Political and social contexts in which we live
Croatia: A Step Forward
Every adult person knows there is no magic wand and that things will not change by saying “abracadabra” and waving a wooden fairy tale artefact about. Now that we’ve established that wand waving should be left to Cinderella’s fairy godmother and Harry Potter in his school of witchcraft and wizardry, we can safely assume that the events of 2020 will not bring about a miracle, but they are certainly worthy of recording. There has been a small but significant step forward. Namely, after years of wallowing in the mud of nationalism that irrepressibly spews forth hatred, we should take note of the month of August this year. That month, something unfortunately unprecedented, at least when it comes to the actions of high-level politicians, happened in Croatia, shifting us at least a bit away from where we were being kept by the burden of wars that had ended as many as 25 years ago.
Here’s what it was: first on 5 August, on the 25th anniversary of the military action “Storm”, Boris Milošević, the new Deputy Prime Minister from the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS), arrived in Knin where the anniversary is marked each year. Up until that day, no high-level representative of the Serb national minority had ever attending the marking of the “Storm” anniversary, which had usually been an opportunity to express the basest nationalist passions.
“I want the spiral of hatred to stop so that the horrors of war are never repeated. Our society is ready for us to listen to each other and respect each other whatever our nationality,” was the clear message sent from Knin by Milošević, who added that on the anniversary of the “Storm” he had heard messages of peace that made him understand his presence in Knin as an investment for a better future in the region.
Milošević’s decision to attend was greeted with hostility in Serbia and with the usual refrain we commonly hear in the region, he was proclaimed to be a disgrace to the Serb people and a traitor, with the campaign to condemn him spearheaded by Serbian government-controlled “media”.
Three weeks later, on 25 August, something else unusual for Croatia happened, and it had been carefully planned together with the previous event. Namely, the commemoration to Serb civilians killed in the wake of action “Storm” in the village of Grubori in the Knin area was attended by the Croatian minister for veterans Tomo Medved who paid his respects to the victims. The village has actually been wiped off the map, but it had been found on 25 August 1995 by members of the Lučko anti-terrorist unit who were clearing the area and decided to clear Grubori of all life and burn down almost all the houses in the village. To this day, families of the elderly people killed in the village are still waiting for justice and the rest of us are forced to breathe the same air as the monsters responsible for this crime.
“Croatia mourns all those killed and our duty is to show piety towards the victims,” were the words spoken in Grubori by Medved, a member of the right-wing current within the ruling HDZ, and his message is all the more significant because of the constant denial of the crimes and avoidance of the “dark side of victory” in Croatia since the war. There is still a belief here that “those attacked in war cannot have committed crimes” and that the Croatian Army has an “unsullied reputation”, so when the minister for veterans comes to the site of a crime and admits that the Croatian Army killed innocent civilians, that sends a clear message, builds a culture of peace and in some way stands for an official recognition of Serb victims in the past war. How Croatia has been treating victims belonging to “others” can be surmised from the fact that an official investigation into the crime committed in Grubori was launched only in 2001 and even then only after international institutions kept inquiring about this case.
Croatian president Zoran Milanović also came to Grubori with Medved, and so did, once again, Boris Milošević, who used this opportunity to send the following message: “It is time to put an end to hatred so it is not transferred to new generations and so that our children do not grew up with prejudice against others. This is the only way to build a better Croatia and it is this Government’s policy.”
And how much strength and will was needed for Milošević and Medved to take this step becomes clear from their personal tragedies. A few days before going to Knin, Milošević disclosed his distressing family story that had been previously unknown to the public. Namely, at the time of the “Storm”, Milošević was in his home town of Šibenik and after the military action he went together with his father, who had been mobilised into the Croatian army, to see his grandmother, his father’s mother, who lived in an area liberated in operation “Storm”. A month later, his grandmother was found murdered, and the killer was found out only because he boasted of his crime, thinking, as many monsters were likely to think at the time, that murdering Serbs was not something they would ever have to answer for. On the other side, minister Medved was wounded three times in the war and his brother Milan was killed in operation Storm. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that news of Milošević’s plans to go to Knin and Medved’s to go to Grubori in the weeks surrounding these events were the most important political topic of the summer.
This in no way rids Croatia of its wartime legacy, but at least in this month it could have seemed to someone looking from outside that there were no more “our” and “their” victims. And there were more such instances this summer. Milanović and Slovenian president Borut Pahor, warning of the “banality of evil”, attended the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Kampor concentration camp on the island of Rab where many Croat and Slovenian anti-fascists had been interned during the Second World War. More than 15,000 people passed through Kampor and according to some estimates almost 4,000 of them died there. This was the first time that the anniversary of the camp’s liberation was attended by both the Croatian and Slovenian presidents who said that this place is a reminder of “man’s ability to treat his fellow man with inhumanity”. Around the same time, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković visited the notorious Goli otok to mark the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, and the leader of the Alliance of Josip Broz Tito Societies Jovan Vejnović showed his readiness to join in the remembrance, characterising Goli otok as a big stain on the socialist system. At the end of September, Plenković is supposed to pay his respects to Serb civilians killed in the village of Varivode near Šibenik.
