• 2021-10-10

Interview with Nataša Vučković published in Blic daily newspaper: After 5 October, we overlooked the importance of empowering our youth

“Our ties to the European Union run deep, from an economic, political and cultural aspect. We are a European state and we belong in the EU”

Our public scene today is overwhelmed with individuals competing to deny all positive changes brought about by the events which took place on 5 October. To the people of Serbia, this date represents a remarkable democratic victory.

This is what Nataša Vučković, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy Foundation had to say in her interview for Blic. According to her, first and foremost, in was on this date that Serbia reclaimed its position within the international community.

- We received a huge amount of support for the reforms, many of which have already taken place. Some have yielded excellent results, for instance, the Poverty Reduction Strategy - emphasised Nataša Vučković.

Several days ago, the 21st anniversary of the 5 October reforms were commemorated. In this regard, how would you rate the current social and political situation?

- Our society is divided and these gaps run rather deep - political, economic, cultural, educational, etc. First of all, we are an economically weak society, with over 1.6 million members of our citizenry unable to afford the average consumer basket. Existential insecurity is excruciating: only three out of five employed persons have signed employment contracts for an indefinite period, while the Serbian Employment Protection Legislation Index (EPL index) is one of the lowest in Europe. The Government keeps a large number of its citizens, as well as its supporters, in a state of existential dependence by providing temporary employment in administration and state-owned companies.

However, poverty is rarely mentioned by the authorities. Instead, they speak mainly of their successful investments. Investments are important, both domestic and foreign, but at the end of the day, how do they impact the daily lives of the population? The political segment suffers from chronic lack of dialogue and a basic political culture, while taking devastating blows from the tabloids and other media at the same time. It allows every critical opinion to be stifled by means of campaigns aiming to discredit and embarrass those who dare to disagree with the so-called amazing progress that Serbia has made. In this way, any political action of the opposition is pointless and the people are discouraged. The situation in public institutions has dramatically deteriorated, resulting in the diminished trust of the citizenry.

Amendments to the Constitution are currently underway, the aim of which should be the greater independence of the judicial system, yet the influence of the executive authorities over the courts and the prosecution grows by the day. The fight against corruption is practically non-existent, despite the fact that the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) victory was the result of using this tenet to win over the voters in 2012.

What did we miss as a country and a society after the 5 of October?

- We failed to build sustainable democratic institutions, beginning with parliament all the way to an independent judicial system. We created these institutions, but failed to ensure their efficiency and accountability. We also failed to ensure their ability to govern over the market, privatisation, the public procurement system, etc. However, over the long run, it seems to me that our greatest failure failed to implement serious and well thought-out educational reforms within the context of the knowledge/know-how of a modern society. Such reforms would have empowered younger generations giving them a pulpable and stable future here. We even failed to more permanently incorporate European values into our society so that the accepted etiquette in politics, economics, culture, media and/or at the universities is in line with these values, which are resistant to all political options.

Have you been following the dialogue between the Government and the opposition under the auspices of the EU? Resulting in discontent on both sides. What is your take on this?

- I believe the expectations of the European Parliament were too high. It isn’t their job to ensure that our elections are fair and democratic. Their engagement in this process is of exceptional importance, as it confirms the dedication of European institutions to promoting democracy in Serbia. And an ad hoc platform has been established to facilitate political dialogue and they have proposed measures which should ensure the democratic outcome of elections. Now, the Government should implement and apply these measures, primarily through parliamentary decisions and other competent institutions such as the REM, but also through media channels. Whether or not elections are fair and democratic depends on those participants in this battle and on election monitoring, the mobilisation of the voters, the ability of the opposition to be persuasive and the Government’s ability to refrain from further acts of disobedience i.e., predominantly we mean illegally influencing voters.

Do you think it’s possible for everyone to vote?

- It seems to me that there is a much greater willingness among votes to participate in elections. And besides this, there are also the Belgrade elections, on which the opposition places a lot of hope.

What would another boycott mean?

- I’m convinced that voting is essential. Most importantly for the voters. Boycotting just serves to numb the population and causes long-term passivity. It’s the function of the opposition to provide an alternative. It is important that the opposition take an active role in this process, to gather a greater number of supporters and activists via campaigns, to create valuable programmes and clear election options for the voters that are measurable. And, in the case of complete failure or poor results for individuals to be held accountable. Of course, election participation is important to the institutions, primarily the Parliament which in the absence of any real opposition loses its credibility, but also to other institutions whose work influences the Parliament. In the long run, another boycott would postpone parliamentary recovery, oppositional resources would continue to decline further and support of the population would dissipate further until a new political option enters the scene. I don’t think the current opposition would survive another boycott.

