a neoliberal profile,” although the groups that are actually named have nothing to do with liberalism or neoliberalism, but are mainly human rights groups. But they’re already defined in the article’s title as “mercenaries” – and offered as emblematic of the entire nongovernmental sector (most of which is, like the nongovernmental sector everywhere else, nonpolitical). They are also “anti-Serbian traitors,” the article tells us, but this time not on their own authority but on the authority of “Naši.” The only person in the article who is actually associated with a neoliberal NGO (that would be Slobodan Samardžić, director of political studies at the Centre for Liberal-Democratic Studies) is kind enough to let us know that NGOs “are financed by other countries, take initiatives opposed to the interest of the people and the state, act in a totalitarian way and promote mediocrity.”

It is worth offering the whole delightful lesson in linguistic attribution and logic offered by Samardžić together with Slobodan Antonić, co-editor of a far-right online magazine. Antonić begins by telling us that “’organisations should be labeled the way they label themselves – so patriotic, and not right wing. When we call them right-wing, they are automatically disqualified. Then we have to call the other ones mercenaries.’ Slobodan Samardžić says that NGOs use the language of the extreme left, and so when the right wing is mentioned it is like somebody brought up the devil himself. ‘For them the whole right is right-wing.’” This will be on the gymnastics quiz.

On origins and first causes: Which came first, the chicken or the chicken droppings? Here’s how the clerical-fascists – sorry, “patriots” – tell the story. “After 5 October NGOs supported from outside began to dictate a new system of values in many spheres – law, culture ,media […] Everyone who was opposed to their activity was pressured by the state, they were arrested, media labelled them as hooligans and fascists.” As a result there was spontaneous movement in which well known financiers and ideologues played no role at all but rather “young people organised themselves independently and began to form patriotic organisations.” Another clerical-fascist – I meant “patriotic” – group leader attributes the origin of his group to “the great pressure from the Hague Tribunal to arrest and extradite indictees.” So clearly this was spontaneous as well, as no criminals represented institutions or had any engagement with them.

On the authority to offer judgments: Who is telling this fabulous story? Aside from the author of the article, four people. Two of them are heads of the groups who are presented as one of the sides in the confrontation being described, so certainly objective observers. One is a professor of sociology and editor of a far-right online magazine who achieved prominence in 2003 with an essay decrying the “missionary intelligentsia” and advancing exactly the thesis that is advanced by Novosti’s writer. The fourth is an enemy of neoliberal NGOs who is a senior official in a neoliberal NGO and was an advisor to the former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica, whose party he represents as a parliamentary deputy. In addition to these four a few weak words of defence are attributed to the head of one of the NGOs being attacked. It’s hard to say why she wanted to talk to Novosti.

On recursive responsibility: There are clerical-fascists – excuse me, “patriots” – because there are antifascists. Think how peaceful and happy we would all be if there were no antifascists! But never mind, NGOs “had a great influence on the rise of the right in Serbian society,” which developed “as a reaction” to them. Without getting into detail on what the “patriots” and “mercenaries” accuse one another of, the account of origins tells us all we need to know in order to understand violence and threats coming from far-right organisations: these are the fault of the people being attacked, because the attackers are a response. But there is another implicit conclusion hiding behind the binary of a “mercenary” producing its opposite. It is that each of these represent extremes, and that reasonable people will seek out a solution somewhere in between the truth of a thug and the truth of a victim. It’s a thin line between moderation and nihilism, but count on Novosti to walk it for you.

On channelling the current of alternate reality: Such an ugly scene, who is there to support? Well, clearly, the clerical-fascist – I meant “patriotic,” natch –  groups, because they are defending us against “aggressive” and “unconstitutional” behaviour. Also, clearly, the political party DSS, which has gone consistently downhill since the time it formed a government with 16% of the popular vote. Why them? Ask their parliamentary deputy/vice president/autonomous intellectual, who explains to us that “DSS when it was in power introduced law and order in many fields, which is not in the interest of the NGOs and therefore our party is the target of their criticism.” But there are others deserving of uncritical praise, of course. There is the minister of justice, who has set out to defend the world against people drinking the wrong brand of mineral water, but who tells the writer in a side interview that “nobody can expect that I will process any case.”