As much as “high politics” likes to pretend it does not sway public perception, this could not be further from the truth, and we can often see it in the time of elections when nationalist options resort to their tried and tested mechanism that quickly turns any suitable trifle into a real little foreign policy war that is then joined by prime ministers, presidents, ministers… In Croatia, such antics mostly involve Serbia and Slovenia, not so much Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This year’s parliamentary election results actually enabled the actions of Milošević and Medved because they allowed HDZ to form the Government with the support of HNS, the Reformists and representatives of national minorities. Left out of the post-election calculations, like fish on dry land, were the extreme right political options such as the Homeland Movement whose prominent actors include precisely those same instigators that HDZ had kept close for years, allowing them to normalise hate speech in parliament. They, for example, refused to come to Knin together with official Serb representatives, saying that they would not participate in the “self-promotion of the Croat-Serb trading coalition”. Their character was further illustrated by a case from late July. This was when member of parliament Anja Šimpraga from SDSS made a deeply impactful speech that could not help but touch every human heart and related how as an eight-year-old girl she survived the exodus following operation Storm. After her touching speech, an MP from the Homeland Movement, Karolina Vidović Krišto, who had been kept on as a “reporter” at HRT despite numerous scandalous mistakes before embarking on her political career, practically ran to her seat. This rising star of the Croatian right wing ran in order to request a reply in which she warned that Šimpraga had used in her account the “hateful” words “tačno” and “august” that are not part of standard Croatian. Evidently, this is the only thing that Vidović Krišto heard in the touching speech.
With so many things revolving around Knin, we would be remiss not to mention a very important book aimed at reconciliation in a way that is rarely seen in this region. And it is a crying shame that it will not end up in many hands. Its authors are Slaven Rašković and Igor Čoko, two residents of Knin who at age 11 and 20, respectively, ended up in Serbia as refugees after operation Storm. Rašković soon returned to Croatia, while Čoko settled in Belgrade. Their book is called A Life in Limbo: Book of Scars and it starts with a poignant statement spoken by a citizen of Knin: “The only thing that has grown in Knin in the past 25 years is the city cemetery.” Rašković’s words and Čoko’s brilliant photographs of post-war Knin convey in documentary style everything that happened in Knin on the eve of the war, during the war and in the aftermath of operation Storm. The book is free of all nationalist narratives, but is by no means unemotional. Because of everything it contains, tracing the roiling hatred – from the ill treatment and harassment of Croats on the eve of the war to their subsequent expulsion, and to the crimes Croats committed after operation Storm because revenge, as Rašković writes, is served hot in Knin – it is almost certain that because it does not pander to nationalist passions, this book will not be liked by either “real Croats” or “real Serbs”.
The limited space of this article will not allow us to go into more detail about some other dark phenomena that have become more pronounced in Croatia in the past year than ever before and that can be seen on the facades of many a Croatian town where swastikas multiply next to the Ustasha “U” symbol with a cross, along with the Ustasha version of Sieg Heil, while on social networks blood drips from canines and “media” that use this war-mongering rhetoric have entered the mainstream, and the Croatian Wikipedia is openly sympathetic to fascism and the Ustasha legacy as it undertakes historical revisionism. We see sports fans spreading nationalist hatred, such as the case of the Zagreb Kustošija Football Club where “fans” of Dinamo celebrated the completion of a mural dedicated to their club by shouting “Kill Serbs”, waving an HOS flag and holding up a sign that read “We’ll fuck Serb women and children”.
There is no magic wand and all stakeholders in Croatian society have a lot more work to do in building a better and more tame society. We can only hope that the positive examples from this summer will bring forth at least some changes.
Bosnia and Hercegovina: Does anyone get what’s going on here?
Another year is behind us where we registered, or rather felt on our own skin, the numerous scandals and crises emblematic of the lack of accountability among politicians that are not working in the service of citizens but in their own interests and promoting their parties’ programmes. Mind you, not the programmes promised in election campaigns, but programmes to feed the existing megalomaniacal administrative apparatus and retain existing positions of power.
A quarter century after the war and more than three decades spent in a seemingly endless transition, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is still waiting, suffering, sighing under the weight of piled-up problems and lack of progress, facing extinction as its young people leave in droves. Even those well-situated, families that are not in a materially precarious position, people who have acquired degrees and status in their community, they too are leaving. They’re tired of the waiting, lies and deceit. They don’t want to fit into a society based on the principles of political affiliation and nepotism. 2019 saw record emigration and, perhaps more crucially, fears that conflicts could escalate to the point of casting the country back into the abyss of war have been constantly present in BiH throughout the post war period, albeit with varying intensity. Lately, though, those fears are felt perhaps more strongly than ever before.
The dilemma remains: As citizens of this country, are we facing a real problem, are we actually exposed to danger, or are we living in a constant matrix of the ruling political elites who use illusionist tricks to secure their positions and benefits.
This is entirely possible in a country where the justice system is thoroughly corrupt, does not fight crime and corruption but is used for settling political accounts, where the highest political officials protect their subordinates even in cases of blatant wrongdoing, in a country whose divided society lacks the capacity to resolutely stand up against everything that makes it an undesirable place to live.
We had moments that gave us hope that agreement was possible, such as when the Annual National Plan (ANP) was sent to Brussels, the first annual reform programme to be finally agreed on in Sarajevo by all members of the tripartite Presidency of BiH – Milorad Dodik, Željko Komšić, and Šefik Džaferović. Alas, the ink wasn’t even dry on the document when its signatories started quibbling over whether it had assured BiH’s path to NATO membership or merely determined its position on the status and extent of cooperation with the Alliance. For three months, we watched the three of them in the media interpreting and defending their positions and competing over who tricked whom. Countless special shows with political and legal experts weighed in on the subject, but then this “issue of all issues” seemed to drop into silence and oblivion.
The rest of our political reality was taken up by Member of the Presidency of BiH Mr Dodik continuing to present his views on the impossibility of BiH functioning as a state and how the time will come for Republika Srpska (RS) to declare its independence. To this, the other two members of the presidency, Komšić and Džaferović, responded by reiterating that these were threats to the constitutiveness and constitutionality of BiH. They called for laws and the BiH Constitution to be upheld, an intervention by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international community, and the Quint countries (the five most influential Western countries. US, UK, Italy, France, Germany), which then issued statements calling for rule of law as a key element, where the Constitutional Court is the central institution, and pointing out that undermining the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina was very damaging for its development and approximation to the European Union. On and on it went. From time to time, the leader of SDA, the strongest Bosniak party, Bakir Izetbegović would make a public appearance to use pointed rhetoric directed at Dodik and express his readiness to defend the independence and integrity of BiH at all costs. Dodik would then accuse SDA of failing to uphold the Dayton Agreement and of adopting policies to centralise the state, which led to the usual state of perpetuum mobile of the past who knows how many years.
