• Srdjan Majstorovic: Citizens have lost trust in institutions and system

    – The political reality show that is taking place in front of the Assembly of Serbia shows that the government and the opposition still have mutual points of contact – a hunger strike, although each side is taking part in for their own reasons. Why is the “beauty” of a strike a substitute for political action?

    Institutions abandon politics when they recognise their meaninglessness. The ongoing “strikes” very clearly describe the nature of Serbia’s political system, which, according to credible international organisations, is slowly leaving the definitions of democracy. The Assembly should be a place of dialogue between different political options with the goal of alleviating social tensions, and an institution that oversees the executive government. Unfortunately, the Assembly today does not correspond to its description in the Constitution of Serbia and represents only the facade behind which remnants of the democratic political system are hidden. At a time when government officials are on “strike” against the state, the absurdity of the current state of the political system is complete. Unfortunately, such performances increase the risk of conflict spilling over to society at large, and I am not sure that the upcoming elections, in the current conditions, will manage to lower tensions.

    – The government persists in pursuing political pragmatism and populism, and the opposition seems to react from time to time. Why is our public and political life so poisoned?

    The current situation in Serbian politics is the product of a successfully promoted and realised polarisation of our society, as well as a predominantly binary, either “with us or against us” understanding of politics. Democracy, based on liberal principles, should pay special attention to the inclusion of minorities in political processes. Unfortunately, the opposition has not yet found an adequate way to offer valid alternatives and motivate citizens. On the contrary, by condemning those who dared to defend their municipalities in the upcoming elections, many of the opposition got “stuck” in a binary understanding of politics. At this moment, Serbia needs a reset, with effective dialogue about the future and what kind of country citizens want to live in. Unfortunately, the significance of last year’s attempt to establish dialogue on electoral conditions can only be appreciated from today’s toxic perspective.

    – What kind of message do both the government and opposition send to the citizens of Serbia? Do their actions demoralise and frustrate citizens before the upcoming parliamentary elections?

    Serbian politics during the state of emergency clearly showed the extant lack of mutual trust. Due to numerous unresolved scandals and flagrant violations of the principle of government responsibility, citizens have lost their trust in institutions and the system. On the other hand, the government has decided to creatively interpret the constitution and laws, ignore the principles of separation of powers and rule of law, and to express this lack of trust in its own citizens through restrictive measures. The impression is that there is still a certain reserve of democratic energy among citizens who expressed their dissatisfaction with recent “noise protests”. The question is how to articulate this dissatisfaction as a creative political alternative to the current regime. Unclear positions of the opposition parties regarding the participation or boycott of the upcoming elections certainly do not contribute to this.

    -How would you assess changes in the “Boycott-non Boycott” opposition bloc and do you predict that another opposition party will enter the elections, in addition to those who have changed their position and decided that they will enter?

    Successful strategy and tactics for realising political visions must be adapted to the current, on the ground conditions. One gets the impression that the decision adopted by most of the opposition to boycott the elections was premature. When Harold McMillan, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was once asked what factors crucially influence change in politics, he answered with the authority of an experienced politician: “events, boy, events”. An event, or individual situation, can significantly affect the mood and attitudes of citizens. The impression is that the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social consequences are exactly the event that should serve to create dialogue and a meeting point for various options for resetting this dysfunctional system. Instead of taking advantage of the crisis, today, unfortunately, Serbia is rapidly moving towards the “boiling point” after which it will be extremely difficult to bring back politics to institutional flows.

    – Are we sending counterproductive messages to the EU? How strong is our commitment to join the EU?

    Serbia sought to become a member of the EU by submitting a request for membership, whereby it clearly stated its accepting of the values ​​and goals of the Union, as well as the obligations of membership. The conditions for accession are defined in detail before the start of membership negotiations and are generally known to all relevant parties. Some statements by Serbian officials, however, seem confusing and counterproductive. There is an impression that cynical public criticism of the EU masks the delay and non-fulfilment of obligations. This certainly does not bring anything positive to Serbia. The motives for such behaviour are questionable. After the pandemic, Serbia will be even more aware of the EU, and without its support, it is difficult to imagine Serbia’s recovery. In the long run, the ongoing re-examination of attitudes towards EU membership in Serbia benefits sceptics of expansion within the Union, “arming” them with arguments about dishonest candidates whose commitments to common values are in question. The new EU enlargement methodology could offer a new “impulse” to finding mutual trust and credibility.

    – So, it turns out that we are not a mature public or a state with serious social relations and real legitimacy.

    I disagree with this statement regarding the maturity of citizens. Citizens are as “mature” as the state allows them to be. If there are institutions, if there are laws and procedures, and if there are free and critical media organisations, then citizens have the opportunity to make decisions freely and rationally. Authoritarian regimes are based on, and survive with, the fears and insecurities of citizens. In such regimes, institutions and laws are removed as an unnecessary obstacle to “effective” governance. Unfortunately, due to the general polarisation in our society, fear has become the ruling principle that influences the behaviour and attitudes of citizens. Fear of “others” abolishes all our inconveniences. In such circumstances, citizens gradually lose perspective about their own power and role in politics. Laws make citizens equal and institutions protect them from the arbitrariness of politics. Unfortunately, the current lack of trust in institutions and the political system will not be easy to recover.

    – You work in the field of relations in the EU and the Western Balkans and you know a lot about strategies for resolving the issue of Kosovo. In terms of these issues, it seems as if we are at the beginning of facing them again, with the same ideology and status quo prevail again, even though we are aware that such policy is very destructive for Serbian society.

    Despite the generally accepted view that the status quo in relations between Belgrade and Pristina is unsustainable, the fact is that this situation provides numerous political actors with a reason for their existence and survival. Normalisation of relations will not be possible until political credibility is voluntarily, boldly, and sincerely invested in solving this complex challenge. It seems that in the atmosphere of upcoming elections in Serbia, political instability in Kosovo, and the cautious beginning of Mr. Lajcak as the new EU Special Representative for the Western Balkans, this issue will not be resolved by the end of the election campaign in the United States, as was expected in some circles. Substantial normalisation will take much longer. The artificial acceleration of this process, based on non-transparent agreements between political leaders, is detrimental to the legitimacy and sustainability of a future agreement, without which it is difficult to build new Balkan relations and secure the region’s place in the EU.

    Srđan Majstorović is chairman of CEP Governing Board. This interview is originally published in Novi magazin (in Serbian).

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