The Center Holds (Too Much)

When people praise or criticize the centralized planning of the Communist era in East-Central Europe, they focus most of their attention on the “planning” side. The chief vice – or virtue – of this system was its claim to replace the market with a state that could determine prices, dictate supply and demand, own much of the economy, and employ most of the citizens.

The state, it turned out, had a lot of difficulties replacing the market, and all the states in the region have curbed their ambitions. They are now content to regulate, rather than replace, the market.

But that other ambition remains strong among many of the states in the region, namely the “centralized” part of the equation. In contrast to the famous Yeats poem, the center indeed holds in the region, and perhaps holds too much. Budapest, for instance, dominates Hungary. It is home to 20 percent of the Hungarian population, attracts the lion’s share of foreign direct investment, and serves as the center of a transportation system in which all roads lead to the capital. The Czech Republic is similarly centralized around Prague, which overshadows its nearest urban competitor, Brno. The capitals of the region – Sofia, Bucharest, Bratislava – all attract the best and the brightest. And those best and brightest then occupy positions in an elite that monopolizes the political, economic, and cultural life of the country.

Hungary and the Czech Republic are, of course, members of the European Union, and the EU has made decentralization a key component of the accession process. As such, compared to countries further to the east or the Balkans further to the south, the EU members in the region rank rather high on a decentralization index measured according to such factors as civic involvement in local politics, a legal framework that ensures what Europeans like to call subsidiarity (matters should be handled at the least centralized level capable of doing so), and fiscal responsibility.

Serbia is not yet a member of the EU, so it has yet to comply with the decentralization criteria for accession. Moreover, the issue of decentralization is complicated by the two regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina, the former having declared independence and the latter pushing for greater autonomy. But even if you bracket these two issues, Serbia remains a highly centralized state where the capital of Belgrade overshadows everything else.

The most vivid illustration of this dominance, which Mladen Jovanovic told me over a lunch of delicious grilled meats at a traditional kafana in the southern city of Nis, is this: out of every 30 minutes of news on the national TV station, approximately 18 seconds is devoted to news from outside of Belgrade. In other words, if you blink, you could miss what was happening in Nis or Kragujevac or Pirot.

Mladen Jovanovic is the president of the National Coalition for Decentralization (NKD), an organization devoted to increasing civic participation in local politics.

“When we started to work on the issue of decentralization in 2006, nobody was talking about it,” he explained. “Today this is one of the most important political topics, including all the political parties. You can even hear today Progressive Party representatives talking in favor of this. It is amazing! They were the ones who attacked us in 2006 and 2007, telling people that we are trying to break up the country with the idea of decentralization. This is a huge step forward. But everything that is decided in Belgrade actually brings more centralization, whether in the government or in the headquarters of the political parties, so in reality decentralization isn’t happening.”

The EU should be pushing on the decentralization front, but Mladen Jovanovic pointed out that Brussels has been more focused on the economy. “There are a lot of signs from the EU, but the pressure doesn’t exist anymore on this issue,” he said. “I really feel that the European interest in democratic changes in Serbia has declined, as if they are becoming less interested because monetary issues are so much more important right now. But can you have a good economy if you don’t have the rule of law? Can you have any sort of transitional or post-traditional economy if the political parties are just sharing the wealth of the former Communist Party? You can’t separate these two aspects, and the EU pretends that it can.”

In the meantime, people continue to stream out of the countryside toward Belgrade (and sometimes out of Serbia altogether). “If this trend continues,” he concluded, “20 out of 175 municipalities will disappear by 2020.”

We talked about a range of issues in Serbia, not just decentralization: the shortcomings of NGOs, the pernicious influence of organized crime, and the problem of functional illiteracy. But we began the discussion with a topic that was very current at the time we had lunch together in October 2012: the Gay Pride march that the government had just cancelled in Belgrade.

 

The Interview

 

I’d like to hear your opinion on the Gay Pride.

 

This is a very complex issue. You know what happened with the first Pride Parade and the violence that took place around it? Of course, it’s not true that the Pride Parade caused the violence. It was caused by various social, quasi-patriotic groups and their attitude toward the gay population. The damage was huge, and there was loss of life as well. So the state prohibited the next Parade. It didn’t want to be seen as a state that doesn’t have the monopoly of physical power because some other force is stronger. Many people actually are against gay rights. But the state is ignoring that issue (of human rights) and focusing instead on safety issues.

On the other hand, the LGBT groups are also very poorly organized and have huge conflicts among themselves. They don’t have a clear strategy on what to do and how to do it. They also didn’t work much on creating alliances with different social groups and structures. Rather, they are constantly picking a strategy of conflict with everybody who opposes them and not thinking about possible allies. So, they are constantly producing a large number of enemies.

This confrontational approach is a legitimate strategy. But if you pick this strategy, you need to be aware of the consequences of your advocacy. It stirs up a lot of emotions. Thanks to Pride, nationalist organizations gather a lot of supporters among young people. There are a lot of people who are now 16, 17, 20 years old who actually grew up during the bombardment, during the wars, during the huge media manipulation about what was happening in Serbia and around Serbia. Television stations all over the world presented their people, their parents, as truly bad people, as people who are committing massacres, Global media and Hollywood are still doing that. So, when you’re 16 and you see that, it can create a lot of anger. The gay movement is mostly seen as something coming from the West, and protesting Pride is another way to show your protest against the West. This kind of thinking among young people is very close to neo-Nazism. Serbia still needs to face this reality of the existence of these neo-Nazi ideas and groups.

Serbia has a huge history of anti-Fascism, so there are a lot of people here in the city of Nis who say, “There is no Nazism in Nis.” It is very important for them to say that. But then they don’t recognize the problem that exists. There are more than 20 criminal charges against Nazi organizations only in the city of Nis.

 

For doing what?

 

I am one of the people who initiated some of these criminal charges against neo-Nazi groups when they put up, for example, different posters against other races and multiracial marriages. Can you imagine somebody talking about that in Nis, where there’s no race other than White people? Still, somebody felt that they needed to do that! So we filed a charge.

