Perspectives | Serbia

The Potemkin facade of Vučić’s rule

By - 23.09.2021

The pre-election awakening of Serbian nationalism.

For the first time ever, the Serbian school year started this September with the mandatory playing of the national anthem. The night before school started in Novi Sad, numerous building facades and public institutions were painted with the colors of the national flag. The paint job, covering dozens of meters of facade, is legally speaking a form of vandalism, but despite the many instances of such acts, the police have mysteriously failed to identify the perpetrators.

At the same time, Belgrade is working to catch up with Skopje in terms of the aesthetics of its monuments devoted to medieval rulers and other historical figures. The Serbian National Assembly has also adopted, in an accelerated process, a Law on the Protection of the Serbian Language and Cyrillic Script, which has significantly broadened the circle of institutions obligated to use Cyrillic. Now, alongside state institutions, this rule applies to economic entities with majority public funding, and the logos of cultural events with public funding must also be in Cyrillic, despite the Serbian language functioning perfectly well in both Latin and Cyrillic.

The day of the breakthrough on the Salonica Front in World War One, September 15, was recently declared a new state holiday, the Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom and the National Flag. Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković has invited Serbs to display Serbian flags “wherever they live.”

Are we witnessing a new great national “awakening” of Serbia?

“The Serbian world”

The question makes sense: in the part of Europe with a chronic surplus of history and a deficit of geography, “national awakenings” often have the inconvenient trait of negatively affecting the lives and property of those who don’t fit into those identities. That is why Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandar Vulin created many worried and angry reactions throughout the region when he started promoting the newly coined idea of the “Serbian world,” which he sees as a united “political and state area.”

Reactions from throughout the region have identified in this idea the repurposing of notions of “Greater Serbia,” seeing “a euphemism for the old ethnic-ideological-conquest policy.” Public figures in Serbia who interpreted the term favorably have, unlike Vulin, mostly stuck to the framework of culture, religion, language and identity but others are inclined to label criticism of the term as chauvinistic or domestic treason.

But what do the citizens of Serbia think about this inflation of national awareness?

Lo and behold, Aleksandar Vučić, who claims that he never used this new term, did a similar thing, attacking Vulin’s critics, saying that such people “easily label Serbs as fascists, and everyone else as their friends.”

But what do the citizens of Serbia think about this inflation of national awareness? 

As always, when talking about entire nations, we should distinguish spontaneous processes from political projects. A mere cursory glance at the list from the first paragraph leads us to conclude that behind everything stands the state apparatus and the current government. However, this doesn’t mean that these decisions don’t have immense public support.

Still, citizens in Serbia aren’t paving the path for or directing any process ― they can only choose whether they want to participate in the theater conveyed to us picturesquely by Aleksandar Šapić, member of the Main Council of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

“We are witnessing the birth of a new Serbia, militarily stronger, economically stable, positioned wisely in geopolitical affairs,” Šapić said, “and at the same time nationally and identically awakened, with the founder and creator of this modern Serbia and its first ideologue being Aleksandar Vučić.”

Right-wing criticism

Inadvertently, Šapić’s idolizing panegyric summarizes the whole point of the current national mania for grandeur. The Potemkin facade of Vučić’s rule has grown to the point that it no longer encapsulates only the present time and the state he governs autocratically, but also extends to all Serbs and all of history.

This isn’t only about an overblown ego or politically radical roots. Presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in Serbia next year, and the reason why nationalism ― and not, say, alleged economic progress ― has become the central platform on which Vučić intends to beat the opposition is quite prosaic.

After nearly 10 years of SNS government, only scraps remain of the formerly civic and (at least, nominally) liberal political alternatives, in part thanks to their inability to reform their own ranks and admit previous mistakes, and in part because SNS controls almost the entire state apparatus and media. Only opposition parties who criticize Vučić from the right remain, there are none coming from liberal or leftist positions.

Nationalism for most politicians has been set as the only dish on the menu. It has become a part of local political decorum without which they are doomed to marginality. Kosovo has long been a topic that cannot be discussed outside the generally affirmed dogma, while the current political crisis in Montenegro is treated through the black and white lens of “Serbs against Milo Đukanović,” and any kind of nuanced approach is confronted with negative reactions from all directions.

At the same time, economic topics such as balancing the budget go unnoticed, suggesting that issues with a daily impact on the living standard of citizens are of secondary importance for both the political class and citizens themselves, who are mainly treating politics as a popularity contest for leaders, putting aside the fact that the political process can be influenced outside of elections.

Aleksandar Vučić built his entire career on the chauvinist narrative of “us versus them” and “we're the best.” It will be difficult to beat him on those grounds.

Opposition parties, such as the ultra-right-wing Dveri led by Boško Obradović and the populist People’s Party led by Vuk Jeremić, thus rely more openly on nationalism than SNS does, highlighting topics like historical revisionism, xenophobia and the inevitable not giving up on Kosovo.

In the irony of fate, Vučić, the never-truly-reformed former general secretary of the chauvinistic Serbian Radical Party and the longtime right-hand man of Vojislav Šešelj ― a warmonger convicted in The Hague for crimes against humanity ― today faces accusations that he isn’t enough of a nationalist because he negotiates with Prishtina about border lines and meets with Angela Merkel and other leaders of NATO member states.

But Aleksandar Vučić built his entire career on the chauvinist narrative of “us versus them” and “we’re the best.” It will be difficult to beat him on those grounds, especially with the resources currently at his disposal.

Nationalism is an exceptionally efficient political tool because it naturally generates outside and inside enemies, be they real or imaginary. And where there are enemies, there is always national homogenization, most often around a strong leader. Ideally, somebody who is “building modern Serbia” adorns it with flags and weapons, offers up an entire “Serbian world” through his colleagues, and along the way uses tabloids to hint that enemies wince when they hear the expression.

Do you know such a person?

You sure do.

Feature photo: Press Center of The President of the Republic of Serbia.


This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.