A boycott would continue to force the opposition to rehash stale issues - absence of democracy, no free press - and the opposition would remain confined to an unfair playing field. All of this is fact, but this ‘Calimero’ attitude that we have adopted does nothing for us, because as they say, ‘life goes on’. New laws come and go as though on a conveyor belt, yet the opposition takes little notice. I’d like to mention the Draft Law on Seasonal Work which will lead to further precarisation. Negotiations were held in September regarding minimum wage, and it was just a few days ago that the NGOs heavily criticized the Draft Law on Internal Affairs - and the opposition has to be more vocal regarding these topics because they are of interest to the public.

The opposition is still out. In your opinion, what is the best approach - how many columns should there be, how many election lists?

- ‘Fattening up’ the opposition is an imperative. The main issues are: what is their political ideology and what kinds of projects do the individual parties offer the voters. Compliance concerning key values is important, if this is lacking, one election list is not a good solution.

Is a mutual presidential candidate a solution, and who could this person be?

- A mutual presidential candidate is a good solution if an agreement were possible, not only in terms of the person, but also in reference to the campaign and expected results. When we think about possible candidates, we need to take into account our society as it really is, our ambitions, where we are headed as country. Which ideologies and projects are most supported? Should the presidential candidate round up and homogenise a single electorate, that is strictly opposing, or should it attract voters from other political options as well? Should the campaign be a negative or a positive one? The answer to this question depends heavily on the kind of candidate that would be up for this challenge.

In the previous period you have been more focused on the work of the Center for Democracy Foundation and it seems as though you’ve optioned out of politics. What are your plans in terms of continuing your political career once you are removed from the Democratic Party?

- We work on interesting projects in the Center where I can express my dedication to Serbia’s EU assession, to economic and social development, educating youths on democracy, regional collaboration, gender equality, etc. It would be untruthful of me to say that I don’t miss politics. But the kind of politics where we work together, in solidarity, in one political organisation, fighting for our ideas and our projects to ensure that they receive as much support from the public as possible, to represent Serbia with all that we excel in, and so on.

Do you agree with most of the opposition that Belgrade is a chance at a change of government?

- The opposition has a huge chance to achieve its best results in Belgrade. Whether it will be successful or not depends on how it structures its presentation, how it goes about formulating its election programme, whether people of authority are on their election lists and if they are able to neutralise the negative media image of certain individuals. The Belgrade elections will be overshadowed by another big campaign, the presidential campaign, making it difficult to address the issues of importance to Belgrade. Life in Belgrade over the last few years has become threatened by air pollution, increase in traffic, construction works that often destroy cultural heritage and contemporary urban standards. The inhabitants of Belgrade have many reasons to feel dissatisfied, but it is vital to mobilise youths to participate in the elections.

Over the past few days, a stand has been set up in Belgrade where people can sign a petition to free Zvezdan Jovanović, Prime Minister Đinđić’s assassin. What emotions does this bring up?

- An attempt to rehabilitate an assassin is a dangerous path for a society to take, any would disturb any normal member of said society.

It’s been over a year since Serbia opened an EU negotiation cluster. At the EU Summit, the Western Balkans were told that their place is in the EU, but a concrete date has yet to be set. Do you have a comment regarding this delay or vacuum created in terms of Serbia’s assession to the EU?

- Our EU project has been diluted due to the lack of reforms and the absence of progress in EU negotiations. But there is no alternative. All of those in power who are purposefully hindering our progress in getting closer to the EU are causing our people a great deal of harm. The Government has no interest in expediating reforms as these reforms would limit its power. They would have to introduce an independent judicial system that would combat corruption, and a transparent public procurement system, European standards for bidding, etc.

It’s strange then, isn’t it, that the European voice isn’t stronger in the opposition either. There are many reasons why the EU wishes to slow down the process, as they current face numerous problems and in their view, this is not the time for new enlargement. However, if we were an ambitious candidate, if we were a model democratic society, in the fight against corruption, if we were efficient in resolving our immediate issues, if we demonstrated enthusiasm beyond trying to squeeze out as much funding as possible from the EU, if we could reduce the lack of trust that exists in the EU towards Serbia, if we had become a stable partner, I think the EU response would have been different.

We still might not have had a set date, but we would now be moving at a much quicker pace. Instead, we are being misled toward undermining the rule of law in some of the Member States, which creates great concern in the EU and further weakens the positive attitude towards enlargement. Of course, today the geopolitical factor is stronger than it was 15 years ago, and our region now includes other international actors. Their presence, propped up by an official tone, may have created a false impression among our people that there is, in fact, an alternative. Nevertheless, our ties to the European union run deep, and are of a economic, political and cultural nature. Regardless of how questionable this may all seem; we are a European state and belong in the EU.

Source: Blic; Author: Ivana Jasnić Mastilović; Photo: Milan Ilic / RAS Srbija