We also filed a charge this year (2012) on Hitler’s birthday when a Nazi group threw teargas into a basement concert by the famous Roma band, KAL. I was there in the audience, and actually it was very hard to survive this attack. The basement had 50 or 60 people, and only one narrow stairway to the exit. There was a big chance that my brother-in-law could’ve come, and he is in a wheelchair—he wouldn’t have survived that. It happened six months ago. The police issued a statement when it happened and then nothing after that. Despite these 20 charges, no one has been caught, indicted, or anything. There are only two possibilities: the state and police are protecting these groups, or the police are incompetent. There is no third option.

 

Which do you think it is?

 

I think it’s both. There’s a rumor that the uncle of one of the neo-Nazi leaders from Nis is one of the high officers in the gendarmerie, the heavily armed part of the police in charge of riot prevention.

So this is a really complex issue. It’s not that simple to just say that “the state is anti-gay.” With that kind of attitude I don’t think we can actually focus on the key points, which is the rights of people and how the state reacts when somebody threatens violence. We don’t have clear rules. Gay rights definitely do not exist in Serbia. Different social structures, including the Church, are promoting violence against these groups, and the state simply allows it. So, if the state allows violence to take place, and it does so by not prosecuting the offenders, they cannot pretend that they are not responsible.

The whole discourse needs to be changed, and gay organizations need to think more about their strategy of developing allies within Serbian society.

 

When you spoke of possible allies that they should reach out to, who are you thinking of?

 

This is something that they need to figure out. There are a lot of people in Serbian society who are not homosexual—like me—and who are also dedicated to some family values, but are supportive of their cause and rights. On the other hand, there was this action that you maybe saw on YouTube. It was actually a flash mob action. On one of the main streets in Belgrade, two couples ready to be married were out walking. In Serbia people love weddings, you know, and there were a lot of cameras. There was a guy and a girl and another guy and girl, and they were walking hand in hand. And a lot of people stopped and watched what was happening. Then when they had the biggest crowd, and most of them children, they switched. All of a sudden there was a guy and a guy, and a girl and a girl. then they started to very explicitly kiss each. People were horrified. Mothers took their children away. And immediately LGBT organizations said, “Now you see the attitude of Serbian mothers.” Instead of making any progress, there was just a huge mess in the messages sent by both LGBT groups and their opposition after this action. So, what was achieved by this action?

Is this a legitimate response by people in Serbia who think they are protecting their children from any kind of sexual content, no matter if it’s heterosexual or homosexual? Was it actually an invasion of their privacy, because they couldn’t know what to expect? The organizers should have thought this through before doing these events. Instead of making new allies, they made new enemies with this flash mob. It didn’t have a positive influence on many people, apart from maybe already existing supporters who said, “That’s cool! We really want gay marriages!” But this is a small group of people.

 

I’m curious though whether you think that your criticism of LGBT groups applies to groups more generally? Is the NGO sector somewhat isolated from the public at large? Does it reach out to form alliances?

 

Sometimes NGOs look to me like electrons going around atoms, like the moon going around the earth. It looks like they don’t participate in the life of ordinary people. It seems as if they are looking down from a great height on everything that is happening. There is very little communication between NGOs and citizens, so the projects are being developed around what NGOs or donors think should be done, and not around the true needs of communities. Of course, there are some good exceptions in Serbia. But unfortunately, it’s more like this picture of the moon and the earth. There’s a huge constituency problem. But the key problem is not that NGOs don’t have constituencies. It’s that most of them don’t understand that they really need constituents: and why they should have, and how to build, and how to use constituencies. Only when NGOs start to think about constituency, they will start to really think about good and bad strategies in their advocacy efforts. Who are their target groups? For whom are they working?

 

It’s also very similar to the issue of political parties. Politicians also don’t communicate with their constituents.

 

I do a lot of trainings. When I’m doing the mission statement training, for example, I’m not asking people “what do you do?” or “what is your vision of the future?” and then “let’s make your mission statement out of it.” I’m asking them, “What kind of change do you bring to ordinary peoples’ lives?” and “What if tomorrow your organization ceases to exist? What kind of change will be felt in the local community? Will people feel anything if you disappeared tomorrow?” This is a very painful reality check because many NGOs themselves know that actually the city will continue to live like before, that nothing would change. There are really a very limited number of NGOs that bring changes to the lives of people.

 

Let’s talk about your core issue of decentralization. I was astounded by the statistic you gave about the amount of local coverage on national TV.

 

It was 18 seconds of news from outside of Belgrade per 30 minutes of news on national TV stations. We did this research in 2009, but it’s still like that.

 

Why aren’t journalists complaining about it?

 

It’s a big issue. The situation in the media is awful. The journalists who are any good either went to Belgrade or became editors in the media of their local region. When you become an editor, you immediately become very dependent on political influence. There is huge political influence over any media.

It’s clear for state-owned media. Political parties simply choose the directors and editors of state-owned media. They are not allowed to say anything bad against the ruling coalition. On the other hand, the private media on a local level —not the large national ones that can earn a lot of money—cannot earn profit from the market. Because there is no money in the market. The economy is doing so badly in South Serbia that almost no one can afford to buy commercials. As local and regional media, you are dependent on local government budgets and their budget allocations. So you are maybe even more dependent than state-owned media. You need to write project proposals or lobby all the time. And then with the change of government, you need to make sure you have good relations with every party, which eventually means that you can’t just take any position. Unfortunately, many journalists in local and regional media are part time, not actually journalists at all, but looking for other jobs at the same time.

One local private TV station, which is very influential and has some independence, has been late with salaries for 11 months. They were in court, and now are closed due to bankruptcy.

On the other hand, Juznevesti.com is an independent news portal, privately owned. The cost of Internet is so low that they really manage to be independent. One of the owners, who is a chief editor as well, advocates for a liberal market for media and argues that the state shouldn’t be the owner of any media—apart from maybe the national RTS.

It’s not only with TV stations. All public companies funded and owned by the state have the same issue: too many employees. Serbia has been avoiding this issue for years now. The International Monetary Fund and EU insist on a cutoff of the number of employees, and Serbia has not reacted at all for almost a decade now. There was even a decision that all local administrations should fire about 20-30% of employees. Only one municipality tried to do it. They faced a huge rebellion, so they gave up. There was no further pressure from the state anymore to do this. It would be political suicide to fire so many people when the unemployment rate is 25-30% in some parts of the country.

