Vucic as a president should look up to Tomislav Nikolic
“Things in Serbia did not function well even before the SNS because we were trying to establish the rule of law without institutions, institutions without democracy and democracy without citizens. Parliamentary elections in 2020 are not too important for the opposition because this is not the year in which the regime can change; I think the turning point could be the presidential elections, to which the opposition should as of now concentrate and on which, when compared to the previous results of the opposition in the elections, the second round would be a success”.
As the expert team of the protest “One in five million”, after a month of work, published requests and recommendations related to the media and the regularity of elections, the team member and assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Dusan Vucicevic explains in an interview for Istinomer that “their work is done” and that “doubts about the role of experts are resolved in the sense that they are not a team that will, on behalf of the opposition, possibly negotiate with the authorities.” The requests among other things state that “there are no conditions for free and fair elections due to blocked public communication and inequality in that process,” and that the president should be obliged to respect the Constitution which defines that he should express state unity and should not participate in the elections on the side of any list. The resignations of the Minister of Culture and Information and the State Secretary are requested due to political responsibility for the decline of media freedom. Some of the requests include the replacement of Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) members and the more active functioning of institutions and state bodies responsible for monitoring, control and implementation of the electoral process. Public broadcasters are requested to ensure equal treatment of the participants in the election. “The fate of these requests, which can be both refined and changed, is now a matter of possible agreement between the authorities and the opposition,” Vucicevic said.
So, your role as experts was to write down requests and thereby your work is done?
We had a meeting with representatives of protests and opposition, after which we worked completely on our own, nobody asked us how much we did and what we did and during that first meeting, practically all of us from the team, the six of us, pointed out that we do not see ourselves as someone who is a negotiator in this process.
In your opinion, who is now the most important addressee of this document –the authorities, the opposition that should agree on these proposals, is it perhaps the OSCE, the International Community?
The key addressee is probably the authorities. It seems to me that the opposition, although it consists of various parties not clearly separated in terms of who is where and with whom, has no problem when it comes to what has been established in terms of recommendations and requests. Before the announcement, they received papers and I did not see them having any objections, so I guess they stand behind it. At that one meeting, we first of all asked them whether they stand behind what is going to be written, regardless of what will be written, because there are some parts there, which I believe, are even more in favour of the ruling party.
Which for example?
For instance, that part related to the voters’ register and some recommendations that would in fact have to eliminate the mistrust that exists among citizens and among politicians as regards voters’ register.
You mean “mopping up” the voters’ register. And why is this in favour of the authorities?
Because it would eliminate the argument that dead people vote in elections. I really do not believe, except perhaps minimally, in some villages, that it is possible to have a huge number of dead people’s votes in the elections since we have the control of elections that includes the spray and the UV lamp and the presentation of documents. Furthermore, there is often an argument that comes from the opposition public, to call it like that, that these authorities do not have too much of legitimacy because 53-55-56% of citizens vote in the elections. The voters’ register of 6 million and over 700 thousand people even by conservative estimates is actually far smaller, perhaps even for a million, so this would mean that the turnout is likely to be about ten percent higher. This might eliminate those misconceptions that also exist in the part of the opposition and the opposition public that there is some huge “poll” of voters who do not vote, 30 percent of whom they can bring around and thus influence the election result. It seems to me that this “poll” of people, disappointed voters, does not exceed 15 percent. That would then mean that these people are not enough, even if you bring them all around to vote.
The first request, which states that the president of the state is obligated to respect the Constitution and to express state unity, not to participate in elections on the side of any electoral list, seems as if you wanted everything to be rejected in advance. Finally, there are no limitations in the regulations for the president to be the head of the electoral list?
We talked a lot about this within the group at work meetings. We did not always agree on everything, which is probably somewhat normal when you have thinking people who have some of their own ideas, but we have produced the paper all of us can stand behind. Here you are right in that respect – the president is not obliged to do so, there are no regulations limiting him to participate in the election campaign.
I think that everyone except Toma Nikolic actually participated…
Why is not it a problem for me to stand behind this request? I would have stood behind this request in 2008 and 2010 and 2012.
