One-on-one | Serbia

Miran Pogačar: There’s no change without an open confrontation

By - 21.12.2020

Novi Sad-based activist talks about protesting, seething anger and the need to organize.

The year 2020 will, of course, be remembered for the pandemic — the fears and uncertainty, the lockdowns and restrictive measures, and the countless personal struggles and conflicts we’ve endured as we’ve sought to cope with an imposed lack of freedoms. 

However, not even in times like these have the rebels across the region taken a back seat.

They have refused to give up on protesting or speaking out in public, fighting legal battles or various other forms of exercising democracy in practice — fighting for rights and liberties for all. Undaunted, they have continued to challenge those in power, seeking accountability and above all, demanding change.

In order to learn what motivates citizens across the region to take the lead in the fight against various injustices, K2.0 has identified six rebels living around us in the region. They are the people who stand firm against the many absurdities of life in the Balkans and continue the fight, often with the odds seemingly stacked against them and in the face of personal threats and abuse. 

Of course, there are many more rebels, as reasons for dissent are endless. But those selected for this series represent a diverse group of individuals and issues; people who have taken one step further, mobilized others and found a way to achieve change in their respective fields. 

K2.0’s rebel from Serbia, Miran Pogačar, is an activist who is part of the group, “Združena akcija Krov nad glavom,” (Joint action: A Roof Overhead) that combats eviction and calls for solidarity with the families at risk of being kicked out of their flats or houses. He is also actively engaged in numerous other citizen initiatives in Serbia. 

The whole region heard of Pogačar earlier in 2020 when — immediately after making a statement to the press — he was arrested during the four days of anti-government protests in Novi Sad.

Milan Pogačar sees a chance for a change in every crisis. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

K2.0: This has definitely been one of the most turbulent years in the “recent history of Serbia.” What particular event or events would you single out?

Miran Pogačar: It has been, not only for Serbia, but for the entire world. COVID-19, the galloping pandemic crisis, Black Lives Matter, Belarus and the July protests in Serbia were some of this year’s defining events, to name just a few. No country was left unscathed by some sort of upheaval, either because of the pandemic, economic decline or mass protests.

What’s looming is more of a process than an individual event — an inevitable collapse of the current world order and state systems we live in.

Why do you think it’s a collapse?

Every crisis — right now, it’s a combined economic and health crisis — exposes the defects of the system that have been present for a long time, but are only more apparent now. Crisis is a chance to realize that change is necessary; a chance to bring it about sooner.

Just like you rise through the ranks fast, but perish even faster in war, it’s up to us whether we’re going to seize the opportunity and change our government now that it’s on its knees — or remain taken aback and unprepared.

You were arrested at the demonstrations held earlier in the summer. Back then, we witnessed both police brutality and the lack of accountability. Did this surprise you at all and what message did it send?

I wasn’t surprised that people took to the streets and rebelled against the way the government was rolling out emergency measures. The schizophrenic pageant of introducing measures and then doing away with them while the numbers of cases and death toll were being manipulated was silly and tragic at the same time.

Time and again I am astounded to see people who still have faith in the judiciary, law, institutions and state.

To a certain extent, I was surprised by the brutal response of the police because they had more or less kept to the sidelines when it comes to occasional political clashes and skirmishes, but now they went at the people without any consideration or control whatsoever. The fact that no one has answered for the brutality is the current government’s operational model as well as an indicator of its haughtiness.

Time and again I am astounded to see people who still have faith in the judiciary, law, institutions and state. Aleksandar Vučić proves that he and “his lot” are above the law, which applies only to their opponents.

For all of us who felt the batons, gobbled up tear gas and watched that carnival of police violence and brutality unfold, the message is clear: Another level of repression has been reached, all with the aim of turning people away from rebelling and voicing their discontent in the streets.

It’s an attempt by the police and the authorities to confirm the ongoing passivity and general sluggishness; to confirm that no protest or rebellion works since anyone who even dares to take it up is given a beating, fined or put in jail. The use of force lays bare the government’s inability to solve problems. In spite of such repression, challenges are yet to come and more people will take to the streets, because it’s almost impossible to expect that anything would change here without an open confrontation.

Do you think the past year could be some kind of turning point where citizens will finally voice their discontent? Do you see the possibility of articulating this discontent?

Since 2017, we’ve been taking to the streets every year. It clearly shows that we have no other way to express our anger and discontent.

During the lockdown, activists from “Krov nad glavom” formed a solidarity network to support those in need. Photo: Courtesy of “Za Krov nad glavom.”

It’s often said that the country needs some new, young people who were not in power or any political party. This is required indeed, but it’s not enough. Apart from young blood, we need a new policy, clearly articulated and formulated; something people could trust and have hope in.

Such a policy would be spirited and contain the ideas of justice, solidarity and equality. It has to guarantee access to quality education and healthcare for everyone; freedom of information and the right to have everyone’s voice heard; environmental protection as the central principle of all modern political agendas; a home for every individual and family, and that no one is hungry.

Without a fundamental thread, without anticapitalism, all of these ideas fall short and are stuck with the previously seen political solutions. That’s why it’s indispensable to have a clear alternative to capitalism based on the aforementioned ideas and principles.

How much potential do you see among the given options?

