To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have even known that elections had taken place, if I wasn’t travelling in Serbia on work. But, venture into any one of Belgrade’s taverns or coffee shops and it is these elections rather than the results from Greece and France that dominate the conversation.
Context as always is everything.
The results of the elections here in Serbia won’t be known until later in the week – Thursday at the earliest – but it is likely that President Boris Tadic and his challenger Tomislav Nickolic are heading for a run-off to be held on 20 May.
Serbia has come a long way since the last elections in 2008, even securing EU candidate status in March of this year. Despite such progress one cannot help but pick up on an underlying restlessness.
Unemployment has risen sharply in recent years. It stood at 13.6% in 2008, but it is now a whopping 23.7%. With 55% of its export revenue coming from the EU, Serbia has suffered more than most from the inevitable collapse in orders arising from the Eurozone’s ills.
Politically there is widespread fatigue with Tadic’s ruling democratic party many of whom are seen as corrupt or as having enriched themselves thanks to their proximity to power. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is less enthusiasm for the EU than there was in 2008. Some political commentators openly question whether joining the EU is such a good idea.
Tadic’s challenger Nickolic heads the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Formed in 2008 following a split with the extreme nationalist Serbia Radical Party, the SNS is firmly to the political right of centre.
The SNS says it favours EU integration, but it has always voted against the legislative changes need for EU reforms. In 2010 it refused to support a parliamentary resolution condemning the massacre of some 8,000 Bosniaks after the fall of Srebenica in 1995. Nickolic has often spoken of the need for Serbia to look eastwards to Russia rather than westwards to the EU.
There is much here that is familiar – a growing impatience and frustration with established politics that legitimates more reactionary populist parties. Just as the election results in France and Greece have introduced new uncertainty into the politics of the euro, so the elections in Serbia have the potential to introduce new uncertainty as to the country’s relations with Kosovo and in turn with the EU.
Regardless of who wins on 20 May, most Serbs who I’ve talked to are realistic as to what the future holds and the ability of their ruling class to affect the changes that so many want.
Neither of the two Serbian brothers who drove me the 80 km from Belgrade to Novi Saad voted positively in the election deciding instead to spoil their ballot papers. It is this sense of helplessness and hopelessness both with politicians and the democratic process that Europe should find most worrying.