On 21 December 2008, a meeting took place between Serbia’s Interior Minister, Ivica Dačič, and Rodoljub Radulović, commonly known by his nickname “Banana.” Radulović, a wealthy associate of fugitive drug lord Darko Sarič, discussed business dealings with Dačič at his stately Belgrade home, and gifted him with a Blackberry smartphone, which he had received several days before from Sarič specifically as a gift for “that guy of his.” During the whole jaunt, Serbian police had Radulović under close surveillance, as a suspect in the drug ring responsible for smuggling more than 1.8 tons of cocaine into Europe via Serbia.
Today, Ivica Dačič, the leader of Serbia’s Socialist Party, is Serbia’s Prime Minister, in coalition with President Tomislav Nikolić’s Progressive Party. The accusations of corruption against Dačič have forced him on the political defensive as Deputy Prime Minister Aleksander Vučič leads a hugely popular and very public anti-corruption campaign. While the act of the Prime Minister meeting with a known criminal seems like a groundbreaking scandal, it is unfortunately all too common in Serbia.
Serbia has seen significant ups and downs in the past twenty years. The 1990s were a time of horrific conflict, as the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia imploded, riven with rising ethno-nationalism, a messy transition to democracy, and a terrible economic crisis. Former neighbors fought each other as the Yugoslav government – now dominated by Serbian nationalists – attempted to hold the country together by force. All sides committed massive war crimes, NATO was forced to intervene, and the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995, granting independence to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Increasingly brutal Serbian repression of Albanian separatists in its southern region of Kosovo, elicited an international response. The United States intervened in 1998, launching air strikes on Serbia, including on it’s capital Belgrade, forcing its security forces out of Kosovo.
The effects of these long years of war on Serbia were dire. Unlike the other former Yugoslav republics that had begun to democratize, Serbia remained under the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic suppressed opposition, wasted and stole millions, and condoned and supported the actions of ultranationalist gangs implicated in horrific war crimes. Growing unrest in Serbia culminated in late 2000 with the “Bulldozer Revolution,” a peaceful uprising of the Serbian population against Milosevic, forcing him to call off elections for December and immediately resign. In April 2001, Milosevic was arrested and sent to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes, amidst many other Serbs.
Following the overthrow of Milosevic, it seemed as though Serbia’s future was bright. The 17-party Democratic Opposition of Serbia swept the December elections, bringing Zoran Đinđić, a former dissident and professor of philosophy, to the Prime Minister’s office. Đinđić launched liberalizing economic reforms; and as a condition of Serbia being considered for ascension to the European Union, aggressively pursued Serb war criminals and members of the Serbian Mafia. However, this last part of his platform would be his downfall. On 12 March 2003, under orders from Milorad Ulemek, a former member of Milosevic’s secret police, an officer in the unit, and a member of the Serbian Mafia gunned down Đinđić on his way to a meeting with Sweden’s foreign minister.
Political chaos ensued. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for Đinđić’s funeral as Serbia’s politicians scrambled to campaign in the wake of the death of the popular leader. With Đinđić’s death, the reformist opposition fragmented, allowing the ultranationalist Radical Party to surge ahead and become the largest party in parliament in the 2003 elections. However, the Radicals, ostensibly led by Vojislav Šešelj but in fact dominated by Tomislav Nikolić due to Šešelj’s arrest for war crimes, failed to form a government, as opposition parties formed a coalition. Following this, Boris Tadić, a pro-European moderate, leader of the Democratic Party, and George Clooney doppelganger beat Nikolić in the 2004 presidential elections.
Since 2004 though, Serbia has seen political dysfunction and decline from the heady, if chaotic, days following the Bulldozer Revolution. While Tadić narrowly won the 2008 presidential and parliamentary election against Nikolić, he is no saint; under his premiership, corruption surged, the economy remained stagnant and Serbia came little closer to decent relations with its neighbours. The West was singularly unhelpful in supporting Tadić. While substantive moves towards ascension to the EU, aid for Serbia’s struggling economy, and a more balanced policy on Kosovo would have helped validate Tadić’s policies of engagement with the West, he was instead left embarrassingly empty-handed, extraditing Serbs to The Hague and implementing painful neoliberal economic reforms for vague promises.
These disappointments, along with broad Western recognition of Kosovo’s declaration of independence – a move seen as perfidious by the Serbian public – led to a steady revival of the nationalist right. The new Progressive Party, formed following a dispute between Nikolić and Šešelj, increasingly led the nationalist bloc. In 2012, in coalition with a number of small parties, Tomislav Nikolić swept into power as President, while forming a coalition with the Socialists in parliament, placing Ivica Dačič, a former protégé of Milosevic, in charge as Prime Minister.
Today, Serbia sits at a crossroads after over two decades of near-constant crisis. With the endless betrayals of the people by Serbia’s political elite and by the West, Serbia faces economic and demographic decline, a disillusioned populace, and political dysfunction. If a corruption scandal of this magnitude is what is necessary to shake Serbia’s political class and population out of their stupor of crisis exhaustion, so be it. It is what Serbia needs.
– Alex Langer
(Featured photo: Christopher Robbins, Creative Commons, Flickr; Photo 1: European External Action Service – EEAS, Creative Commons, Flickr; Photo 2: President of the European Council, Creative Commons, Flickr)