Turning to the entity level, RS is under the sovereign rule of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) led by Dodik. Dodik has managed to completely subdue even the little opposition there is in RS by introducing to the RS National Assembly issues of vulnerability of RS institutions, the danger of losing competences at the entity level, the issue of foreign judges in the Constitutional Court of BiH working against the interests of Serbs and other issues presented as vital for the survival of RS. He played the winning card of higher national interest. And in return, he received the full support of the highest constitutional and legislative body in RS. Corruption, economic crime, poverty and other problems will never have their turn in the Assembly.
In the Federation of BiH, the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) cannot seem to find a solution for their problems. Parties with a Croat prefix have made the functionality of institutions in the Federation of BiH conditional on changing the election law and have supported SNSD’s demand for removing foreign judges. The forming of executive government has been blocked for over a year and a half, the Federation has had a caretaker government since 2018, and it was only in June this year that SDA and HDZ leaders signed a political agreement including a model Election Law to be applied at the local elections in Mostar. Finally, some good news for the citizens of Mostar who last voted in local elections back in 2012.
Let me mention here that local elections will be held in BiH on 15 November, except in Mostar where they will be held on 20 December. The initially planned date of the elections was 4 October, but it had to be moved due to delays in adopting the budget. In the meantime, political parties accused each other of obstructing the budget adoption procedure in order to delay the elections as much as possible.
One day maybe even the Second World War will be in the past in BiH
The current state of Bosnian-Herzegovinian society was also demonstrated by the mass for “Bleiburg victims” held in Sarajevo on 16 June 2020. For the past 30 years, this mass had traditionally been held at the Bleiburg field in Austria where the Partisans killed some ten thousand of the ustaša, domobran and other Nazi collaborators from the puppet Independent State of Croatia (NDH), but also the civilians that were fleeing along with them. However, this year, due to the pandemic, the mass could not be organised in Austria, so the Catholic Church decided to have the mass at the Sarajevo Cathedral under the patronage of the Croatian Parliament, the Croatian Bishops’ Conference and the Bleiburg Honorary Guard, a pro-fascist and pro-ustaša organisation. The event was of course politicised and there were numerous reactions. Critics saw it as a rehabilitation of the ustaša regime, while Church officials claimed it was simply a religious service with no connection to any regime or ideology. Still, the mass was more of an ideological than a religious act and its main message related to condemning all totalitarian regimes.
Concurrently with the mass, a protest and procession was organised by the BiH Alliance of Antifascists and Veterans of the People’s Liberation War (SABNOR), bringing together a few thousand citizens with Partisan iconography and antifascist songs who expressed their opposition to the unjust equating of the 10000 victims of fascist terror in Sarajevo with the victims from among the perpetrators of that terror.
The protests, however, were still not directed against all fascisms. In Sarajevo, Bosniaks never dealt with their own Nazi past and for decades the city is being mythologised as a cradle of anti-fascism even though very many Sarajevans collaborated with the Nazis in World War 2 and held high offices in NDH institutions. The Bosniak nationalist elite has even rehabilitated some of the convicted war criminals from that time and now some streets and schools are named after them. In that sense, this was a missed opportunity to condemn these practices and it is uncertain when or if denazification will be addressed.
Revisionism has been a central process taking place in the former Yugoslavia over the past three decades. Demonising the Partisan movement and socialism is at the basis of nationalist forces. And in BiH, of course, everything gets multiplied by 3.
Covid 19 against us 3 constitutive peoples and the other citizens of BiH
The ministries of health of RS and FBiH, as the responsible institutions, initially responded to the corona virus pandemic in perhaps the only appropriate way at the time. By establishing crisis staffs and imposing restrictions on the movement of elderly people and children, bans on assemblies and night-time curfews, they certainly curtailed human freedoms, but given the state of our healthcare system, which is a far cry from that of countries like Italy or Spain whose systems were nevertheless brought to their knees, I believe they prevented the worst case scenario with multitudes of cases and fatalities. It is true that over the two-month lockdown period from late March to mid-May, there was insufficient testing and many asymptomatic cases went under the radar of health institutions, but the crisis was averted for the time being. What came later was the result of the relaxing and ignoring of protective measures, and the consequences vary periodically from 100 to 300 infected and 10 to 15 dead per day.
The pandemic revealed numerous weaknesses in the health system, as well as bringing to light examples of unbridled greed for personal gain that used the crisis to pull off a brutal looting of budget funds that belong to the people.
The Government of the Federation of BiH (FBiH) ordered 100 ventilators from China for the price of BAM 10.5 million. The Federal Civilian Protection Staff (FŠCZ) was responsible for this procurement. The problem was that the head of FŠCZ entrusted the task to a company specialising in fruit farming and processing – Srebrna malina from Srebrenica, though he knew the company was not licenced for importing medical equipment and medicines by the Agency for Medicinal Products of BiH. However, this was discovered only once the first plane with the ventilators landed at the Sarajevo airport and when the lack of an import licence made it impossible to obtain customs clearance. Initially, there were attempts to cover up what had happened while trying to obtain the necessary licence, but by then the scandal had been discovered and came under police investigation. This led to the arrests of the prime minister of FBiH, the head of FŠCZ and the owner of the unlicensed company, and the case will also have its day in court. It was later also discovered that the ventilators could not be used in intensive care wards because they were meant for installation in ambulance vehicles, making them practically useless. We are still to see who will pay back the taxpayer funds.
In RS the scandal revolved around the procurement of a tent worth BAM 5 million that was meant to serve as a field hospital. Set up in a field without any additional equipment, it soon became the object of ridicule as well as a thorn in the side of the government because in brought up questions about mismanagement of funds. The tent was soon returned to the supplier and the money was allegedly reimbursed. We are still to see that information confirmed.
