The Coronavirus outbreak has changed the world and Serbia. The country we’ve entered is only two months “older” than the one we had before the pandemic, but it is different to a great extent. We are yet to confront the long-term political consequences of the fear with which many citizens are “followed” to the polls. The first consequences of these choices are already confronting us.
Was the quarantine just a transitory condition that we, with the first opportunity to exit it, have collectively forgotten? Or has this time shaped us enduringly? After the quarantine, have we entered a Serbia that’s more autocratic or more democratic? Are we closer to Europe or further away; do we have more solidarity or are we more self-centred, more cordial or distant? What does the time of the Coronavirus mean for the future of Serbian society?
Sociologist Boris Jašović says that we cannot observe Serbia before and after the quarantine beyond the scope of broader global processes that further weaken the democratic potential of the Western world day after day. “This is first and foremost a process of de-sovereignisation, which implies the weakening of the state and its subordination to the interests of corporate capitalism, which has serious ramifications for human rights and freedoms”, says Jašović.
Slobodan Cvejić: The pandemic represented a test of the strength of institutions for each country. We interpreted it as a demonstration of power, while other countries, with good organization, effectively directed the behaviour of their citizens towards a quick exit from emergency measures.
In Serbia the aforementioned processes, as in other dependent countries, are shown in an extremely raw form, notes our interlocutor. “Elections don’t represent a guarantee of the democracy of the system, given that they only serve to legalise the coming to power of this or that local oligarchy, which will then serve the interests of global corporatism. An authoritarian system of government was established in Serbia long before the quarantine, and is characterised by (dis)respect for the constitution, depending on the political will and interests of the ruling oligarchy, passing laws without public debate, re-voting and the complete absence of democratic dialogue, the non-existence of the rule of law etc”, says Jašović.
For this sociologist the state of emergency, police curfew and quarantine show what disciplining citizens and suppressing their freedoms might look like in the future, through regulations and decrees linked to sanctions. “This is about authoritarianism that is moving in the direction of micro-totalitarianism, but within the scope of a larger process of totalitarian transformation of the global social order. In that sense, Serbia is moving away from European values and principles, just as European bureaucracy is also moving away from them, but on the other hand it is getting closer to European bureaucracy with the speed of opening and closing accession chapters.”, says Jašović.
Boris Jašović: The permanent placement of orders via the media during the quarantine period: stay at home, isolate yourself, distance yourself from other people in public spaces, avoid gatherings, stand in line at the prescribed distance etc., show the kind of role that the media can play in any future attempt to discipline citizens
The permanent placement of orders via the media during the quarantine period: stay at home, isolate yourself, distance yourself from other people in public spaces, avoid gatherings, stand in line at the prescribed distance etc., show the kind of role that the media can play in any future attempt to discipline citizens warns Jašović. “On the other hand, citizens neither have more solidarity nor are more focused on themselves than they were before the quarantine. They are certainly more distant, but changes can also be expected there, albeit in accordance with the political will and interests of decision-makers. This is also the answer to the question of what the future of Serbian society will be like. Dystopian, with even more openness in abolishing civil rights and freedoms”, concludes our interlocutor.
The pandemic hit the entire globe equally, and we thus became closer to Europe and the world, says Ivana Dimić, author and playwright. „Suddenly we all found ourselves under quarantine.”
The Coronavirus appeared as invisible and deadly. It is frightening for every human being when those closest suddenly become a potentially mortal threat. This makes people more distant and more focused on their most basic self-interest: survival. “But people are different and my experience is that they react more strongly in catastrophic situations, but the same as they usually do: one who is good is even better in difficult circumstances, and one who is bad is even worse”, says Dimić, adding that she would single out fear as the most severe consequence of the pandemic. Fear is worse than any virus, because it renders people helpless, unfree and prone to being easily manipulated she explains. “That’s why I think the most important thing is for everyone individually to fight against the fear within themselves at all times, both as a political being and at deeper levels of existence”, concludes Dimić.
“With us here in Serbia the system is authoritarian and I expect it to become more democratic” adds our interlocutor. “However, the people in our country were simultaneously quite supportive of one another and cordial and were not afraid during the Coronavirus outbreak”.
