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Can the left grow stronger out of the political crisis in Serbia?

Irena Pejic, Mar 2024

Serbia is in the middle of a serious political crisis, resulting in an unusually high intensity of events and political turmoil in the public sphere. This is exhausting and overwhelming for both political actors and the public, making it sometimes difficult to see beneath the surface and keep track of all that is happening.

This crisis has been going on for several years, with each year being marked by several electoral processes – regular parliamentary elections, extraordinary ones, municipal elections, elections in the capital, and others. Every year, the authoritarian government uses the new electoral cycle to secure a new mandate for itself and its interest networks, but also to weaken the opposition, which is at the brink of exhaustion financially and in terms of infrastructure and human capacity – every electoral cycle. The government thus survives by means of a constant pre-election campaign, manoeuvring through the numerous affairs it creates. Serbia has sadly reached a point where it can only get worse – and this has been evident in the politics of the last years.

Serbia against violence protests 2023. Photo credits: Mašina

In May 2023, this political crisis was painfully felt as two mass murders took place consecutively: the first one was carried out by a 13-year-old in a primary school in the centre of Belgrade, the second in a village near the capital. A total of 20 teenagers and children were killed and many more were wounded.

These events resulted in total societal paralysis for a moment. In the following weeks and months, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets in protests under the banner “against violence”. It was said that these crimes were tied to the normalisation of violence resulting from Serbia’s war history with neighbouring countries that, over the years, justified and edified power abuses, corruption, crime and evasion of responsibility as commonplace praxis of the state apparatus. 

Serbia against violence protests 2023. Photo credits: Mašina

The first protests mobilised up to 60,000 people, who first marched in silence and in subsequent protests with clear demands. The government ignored these demands and continued to persecute political opponents and young activists who openly joined political parties in protests. However, elections were scheduled for the end of the year. The pressure on the government was high, and it was clear that Belgrade would be taken over by the opposition gathered around the “Serbia against Violence” coalition. 

However, the announcement of the election results led to a new crisis. Numerous recordings from polling stations on election day, testimonies from citizens, and reports from domestic and international observation missions testified to outright election theft. This was followed by new protests, arrests of citizens trying to enter the Belgrade City Assembly and a hunger strike by opposition representatives. The ruling party brushed off the crisis with its usual cynicism – and they can, they have all the levers of power at their disposal for this: money, control of the media, the majority that writes and votes on the laws.

Protest after elections, Belgrade City Assembly, December 2023. Photo credits: Mašina

But change is on the horizon. Although the political scene in Serbia is predominantly right or centre leaning, progressive actors are becoming more visible and stronger over time. There are several explicitly green and left-wing organisations in Serbia, but only the few that are consistent with progressive policies manage to survive and grow, bringing to the political scene not only new ideas, but also a new approach to politics.

These are new municipalist, grassroots movements for the defence of natural resources, but also left-wing organisations focused on workers’ rights and economic policy. Among them is the once grassroots movement Don’t Let Belgrade Drown, now known as the Green Left Front party, which is experiencing tremendous growth. Their rise is the result of many years of dedicated activism on mainly green and urban issues, but also of pragmatic decisions and good assessments of where to direct and strengthen capacities. Other, less visible leftist organisations work in networks – from local initiatives in smaller towns like Local Front Kraljevo to the Platform Solidarity, which bring together more radical leftist groups of people who carry out numerous actions and protests against issues like the adoption of anti-labour laws, lack of safety at work and the privatisation of public and natural assets. All of them participate, according to their capacities, in the parliamentary struggle, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. 

Local Front Kraljevo, 2023. Photo credits: Mašina

In an essentially hybrid authoritarian society, it is no small task to have progressive actors in the republican parliament, people who talk about public goods, climate change, poverty and labour rights from a left-wing perspective. For a country like Serbia, where left-wing politics were demonised upon the fall of socialist Yugoslavia, these issues are slowly but surely returning to politics. This is partly due to the new left as well as green movements and organisations operating in the political space in Serbia, but also to decades of progressive civil society movement organising coupled with the apparition of rare progressive media outlets.

After the election theft (which the government still does not recognise), new elections have been announced in the capital for June this year. There is a chance that the opposition coalition “Serbia against violence”, along with the Green-Left Front – undoubtedly the political force that’s grown the most in the capital – will take power. The opinion polling and voting predictions are definitely on their side, but the question is how they will be able to fight against new election theft. Campaign preparations have begun, and there are already numerous reports of a temporary migration of the population to the capital to vote in the local elections.

Serbia against violence coalition for parliamentary elections 2023. Photo credits: Mašina

Not only are progressive actors entering the institutions, but they are also staying active in the streets. Protests and pressure on the authorities do not cease with movements entering mainstream politics – the struggle for a better society is waged on both fronts. We should therefore not forget all the battles that are being fought besides fair electoral conditions, such as the numerous campaigns for the defence of natural resources throughout Serbia, the protests against sexual violence and harassment, against police brutality, against privatisations or labour exploitation and for better working and living conditions for all people, which include fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community too.

But where there are opportunities, there are also traps. Although progressive forces in Serbia are becoming more robust in their action and influence of serbian politics, their growth does not give them a majority to govern, leading to the creation of broad coalitions where ideological and policy alignment is not to be taken for granted. This can pose trouble to having a leftist (or centre-left) alternative to the current right-wing government, especially as important topics for the Serbian society still present divide within these broad coalitions – as for example, the debate on entering the EU. Nevertheless, there is a consensus on the priority – to replace the current government. It remains to be seen whether progressive actors will manage to stay true to their values and become the alternative.