But there wasn’t any?
No, there wasn’t any, but nobody asked for it. A number of us from the faculty also objected to Boris Tadic doing similar things which Aleksandar Vucic is now doing. One of them is taking part in the elections, as the head of the electoral list, even in local elections, and even this third term of office as well.
Why is Vucic now problematic to the extent that this is set as a request?
In my opinion, Tadic was problematic as well, I’m also troubled by what Vucic does, and so I say that I can stand behind it without some big problem.
Vucic’s counter-argument could then be – wait, and why did you not ask for it when Tadic was president?
If I could, I would have said it. But let’s put it this way, if that was Vucic’s counter-argument, I must remind that the SNS and Aleksandar Vucic used to promise that they would be better than their predecessors, that they would behave more democratically and we, in fact, do not invite Aleksandar Vucic to act like Boris Tadic – someone who did not have undemocratic characteristics.
Well how then?
Like Tomislav Nikolic. We have experience with one president who did exceed his constitutional powers.
When you say it loud now, how does that sound?
It sounds strange, but we cannot say that we always had bad presidents in this regard, Tomislav Nikolic was a good president if we observe the respect of the Constitution.
We have dropped in ranking of the organization Freedom House, and now we are on the list of partly democratic countries, we have dropped in ranking on the list of freedom index and on the list of media freedom, and one of the explanations for everything is, among other things, that the president exceeds the constitutional powers. What does the first request sound like to you then?
It sounds like something that will not be fulfilled.
What was then the point of that job?
If we want to get things back to normal and start somewhere from the beginning, to slowly build institutions, then we need to make some basic consensus about what is allowed and what is not.
Within the society, that would be the best. It’s not good that the elites make a consensus about it. We had tried it before, things did not function well here in Serbia even before the SNS because we were trying to establish the rule of law without institutions, then institutions without democracy and democracy without citizens.
I am asking you as a political scientist, how is this consensus achieved within a state like ours and within a society, is it possible without the authorities?
It’s definitely not possible without the authorities. There must be some political will and there must be a degree of self-criticism that the direction we are moving on is not good for Serbian society and citizens living in Serbia. Without this self-criticism – and I do not see it and that is why I am pessimistic about these requests – it is difficult to achieve anything. We have a deeply polarized society. There are other societies that are divided, but they are trying to diminish these gaps in an institutional way. Some of them have succeeded in doing so through history. We are a historically divided society, across different lines of split, and this was obvious in the past even before the Second World War, and then it continued after the ’90s. These different axes of division began, it seems to me, to weaken mildly after 2000 when we started bit by bit and probably too slowly to build institutions, and then everything turned around and the split deepened further. It seems to me that in some parts it is bigger and deeper than it was in ’90.
You yourself said during the presentation of the expert team’s proposals that you seem to have done a meaningless job in the context of requests being accepted by the authorities, and that you believe they will be placed in a drawer. What is the consequence of that?
I was criticized by the team for using this very term “meaningless”. Let’s say it’s not meaningless, and that we did something, that it exists and that those 50 pages of the annex, which represent serious analysis, are serious work…
…which is very much in line with the content of the parts of the European Commission’s report.
It turned out to be that way. Our idea was to make recommendations that would help the electoral process be better implemented, to restore it to some democratic frameworks and put the citizen in the first place in the media sphere, the media system. That refers to the citizen’s right to be informed.
Regardless of the remarks from the opposition that Vucic is not the addressee but the institutions, would you say that he is actually the only addressee within the state?
Based on everything that has been happening lately, I would say he is. Since we do not see any individuals from the Government of the Republic of Serbia, the National Assembly, who have a slightly different opinion than him. Since they mostly repeat what he says, then probably the only addressee for all this is the president of the SNS.
You mention the REM, the Electoral Commission, you mention the Anti-Corruption Agency, other institutions that are important for elections and the electoral process. Can it be expected without some political will deciding it that an institution decides to respect regulations from tomorrow, which until yesterday it did not respect, i.e. it did not do its job?
No. Without political will, certainly not. Political will now seems to be missing and there is now an option of some kind of pressure from the side.