Is there anything surprising here? Not really, it’s from Novosti. This is not just what we expect from Novosti, this is what we secretly want from Novosti. Kurir, Tabloid, Press, Dan, the press services of SPC and SANU, you try, but there is nothing like the real thing. A genuine connoisseur of ultraright agitprop is not going to be satisfied with a plate of reheated supermarket Lasagnski. But does something come close? Kind of, because the text was reproduced and run in full as a news item by the once-independent B92. Isn’t it comfy on the dark side? Keep it up and maybe you can learn to do it well. And then they might really start to like you.


The original version of the Serbia elections article for Open Democracy

ImageOD has run it, but they are having server problems. When the problem is fixed, the article (edited and probably improved by them) will be here.

Eric Gordy

Elections in Serbia: Tadić out, nobody in

Tomislav Nikolić, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been elected the next president of Serbia. The estimate by the observer group CeSID ( is that Nikolić has received 49.7%, exceeding the 47% received by Tadić, who has been president since 2004.

Nikolić has thereby defeated the general expectation that Tadić would once again achieve a narrow victory and go on to a third term in office. The third term was expected to be marked by major progress on accession to the European Union, a possible agreement with Kosovo over status, and the consolidation of the power of Tadić’s Democratic Party (DS) and Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS – its name notwithstanding, the party once led by Slobodan Milošević) over all institutions and all patronage in the state.

Apprehension over the latest consolidation of power by DS-SPS bloc, ruling since 2008, was already apparent before the first round. SPS, controlling the ministries responsible for law enforcement, education and public works, had cemented itself in power considerably and in many ways deputy premier Dačić was behaving like he was prime minister. DS hardly opposed them, maintaining an unprofitable hard line in foreign policy and attempting to cultivate a constituency among the far right, bringing in a commander of a unit associated with war crimes in Kosovo as chief of military staff, and appointing Ratko Mladić’s associate Zoran Stanković as minister of defence and subsequently as minister of health. DS tried to expand its credibility among hardline nationalists by declining to rein in the provocative local councils in the north of Kosovo and by initiating a campaign to rehabilitate (and to find and exhume!) the World War II fascist collaborator Draža Mihailović.

In the meantime, the arguments that in two previous elections had persuaded voters who had reservations about the unresponsive and corrupt DS to swallow their priorities and vote to prevent Nikolić from taking power became progressively weaker. Nikolić left the Milošević satellite party where he was a vice president (Vojislav Šešelj, currently in the Hague awaiting his verdict on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is the president), forming a new party and taking most of the membership and leadership of the old one with him. The new party is declaratively pro-EU, as is every party in the new parliament with the exception of Vojislav Koštunica’s DSS.

But the main factor that made Nikolić a more palatable option was not that he moved toward DS but rather that DS began doing the things people had been warned SNS might do. Bring the parties of the old regime back to power? Done. Rehabilitate and glorify war criminals? Done. Escalate tensions with neighbouring states? Done. Undermine democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary and civil service from political parties? Done. All the harm people had been warned to expect from Nikolić had already been carried out by Tadić.

Every move Tadić made, from the coalition with SPS that became a relationship of dependency, to the public political shift to the hard right, served to alienate voters who formed the core of DS support. These were voters who held together the bulk of opposition to the Milošević regime, who supported the murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjić’s efforts to push through a radical reorientation of the state and society over conservative and nationalist resistance, and who maintained a transregional understanding of the society’s interests that conflicted with Tadić’s endorsement of confrontation with Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and occasionally with Croatia).

People in this group did not generally shift their support to Nikolić (the small number of prominent exceptions, including former politician Vesna Pešić and poet-publisher Dejan Ilić, spoke in strategic terms). The rest were left with a feeling that no party deserved their support – which accounts for the relatively low turnout in both rounds, and for the campaign that resulted in a relatively high number (4.6% in the first round, probably about 3.5% in the second) of spoilt ballots.

Consequently the result might be viewed less as a victory for Nikolić than it is a defeat for Tadić. Tadić lost because he took for granted the support of voters on the left who ceased to think that he deserved it, and made a play for voters on the right who were never inclined to give it. It is also a mixed result: Nikolić will take the presidency, but the majority in parliament will most likely be a coalition of DS, SPS, and some smaller parties including representatives of ethnic minorities.