Government representatives acted together when it came to requesting a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Though there was a long wait for its decision, the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina finally agreed on how to allocate the 333 million euros from the loan.
Migrants come to BiH with the intention of not staying. For three years now, since they started arriving in larger groups, this has been a well-known fact. The migrant crisis is currently reaching its peak this year and bringing with it a series of problems. There are the disgruntled local communities and citizens increasingly prone to protests, there is discontent among the migrants with accommodation conditions and the way they are treated by the community, the police and responsible authorities, and then there are the increased rates of smuggling of migrants towards EU countries. In addition to all the problems inherent in the current situation, instead of working out a joint response, the authorities have been shifting responsibility onto one another. It is uncertain when or if the authorities in BiH will find a solution for the crisis that upholds basic human rights. Currently, however, in addition to the previous decision of RS leadership to ban migrants from staying in this entity, the political leadership of USK has also adopted new measures to ban migrants from entering the territory of the canton. We now have a situation where migrants who reach USK from RS get stuck between two police checkpoints. This is a humanitarian disaster in the making because they’re nobody’s responsibility and there are buses arriving every day bringing more people who will get stuck there.
The question remains: what changes are necessary for our society to start functioning at full capacity? Is it realistic to expect that institutions will start doing their job without a change of mentality, both theirs and of the people they are meant to represent? Is it possible to achieve genuine reconciliation and build a stable peace without first having a cathartic relationship towards all crimes committed in anyone’s name, and is it possible to expect that the representatives of our peoples will ever be ready to accept responsibility for what was done to others in their name, or will they continue defending their legacies by justifying these acts as necessary at the time, despite the amount of blood that was spilt? And when will everyone stop defending “their own” even when they’re the worst? A society like ours that does not deal with these essential issues will only delude itself that the key is in economic prosperity or Euro-Atlantic integration. We have to find our own answers for what kind of life we want to live here. These past three decades have been nothing more than hanging on in fear.
Serbia: All Democracies are different, but all dictatorships are similar
A few years ago, at the start of the migrant crisis, as people turned their heads away from the fate of the unfortunates arriving in the hopes that in Europe they would find peace, stability and economic prosperity, but most of all a system to order their lives in contrast to the chaos of their war-torn countries or dictatorships where only those close to power survive, I caught myself thinking about parallels with events immediately preceding the Second World War. Serbia was a transit country on the migrant route, no one had any real intention of staying here, but seeing these people that no one needs and no one knows what to do with, no one really wants them, it reminded me of what has since become known as the “Voyage of the Damned”, when a ship carrying Jews from Germany at the beginning of the Second World War was denied entry by almost every country on its long voyage. https://nenasilje.org/en/voyages-of-the-damned/
For the past few months, I have felt as if the whole country was on that ship. Embarking on a voyage of the damned, we sail around, no one wants us, people turn their heads away from the events in Serbia, hoping we will somehow resolve things ourselves. We are nobody’s responsibility, just a passing difficulty. And if we were to send out an SOS from this ship, I don’t think anyone would hear it, or they would pretend not to have heard it.
Elections – A Chance for Theft and Violence
What had seemed impossible ended up happening, because even though democracy in Serbia has travelled a long and thorny path it seems no nearer to its destination, despite having established some rules. Once again, we have voted in a dictatorship whose repercussions we have been feeling for years, while the future – and here I mean not the years, but the days and months to come – remains unpredictable. Elections were forcibly held in Serbia on 21 June amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Elections are a celebration of democracy – where democracy exists; they are a challenge to democratic governments, but for dictatorial governments they are a chance for theft, clashes, violence and fear.
The entire electoral process was placed in the service of the ruling party and the results bear this out: out of the 250 seats in parliament, SNS, the party led by Aleksandar Vučić (who is also the president of Serbia), won 188. Their long-standing partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia won 32 seats, while the party of Aleksandar Šapić (former water polo player and mayor of Novi Beograd accused of plagiarising his doctoral thesis) won 11 seats. Also in parliament are four parties representing minorities, with a total of 19 seats. The opposition boycotted the elections, but the turnout was 49% of registered voters (of course, there are justifiable doubts and evidence of irregularities).
Three right-wing parties in the majority and no opposition – that will be the image of Serbia’s parliament, its highest legislative body, over the next four years. This monolith parliamentary structure places Serbia among the most undemocratic countries in Europe. (Superseded, for now, only by Belarus, if the recent elections held there, with Lukashenko winning more than 80% of the vote, are recognised as legitimate.) In Serbia, SNS won 62.6% of the vote, but this is sufficient to provide them with a two-thirds majority that gives them the legitimacy to change everything, including the Constitution, on their own, without any interference.
At the time of writing, 1 September, two months and ten days after the elections, the government has not yet been constituted, and there are no indications of when this will be done, which is just another indicator that when all the power lies in the hands of one man, institutions are superfluous, even if they are only for show.
The elections were preceded by years of harassment of citizens with all the leverage the government could muster: the media were in the service of one party and one man, as were the police and judiciary, save a few notable exceptions; the opposition is disunited and practically non-existent, while right-wing parties blossom, though there is reason to suspect they are all backed by the ruling party that forms them, finances them and directs them to serve as scarecrows: when compared to other right-wing movements and parties, SNS starts to resemble a democratic pro-European party.