From the European Union?
Yes. The European Commission’s Progress Report on Serbia can be understood in this context. Now, is this pressure because the process of negotiations on resolving the status of Kosovo is stalled, or is it a sincere pressure because there are obvious problems in the field of media, the rule of law, the functioning of the parliament, the electoral conditions, and the consequence of all this is these protests taking place in Serbia for the past six months, I am not sure.
And what do you think?
I can assume that if a certain improvement had been made in the process of negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, perhaps this report would not have been so harsh, which maybe demonstrates some two-facedness of partners from aside who are not very willing to openly talk about everything that is happening in Serbia, perhaps waiting for the Kosovo problem to be resolved.
There you agree with Vucic and Dacic. Vucic says that we would be declared the most democratic country if Kosovo was resolved.
Well, sort to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised…
Would accepting at least part of Vucic’s request be defensive, would it be backing away?
From their perspective I suppose so. It is different from the point of view of the needs of Serbian society. Still, I believe that even with the acceptance of these conditions, the SNS in the next elections in 2020 would achieve a good result, of course I’m not talking about the percentages that go above this 50% majority.
You are not the only one who claims that the SNS would win even with more regular electoral conditions. How then do you explain everything that happened and is happening in that sense?
I assume that it is a matter of the calculation that, in every subsequent election, you always achieve the best possible result. I think that this is not at all good for democracy and the parliament, not only in Serbia, but anywhere in the world. It is problematic that someone achieves such good results, thus inhibiting everyone else. There may be different options, one is to insist on maintaining a high level of support until the status of Kosovo is resolved, after which this support might decrease, but to still keep it at a satisfactory level. Or maybe by frequent early elections, the party machinery is kept in a permanent state of activism that would begin to decline if the results were somewhat weaker. Besides, I do not think that the result of 40% is worse, as well as the opportunity to form a government with someone else, while restoring the situation to normal, and then to start functioning as a normal society, because this will not end well if continued like this.
Not end well in what sense?
For example, more and more people are leaving Serbia. Secondly, we actually have at work, I would say, the marketing killing of politics, in fact, there is no politics here. I rarely hear what policies are. We do not know exactly what educational policy is, what is the economic policy that the government insists on, a good part of the system is rather in a chaos, god forbid you should go to the health system to finish something ending up waiting in all those lines. I do not see any plan here and then it seems to me that this need for retaining percentages and insisting on marketing actually kills public policies which should be the key for us citizens to understand what the government actually does in order to live better here today and in the future.
The opposition is on the other side. Does it have policies?
Let’s say that I do not have the impression that they have policies and I cannot quite agree with the policies they point out as key. I think that these policies do not reach one part of the voters which will be needed if they want to achieve a better result. However, it is also true that their ideas and policies can nowhere be placed in order to be heard by citizens in general. But it seems that the opposition is always in some kind of a defensive position, it responds to everything that is cast before it and does not have the opportunity to construct an idea, which it will then insist on for longer, but responds on a daily basis to what comes from the authorities.
Are these requests you have written as a group of experts reflecting the power or inability of the opposition, do they give the opposition the strength or reflect its weakness?
What we did was a reflection of the inability and incompetence of the state and political parties. In a normal state, the Republic Electoral Commission would be doing what we were doing, and it would have the task and authority to analyse the course of elections and then make recommendations to improve the electoral process. This would also be the task of the REM to see what it could do to improve the media scene and this could be the task of some people within political parties. They say that in the ‘90s people from the parties determined requests and that they did not need some expert teams on the side to define things on behalf of the opposition. I’m not sure if there were really no people in the opposition who could write such a document or not.
Do you agree that these are elementary things – that the media in the 21st century must be free, that no voters should be beaten, threatened, blackmailed…
Sadly, 30 years after the introduction of the multiparty system, we have completed the circle and we are again talking about establishing basic democratic rules, instead of fine-tuning and improving institutions that are already supposed to be functioning. That’s why it’s discouraging and that’s why I believe that so many people are leaving, since they somewhat do not see that anything will change and they are giving up Serbia. I am not a pessimist by nature, quite the contrary, but I am the pessimist when it comes to Serbian society.