On the other hand, the average salaries in the state sector were, until a couple of months ago, higher than the salaries of private sector. This has actually changed now, so finally the private sector has the bigger average salary. This is a result of the increase of salaries in Belgrade and Novi Sad, where they have had an influx of investment. You’ve seen what it looks like. It’s very different from here. One of my friends says the distance between Vranje in South Serbia and Belgrade is not 500 kilometers, it’s 500 years, and this difference is becoming bigger and bigger.

When we started to work on the issue of decentralization in 2006, nobody was talking about it. Today this is one of the most important political topics, including all the political parties. You can even hear today Progressive Party representatives talking in favor of this. It is amazing! They were the ones who attacked us in 2006 and 2007, telling people that we are trying to break up the country with the idea of decentralization. This is a huge step forward. But everything that is decided in Belgrade actually brings more centralization, whether in the government or in the headquarters of the political parties, so in reality decentralization isn’t happening. Parliament doesn’t make any true decisions: the decisions are being imposed from outside – government, political party leaders, economy…. And for 90% of the laws, you don’t even have any information that they are being created. And when they are already in the parliament so you cannot have any kind of influence on them. The problem with centralization is not only that Belgrade is monopolizing the decisions. The problem is that this system is designed to exclude citizens from decision-making.

 

I’ve read the argument that a “cafe society” is a really important contributing factor to a democratic society. If a society doesn’t have a cafe society — people talking in cafes and on the streets — you’re not going to have democracy. With all the kafanas (café bistros) here in Nis, you should have a lot of democracy!

 

I had an idea that NGO discussions should happen more in the kafanas. You bring people to the kafana and sit at a long table to discuss about different issues. You can have an open conversation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big kafana. But I never found a donor for this idea.

 

You went to the wrong people. The person you should have gone to is the producer of the rakia. Because the more events, the more discussions, the more rakia is drunk.

 

And the more rakia people drink, the more courage they have, so civic activism might be encouraged! I’m joking of course.

In the last elections many politicians repeated JFK’s statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Even some Progressive Party people said it. But actually I think that ordinary citizens ask a different question. They don’t ask what the state can do for them or what they could do for the state. They ask, “Okay, what’s the next thing the state will take away from me?” Serbia didn’t create one single policy that the citizens can hold up and say that they benefited from it.

Today is October 5th, the anniversary of the overthrow of Milosevic in 2000. This should be a huge day in the history of Serbia. But I haven’t heard anyone talking about it. I didn’t buy the newspaper today, but I doubt there’s a big story about it. Back in 2000, on October 5th and 6th, people had hope and some assurance that life would become better. But if we asked people to identify one public policy that brought them some benefit from that date until today, I guarantee that they will not be able to say one.

 

Wow, not one?

 

Perhaps they could say we are allowed visas to travel. But is this the work of the government or something the European Union gave us as an encouragement for future integration? Also, a still very limited number of people do travel anyway, due to low salaries and unemployment.

 

The European Union has encouraged decentralization as part of its accession agreements, for instance, with Turkey. To what extent have EU policies on decentralization helped or hindered your work here.

 

The EU did influence political parties to start speaking about decentralization. So EU pressure actually was one of the key elements of decentralization entering the programs for this pre-election campaign. On the other hand, the progress reports usually say that centralization is still high. The Venice Commission opinion on the election system also pointed out that it’s so centralized that it will only create further centralization of Serbia and centralization of decision-making processes. As a result, the state did slightly change the law on elections, but that only created a worse situation. So, there are a lot of signs from the EU, but the pressure doesn’t exist anymore on this issue. I really feel that the European interest in democratic changes in Serbia has declined, as if they are becoming less interested because monetary issues are so much more important right now. But can you have a good economy if you don’t have the rule of law? Can you have any sort of transitional or post-traditional economy if the political parties are just sharing the wealth of the former Communist Party? You can’t separate these two aspects, and the EU pretends that it can.

On the other hand, although support for true democratic changes comes from the State Department and the U.S. embassy, they are so focused on a single sentence: “Serbia needs to accept Kosovo’s independence.” This attitude is fully legitimate. But on our recent visit to Washington, we didn’t hear one U.S. representative saying why. Explain your attitude. Try to show your true position on this, not just by stating it. Our politicians are better than yours in this regard because they say, “Kosovo is a part of Serbia because…” Their reasons are stupid, but at least they give some reasons and they try to gain some support for these reasons.

No Serbian people believe that young people working in the police department or in the army should become targets in Kosovo. Nobody wants to sacrifice Serbian lives in Kosovo. If we insist on this policy of Kosovo as part of Serbia, the Albanian community will just have a good reason for being extreme. And the pressures on ordinary Serbian people living in Kosovo are absolutely horrible. Then again, if the State Department said, “Kosovo should be independent because look at what you Serbs did to Albanians in the period before Kosovo declared independence,” it would also put in very clear words that the same thing shouldn’t happen to Serbian people right now. On the other hand, a lot of people feel that ordinary Serbs in Kosovo profit from Serbian policy. They do not. They suffer because of it. The profit goes to those grey zone business-people and to populist politicians. Nobody else. Ordinary people are sacrificed there. This Serbian policy, but also U.S. and EU policies, will actually make Serbs disappear from Kosovo.

 

I can tell you what the U.S. policy is. Maybe you’ve heard this story before, when Carla del Ponte went to see George Tenet, the director of the CIA at the time. She wanted the CIA’s advice and support on getting Ratko Mladić. At their first meeting, Tenet said, “We will do everything. This is our number one priority.” This was before 9/11. Nothing happened. So del Ponte went back after 9/11, and she said, “You guys didn’t do anything.” And Tenet looked at her and said, “I don’t give a shit what you think.” That’s the U.S. policy:“The U.S. government wants you to recognize Kosovo because….we don’t give a shit what you think.” Unfortunately, that’s the case. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, we’re not interested in consensus.

 

You have the power.

