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/From our special correspondent in Serbia./
When you go to the Balkans, you almost always feel like you’ve been transported back in time. Many a heart will dance over the nature there, but after closer contact with cities and people comes a hard encounter with a slightly different reality of life in places where a bloody war raged in the 90s.
Serbia is no exception. Like other Balkan countries, it is struggling with a bad economic situation. Added to this are problems with corruption, non-functioning state institutions and limited freedom of the press.
“Life here is not exactly great, rather average to below average. Moreover, the situation in Belgrade is completely different from the rest of the country, because here the standard of living is still within an acceptable standard. It’s much more difficult in the rest of the country,” 25-year-old Mihailo tells me in the capital, adding that the problem is the people at the helm and their desire for power.
“When you come here as a tourist, you can do a lot of things, try a lot of food and enjoy the nightlife. Normal day-to-day life is nevertheless somewhat difficult, as systems such as administration, judiciary or health care do not work very well here. Everything is falling apart,” he adds during our interview in Tašmajdan Park, where he is waiting for his girlfriend.
Basically everyone I meet during my stay in Serbia agrees with him. While some are lucky and happy with their situation, there are many around them who are struggling. Or even those who decided to go abroad.
“The economic situation is quite bad, and for many years the political one as well,” describes the situation at home to Mihail as well as 30-year-old Ivan. “My friends, but not only them, leave here to look for a better life in, for example, Germany, Austria or Switzerland. But they would like to return here one day, perhaps in their old age.”
Although the idea of returning to one’s native country at retirement age is romantic, the prospects for retirement are not exactly rosy. When I learn in the north-east of the country in the village of Kruščica that the locals receive a pension of only about 120 euros, i.e. less than 3,000 crowns, I have to make sure that I understood correctly.
Elections behind the door
Sunday and the associated general elections, in which Serbian voters will choose the parliament, the leadership of the autonomous region of Vojvodina and dozens of city councils, could appear as a chance for change.
Serbs will go to the polls less than two years after the last parliamentary elections, and many are looking at them rather skeptically.
“Vučić’s strategy for maintaining power is constant elections, which have been held five times since his party came to power in 2012, i.e. every two years on average,” writes journalist Una Hajdari in her text for Politico.
“No government has completed a mandate and strategically timed elections divert attention from pressing issues such as protests or tensions with Kosovo, leaving opposition parties constantly on the defensive,” he continues.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is not personally participating in the voting, but he is their main star, and it seems that the hopes of his party’s success again this time are also in place.
Although against Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is a united opposition coalition Serbia against violencein the parliamentary elections polls attribute the victory to the ruling party.
The SNS could suffer a possible loss in the race for the post of mayor of the capital, where some oppositionists, according to the media, have a better chance of succeeding and thus shaking up the dull Serbian political scene. However, this does not change the fact that the opposition faces harsh smear campaigns and the leaking of private videos to the public, which complicates its task.
Serbia and the violence of May
The reason why the political coalition was formed Serbia against violence are the events of the past months, when Serbia experienced two consecutive mass shootings in Belgrade, in which a total of 19 people died. The events sparked a wave of anger and frustration at what many Serbs see as a culture of violence under the leadership of Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party.
Vučić still in the limelight
Experts link the success of Vučić’s party mainly to the media persona of the president himself. It is no secret that there are government-friendly newsrooms in the country, whose reach and influence are certainly not negligible.
Reporters Without Borders has therefore repeatedly condemned the lack of independence and plurality of the Serbian media.
“At the moment there is one ruling party and about 60% of the people vote for that party. Most of them – especially people outside the big cities, people in the countryside – watch only one or two television programs through which the government presents their view of the matter, which is not objective,” shares the young Mihailo’s view of the matter.
Despite growing frustration, Vučić has a lasting electoral advantage in that he continues to be seen as the only leader who is credible and can address the country’s major strategic issues on the international stage. These include, for example, relations with Kosovo and maintaining Belgrade’s diplomatic maneuvering between Russia and the European Union.
For example, fears of regional instability peaked in late September when armed Kosovo Serbs clashed with local police in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo, resulting in four deaths. One of the victims was a police officer, which caused an uproar not only in Kosovo. Meanwhile, in Serbia, it was possible to meet posters mourning the death of the remaining trio.
However, Serbian society is far from black and white. The problems plaguing the locals are much more complex, and the views on the important issues differ.
This is confirmed to me the moment I meet the participants of a small demonstration in front of the parliament building in Belgrade, who have a different view of the world than pro-Western-minded individuals.
They are mainly bothered by the fact that the current leaders do not have Serbia as a priority. “Politicians here work for oligarchs and people with capital who want different things than what ordinary citizens want,” an elderly man explains to me the purpose of the protest.
“We want a new and independent government that will put Serbia first and not be full of lies. No West, No East. Biden is lying, Putin is lying and Macron is also lying,” he doesn’t take napkins.
The world is facing a challenging period next year, which includes the elections to the European Parliament, but also the presidential elections of the United States of America.
As journalist Una Hajdari points out, another mandate for the CIS would spare the West problems in building relations with the new Serbian government at such a tense time. At the same time, this would mean ignoring the decline of democratic standards in the country.
However, the collapse of the CIS would not guarantee a rosy future either. According to Srđan Majstorović, chairman of the board of the non-governmental organization European Policy Center, with whom the Politico server spoke, the Serbian opposition would be in a similar situation as after the Yugoslav wars.
Back then, the country was left in ruins after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, and the West was too eager for immediate results that could not be managed overnight.
This article was created with the support of the BIRN Reporting Democracy program.