From the most ridiculous virus ever to crying in front of the cameras
Before the elections, we had lockdown for months, a state of emergency and police curfew that were introduced on 17 March and lasted until 7 May. I have been living in Serbia for almost half a century and in that time I have experienced all three states of emergency: the first when NATO bombed Serbia during the war in Kosovo, the second when Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić was assassinated, and now this third state of emergency because of the coronavirus. This was the first time I was subject to a police curfew. Although personal experiences and impressions are not meant to be compared, all three of these states of emergency have a common thread running through them: during the first, in 1999, while the war raged in Kosovo, the current president was a minister in Milošević’s government of that time and was given a flat as a reward for his services. The second state of emergency was proclaimed when the pro-democracy prime minister was shot, with no light shed on the political background of his murder over the 17 years that ensued, though it was clearly not the act of an individual, but of a joint enterprise aiming to halt the democratisation of society. The third and most recent state of emergency caught me off guard, as it did the majority of citizens. Initially, the government ignored the pandemic, holding a press conference where the president, supported by a handful of doctors toeing the party line, laughed. One of these doctors called the covid19 virus “the most ridiculous virus in history”. As he spoke, Vučić was standing behind him, laughing. Those of us who understood this was no laughing matter could only feel more fear.
And now we come to the difficult task of explaining how our fear of the pandemic is greater than the fear of any other people in the world. This is difficult to explain and cannot really be grasped by people living in countries with a system, with democracy and at least some basic confidence in their institutions. Here, the institutions have been politicised to such an extent that no one has any confidence in them any longer. The paradox is that even those who trust Vučić do not trust the system at whose helm he stands. (This is most often expressed in terms once used in relation to Milošević: “Vučić is defending Serbia, he is good, those around him are bad, he doesn’t know what they’re doing.) Everything has been destroyed, every thinking voice of dissent has been silenced or compromised with accusations and attacks – and then in March the threat of the virus loomed over us and we realised our healthcare system was woefully unequal to the task of protecting our health, the decisions of our crisis staff were not based on expertise, but on politics, while the president and his emissaries used their daily press conferences to cause us further distress, first by laughing at the virus, then by intimidating and threatening us, and even going so far as to manipulatively cry in front of the cameras. I don’t know whether there is any other country in the world whose president talks about the procurement of medical equipment in the first person: “I requested, I procured, I provided, I…” Me, me, me. I imagined the medical equipment market as some sort of flea market where people come from all over the world, with our president snatching the ventilator from somebody’s hands and running away with it. That is how he described his “rescue mission”. And that is how they kept tormenting us for days, until it finally came to light that they had also been lying to us.
That much was expected and came as no big surprise. If there are no institutions, if the system is centralised to such a degree that a single man decides on life and death issues, then that man bears no obligation to tell the truth. The truth is what he says it is, and everything else is manipulation and lies.
Police curfews and police violence
Information about how data on the number of Covid19 cases and deaths were falsified in Serbia became public on 22 June, the day after the elections. No one so much as bothered to deny it, and it was made public by independent media . A few weeks later, the media, NGOs and individuals that had stood up to Vućić became targets of ad hoc financial inspections under allegations that they had been “laundering money and financing terrorism”.
In the afternoon on 7 July, the president addressed the nation, accusing the citizens of not being disciplined and announcing the possibility of instituting a new state of emergency and police curfew. He neglected to mention the elections, which were an epidemiological bomb, as the main contagion spreading event. Nor did he mention the Zvezda-Partizan match between two government-financed football clubs that was attended by tens of thousands of fans, the only such event held in Europe this summer. He also left out the election campaign during which his fellow party members and supporters were able to spread the contagion as they travelled from one town to the next. The fact that half the government was infected with the coronavirus after the elections – information about the covid-positive status of some of the more prominent government members, such as minister of defence Aleksandar Vulin, director of the Kosovo and Metohija Office Marko Đurić and speaker of the Serbian Parliament Maja Gojković, did come to light, but for most we’ll probably never know.
Vučić accused the citizens of not being disciplined and a few hours later he had citizens in the streets. Spontaneously, people came out to show their anger and discontent and call for accountability. Members of the most diverse political affiliations, as well as people without any, were out in the streets together. From the far-right to the far-left. As is common for assemblies that have no structure, organisation, or designated responsibility, there were clashes with the police who in turn demonstrated an unprecedented level of aggression towards the protesters.
It was brutality for its own sake, with the police using dogs, horses, tear-gas. Videos of the police beating people flooded the social networks, but just one TV station hosted by a single cable operator, one daily newspaper and a few weeklies reported on the events. All that national TV viewers could hear about the protests was that these were hooligans, or people brought or paid from abroad to “tear down their government and legitimately elected president”. Regime-friendly “analysts” took to the TV screens, competing who would sling more mud at the protesters, while extolling the government and police response. This was what more than two thirds of Serbia was watching, this was what informed their opinions.
During the protests I was approached by a reporter for Al Jazeera who asked me why I was there. When I answered, tears started streaming down her face and I was sorry for being so emotional in my response. We have too many emotions, we are overwhelmed, we need to calm down a bit, I thought to myself. That same evening, I saw on the news that the reporter and her cameraman had been attacked, their equipment smashed. This was done by someone close to the government, I have no doubt, because Al Jazeera was among the TV networks that reported truthfully from the protests. Photo journalists and reporters working for free or freer media were targeted with tear-gas and push-backs. Almost all were harmed in some way during the protests.
There’s no money – except for the military and the Church
At the same time, as we’re going through the epidemic (as I write this, at the end of August, over 30,000 cases have been registered, but since only persons with more severe symptoms are tested, while others are sent home without being tested, the actual number of cases is likely to be much higher), more than 700 people have died, the healthcare system is unprepared and unequipped, a severe economic crisis is setting in, we are uncertain how life will unfold in the near future, we are beset by corruption, crime, homicides in the street, suicides by those who can no longer take the pressure, while all this is going on, Serbia is investing money into purchasing weapons and refurbishing the Church of St Sava.
The weapons are needed in order to threaten our neighbours – though the situation is not much better in any of the countries of the region, and especially not in those countries that had gone to war in the past, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all those other countries are members of NATO, while Serbia is not. The logical question is: Who are these weapons meant to defend us from, or who are they meant to attack?
