Serbia’s Structural Problems

 

Photo source: LSE

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

It was in June 2019 when Serbian government launched attacks on the homeless people and tenants in the Balkan country with creation of new laws. 

The Left East reported that a couple of young anti-eviction activists were beaten up, allegedly by some right-wing elements inside the Novi Sad university campus. More than seven hundred people had gathered at the university. As per Masina, the draft of the amendments imposes new fines on tenants over their defaulted rents, and legitimises the actions of private enforcement officers during evictions.

In response, activists from the group, Roof Over One’s Head, had protested at Novi Sad and Belgrade against the attacks on housing activists. They also demanded the withdrawal of the upcoming amendments to the Law on Enforcement and Security which would legitimise forceful evictions.

Forceful evictions had become a norm in Serbia in 2019. The country had witnessed widespread protests in May that year after a tenant, Ljubica Stajic, committed suicide at her apartment in Železnik from which she was supposed to be evicted. Hundreds of youths, especially students from the University of Novi Sad, participated in the protests. Such an increased participation of university students irked the pro-government right-wing factions within the university, and its neighbourhood. As a result, they have said to have led to the attack on the housing activists.

 “Serbia urgently needs a national law on housing that fosters non-discrimination and inclusion and that complies with its international human rights obligations. And, once adopted, this law must be implemented without delay”, stated the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha.

This housing crises actually goes back to decades. It was in the early 1990s when Serbia’s large public housing stock was privatised and sold to individuals and families at symbolic prices, which explains the high rate of home-ownership. However, homeownership does not guarantee adequate housing. Homeowners and renters alike indicated that heating, electricity bills and other housing charges are simply unaffordable.

Farha also noted that that the courts in Serbia have yet to fully embrace international human rights law, and have failed to ensure access to legal remedies for violations of the right to adequate housing. This is very troubling. Serbia has an obligation to ensure that housing is protected as a legal right for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. For some Serbs, however, these protests are increasingly seen as part of an opposition attempt to grab power. 

Srdan Atanasovski, a member of the socialist organisation Marks21 and the housing rights collective believes that Serbia is still a divided society, and being anti-Vucic is a cultural position rather than a political one. It, although, has been seen by the opposition as a civilisational struggle.

Some also argue that it was the lack of coherent political vision that enabled Vucic, and other former members of the Milosevic regime to come to power again in the first place, and not ameliorate the crises. Instead of using this for their advantage, the opposition has found it difficult to capitalise on the widespread disappointment, cronyism and a lack of public discussion on the direction of the country, in general, which has also resulted in a brain drain.

Besides instigating more problems for the common Serb, Vucic is also seen as a villain by many, for his political impartiality for Kosovo’s independence, as he was ready to concede to it.

Lily Lynch, editor in chief of the regional Balkanist magazine once said: ‘In the Balkans, politics operates much like a revolving-door where politicians go out one end, and come back in from the other generating a crisis of credibility. Widespread cynicism towards politicians who promise change but once in power more often than not emulate their predecessors is difficult to overcome.’

In terms of academic criticism, Jelena Zarkovic, associate professor at the faculty of economics, University of Belgrade, has been looking at poverty and inequality in Serbia and the wider Balkans. She believes that Vucic’s austerity programme has led to a worsening economic situation, and that income inequality in Serbia has increased since 2000, and is currently among the highest in Europe.

The 1990’s let Serbia’s structural problems soar because it saw the destruction of all major formal institutions. The emergence of informal ones, went through wars, economic sanctions and isolation by the international community. It ultimately led to unregulated privatisation and misuse of socially and state-owned property.

To counter these protests, Vucic opted to ignore the protests completely between 2018 to 2020, which were on a wide range of issues. He had minimised their significance, hoping that the demonstrations will slowly fade away. He claimed that he would not fulfil any demands even if there were “five million people in the streets,” and he challenged the opposition by calling for early elections in the spring. In response to his statement, protesters have adopted the slogan “one of five million”.

There was some support from academic institutions too, amid these protests. Shortly after Putin’s visit to Belgrade in January 2019, academic staff based at the University of Belgrade, the University of Novi Sad, the University of Niš and the University of Kragujeva voiced their support with an open letter. In the letter they had postulated that the citizens deserved better of what was offered to them.

This kind of institutional support should have been worrying for Vucic as a potential danger, but as the Western democracies were mired with their own problems, and as he is seen largely as a peacemaker in the region, by the international community, the protests died down and had very limited global outrage. It also reflects how much external legitimacy matters in Serbia.


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