 

That’s right, we have the power. And at some point we won’t have the power and then we’ll have to make arguments, we’ll have to use diplomacy. But until that point, we will use that power.

 

Some people here say that Kosovo should be part of Serbia because all our monasteries were there and that’s where originally our state came into existence. But that’s not exactly true. The Serbian state actually started in Montenegro, so we should probably take Montenegro first.

 

But wait, I thought Serbs came originally from up north.

 

Wait till we get back Montenegro and Kosovo, and then we will think about Poland and Northern Germany! [laughing] The issue about the monasteries is really beside the point. I mean, should Israel become a Christian state because of the churches there? Should we liberate Jerusalem?

Don’t forget that Serbia was rebuilt as an independent state only in the late 19th century. Before building up the values of civil society, it needed to go through this period of national pride that never finished because of the start of the Second World War and then the Communists came to power and forbade any kind of nationalist feelings. But you cannot forbid that. It’s natural to some extent. So I just think that we need time. The problem is that we are losing generations in between, wasting human life, wasting resources.

I really like what Roosevelt said about unemployment: “Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.” This is something we don’t understand. We say, “Our economy is bad thanks to the world powers and the new world order,” and we are constantly coming up with conspiracy theories. We don’t have the concept of accountability here. The responsibility goes usually to somebody more powerful. We have this victim syndrome—probably you already talked about this with everybody. It’s very nice to be a victim because you’re not responsible for anything.

What’s happening in Nis, and in many other cities, is a huge increase in criminal activity and a huge decrease in public safety. In the last two years, the number of criminal acts that went fully unpunished increased by an enormous percentage. The number of violent acts on the street increased by an enormous percentage. This violence is not nationalist oriented. This is simply aggression increasing because of poverty and weaknesses of state. There was a recent killing of the owner of one of the most important local meat production companies that had started to do national work. We will probably witness more things like that. Some businessmen have tried to do an honest job but couldn’t because there is so much criminal business. Right now the number of kafanas in Nis owned by non-criminals is decreasing, because criminals threaten them and buy them off. And these criminal operations don’t pay anything to their suppliers, simply because they can do that. Unless something dramatic happens, we’ll see a very uncertain security situation in cities like Nis in the next five to 10 years.

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve read that criminal elements were very powerful up until the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. Djindic attempted to crackdown on at least some of the criminal networks, but his death motivated the subsequent government to actually made good on his threats.

 

Well, after the murder, there were three months of “extraordinary” measures in Serbia. This is the only period in the history of this city since I’ve been alive—from 1977—that the criminals we all know were arrested. This is a small city so we all know who the criminals are. Everybody knows, even the Minister of Interior Ivica Dacic. When he was here in Nis, they offered to take him to lunch at a kafana in Nis. He said, “No, this is owned by a criminal.”

The only time these criminals were arrested was during these “extraordinary” measures. Then Djindjic’s successor, Vojislav Kostunica said, “a lot of people were arrested unlawfully. This is against the law, this is against the Constitution, and they should be let out of jail.” That was a lot of people. They’d arrested about 10,000 people. They found some examples of wrong identities, put it on TV, and all of a sudden everybody was back on the street. The same people are still gangsters and criminals in my city and in Serbia, but there are also new ones. This is something that also worries me a lot, because the state doesn’t have the power and will to fight these criminals.

One of the aspects that might be true is that the visible influence of criminals on political structures and political life is not so present. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. During the Milosevic period, these criminals were clearly connected to a certain party and were doing the party’s dirty work. You can’t say that now. I’m not sure if Nis criminals are connected to any kind of party, really. But they are more powerful than the parties in some instances. You could say this about Milosevic: he had a lot of power and he was able to control these criminals. After Milosevic, nobody’s able to control them,.

 

You need some very very courageous people who are willing to risk their lives to go up against these people. Those people are very very rare.

 

On this issue, we established contact with the mayor of Bari, in Italy. Before he was the mayor, Mr. Michaele was a public prosecutor. He’s the one who indicted Djukanovic, the former president of Montenegro, for illegal smuggling. When he became mayor of Bari, he asked for support from the state and the courts to fight local criminal gangs. He didn’t receive it. Instead, he decided to use what he could. There is a law that no construction can be built in an area 300 meters from the seashore. That’s where the mafia created their hotels, houses, and everything. The mayor used that law to knock down the houses. He created a beautiful park for people and various other public spaces. There were seven attempts to kill him, but still he goes ahead with his program. He’s one of the leaders of the anti-mafia movement now in Italy. We brought local politicians from Serbia to meet him. Everybody was in awe of him. But nobody would even dream of doing anything close to this. But his example is amazing, and his story is very similar like Carla del Ponte’s story.

 

Do you see anybody on the political horizon here in Serbia that could serve that role?

 

That person is probably just being born right now. People here are very much afraid. When you’ve gone through everything that people went through here, the last thing you want to do is risk yourself. It was enough lying in bed at 5 o’clock in the morning and listening to planes and rockets above your head in 1999, and then the explosions happen like five meters away from you. You survive it, but you don’t want to go back. You just want to live your life. It’s not my way of thinking, but I understand others who think like that.

 

I’d like to ask you a couple of questions just about our own personal transformation. When did you become interested in political issues?

 

Very young.

 

Because of your grandfather?

 

I’m not sure. My grandfather isn’t my childhood idol because of his political work but for his readiness to risk his life for what he believes in. He went to war in 1941, when the odds looked really terrible, especially for Yugoslavia where this small communist movement was trying to organize itself around nothing. It takes a lot of guts and dedication to make a decision as a very young kid to go to war. My father worked in the military during the 1990s, and he was also doing his Ph.D. at the same time. In the old Yugoslav army, if you wanted to become a general, you needed to have education. He really studied a lot. He thought differently than the government about what should be done in Yugoslavia, so he was pressured, in 1991-92, to retire. He was forced out because he started to oppose the other high-ranking officers, and at that time he was between general and major. He didn’t want to be a part of what was happening, and fortunately they left him alone.