You said that the working group wanted to put the citizen in the centre and that the confidence of voters in the electoral process should be restored. The question is whether all voters lost confidence, i.e. does restoring trust means believing in the system itself or believing in the ability of the opposition to protect the elections and polling places from irregularities?
I would say both. Trust in the electoral process in Serbia is at an extremely low level. We did a research at the faculty a few months ago – a European Values Study – that is being done throughout Europe and we made a comparison of this electoral integrity index with other countries for which results were available at that time. Alongside Armenia, we have the least confidence in the election process. And don’t think that these are the opposition voters. For example, the average SPS voter in that sample has less confidence in the quality of the electoral process than the voters of almost all the states there.
Six months have passed since the beginning of the protests, would you say that the authorities weakened or strengthened, that the opposition weakened or strengthened?
I think that the authorities have partially weakened, the Future of Serbia campaign was an attempt to alleviate this weakening and probably had some effect, but some moves and some replacements and arrests in the last six months, which may have accidentally coincided with the protest, still show that some small cracks exist and that they have now emerged. The opposition, or at least part of the opposition, has strengthened.
Why is this not observable in the estimates?
I have not really seen reliable surveys and estimates lately. Not that I do not trust researchers, but it seems to me that the research, published the day after the last rally the Future of Serbia in Belgrade, was probably carried out by telephone, speedily, and since you cannot catch everything by telephone, I would leave a place for doubt that everything is just the same as before.
To what extent in your opinion is the Alliance for Serbia sustainable as an alliance?
In the long run, it is definitely not sustainable, it consists of everything and anything and it resembles the old Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) – an alliance of parties that probably basically cannot agree on some of the key issues. In the short term, I believe it is. Authorities in Serbia belong to the category of hybrid regimes. These are the regimes that combine democratic rules and procedures formally, and that is when you tell me that there are institutions, yes, they exist, but basically, along with these democratic rules and procedures, there is an authoritarian practice. According to all criteria, whichever foreign authors we observe, Serbia is a regime of competitive authoritarianism or electoral authoritarianism, and I really do not recall any such regime in comparative practice being defeated in the election on which the opposition party took part in ten lists. Wide and large coalitions were formed. From this comparative practice, it would seem to me that the idea in which everyone would go on their own is not a good idea. If we are talking about a plan, in my opinion the parliamentary elections in 2020 are not somewhat too important for the opposition.
In what sense?
In the sense that this for sure is not the year when the regime can change.
I do not think it is possible to make such a critical mass for the current parties that are in power to lose this power, even if all these requests of the expert team are realized.
Is it because citizens are not sufficiently dissatisfied or because the Alliance for Serbia as the largest opposition force has failed to sublimate dissatisfaction?
A little bit of everything, probably because the opposition is weak in its good part, it does not communicate well with the citizens for objective reasons, but also probably due to some other reasons, because the citizens are not well-informed, that is, accurately and truthfully, and even if all of this is done, there is the question of the effect that can be achieved within six months.
But it is hard to believe that citizens, even before some subsequent elections in which the opposition may possibly win, will be accurately and truthfully informed. They were not even informed on 5 October 2000.
Yes, but on the 5th of October we had presidential elections, and that’s why I said that I do not think that the turning point is 2020, maybe I am wrong, I am not an analyst, but the next presidential elections to which they would probably have to concentrate now if they had some plan.
Do you think Vucic can only be beaten in the match between leaders?
Yes, and he may not even be beaten, but taken to the second round. And that would be some sort of a success, compared to what the opposition has done so far in the elections.
Saturday, 8 June, was announced as a new “D-Day” marking six months since the beginning of the protests. To what extent are these “D-Days” a good idea that motivates the demonstrators?
This is a continuation of my story that a more serious, longer-term strategy on the side of the opposition is missing. There is no answer as to what you want to do, and when you do not have that answer, you invent the “D-Days” from month to month, which will sort of make something, and more or less we all know they will not. This additionally disappoints the citizens who go to the protests, so it might be good to end the practice of setting up “D-Days” to begin with, if the protests continue.