Ivana Dimić: My experience is that people react more strongly in catastrophic situations, but the same as they usually do: one who is good is even better in difficult circumstances, and one who is bad is even worse
Dimić say that for her it is almost impossible to make predictions for several reasons. “I have a stoic view of the world and am interested in the art of living in the present. Secondly, I have a tendency to generalise, but not in the political field because I’m not familiar with it and am therefore not interested. It is probably for these reasons that I notice phenomena in a different way from how they’re suggested by your questions. I don’t know, thus, what the future of Serbian society will be like. I know that Serbia is a small country and that it will have to fit in. Emil Cioran once said that great nations are subjects of history, while small nations are objects, so history is inevitably devastating for small nations. I hope this philosopher is wrong. We’ll see,” says this author and playwright.
Milan Podunavac, Professor of Political Theory and Political Culture, Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade and Humanities, UDG, believes that the Coronavirus strengthened new despotisms. He divides his thoughts on the impact of the pandemic on societies into three brackets. The first is The pandemic of fear.
“The Coronavirus pandemic that we are still surviving is accompanied by a pandemic of fear”, he explains. A global wave of fear has once again covered the entire world. We live in a “new normality” (Baumann) shaped by “floating fear”. It turns out that fear is nothing more than a common name for a space of insecurity and a field of uncertainty, accompanied by our inability to decipher the sources of danger to which we are exposed. Both citizens and communities are framed by fear. “Our existential insecurity plays an important role in the history of human civilisation. We fear gods, disease, death, loss, power, strangers, the unknown.
There are powerful reasons why battles with fear cannot be won, although it is possible, under special conditions, to avoid the institutionalised (especially political) exploitation of destructive and irrational fears”, says professor Podunavac. All human beings and political communities “organise fear” and arm themselves with instruments and tools to suppress and overcome fear, not only with fences around their houses and city walls, but also similarly with laws. “Institutions, symbols, myths, religion, culture. The history of civilisation is nothing but the “school of courage” as put by Ferrero, says our interlocutor.
The second important aspect is related to political effects of the pandemic of fear. “The pandemic of fear fundamentally changes the notion of politics in modern times”, says Podunavac. There are three tendencies that are particularly admonishing he explains: First, distrust of democracy has grown. Democracy is fragile. Democracy seeks special conditions and civic virtues. They are difficult to generate and even more difficult to maintain. Hence the main problem is not how Montesquieu teaches us how much virtue a republic (democracy) needs, but how to avoid a situation where the republic does not collapse into open despotism.
“That is precisely what’s happening in Serbia”, he underlines. Second is the normalisation of “new despotisms”. This new plague has covered modern political societies, the plague of “new despotisms”, regimes that mock representative, responsible and supervised democracies. The Coronavirus pandemic further legitimised and strengthened the demonstrative effect of the “oligarchic cartel of autocrats” (Xi Ji Ping, Putin, Erdogan, Lukashenko, Orban). “Serbia and Serbian rulers wholeheartedly and openly recommended this autocratic cartel for themselves”, says our interlocutor. According to him, Serbia has not had a worse government in modern history.
Serbia, he explains, has had the misfortune of giving birth to the two most regressive regimes in modern Europe in the last fifty years (Milošević, Vučić). It is the only post-communist country in which political restoration is underway. On the backs of an impoverished, politically subjectivised and degraded people grew tyrannical and autocratic rule. The ochlocratic government dressed the political society of Serbia in an anti-democratic and anti-European suit. Third is hubris, the insatiable urge of those in power for political might. Pericles was carried away by the plague.
Milan Podunavac: Democracy seeks special conditions and civic virtues, and they are specific under conditions of fear. But the Stoics teach us that, alongside fear, courage is also among the strongest human impulses and public virtues.