The rebellion of urban, cosmopolitan and social democratic voters against DS has opened up a polemic over the last several weeks. Tadić’s debacle (as well as the swift decline in fortunes for the antinationalist Liberal Democrat Party [LDP], which lost its lucrative seats on the Belgrade city council) is widely attributed to the large-enough number of people who decided to withhold their support. Not a few voices are accusing them of betraying both the general interest and their own with an excessive gesture to punish their friends.

For their part the boycotters are unrepentant, and point to policies and coalitions for which they did not vote and to the authoritarian structures of the parties that claim their support. They respond to the charge of punishing their friends in the spirit of Joan Jett: you don’t lose when you lose fake friends.

The disagreement is unlikely to be settled, at least before the behaviour of SNS in power either confirms fears of a resurgent national polarization or affirms the perception that the convergence between parties has been so complete that the difference between them is meaningless.

Meanwhile, DS and SPS have been prevented from consolidating a shared monopoly of power. In the long run this may be good for democracy, but in the short run it is likely to mean that a weak president will face a discredited but determined parliamentary majority made up primarily by his opponents. The period immediately after the election will probably see repeated confrontation and evident instability. It may, however, last a short time, as the new president will have a strong motivation to call new elections as soon as he sees an opportune moment to get a more compliant government, and the parliamentary majority will do all it can to undermine the president. The new constellation of power will be unstable, unpredictable and contradictory – but it will be replaceable, which could turn out to be an improvement.


Elections in Serbia: Leaving it up to you

The big news from the elections in Serbia is that there is not much news. The ruling Democratic Party (DS) has lost a lot of support since forming the government in 2008 (down from 39% to 22.3%), but not enough to push it out of the top rank of parties. The opposition Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) stood for the first time since it was formed as a breakaway taking most of the members and leaders from the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), and outdid DS (at 24%). But they will not be forming the government. Smaller parties did more or less as expected, with the Čedomir Jovanović vehicle (this time around a coalition called „Preokret,“ or „turnaround“), the Mladjan Dinkić vehicle (he used to claim to represent economic expertise, but now he claims to represent regions) and the Vojislav Koštunica vehicle (he’s still driving his old ZIL-41047 called DSS) scraping into the parliament. They will occupy the seats together with some minority parties which are guaranteed representation and one columnist’s bizarre ego-trip masquerading as a minority party (about which more a little bit later).

As expected, no candidate won in the first round of the presidential contest, so the second round will be a rematch of the 2004 and 2008 elections, pitting the DS leader Boris Tadić against SNS leader (previously acting leader of SRS, pending the conviction in the Hague of its president Vojislav Šešelj)  Tomislav Nikolić for the third time. When they face one another in two weeks, not many people will be surprised if Tadić just barely defeats Nikolić once again.

So not much there. The new president is likely to be the person who has been president since 2004, doing his third term. The new government is likely to look a lot like the old government. In a year that is seeing changes of political alignment in elections across Europe, Serbia is in all likelihood keeping what it’s got.

Still, there are a few interesting developments out there worth following.

The resistible rise of SPS: Socialist Party of Serbia head Ivica Dačić played an impressive hand with the 7.58% his party got in the 2008 elections. The former Milošević spokesman demanded as the price for giving DS the majority it needed to form a government a deputy premiership and the interior ministry for himself, the education and infrastructure ministries for his party, and the presiding position of the parliament for one of his deputies. The infrastructure and interior combination was especially crucial, as few businesspeople could resist joining up with a party that controlled construction and engineering contracts on the one hand and law enforcement on the other. SPS doubled its result to 14.7% in this year’s election, meaning that it will not even have to pretend that the presidency depends on its endorsement and the governing coalition on its membership. His success is testament to the complete absence of memory of the dictatorship in which Dačić began his career, and to the absolutely central role of patronage in every single profitable thing that happens in Serbia.