But at that time most people in Serbia were still thinking that Milosevic was an okay option because Milosevic was opposing what the military was doing. Milosevic had more than 90% of support when he appeared — before the wars and everything. Only my mother was one of the rare people among those 7% voting against him. She said, “I have a gut feeling he’s not a good person.” I was 12 or 13 years old. I had a chance to see that my father, who is a rational guy, had so many arguments in favor of Milosevic at the beginning, and my mother who didn’t have any arguments except for her gut feeling, and actually it turned out that she was right. My father very quickly became a strong opponent of Milosevic’s political ideas.

One time I was recording a funny radio show that was constantly criticizing Milosevic. It was 1992-93. I was 15. I liked the show because it was so funny. It was a lot like what Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert does today, but only on radio. It was done like a radio drama, and this drama showed the private life of the Milosevic family. It was so unbelievably funny. I remember that night I wanted my parents to listen to this recording. And my father was against it, but he listened to it because it was very funny and it really helped him to understand the bad side of Milosevic—which was not my intention at all. I just wanted us together to do something as a family.

Before the wars, families in Serbia were very close. You knew you would have weekends with your family – in nature, doing fun stuff, going to kafana, meeting your relatives and friends — and you were thinking a lot about family. But this changed. When the war started, the economy started to break down, people started to draw apart, and I was in between. I felt that my family was breaking apart and I wanted to have something to do together.

Actually, I think that this experience influenced me a lot. When I started my studies at the Law faculty, I was totally against Milosevic. Here in Nis, in the local elections in 1996, the Democratic Party won. We knew that because of one brave journalist who still works today. He sent reporters to the polling stations to be present at the vote counting and immediately called the radio with the results. The police didn’t know this. We were following this radio program, and it was clear that the opposition of Milosevic won. Then the police entered, took away the equipment, and arrested the journalists, and the next day the new results were that Milosevic won.

People spontaneously—without any party organization, because the parties were terrified—gathered in Nis on November 17, 1996. We were also the first city that went out on the streets against Milosevic after the famous March 9, 1991 protest in Belgrade when the government brought out the army, the first city to say, “No, we are not going to allow it!” After the November 1996 elections, people spontaneously gathered. I was at my house and a neighbor came by and said, “Did you hear that people are gathering in front of City Hall?” We went and there were about 1,000 people. We decided to stand there, and all of a sudden there was 10,000 of us! It was unbelievable. It was amazing to be a part of this energy.

At that time Nis had the longest peaceful protest in the world, because we gathered everyday, and it lasted from this November 17th—all the other cities started two days after that—until March next year, or something like that. Later, I think this record was broken somewhere in Africa. It was peaceful. There was not one recorded criminal act during this time in Nis. We believed in change. We had a Serbian New Year’s event here, and it was amazing to be a part of it because there were like 100,000 people on the main square and totally unknown people would come up to you and say, “Happy New Year!” This was a really moving experience. I took part, even though I was a freshman in my university studies, representing the first year of my faculty in the protest council of the students at the university. This is how I started my independent political engagement.

The protest broke up in March. The opposition parties that took over the local government ruined it for everyone. People were disappointed. I said to myself, “I don’t have the luxury to pretend like nothing happened. “So that’s why in 1998 I started to become engaged—at that time I was 21 years old—in different civic actions. I didn’t trust the parties. And I still don’t trust them, because I saw what they can do to individuals, to your trust in a better tomorrow and your belief that you can be a part of change. But I also saw that you can make change, because Milosevic eventually admitted the election fraud. It wasn’t because of the opposition parties—they were too weak. It was because we stopped the factories, the universities — everything stopped in this country. He didn’t have a choice. A lot of politicians say that they should be thanked for October 5, 2000, but it wouldn’t have happened if the mines didn’t stop working, if the workers didn’t stop working. Then October 5, 2000 was just the end. Milosevic was trying to buy time to negotiate. But people stood in front of armed police officers and decided to say, “No, that’s enough!”

Then immediately on October 6, political party representatives started to appear on TV stations and say, “You know what I did? I…” They just took over. They ruined it for all of us. October 5 was this second chance, and again we were all disappointed.

 

And when did you decide that decentralization is key to any kind of reform here?

 

Immediately. In 1997 we finished the protest because Milosevic recognized that the opposition won the elections at the local level. But then he waited for three months after the protest and instituted a law taking all the property away from the local municipalities. Even today all the state property belongs to the state of Serbia—not to the local self-governments. Only last year, the law on the return of property was made, but it’s not yet implemented. So can you imagine that all of a sudden you win the elections but you don’t have any property? Even the phone on the mayor’s table belongs to Milosevic again. Actually it was his plan that these local self-governments would fail, and as a result he would win the next election. Only the NATO bombardment prevented this. And he was stupid. If he’d organized the elections immediately after the bombardment, he would have won by a huge huge margin. But he waited a year. During this year the economy couldn’t work because a lot of the factories had been bombarded. He didn’t have anything to show for the elections.

 

What’s the most promising development in the near future for decentralization?

 

I’m not sure what will happen. Judging from government announcements, they will probably start to deconcentrate power instead of decentralize, and to try to present that as decentralization. For example, the national TV station will open departments in different cities, and they will say, “Okay, this is the public service for these regions.” And I think that this will happen on different levels. This is probably the road the government will take: making it look like decentralization but actually keeping the decision-making for themselves.

In terms of what should happen, as the National Coalition for Decentralization (a coalition of civil society organizations advocating decentralization in Serbia), we defined our priorities in 2007, and these still apply. We want the election laws on local and national level to be changed, to be pushed more toward a majority system so that we have our own representatives, rather than a party list. The second issue is a change in the territorial organization of Serbia, introducing political and administrative regions. This is a way that we can establish political decision-making at a regional level. This is also an issue where we have a lot of opponents in Belgrade. There are 175 units of local self-governments in Serbia. Some of them are cities, and some of them are municipalities, including city municipalities. Out of this 175, some of them are too small, some of them are too big, and they’re hugely inefficient because they were never created based on the needs of the people living in them. We conducted a study and initiated a change in five of them, the ones we saw as the biggest priorities because they are too large for people outside the main town to become involved. When we initiated this, we had a lot of assurance from all the political parties that they supported it. But nothing happened.