The hubris of the political leaders who succeeded him, coupled with irrational and destructive fear that is permanently produced and renewed, destroyed the moral and physical foundations of the Athenian state. Political life in Serbia shows exactly these qualities. The insatiable desire for power, strengthened by an existential fear brought to us by the pandemic, displays self-destructive properties. Political order is growing that increasingly collapses into a state of lawlessness, anarchy and insecurity. We are seeing the destruction of social, political and symbolic “security tools” with which society fights against the destructive effects of fear and disorder, professor Podunavac adds. The space of freedom and human rights has been replaced by the imposed form of a police state and “naked life” (Agamben). At work is a special and dangerous symbiosis of the fear of the rulers and the fear of the citizens. The civil theology of society has been destroyed, the unifying principles that legitimise power structures and strengthen the connective tissue of the political body of society have been lost. The pandemic of fear has additionally enabled the holders of power to turn such a veil of quasi-legitimate rule into open usurpation. It is being forgotten that the government that usurps the freedom and power of citizens is a “house on the sand” (Constant).
However, we should not forget the importance of civic courage, says our interlocutor. We learn from the Stoics that fear and courage are the strongest human urges. Courage is the oldest and most powerful public virtue. Civic courage is the first virtue of democratic societies. Political and democratic institutions are both equally resources and goals for liberation from fear. Among the basic freedoms that people strive for to make their lives complete, freedom from fear is both a means and an end. Nations and communities that want to build orders in which liberal and democratic institutions are firmly established must learn to free their minds from apathy and fear. A society chained by fear is an unfree society.
“Courage is the second face of order, and hence a pillar of dignity, equally of communities and citizens”, says our interlocutor. “The culture of protest that’s formed by new actors of civil society and autonomous civil and academic groups are mainstays of the “culture of hope” and the source of shaping an alternative hegemonic project that returns Serbia to its original values of democracy and the political idea of Europe.”
Indeed, during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all countries in the world were confronted by the challenge of needing to abruptly change the regular way of the society and economy’s functioning on a daily basis, says Slobodan Cvejić, professor of sociology at the University of Belgrade and member of the Council of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM). “But not everyone defined their response to this challenge in the same way”, our interlocutor underlines.
News arrived from some telling of the significant usurpation of civil liberties and concentration of power, in parallel with high numbers of infected and deceased, while other countries effectively stabilised the first blow with good organisation and the well directed behaviour of their citizens towards a quick exit from emergency measures. The pandemic, thus, concludes professor Cvijić, represented a test of the strength of institutions for each country.
“Here it is important to emphasise that the term strong institutions does not mean institutions that are ready to use force to achieve a result, because the alarming nature of the crisis situation easily called for just such a reaction. In this situation the strong institutions are those that enable an efficient search for solutions, easy coordination, the optimisation of resources, transparent work and quick decision-making”, our interlocutor notes.
“In this sense, the Covid-19 pandemic emphasised all the controversies and contradictions of social development in Serbia”, says Cvijić. “In a country torn between efforts to strengthen its own international position in an era of intense change in global power relations, on the one hand, and deep internal political divisions and economic inequalities, on the other, it has not been easy to mobilise resources, define appropriate political action and encourage citizens to act responsibly during the quarantine”. He emphasises an important dimension.
“The authorities in Serbia opted for a tougher, more authoritarian approach. They declared a state of emergency, and not an emergency situation, a curfew was introduced very early on, and the army was deployed on the streets. Some moves can even be characterised as unnecessary demonstrations of power, such as the suspension of the work of the parliament and the declaration of a state of emergency by the triumvirate (president, prime minister and national assembly speaker). Because of this, many media outlets and international organisations placed Serbia on the list of countries that significantly restricted democracy during the time of the pandemic”, says Cvijić.
“The way in which the state of emergency was managed, and the way in which it was presented and used in the media, further reduced Serbian citizens’ already lagging trust in institutions. This weakness also impacts on the behaviour of citizens. Since the fight against the pandemic was based more on coercion than on the responsibility and solidarity of citizens, it is not surprising that with the easing of measures introduced during the state of emergency most citizens don’t show enough responsibility and the solidarity that’s much needed to overcome the pandemic”. He concludes: this is the result with which all of us together in Serbia are entering the next phase in the development of the pandemic, in a period in which its full effect on population movements, the economy, employment and the economic position of citizens can be expected.