The protests that have been happening for years now are a reflection of the lack of alternative and choice. If some political party or movement gained popular support, the situation in our country would be much different and we could organize to stand up against Vučić and his regime.

Next year might be crucial since the coronavirus is still going to be here. Meanwhile the number of people dismissed from their jobs will skyrocket. Accordingly, the current government will come under mounting pressure.

The crisis will last for years — there’s no doubt about that — so we have to take it upon ourselves to build political options (parties, movements), and open up various fronts in order to eventually oust the government responsible for deepening the economic inequality in our country. Where more and more people are unequal, while few are content.

Street protests are just one of the ways that Pogačar rebels. Photo: Courtesy of “Za Krov nad glavom.”

In your opinion, how big is the risk of the right wing as well as the pro-fascist organizations — which are comparatively feckless for now, but we know how crises can give them a boost — growing stronger?

The proliferation of right wing and openly pro-fascist organizations is nothing new. It’s been happening for more than two decades in Europe and the rest of the world alike. There’s a rule, almost an axiom: When economic inequality is on the rise, when the future becomes uncertain, xenophobia and the need to close borders — to blame others for everything bad that’s happening to us — are rising as well.

It’s no different in our country, although the peculiarity here is the current government’s “success” in sowing discord on the right wing — one part of it is under control of the Srpska Napredna Stranka [the Serbia Progressive Party, the ruling political party], while the other is looking for its new vojvoda (leader).

Everyone who aspires to oppose the rise of the right wing and its unbridled xenophobia in any way should work toward organizing political forces that are ready for physical confrontation. If a popular front is set up, the government will have serious difficulties in coming up against the demands and policies espoused by such an organized political force.

In parallel with all these “big” developments, people are still being kicked out of their houses and flats due to ostensible debts and sale scams despite the [pandemic]. It seems that [executors, who evict people] have become more unscrupulous than before. Why? How realistic is the prospect of executors becoming even more aggressive with the crisis worsening?

That’s one of the most lucrative, but dirtiest and most immoral jobs in the country. Executors care only about one thing — their personal gain. As soon as their earnings are at stake, as soon as there’s less work for them, it’s almost certain that the money collection and pressuring methods they resort to will be harsher.

This is already showing during the pandemic as they don’t mind the potential spread of the virus if a large number of people are present while the eviction is underway. They prioritize personal interests over the interests of the common people, who have nowhere to go in these particularly challenging times. Who remain without a roof over their heads in the middle of the winter.

On top of all that, environmental movements are growing stronger, although barely in the nick of time, it seems — when we’re no longer able to breathe, when we’re losing our rivers due to small hydro. Nevertheless, they are more or less delivering. How big is the potential for change in this respect, do you think?

Besides the anti-small hydro campaign — which has notched up a few victories — there are also other environmental causes focused on the protection of the Fruška Gora national park, the Košutnjak [forest park], the battle against air pollution in Smederevo and many other initiatives.

Ecology is one of the most important issues of the 21st century indeed. Because, if we’re left with no air to breathe or water to drink, how are we going to survive? These movements are based on obvious, concrete concerns, in most cases bringing together a community with the aim to defend a public good from investors and the state itself.

In order to survive and thrive, environmental initiatives ought to go beyond the narrow, local framework and broaden the context of their engagement, which automatically leads to politics.

One of the greatest concerns is that these movements or groups refuse to call things what they are, to acknowledge that their struggle is a political one in its broadest and most accurate sense, as well as that the decision regarding their cause is entirely political at its core. It’s absolutely understandable that no one — not even [members of environmental initiatives themselves] — wants to be used by the worn out political figures and parties, which is precisely the reason why people tend to distance themselves from politics.

But, in order to survive and thrive, environmental initiatives ought to go beyond the narrow, local framework and broaden the context of their engagement, which automatically leads to politics; that’s the only place where their problems can be solved. The issue of environmentalism is always a political issue, whether some admit it or not.

How realistic is the prospect of all these movements coming together to form a single, common cause, not only against the current government, but also against the exploitation of people and natural resources?

It is realistic, and indispensable, I believe. All of us need a unified story, picture, a narrative of a society we’d want to live in.

Considering the myriad differences present in every society, our actions — even if joint — will be in vain if we don’t agree on our core vision. It’s not enough to be against Vučić, as many people say. We should know what we’ll have after the current government leaves office, and that has to guarantee a life worth living in our country.

Is it possible to look at Serbia and all these rebellious causes without paying attention to the neighborhood or uniting for different reasons, but primarily over the aim to protect lives and basic living conditions?

Each time you look over the fence, you see that circumstances in other countries are not that different from ours. The supreme leader, the local sheriff, criminal and politician… It’s always the one and the same person, everywhere — be it in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia or any other neighboring country.

Those in power and criminals from all the mentioned countries are as close as brothers and they cooperate very well. They’ve got their own “trade union,” they’ve got common interests and they know exactly what they’re doing. For them, this is a win-or-lose situation, just like it is for all of us. It’s a matter of survival.

In the end, all that’s left for us is to start understanding it as a genuine fight. Not to dread it, but to admit to ourselves and to others that this is the only way to make a stand and win.K

Feature image: Dejan Kožul.