For nearly six years, Vučić has held firmly in his despotic hands the destiny of the largest country in the Western Balkans: first as deputy prime minister, then as prime minister, and now as president. The nature of his despotic rule is such that whatever formal position he holds in the constitutional order at any given moment is trumped by the absolute control he exercises over state institutions through tight-knit, informal, and opaque networks. Such a denigration of the rule of law constitutes the very definition of abuse of power in a liberal democracy.
Vučić continues to operate on the assumption that state institutions must not serve as barriers to the exercise of his will-to-power whilst brutally manipulating public opinion in favor of his own selfish interests. Indeed, his despotic ability to impede the access of citizens to the free flow of information represents the core of his stabilitocratic “achievement.” As Tocqueville wrote: “servitude cannot be complete if the press is free. The press is the democratic instrument of freedom par excellence.”
In Serbia, that instrument has been almost fully broken: virtually every major media outlet has surrendered its objectivity and independence to Vučić’s demands of fealty and subservience—becoming, in the process, clear-cut instruments of propaganda and manipulation. As the newly released Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index underscores, the nation’s media is “heavily controlled by the government,” which takes an “uncompromisingly hostile approach to [the few remaining] news organizations that have been more outspoken against the government.” Indeed, a few months ago the President of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, designated Vučić’s Serbia as “the nation with the worst violations of media freedom in the Balkans.” A cult of personality is on offer, with the bias of the state-owned public broadcaster’s flagship nightly news program being surpassed only by that of the country’s most-watched private television networks. The time and quality of coverage devoted to Vučić dramatically surpasses that of anyone else. On the mainstream networks and daily newspapers, disapproval of his regime is virtually non-existent, and the popular political programs on television—those that have not been taken off the air, that is—rarely, if ever, feature critical views or contrary opinions.
Nonpolitical programming largely takes the form of a variety of obnoxious reality shows whose content Tocqueville, for one, would comfortably describe as advancing the ultimate goal of soft despotism: “to take away entirely the trouble of thinking” from individuals by fostering “general apathy.” These spectacles, which draw sky-high ratings, encourage viewers to live entirely in the present—devoid of hope for a better future. And because what they watch is at once both astoundingly vulgar and vapid, the subliminal message is that they should feel content in their circumstances. It’s what passes for catharsis in a society weighed down by resignation.
About a year ago, the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development, a think-tank I helped establish in late 2013, added a question to the monthly public opinion surveys we commission: “would you encourage your child (or children) to emigrate from Serbia if such an opportunity presented itself?” At no time have fewer than 50.8 percent of respondents answered “yes”—on one occasion 61.8 percent gave an affirmative reply. Such alarming numbers have been ignored by the mainstream media; the same goes for figures indicating tens of thousands of educated young people have left the country annually since Vučić won his first election.
It is also not at all surprising that the country’s dismal economic performance has not been widely discussed. Vučić came to power promising at least 5 percent annual growth; and a lot of his backers and supporters, both at home and abroad, seemed to think it was an eminently reachable target. It turns out that they were dead wrong, for as Zimbabwe’s former finance minister Tendai Biti said a couple of months ago, “you can rig elections but you can’t rig the economy.”
IMF and World Bank statistics for the relevant timeframe indicate that Serbia’s GDP and GDP per capita have declined, as have wages; interest payments on the country’s external debt have nearly doubled, as has the public debt; the debt-to-GDP ratio has also grown significantly. Also, Eurostat data indicates that Serbia is the country with the most extreme income inequality in Europe. And despite offering generous subsidies and emphasizing low labor costs, Vučić has not been able to attract much FDI over the past five years.
The precipitous erosion of Serbia’s economic performance is even more deplorable when compared to virtually any other place in the Balkans: in the last five years, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania all grew at higher rates. The World Bank projects that the Serbian economy will continue to grow less than the regional average in 2018 and 2019, widening the performance gap even further. These facts make a mockery of the regime’s claim that Serbia had become the economic leader of the Balkans.
Another shocking development that made global headlines was the late February 2018 announcement by the Financial Action Task Force—the global standard setting body for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT)—that Serbia was the only European country to have been added to a list of only eight other jurisdictions, including Syria and Yemen, identified as having “strategic deficiencies” in their respective AML/CFT regimes. This is currently the international community’s most condemnatory designation of noncompliance in what is without a doubt a critically important field of contemporary multilateral cooperation.
In the case of Serbia, the uncovered “strategic deficiencies” are truly alarming. They include a lack of institutional understanding of key risks; the absence of legal and regulatory provisions to supervise the work of lawyers, notaries, and casinos; inadequate implementation of international financial and banking norms regarding due diligence, politically-exposed persons, and wire transfers; the nonexistence of mechanisms to identify corporate beneficial ownership; lax money laundering investigatory and prosecutorial standards; and no implementation of targeted financial sanctions measures related to terrorist and proliferation financing.
At the very least, this very public indictment means that the country’s stabilitocratic despotism is grossly negligent in having failed to apply over a period of several years even the most rudimentary international AML/CFT safeguards. But that is far from the whole story, for it could also imply serious criminal complicity: the acts described are not those of mere omission, but of commission as well. If such is the case—and I believe it is—then one must conclude that the regime benefits from being one of the world’s most attractive AML/CFT destinations. It would certainly help explain why the level of corruption in Serbia has reached endemic proportions. As such, it strongly points to the necessity of ensuring that a lustration law will need to be part of the legislative package that is enacted in the immediate aftermath of Vučić’s downfall.
To this point, Vučić’s sophisticated propaganda machine—which grows more effective and censorious the longer it is allowed to operate with impunity—has been able to ensure that he maintains his stranglehold on the levers of power. Other Balkan strongmen have had similar “success.” So far, only in Macedonia have we seen popular discontent produce a democratic restoration.
The good news coming out of Skopje has also not gone unnoticed in Europe’s highest decision-making circles. Zaev’s recent democratic triumph may have even served as a long overdue catalyst for the EU’s tolerance for stabilitocratic despotism in the Balkans to reach an inflection point.
Consider what may turn out to be a game-changing report by the European Commission titled A Credible Enlargement Perspective for and Enhanced EU Engagement with the Western Balkans. The mere fact that it underscored the “firm, merit-based prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans” and stressed that “joining the EU is far more than a technical process; it is a generational choice, based on fundamental values” may represent the beginning of the EU’s change of heart vis-à-vis stabilitocracy.
But other parts of the communication have gone even further: for the first time in a publicly released document, the EU painted a realistic picture of the dismal state of democracy in the region. The passage that follows could be considered a repudiation of the lenience heretofore accorded to the region’s democratic despots: “Today, the countries [of the Balkans] show clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests. All this feeds a sentiment of impunity and inequality. There is also extensive political interference in and control of the media. A visibly empowered and independent judiciary and accountable governments and administrations are essential for bringing about the lasting societal change that is needed.”
For those of us who have opposed the region’s stabilitocratic despots and fought to dismantle the immense tutelary power at their disposal, the EU communication reads like a small breath of fresh air, opening the way for a truly stable and prosperous Western Balkans to become an eminently reachable goal in this generation.
Vuk Jeremić, a former Serbian foreign minister and President of the sixty-seventh session of the UN General Assembly, is the President of Serbia’s opposition centrist People’s Party. He is also President of the Belgrade-based think-tank, the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD). An earlier version of this essay was prepared for delivery at a roundtable entitled “Tackling Extremism and Intolerance in a Diverse Society” organized by the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation in Monaco on 5–7 March 2018.