On the other side, populism defends nationalism, so the support of Church leadership is bought by enormous funds allocated to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is in the service of the regime and which in these days when comfort, true faith and caring for others is most needed, sends its faithful messages of hatred, instructing them to ignore measures for fighting the epidemic and to gather in churches, at services that become hotspots of contagion.
This text is already too long to include all the examples of human rights abuses, all the threats and accusations individuals and groups face, the doctored trials, the arrests of reporters and whistle-blowers, the pandemic of apathy and fear that people here live under.
All democracies are different in their own way, all dictatorships are similar in their efforts to negate life and the future.
Montenegro: Freedom is not a momentary sensation of a state of being, but the lasting sense of a goal (Borislav Pekić)
A change of government in Montenegro can be achieved democratically! At the parliamentary elections held on 30 August 2020, Milo Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) suffered a defeat. After 31 years in power, seven mandates as prime minister and two as president, the second of which is still running, an end has finally come. One of the last Balkan dictators, overshadowing even Lukashenko with his 26 years in power, the last of all the war leaders and wartime prime ministers from the former Yugoslavia, he has become history, or at least we hope so. He is a historic figure in many respects, but at this moment primarily because he will go down in history as the first Montenegrin ruler, president and(or) despot not brought down by a military junta, violent protests of disgruntled citizens, external forces, a war or, colloquially speaking, the streets, but the will of the citizens expressed through elections, or, as we hear increasingly these days in Montenegro, by the pencil!
Although DPS remains the single strongest party in Montenegro with 35 percent of the votes and 30 seats in parliament, that number being brought up to 40 when combined with the seats of its traditional partners, the three opposition coalitions have together won a total of 41 seats in parliament. The biggest leap was made by the coalition “For the Future of Montenegro” led by the Democratic Front (DF) with 32.5 percent of the votes and 27 seats. The coalition “Peace is Our Nation” led by Democratic Montenegro won 12.5 percent of the vote and 10 seats, while the “Black on White” list gathered around the URA Citizens’ Movement won 5.5 percent of the votes and four seats in parliament. Also making it into parliament are the Social Democrats and the Bosniak Party with three seats each, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with two seats and two Albanian coalitions with one seat each, while Croat national parties have not managed to pass the 0.35 percent threshold to gain seats in parliament.
There was a danger that the anger and various grievances that had been piling up for years under the autocracy would culminate in violence and conflicts. Still, paradoxically, autocratic rule was brought down by the courage of citizens; people defeated their fear with their right to vote, with pencils, or, hopefully, by starting to use their heads. After three decades of one-party rule, one system or even just one man, it only took a single election day to change everything for the better. Peacefully and without major irregularities, precisely as democratic elections should be, a celebration of democracy, peace and tolerance. It is precisely that cultural shift that is the biggest winner of these elections and this Montenegro today. Both the biggest winner, and hopefully also the biggest lesson and warning to the new government and all the citizens of Montenegro. The lesson can be summed up with a single sentence from the beginning of this text: government can be changed democratically, and should be changed democratically going forward, and more often that it has been up to now. Nothing will be the same after this traumatic experience for Montenegro. Already the day after the elections, various reactions started pouring in: both those that were supportive and encouraging and those that were ominous and pessimistic, as well as those imbued with celebration as well as sorrow, joy as well as apprehension. But, let’s look at them one at a time.
Great democratic potential
The fall of the longest-running European regime gives hope that the Western Balkans region can achieve prosperity and that even the boldest claims that Montenegro has the greatest democratic potential in the region are not, after all, misguided. Democratic potential is reflected, above all, in the conciliatory messages sent out by the leaders of the new parliamentary majority immediately after the elections, thereby managing, at least right after the elections, to assuage the fears of citizens who do not support them and who were becoming afraid for their own personal safety having heard claims that the state would be under attack. Messages to the effect that there would be no revanchism, that Montenegro is a country for all of us, that a hand would be extended in friendship to minorities and all others, and that those most responsible in the previous government would be called to accept accountability, all these show political maturity, but also imply responsibility to make good on such promises. Another confirmation of being on the right track were the principles, adopted right after the elections, that will guide the future government and that were signed by the three leaders, Zdravko Krivokapić, Aleksa Bečić, and Dritan Abazović.
“The first principle that was agreed is that the new, democratic government would responsibly implement all international commitments. The second is that the new democratic government will implement all the necessary reforms for Montenegro to join the European Union as soon as possible. The third is that the new democratic government would be made up of experts, professionals in concrete areas, irrespective of their political, religious, national or any other belonging. The fourth is that the new government will be fully committed to upholding the Constitution and the rule of law, while changing, amending and revising all discriminatory laws and regulations, including the Law on the Freedom of Religion. They also stated that they are extending a hand to representatives of minority peoples with the desire to together build a better and more prosperous future for Montenegro.”
The adopted principles, though determined and excellent, are only the first step. The challenges facing the new government, as well all Montenegrin citizens are much greater and more complex. Deconstructing over thirty years of the old system set in its ways; reforming the inert and corruption infected state administration, changing the political culture built on national identities, initiating vetting processes, preserving the legacies of anti-fascism and secularism in particular, focusing more keenly on economic, social and environmental issues; finally speeding up and bringing to completion the EU membership negotiations; while at the same time dealing with the virus pandemic and the approaching economic crisis, an economy destroyed by malfeasant privatisation, the enormous public debt… this will be a demanding and long-term job. The list of everything that needs to be deconstructed and changed in Montenegro is much too long to fit into this text. Still, I would like to point out a few problems, at least when 2020 is at stake, where we need to both extend a hand in cooperation and roll up our sleeves.
Scandals, old and new
The “Envelope Affair” – made public early last year by renegade businessman Duško Knežević who published a video in which he hands an envelope with 97,500 euros to Slavoljub Stijepović, former minister of education and mayor of Podgorica and current General Secretary to President Milo Đukanović – was made current again in the election year. Knežević claimed the money was intended to finance the 2016 election campaign and was given in agreement with Đukanović. The Prosecutor’s Office, which was also implicated in this scandal by Knežević, never prosecuted those responsible.