The sounds of slamming doors and doors and doors: Remember the big bad SRS, whose dominance was raised as a threat any time anybody thought of offering a criticism of or – heaven forbid! – failing to vote for one of the series of disappointing, corrupt post-Milošević coalitions? They will not be a part of the next parliament, having failed to meet the 5% threshold (with 4.6%). This also cuts off the funding for their gravy train, so they will not be in any subsequent parliaments either. This despite the fact that Mr Tadić’s government bent over backward to be solicitous to them, figuring that a good showing for their leader Vojislav Šešelj (represented by his apparently perfectly pleasant and unobjectionable wife in this election) would cut into support for Nikolić. The far-right weirdness flowered further with the appearance of a new party, Dveri (the Doors), growing out of a clerical-fascist youth club. They put up a lot of posters and declined to say anything more about that their positions beyond the claim that they liked families, but they also failed to make the threshold at 4.4%. For people who like their DB-sponsored parties in fake-left rather than loony-right flavour, the “Movement of Workers and Peasants” also failed to get in with 1.5%. In fact the only (openly) anti-European party in the parliament will be former PM Koštunica’s DSS. The strength of the far right was not enough to dilute SNS votes. Despite all the loud concern about marauding fascist hordes in Serbia, these parties are small, without credibility, without members, and without support. They’ll sleep in each other’s mattresses like maggots in despair.

None of less than zero: Even before the elections were declared a campaign had begun to punish politicians by refusing to vote, or by casting blank or spoiled ballots as a display of dissatisfaction with political parties that came increasingly to be seen as representing not citizens but themselves. None of the initiatives to include a “none of the above” option as a regular part of the ballot have succeeded (this option does exist in a few countries: Greece, Ukraine, Spain, Colombia and Bangladesh, and Russia until 2006). But a local fraudster decided that he could give the impression that such an option existed, and so Nikola Tulimirović founded the party “None of the answers offered” (Nijedan od ponuđenih odgovora, or NOPO). To give the impression that this was a voting option rather than a political party, he engineered that the party occupy the last position on the ballot. And to assure that a small number of deceived voters could produce a much larger hoodwinked public, he registered the party as a minority party representing Vlachs in Serbia (long story short: it has as much to do with Vlachs as I have to do with Venusians), freeing it from both the registration fee and the 5% threshold for representation. This would all be good dishonest fun if politics had not entered the game in the form of Djordje Vukadinović, a newspaper columnist and co-editor of an online magazine that attracts people to read articles covering the spectrum from righter than centre-right to hard-right. Vukadinović jumped in to head the list, and offered a “programme to save Serbia,” a silly assemblage of repressive ideas from a copy of Turkey’s infamous image-of-the-state law (points #3 and #4) to drug tests for all public employees (point #5), purging women from the public sector (point #9) and “banning homosexual propaganda (point #18). In short it was the kind of programme that the people you avoid at the pub could very easily have composed around their table in the fifteen minutes when you were very happy to be looking somewhere else. With a whopping 0.6% of the vote (less than the 0.8% received by a fellow with the completely unfamiliar name Josip Broz), deception made Vukadinović a member of parliament, which can be expected to be impressed with none of the answers he offers.

The blank ballots slogan, cartoon art and celebrity trivia movement: Under the slogan “zero for the zeroes,” there was a small movement to punish the political parties and make a show of alienation by taking a ballot paper but leaving it blank or spoiling it, to produce a result that would undermine the credibility of the election and artificially raise the threshold for representation. It is probably worth observing that this was a move that was likely to end up helping the three largest parties by making the process more difficult for smaller ones. Also it was mostly intended to punish two nominally liberal parties that many former supporters saw as having betrayed their supporters: the ruling DS, which by forming a coalition with SPS and by adopting much of the agenda of the right was regarded as having shifted from a party of principle to a party of patronage, and the smaller Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which by its extreme caution in grooming itself for membership in a future coalition was regarded as having emptied itself of ideas. How effective was the campaign for demonstrative abstention? It produced some very entertaining ballots, and 4.6% of ballots cast were not credited to any party (in contrast with 2.17% in the previous election in 2008). So the best can be said that it produced an observable display of symbolic dissatisfaction, and effects on the election mostly at the local level – in Belgrade, for example, it probably altered the count enough to keep LDP just short of the threshold for joining the city council. Debate is ongoing as to whether the “white ballot” campaign had a positive or negative effect. Probably it made the point of warning parties not to treat their presumptive supporters as property, but probably also it was not large or organised enough to express too much more than ambient dissatisfaction.

So what do we get at the end of the cycle? Assuming that Tadić defeats Nikolić by his usual narrow margin in two weeks, a government that looks a lot like the previous one, only less stable and more corrupt, and lots of signs that there is a good number of angry people in a system that remains pretty lopsided and pretty dysfunctional. No signs that things will get much better, but happily no signs that they will get a whole lot worse.