The end of the twentieth century was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and gradual transition of the former “communist block” to democracy. Optimism spread throughout Europe and the political theorist Francis Fukuyama announced in his famous book – The End of History and the Last Man – the victory of democratic system.
At that time, the Balkan region faced a tragic civil war. Serbia’s democracy was conquered the hard way, ten years later. We won it at the elections, and when it was robbed from us, we went out to the streets to defend it with civil disobedience and resistance. At that time, democracy was the promise of a better and different life. After that period, we had our ups and downs, but democracy was always winning. Each successive government was elected by the will of Serbian citizens, at free and fair elections.
Fourteen years have passed, and beyond this minimum requirement of elections, we have not come very far: weak rule of law, corruption at all levels, nepotism and party state, social inequality, lack of freedom of the media … As a result, all across Serbia citizens increasingly miss the old days, like it was 25 years ago. It is disconcerting that the citizens of Serbia are increasingly saying that maybe that time was undemocratic but citizens (allegedly) lived better and people felt some kind of security. Now the question is, should we so easily give up on our hard-won freedom?
What is democracy?
There are two main understandings of democracy. The first equates democracy with democratic procedures in decision-making, and it’s called procedural (minimum) democracy. As long as citizens elect their representatives and institutions in free and fair elections, the outcomes are also democratic.
On the other hand, there is participatory democracy which is not exhausted in the elections but requires certain citizen virtues. It sets maximalist demands – decision-making through deliberation, as a constant rethinking of decisions through an open and broad dialogue of all participants. This kind of society requires an advanced level of political and democratic culture. It also requires commitment.
According to this understanding, politicians are dedicated to citizens, they are participating in discussions and taking into account the views of professional associations, academia, the media and the citizens themselves. On the other hand, people use all democratic means and elected representatives to make their voice heard, and to defend their rights and freedoms. Professional associations and academic communities have ethical standards and uphold them without fear for their position. Power always strives to occupy as much as possible, and because of that freedom must always be conquered again and again. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
It’s not easy
Participatory democracy requires a lot of work and it is not easy to achieve. The crisis of democracy in Serbia is caused by satisfaction with procedural democracy. After changes in the year 2000, citizens passed all their hope onto elected representatives. They were seen as saviours, like the ones before, with the difference that the new ones were democratically elected. Those democratic forces had carte blanche support for everything they did. Their power was becoming ever larger.
Before the democratic changes, the civil sector was dealing with democratisation and human rights in Serbia, and therefore its members were considered traitors and mercenaries by the regime. Today’s activism is alarmingly decreasing, as non-governmental organisations are serving as an expert sector for government institutions. The media are increasingly enslaved, as they are divided between the obedient and disobedient ones, and as there is a very non-transparent ownership and funding, behind which stands the political parties and the individuals in power.
Privatisation of economy is conducted so that individuals are earning a lot, and workers are losing their jobs and social support. Decentralisation and local development of (self)government were never implemented. Municipalities and cities are just another branch of the central government, from which they drain out money. But the reaction of the citizens has not been protesting. They retreated to the private sphere and day-to-day surviving, and completely withdrew from the public sphere.
What does Europe stand for?
All political parties in the Serbian parliament today are ‘pro-European’. But only on the surface. The majority of them is adopting the legislation in the process of harmonisation with the European Union very fast. Many directives are being introduced into legislation by urgent procedure, without public debate or critical attitude towards them. And, what is more concerning, without trying to adjust directives to the specificities of Serbia.
In reality, we have laws that were enacted ten years ago and Serbia is not even close to implementing them. When faced with problems caused by increasing legal uncertainty and lack of law enforcement, the government just changes them back and goes back a decade ago. Together with the International Monetary Fund, the Serbian government imposed austerity measures, reduced salaries and pensions, and on the other side increased public debt.
Now they are announcing an increase in taxes and prices, which will only worsen the situation for the poorest. The ruling parties are introducing investments and projects that are not transparent, so their origin is reasonably suspicious. Serbia has the support of the international community, largely because it is doing the most of those things that it requests. Today, citizens are hiding in their private lives, having no one to turn to in the public sphere. In addition to all the problematic decisions and the growing gap between the rich minority and the impoverished majority, the protests organised by the few opposition parties or the citizens’ movements never have more than 200 people present.
Serbia is a country of betrayed democracy
In such a situation, there is a growing authoritarianism and populism. We cannot expect anymore that the international community will build a democracy, or some third, fourth or fifth political option. As long as people do not realise that a decision is entirely on them, things will not improve. Such changes must come from “below”: from the local communities, municipalities and cities. New political forces in Serbia must develop their local political, economic and social agenda which will articulate the interests of the citizens, not the political elite and large companies.
Local parliaments must develop mechanisms for public debate and civic initiatives, for getting the better decisions. Local authorities must have more direct income, rather than the money that is allocated by the central government. And the economy must start “from below”, and should also be more democratic. We should not lay all our hope in gigantic projects that after a few years, after having taken enough money from citizens, perish. Serbia must orient its economy towards small and medium-sized enterprises, sustainable jobs, and an economy that does not consume a lot of resources. Economy that works for people and for the environment.
The answer does not lie in returning to the old way. Instead, we need to find more power for change. The solution is very simple. Serbia needs more democracy.