The “Flats Affair” brought to light clear abuse of state and public office. Flats or advantageous housing loans from the state budget were distributed to public officials who already had up to five properties. The lists of privileged public officials given “a roof over their heads” by the Government included MPs, ministers, judges, prosecutors, police officials, and even the Supreme Court President Vesna Medenica. Again, no one was held responsible because the Government refused to admit to any malfeasance.
The “Možura Affair” that brought down the Maltese government at the beginning of this year, while the European Commission expects that corruption allegations will be credibly, independently and efficiently investigated, has yet to be resolved. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a reporter investigating dealings around a capital project to build a wind power plant on Možura, a hill above Ulcinj, was murdered. The media published an investigative report stating that the company 17 Black owned by Yorgen Fenech, the Maltese entrepreneur arrested in connection with the reporter’s murder, was connected to companies that had purchased the Montenegrin Možur wind power plant. Ten days or so before the elections, the leader of the “Black on White” coalition list Dritan Abazović disclosed new contracts related to the “Možura Affair” that, as he claimed, confirm “blatant corruption and criminal dealings by Montenegrin officials, including Đukanović”. Even though asked by Abazović to take the material into evidence, the Prosecutor’s Office has remained silent on the matter.
All three affairs show the deep-seated corruption within state institutions and authorities, as well as the whole of Montenegrin society which seems to have internalised the conviction that everything can be “taken care of” without consequences or accountability, as long as you have the money. That is why one of the primary tasks of the new government (or, perhaps we should start using new terminology, the “new service of citizens”) will be to show that it has zero tolerance for corruption and nepotism. In this light, messages about constituting a government of experts (which should apply to all appointments throughout the state apparatus) are very encouraging.
National pendulum of divisions
Milo Đukanović’s political “suicide” was, it seems, sealed by the adoption of the Law on the Freedom of Religion, a controversial and legally questionable piece of legislation in many of its aspects. The Law was adopted under unusual circumstances in December 2019, in a rushed procedure after midnight, and was accompanied by the arrests of almost the entire DF parliamentary caucus that had sharply opposed its adoption and attempted to physically prevent it being voted on and adopted in parliament. Opposition to this Law from the Church and the population led to mass litanies being held in almost all Montenegrin cities.
Whatever we may think of them, their background and motivation, the litanies proved to be a cathartic and unifying force, the biggest and most widespread since Đukanović came to power, which is why they also became the greatest threat to DPS rule. They seem to have pooled together variously motivated grievances from a large number of citizens, not just religious believers. A series of negotiations followed by teams of experts, but no compromise or agreement was reached to postpone the application of the Law or withdraw it completely.
After a brief period of calm on account of the ban on public gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the government and the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC) grew into clashes in the streets in a number of cities. The immediate cause was the litany held in Nikšić on 12 May, the feast day of St Basil of Ostrog, after which the police arrested bishop Joanikije of the SPC and seven other priests. They were charged with endangering the health of citizens during the epidemic by convening a prohibited mass gathering. Joanikije said in his defence that he had not invited believers to the litany, that they showed up spontaneously, or rather that “the people happened”.
In the meantime, tensions had reached boiling point in the parliament where Andrija Mandić said that “if Joanikije remains in prison, the government should prepare uniforms”. At the end of last year, when the disputed Law was being adopted, he had issued calls to “comrades in arms” and threatened to “dig up the guns”. He was not prosecuted for this, while the government, in the meantime, kept frenziedly arresting adherents of the opposition and the SPC for much more benign and merely sarcastic comments on social media.
All of this points to a much more serious and bigger problem, the deep division running through the Orthodox population of Montenegro, separating them into Serbs and Montenegrins. Issues of national identity have once again started dividing Montenegro and raising tensions. Unfortunately this state of affairs is likely to persist for a long time. In the words of Milovan Đilas, whenever someone pushes the pendulum of the Serb-Montenegrin national question to one side, it swings back with more force, extending the arc to the other. Perhaps it is finally time to stop the pendulum of divisions and strife, and instead of swinging between left and right, red and black, white and green, it starts swinging from better living standards to greater tolerance and from democracy to rule of law.
Freedom is here! One of the most frequently heard cries in these post-election days in Montenegro. But as long as there is no freedom for the others, as long as we ignore or relativise their fears, I can be neither free nor carefree. Freedom is not the momentary sensation of a state of being, but the lasting sense of a goal, to borrow the phrase from Borislav Pekić, so let us turn this momentary pleasant feeling some of us have into a permanent struggle for what should be the goal for all of us: freedom and peace.
North Macedonia : State of Emergency and Elections
The socio-political context in North Macedonia in 2020 can be described with the following keywords: Covid 19, caretaker government, state of emergency, parliamentary elections, hate speech, nationalism, discrimination, and, of course, crime.
Previously a ray of hope, the special prosecutor Katica Janeva has been convicted of corruption for abuse of office. At the same time, most of those she was meant to prosecute – such as the intelligence agent and cousin to the former prime minister, once among the “untouchables” and one of the richest businessmen in the country – are walking free on the streets of Skopje. The former prime minister himself is enjoying his (illegally obtained) wealth in exile. Meanwhile, the rest of us continue living with partisan institutions, a corrupt judiciary and enslaved media.
The pandemic has definitely contributed to keeping these topics outside the focus of daily events in our country. There was also not much euphoria around the decision of the EU Council to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia, or around our formally joining NATO.
At the height of the pandemic, we were left without a political government. When the parliamentary elections were called, the parliament dissolved itself. The elections were initially scheduled in April, but prior to that, 100 days before the early elections, a caretaker government was established under a caretaker prime minister. Due to the elections being postponed, this government stayed in power longer than initially planned.