And the last thing that we think should be a key priority is the return of local property to local self-government, so that they can earn new income and increase local budgets through rent. That problem is that for 15 years, the property didn’t belong actually to anybody, so this infrastructure is in bad shape because it was not used. There will be huge losses, but it will still be better than not receiving anything back. And this is a true asset, a resource that municipalities can really use.

 

Do you fear that if the assets are returned to the regions, they’ll simply privatize everything?

 

Yes. This is something that the Ministry for Public Administration claims is the key reason why they shouldn’t return the property. But they have the right to create the law, so they can prohibit sales for a certain period, and they can allow other types of usage of the property.

The problem is that the republic has a sweet deal. An investor comes to Nis and Nis says, “Oh yeah, the state has this land, we can give you free access to water supply. We can help you with it, but everything else about the location you need to negotiate with the state.” These are huge investors. The state can get 1 million euro or 2 million euro as a small percentage of the total investment in the municipality. For example, we have an airport here in Nis that belongs to the state. So the process of returning the airport to Nis will not go easily at all—even with this new law because the airport is currently the property of the military. Ryanair, the low-cost airline company, came in 2004 or 2005 to make an agreement to fly from Nis. They weren’t in Sofia, they weren’t anywhere in the region. So, this was great! And then Minister of Capital Investments Velja Ilic just canceled the agreement.

After that, the Austrian company Imax signed an agreement with Nis to invest 60 million euros in the cargo center for this airport. That was signed in 2008. It’s still not initiated. The minister of defense, who was from the same party as the mayor of Nis during this period, did not want to sign the agreement because he had some reservations. I don’t know what kind of reservations he had. But the result was that Nis, which is struggling with social issues, did not receive 60 million euros in direct investment. The money wouldn’t have gone to the city budget. It would have gone to the construction industry in Nis to build the cargo center, to the transportation industry, to the tourism industry.

Some theorists of centralization and decentralization say that decentralization is not good for local economic development because it creates competition and only the most successful will survive. But no, the reality is very different in Serbia. This theory doesn’t work here, because at the republic level there is a huge barrier to local economic development. The theory has the pre-condition that state politicians are not corrupt and that they naturally work in favor of equal regional development. That theory is so wrong. The state doesn’t care.

It’s somewhat different in Kragujevac because the mayor of Kragujevac managed to enter as a regional party in parliament and make the republic government dependent on his vote. So the state immediately signs agreements if they involve Kragujevac, because his vote is necessary for the national ruling party coalition’s survival.

 

I had the impression that the former mayor of Nis, during the sanctions period, was a reasonably good politician—at least from a profile that I read. He arranged, for instance, the energy-for-democracy deal for the city, right? Has he come back to Nis, or is he still in Belgrade?

 

This is Zoran Zivkovic, who was later prime minister of Serbia for a year after Djindjic was assassinated. He’s back in Nis. He’s a local patriot. He’s investing some money here. He has supported a lot of people from Nis, such as artists, with his own money. He invested some money in the wine industry and he’s very successful at it. People here don’t know about his work now, because he is not bragging about it. When he lost the elections within the Democratic Party in 2005, he withdrew from all functions and decided to be an ordinary member. A couple weeks ago, he became a candidate for the Democratic Party president. [ed. note: he lost to Dragan Djilas and initiated his own party months after this interview]

You know, he was a guest lecturer at one of my trainings in July. And he openly admitted to the participants that he was thinking about getting back into politics.

He was asked, “Why? You are now a successful businessman, why do you need it?”

He said, “Well, I don’t need it. That is the reason why I’m still thinking about it.” But what he said next was also interesting. He said, “I truly think that without the Democratic Party in Serbia, we will not have reforms, and this weak Democratic Party cannot make these reforms. So I have an obligation to at least try. This is the only reason why I want to be back in politics.”

He doesn’t need money anymore. One problem is that his level of education is a bit low, because he didn’t finish his degree. But I don’t think this should be a problem. The other problem is that his way of communication is very informal. He’s like charcoal, you know? Compared to Boris Tadic, who is a diamond, with his appearance and his attitude. You know Tadic – shining, looking good, seems to have some value, but is actually useless. Zivkovic is very much different. I think that this kind of behavior of Zivkovic is not that popular within the structures in Belgrade, which simply has a different kind of culture.

 

Someone also told me that the mayor of Indjija was quite good.

 

Yes. From 1990 to 2004, we had majority system of election for local MPs and the mayor. Then they canceled this system first for the MPs and then for the mayor. So we now just vote for local MPs, and then local parliaments elect the mayor. Everything goes through a proportional representation system. In 2004, the last elections when you voted directly for a mayor, there were a couple of very capable people who won the elections and were not on any party list. One of them was Goran Jesic in Indjija. He won the election by a huge margin, and he was not dependent on any political party. At that time, the power of the mayor was also large since he was the chief executive person for the local budget. That gave him a huge space to do what he believes is right, and he did a lot of good things. He’s not the only one. The new mayor of Pirot was also elected at that time. Some of these mayors are still mayors today. They used their positions to improve their cities. Also they influenced the local people by showing what a good local politician is.

Indjija is a very small place, but close to Belgrade, which is one of its advantages. In a year’s time Goran Jesic was so famous around Serbia for his achievement in this small city, it was unbelievable. He’s still that famous. But when we changed the election system, he needed to choose a party. In the end, he decided to go to the Democratic Party. But still, today, from this position, he has enough political power because he doesn’t want to go to Belgrade. Indjija is his place. But he’s also a heavy critic of the Democratic Party, of which he is member. I hope this will push the parties to change the system. But the parties will tell you that if the mayor and the local parliament are against each other on some issues, municipal politics might be deadlocked. That might be. It happened in Nis, where we had an awful mayor who probably didn’t have the psychological make-up for that kind of management position. But then again, we learned as citizens that we shouldn’t vote for that kind of guy. So, if we get another chance, we’d choose a better one. This is how democracy is being built: through learning from mistakes.

