Monday, February 7, 2011

Mulling over politics

I haven’t written about Serbian politics for a few weeks and I apologize because there’s much to be discussed. Serbia is in a pretty poor state right now. Between inflation, corruption, troubled citizens, and the complications added by EU integration, the people aren’t happy one bit and yesterday many of them voiced their discontent at a rally in Belgrade organized by Tomislav Nikolic.

Nikolic is the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and he joined together tens of thousands from all over Serbia to protest the current government and call for earlier elections. The elections are scheduled for next year but Nikolic announced yesterday that if the Democratic party doesn’t meet the requests of Nikolic and the SNS in two months he threatened, “in April you'll find me here sitting on the street." Then he added, “I’ll bring Styrofoam so I don’t get cold. And you take Styrofoam, too, if you want to join me.” I’m not so sure about the impact of a sit-in or the warmth of Styrofoam but Nikolic certainly riled up the crowd yesterday who chanted “Thieves!” and “Changes!” and brought signs bearing messages like “Democratic Party, time to go” and “We are hungry.” Basically I’m not sure about how Nikolic would better the situation but the situation is as dire as ever.

There’s a Serbian phrase pas koji laje ne ujeda, a dog that barks doesn’t bite, much like the English equivalent his bark is bigger than his bite, and even though I just learned of Nikolic he appears to demonstrate this proverb. In an interview last week he said he expected a million at the rally and that he didn’t think President Tadic would show up to work on Monday. I’ve heard figures that say 50,000 to 75,000 people attended the protest, a notable but much more modest sum than Nikolic crowed, and as far as I’m aware President Tadic hasn’t taken a holiday. I am not making light this matter, I just don’t like seeing people’s hopes get lifted by a man who was in the same party as Slobodan Milošević, Serbia’s dictator from the nineties. Nikolic worked for Milosevic’s radical party and since its disbandment in 2000 he’s created the Serbian Progressive Party. Progressive gives me the idea of striving to reform and push forward but it’s actually covered with 90s radical roots. And that certainly isn’t of interest to neither Serbs nor the EU.

Speaking of which, the positive political news in Serbia is that the current government submitted a report with the answers of more than 2,400 questions to move their EU application along. The government did this very efficiently in just forty-five days, but it seems to have neglected societal problems and the people aren’t concerned about their status in the EU when they can no longer support their family.

It’s hard to say how much inflation the dinar (Serbia’s currency) has experienced last year, but Ceca gave us a concrete example of an 100 dinar soap that was only 50 dinars last January. This January the government decided to raise prices on controlled items like oil, sugar, flour, coffee, milk, fuel, meat, heating and public transport, and they did so without raising salaries. At all. People need their salaries to increase proportionally just to get by as they were in 2010 (which wasn’t good, mind you) and now everything costs more and they have no additional income to pay for it. Ceca estimated that teachers in Belgrade are paid around 30,000 dinars each month (~$400) and police officers, hospital staff, and pharmacists are paid around 20,000 (~$260). And in Nis and Novi Sad the salaries are lower. Though nearly everything in Serbia is much cheaper than in the States, a family living in Nis, Belgrade, or Novi Sad can barely scrape by with those salaries, if that. Consequently most of the workers from those named professions are on strike right now.

Having elections a year early might change dramatically the position of Serbia in eyes of the EU and US since both back President Tadic and the current Democratic administration which has been working towards EU integration. Though neither has outright said it installing a new regime would no doubt be a step in the wrong direction for Serbia’s EU status. The thing is the election tool is the only way the people know how to improve the situation. Serbia is being tended by both the US and EU and many decisions have been made with their guidance, so the public sees the US, EU, and Democratic party as one and winds up being displeased by them all. I’ve heard more than one person say how democracy didn’t convince them so the best they can do is give someone else a shot.

There’s also a comparison to Serbia in ‘93 being tossed around. Though I don't know specifically what makes this year like that one, I do know the country was being run by a socialist dictator, Milosevic, so times certainly weren't good. I think the main comparison is to the state of the people because of inflation – prices going up and salaries remaining the same, people losing their jobs and not being able to provide for their families. It’s not necessarily a comparison of leadership styles but just the fact that neither government, through the eyes of the public, was/is doing anything for the people.

Another recent victory from the EU’s standpoint is a massive trial of fourteen hooligans who murdered a Frenchman at a football game last year. The trial lasted nine months which was the fastest trial in the history of Serbia’s courts. Between the fourteen men, 240 years of imprisonment were ordered, the leaders of the group receiving 35 and the others receiving between 15 and 20. Before this trial eight years was the strongest sentence a hooligan had received, even for murder. The EU’s biggest complaint with Serbia was the court system and the government mightily pushed this case forward to prove that Serbia can hold a quick and fair trial.

Ceca ended our discussion mentioning saying Serbia's been in a state of crisis for as long as Serbs can remember. Then the world financial crisis struck as the Democratic party took up power in Serbia which created more pandemonium and made it more difficult for them to produce evidence of public-pleasing change. In fact the last time Serbs seem to remember a state with less chaos was under Tito's communism.

Some other suspect happenings in the news of late: The Minister of Health who held his office for eight years, the longest of any current Ministers, resigned last week without an explanation. To bolster hope for the Serbian medical system, President Tadic flew in a Finish doctor to get his Achilles tendon repaired and the Minister of Health himself went to Germany to have a surgery. Another minister, who also served Milosevic, recently stated 120 kilometers of a train from Hungary to Greece running through Serbia would be completed in three months but in the past six years only 50 kilometers have been laid down. For the Serbs it’s simply another lie on a string of deception coming from a government they don’t trust.

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