In the context of the global coronavirus pandemic and in order to prevent its spread, in March, the president declared a state of emergency. That state kept getting extended. The police curfew and emergency measures became integral to our lives. A few months later, we seem to have forgotten how to live under “normal” conditions.
After each government session, we were informed about new measures. As a rule, the new measures were always more rigorous. At the same time, the influx of fake news about the pandemic increased citizens’ fears and it was often difficult to discern a hoax from accurate information. Fake news spread faster than the virus. Still, after some initial grumbling, in time people stopped questioning the measures imposed by the government. We simply accepted them.
Simultaneously, the strict measures led to disturbances of public peace and order. There were frequent traffic jams and crowds around shops and pharmacies. It was also tense in front of the banks where citizens would queue for hours.
And finally, the elections
The political scene was dominated by discussions on holding early parliamentary elections, which were finally held on 15 July 2020. They were held during the global pandemic and under protective measures. Political parties mostly presented their political views on social media, though there were also some traditional rallies. Despite being recommended, the protection measures were not respected by all those present, or even by all of the institutions.
The campaign, though generally negative in tone, was relatively peaceful and decent, despite restrictions on normal communication. The media mainly reported on the various activities of political parties without critically appraising their platforms. The current laws on paying for political advertising favour the three biggest parties. The election day was peaceful, despite technical problems in publishing the results and complaints about voter registration.
At the end of the day, the SDSM-BESA  coalition won the most votes and earned the legitimacy to negotiate the new government. Of the Albanian parties, DUI won the most votes.
One of the main promises SDSM made before the elections, and the reason many believe they won, was that they would send their hitherto partner in government, DUI, into the opposition. On the other side, DUI had promised that it was time for an “Albanian prime minister” and that they would demand this if they won among the Albanian bloc of parties. SDSM’s impassioned rhetoric that it was time for DUI to move to the opposition helped DUI close ranks and focus their campaign on claiming that no one from the outside should be telling Albanian voters who should be in power. With a smattering of hate speech, this contributed to a rise in nationalism and showed that when Macedonian parties and some of their media espouse a phobia of Albanians, DUI’s victory is assured .
A new government of old friends
All of the above was indeed just pre-election rhetoric. It no longer holds. On the contrary! SDSM and DUI have agreed to cooperate and form a government. Behind the cameras they fought bitterly over how to divide up the loot, but in front of the cameras they referred to this as “aligning the winning programmes and allocating sectoral responsibilities” and called their dealings “reaching agreement on the government’s programme and distribution of staff”.
In reality, SDSM is forced to remain friendly with DUI (and vice versa, on account of the election results). It just took a bit of time to wrap that story nicely so they could sell it to their own voters. DUI is now proud that they have the first Albanian foreign minister in North Macedonia (the speaker of the parliament is also from DUI, in his second mandate, but that is no longer news), while SDSM did not succumb to “blackmail” by DUI, but will still be “generous” and propose a candidate from DUI for prime minister before the end of its mandate.
DUI’s political trick of an “Albanian prime minister” evidently hit close to the target. Close, because the Alliance for Albanians and the Alternative (AA-A) still received a huge number of votes. Though it seems the stage has been set for a big struggle within the Albanian constituency, with the finals to be played at the local elections in 2021, the AA-A coalition, though it fell short of victory, can be more than happy with its results.
These elections will also be remembered for the Levica [Left] entering parliament, though it had used the opportunity to promote itself as radically right-wing, appearing for the elections with an aura of the defenders of Macedonian statehood following the “national humiliation” caused by SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE agreeing to change the country’s name. The considerable number of votes they won over is disheartening.
The country is expected to enter a recession in 2020, negative growth is being predicted, while it will still be facing the economic fall-out of the pandemic. The government has adopted multiple sets of economic measures to boost development and consumption and promote domestic supply. Unfortunately, the media were full of examples when, during the height of the crisis and state of emergency, some illegally profited off the backs of workers, while many workers were left without the government support intended for them.
Though the virus does not discriminate, some members of marginalised groups, which are traditionally discriminated, are having a much tougher time dealing with the new situation. There has been an increase in human rights violations. Under constant fear of the virus, and of the draconian penalties instituted by the government, citizens were incredibly quick to give up the little democracy we had, and give up on any form of control over the authorities. It is evident that the laws are not equally applied to all. Measures were imposed on certain categories of citizens, putting these people at a disadvantage, while the authorities themselves often broke the rules.
The prerequisite for rule of law is that the government must obey the laws. When the government does not obey the laws, any promises that it will uphold the rule of law become empty.
The generally negative political atmosphere, and especially the COVID 19 situation, led to increased reports of hate speech on social media. Most pertained to hate speech targeting ethnic and political belonging, which was particularly noticeable during and after the early parliamentary elections. Graffiti inciting and spreading hate speech on ethnic and national grounds often “decorate” our streets. Unfortunately, hate speech is also often heard from eminent intellectuals, such as a member of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU) whose Tweet about the corona virus was characterised as nationalist and chauvinist. There were also increased reports of hate speech based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In the Republic of North Macedonia, instead of developing a civil society focused on citizens as individuals with rights and needs, interests, wishes, etc. we keep glorifying collectives. If an individual wants to achieve some right, s/he is usually forced to affiliate with one of the political parties, not according to her/his ideological beliefs or needs, interests and the like, but based on her/his predetermined ethnic belonging.
 This was the first time that two parties from the two political blocs, Albanian and Macedonian, stood for elections together.
 The coalition around SDSM won 46 seats in parliament, VMRO-DPMNE won 44, DUI 15, the Albanian Alliance and Alternative 12, Levica 2 and DPA one.
 The party leader was often accused of spreading hate speech and vying for attention with his indecent, vulgar and scandalising statements.
 He wrote “We pay for coexistence with our lives”, obviously alluding to the Albanian ethnic community.