All the successful mayors needed to enter parties after the change of election system in 2008. Some of them are now with Mladjan Dinkic of the United Regions of Serbia party, his effort to gather together all the regional parties to get their votes. His election success is not really his, because he has the leader in Kragujevac,Veroljub Stevanovic, who wins a huge number of votes around the Sumadija region, as well as a good leader in Pirot and a good leader in Zajac. And when you remember that it was a low voter turnout, you can start to appreciate how big their influence on their result was. Now Jesic is helping to create the new economic system in Serbia. I met Jesic. We participated in some interviews together in the media. When he’s in an interview, he’s an incredibly nice, well-educated, and well-behaved person. When the camera goes off, you cannot imagine what kind of language he starts to use! Everything is “Fuck! Shit!” He’s like a total rock n’ roll kind of person, and it works for him, obviously.

 

Some people view decentralization as the end of Serbia. They point to Vojvodina and Sandzak possibly splitting off. Is there any basis for that fear, or is it 100% ridiculous?

 

A small digression: have you visited Macedonia? The next time you go you will see a huge change. On one hand, the level of investment created a Skopje that looks amazing. On the other hand, Macedonian nationalism has risen to unbelievable new heights. Until two years ago, I was sure that Macedonia would be peaceful for a long time. I said this because I was really so annoyed with Serbians trying to present Albanians as bad guys and cheering for Albanians to stir up trouble in Macedonia, to kill people so that we can prove that we are right. But now when I see how Macedonian nationalism has increased, there is a good chance that the same kind of nationalism will be awakened in the Albanian community, and then, yes, it may get very violent. Also, the problem is that this violent attitude is brought to both Serbia and Macedonia from people from Kosovo. In Serbia, it’s Serbians from Kosovo; in Macedonia, it’s Albanians from Kosovo. They have this fighter mentality that can make a lot of problems both here and there.

How does this connect to your question? I think that Vojvodina and Sandzak might become true problems only if, because of nationalism, Serbia doesn’t provide them enough autonomy and enough political rights. I’m sure about that, because even I, as a Serb, feel totally excluded and without many rights. And if I were a member of a minority I would probably feel the same, plus everything that minorities feel due to the discriminating culture we live in. Even in Nis, we needed to be careful about the decentralization issue—because we don’t want to provoke hatred toward Belgrade.

A group of politicians and civic activists put up a billboard on the highway some time ago. It said: “Autonomous Region of South Serbia.” To be quite honest, if Vojvodina has an autonomous region, why shouldn’t South Serbia have one too? On the other hand, when you speak about that to Vojvodians, they would say, “No, but we have our rights and you don’t.” We call this in Serbia the “asymmetric organization” of the country, which actually means that we are not all equal. This is really a problem. The constitution of Serbia says in one article that autonomous regions and local self-governments are the rights of people living in Serbia. But on the other hand there are no mechanisms to use your right to create, for example, an autonomous region.

I understand why people get scared of regionalism, but I’m pretty confident that actually it will create the opposite effect. With decentralization you give power to the people. You’re not taking power away. The state can still keep some control mechanisms, like the army and the police. But it’s necessary to give something to the regions.

The key problem related to the lack of regionalism is the use of natural resources. Natural resources are not locally based. The mountain range Stara Planina goes through seven or eight municipalities. There are no mechanisms by which different municipalities/cities get together to administer StaraPlanina, which is a beautiful mountain that’s heavily used in Bulgaria for tourism, for education, for many things that bring in a lot of money. For Serbia it’s not a priority. Mladjan Dinkic supported the opening up of a Spanish hotel there, and now they’re representing it as local economic development. This is stupid! France has agencies organized around regional natural resources. Maybe this is the way to do it. But these regions need levers of power to make them successful.

Did you see the results of the last census in Serbia? Serbia lost about 7% of population in the last 9 years, from 2002 to 2011.

 

What was the population in 2002?

 

It was about 7 million. So now we lost 6% on average through the whole state, but the border regions of Serbia lost about 20% of population. For example, the Pirot district, which is next to us, went from about 150,000 people after the Second World War down to only 60,000 today. In the most extreme cases, if this trend continues, 20 out of 175 municipalities will disappear by 2020.

 

My translator said 1,500 people a day arrive in Belgrade.

 

Yes, the official statistics show an increase in population of Belgrade of only 5 or 6%, but that is because when you move to Belgrade, you don’t change your ID because it’s a bother. So these official figures are in reality much worse. So the current centralization is contributing more and more to the dissolution of the country because the borderlands are emptying out. Is it in our national interest to encourage such devastation?

 

Was there any point in your life when you were tempted to move out of Nis?

 

If I move out of Nis, I will move far away from Serbia. I have been tempted. But on the other hand, on my father’s side, I’m the fourth generation born here in Nis. My sister’s child is the fifth generation.

The thing that might push us all to go away is not the economy. It’s probably security. This is why I’m so worried about this issue. Maybe a lot of people will take this as premature, but I’m really worried that these are bad signs. And nobody reacts to it in a serious manner. A lot of my friends have already left. I went to a very good and well-positioned high school that was one of the best in Serbia, so my entire generation at this high school was seen as having huge potential for the country. My best friend now lives and works in Moscow. My other best friend lives and works in Belgrade, in New Belgrade. My other good friend works in Belgium. My other friend is in Eindhoven working for Philips, and another one is working for a mobile phone company in Germany. And they’re very successful there. But they are not in Nis. On the other hand, my very successful friend who is a doctor cannot find job here, so she went to live in Majdanpek. It’s very poor there, 10 times worse than Nis.

 

Where is that?

 

Majdanpek is close to the border with Romania. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing there. It’s an old mining city, at one time very rich. But now the mine stopped working and it’s a deserted place. It looks like Mars, really unbelievable.

So everyone went away from here. We used to receive awards like “the future of this city” that came with a nice book and a medal for being successful in school. And out of this group, there are only three of us who stayed. One friend managed to start working at Philip Morris here; another friend managed to start working for a bank but is currently looking for a way to go live in Belgrade. And to be quite honest, if my wife didn’t have a very personal situation that keeps her tied to Nis, we would probably be more encouraged to think about leaving.

 

If someone like you, who is committed to decentralization and committed to improving the life here in Nis, is tempted to leave, it must be very difficult to imagine a generation of young people staying here and creating a new city.

 

I’m only now starting to think about it really, and only for security reasons, because I cannot allow anything to happen to my family.

 

Do you have children?

 

No, not yet. Actually, we just got recently married. We were together for six years and we got married in November last year.

 

Congratulations! Can you tell me something about the educational system here in Serbia? I heard that the rate of illiteracy is rather high.

 

Since elementary school is obligatory, there is a high percentage of officially literate people. The statistics show that about 80 percent of people know how to read and write, but there is another problem. It’s functional literacy. What is functional literacy? This is when you read a text, are you able to repeat what you just read, more or less. And actually about 50% of people in Serbia are not functionally literate. These are official data from 2011.

 

So 20% are completely illiterate.

 

They can sign their name, but they don’t read.

 

Where does that put Serbia in Europe overall?

 

I’m not sure about the statistics, but I know that we have the lowest average of university diplomas. Even with that, we have a huge unemployment of people who finish their university degrees. It’s a strange irony—but it’s explicable. When our students did different tests with our students, the average student showed a very low level of knowledge compared to their peers in the European Union. On the other hand, what is surprising is that our best students are among the best in Europe. So those who are really good, who want to learn, are usually the best in Europe. So if you take a look at high school or university competitions in math, in electronics, in any kind of study, you will see a lot of people from Serbia, studying in Serbia and having these high scores. It’s probably because of the way the educational system works in Serbia, which is a lot of learning by heart, but it’s also still providing you a general knowledge around every issue that you are learning.

For example, while doctors and students of medicine in other countries learn how to read diagrams and medial reports, how to prescribe, here they learn about the history of how people made the first echocardiogram, for instance, and how the machine works. So, there are a lot of details that most people learn and then forget two months after. But those who want to learn, they retain the information and use it to progress. The problem is that these best-educated people then leave the country, because they don’t have any true opportunities around here. On the other hand average students are below average by EU standards.

 

My last questions are quantitative. When you think back to everything that has changed or not changed since 1989 here in Serbia, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

I was a kid in 1989, but it was a very happy childhood in the 1980s, especially at the end of the 1980s. We (people from Yugoslavia) went to Greece for the holidays, for every holiday, and we had so much money that we could buy everything there. We were the most popular tourists in Greece because we could buy whatever we want. Our streets here in Nis were full of cars from Poland, from Bulgaria. They sold everything to us. They came in very bad-looking cars, poorly dresses, hungry, and scared. And they were frequently people with university diplomas, so we were feeling very sorry for them. I think that we bought a lot of stuff simply because we wanted to help them.

On the other hand, 1989 was the beginning of this nationalistic period, with the breakdown of communism and huge media manipulation. There was definitely a lack of information about what was happening in the world and what was happening to us. So for me as a child it’s absolute a 10. But trying to see it through the eyes of a grown-up and politically conscious person, it can’t be that high. I’m not in a position to evaluate this since I wasn’t in their shoes really. The beginning of the 1990s was so hard: the war, the hyperinflation. I remember my family didn’t have money to buy meat, so for months we didn’t eat meat. We just ate potatoes and whatever you could buy on the day you received your salary, because tomorrow the salary wouldn’t be worth anything because of inflation. So, this was a 1 or 2. Everyone lived on the verge of existence—except for those who had some power and the people close to them.

For the period of 1996-97, I would give a good grade, because citizens knew what was wrong and what was right. I don’t think that after that we ever got to the same point of awareness as a society . Even though the economic situation was still bad, there was community, there were ties between people that allowed them to work together, to fight together, to do something together. I would give it an 8 or 9, only because of this reason. Then a slightly lower grade until 2001 because, okay, we did it. And I still claim that it’s us, the citizens, who did it. The disappointments already started during the Djindjic regime, but somehow the memory of those disappointments has been erased because we want to have this mythological figure. And certainly, Djindjic was much more capable than the current politicians, much more understanding, much better educated. One shouldn’t forget that he was a part of the Democratic Party when this party had intellectuals of Yugoslav stature, which was world stature at the same time. One of the founders was Borislav Pekic, the world-famous writer, an unbelievable intellectual. In a way Djindjic grew up with them, and they influenced him.

But we didn’t get what we wanted in that period 2001-2003, so probably the grades go down to 6. Then 2004 to 2008, the Kostunica government was awful, because we started to learn that people didn’t evolve from monkeys, that we were created by God. They tried to make it that elementary school biology didn’t recognize Darwin. And it was especially bad for Nis because we had this autistic mayor. He was like sleeping beauty. So it’s 3 or 4.

And then from 2008, it was not as bad as the period 2004 -2008, even with the financial crisis, but it was not that much better. It is 5. The one bad thing that Boris Tadic did was to somehow put us (citizens) all to sleep. Even during the Kostunica period, everybody started to understand that there’s something wrong with this guy and we need something better. But what Tadic created is a sense that nobody is good, or everyone is equally evil. And that nothing much can be done so that citizens should just go to sleep and wait for a better tomorrow. And he had so many opportunities to use: becoming part of Schengen, becoming an EU candidate country. He did not know how to use it, because he wanted to claim all the credit for himself. He was such a bad psychologist—which is his profession, by the way—because what he needed to say at that point was that this is a victory of the citizens of Serbia. Instead, he was constantly proclaiming victories for the Democratic Party.

And to be quite honest, NGOs were probably the most trusted partner of the European Union in these negotiations. They relied on what we said. That was the best result of these years of NGO existence in Serbia, considering how much money and time and effort were invested, to make a good partnership with the EU so that it would see that there are some people worth investing in Serbia. I am truly angry that Tadic didn’t feel that he needed to publicly thank anybody apart from himself and his crew. So that and many other mistakes resulted in the elections in 2012, where obviously the Democratic Party deserved to lose, and the Progressive Party didn’t deserve to win. I would keep it a 5.

And let’s make a small wager on this: that it will stay on the same level as in the Tadic period until 2016. Things will start to slide politically. But this will provoke civil consciousness to re-emerge, and people will start to rethink some of the concepts with which Tadic succeeded in making us fall asleep. I am hopeful that the reaction that we can get from such a poor government that we have now will create new energy and new movements, new thinking and new approaches, for future politics.

Nis, October 5, 2012


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