The Serbian Government often likes to point out that the state of emergency had helped rid the country of the most lethal heritage of Milosevic’s regime – the legitimacy of organized crime. To some degree, this statement is most probably true. During Milosevic, organized crime was integrated into the system. However, it has remained so to a great extent even after the outstanding "Serbian revolution" of October 5, 2000 financed by Western governments, articulated by politicians, and facilitated by citizens that were fed up with Milosevic’s authoritarian rule.
The assassinated Prime Minister and "the hero of democracy", Zoran Djindjic, wanted to take advantage of the old linkage between criminal and state security structures to strengthen his own position in power. In 2001 and for the most part of 2002, the mob felt very comfortable in the new political landscape. Early in 2003, it seems as though a showdown between the Government and the major part of a mob with rising political appetites was imminent. The mafia killed Djindjic, their former ally, but the late prime minister’s heirs to the government, who were also formerly allied to the mob, managed to survive in a clash between two antagonized power circles – one operating with the institutional framework and the other operating underground).
The power has remained in the institutions, some mafia bosses have been arrested, while others that managed to stay on good terms with the authorities are spearheading the "transition" and "honest business". The backbone of one of the most important structures in Milosevic’s regime has apparently been broken. There is no doubt that it will take the mafia quite a long time to recuperate under the present conditions and the fact that they have been pushed deep underground is the only positive effect of government measures during the state of emergency.
As for the negative effects of these measures, it has to be said that the state of emergency had a much more powerful impact on the opposition that it did on the mafia. This includes the opposition within political parties, but also the radical non-parliamentary opposition. During the 42 days of the state of emergency, the government crossed the line that stands between an openly authoritarian regime and a formally democratic order.
Their confrontation with political opponents and critics was largely erratic and hysterical, however, and did not take the shape of methodical persecution. For example, at a government briefing for the media held on April 11, 2003, they said that "operation Sabre had entered the most delicate phase: flushing out the instigators and financers of the assassination on the late prime minister Zoran Djindjic" and that the investigation had lead towards Vojislav Kostunica’s political affiliates, who is just by chance the leader of the largest opposition party.
It seemed as if it was a matter of hours before the main political players in the opposition would be labeled as criminals and their leaders brought in for interrogation. Moreover, the Minister of Culture and Media, Branislav Lecic, kept announcing a special committee that would aim to find out which mechanisms brought the media into a "dark state of mind", while the Minister of Justice, Vladan Batic, accused "a part of the independent media of having taken part in plotting the assassination". During this time, anarchists, pensioners, political opponents and folk singers all had a unique opportunity to hang around together in prison.
The whole ordeal was not only a blatant attempt to break the back of the opposition, but also to snuff out any kind of criticism against the government’s policy. But these were threats and hysterical fits of an "organized absurdity" called State of Emergency. However, this government has systematically weakened the institutions of the state through legal documents that were deliberately designed for this purpose during this period.
First of all, the state of emergency was introduced in such a way that it violated constitutional and other laws. This was the common practice of the ruling elite even before March 12, 2003 – the day Zoran Djindjic was assassinated. The explanation was always that it was "Milosevic’s Constitution" they were violating and kept promising a new one in the near future. Consequently, the new Serbian President was also elected in complete violation of constitutional provisions.
Serbian "reformists" offered the explanation that it was Milosevic’s constitution anyway. So, Ms Natasa Micic, who was the acting President of Serbia in violation to the constitution, was given the opportunity to declare the state of emergency, again contrary to constitutional norms.
Natasa Micic selected constitutional and other legal provisions on the state of emergency and state of war that best suited the government and fused them in what she (and the government) called the "state of emergency". Micic also received orders (as the President of Serbia!) to suspend the following human rights and liberties: the legal procedure during arrest (police custody was prolonged for 30 days without the right to a lawyer or an appeal to a relevant court), the right to the confidentiality of letters and the right to the sovereignty of one’s home, the right to strike or gather (in general), the right to political and syndic action (if it compromises the state of emergency) and the right to the free flow of information that deals with the state of emergency and the reasons for its declaration.
Some of these rights should not have been suspended even if a state of war was declared, according to the Serbian Constitution. For example, the right of an individual that was put under arrest to address the court and question the legal grounds for his arrest. The principles of constitutionalism were not only violated by the suspensions of the human liberties mentioned above, but even more so by the adoption of several crucial laws in the atmosphere of the state of emergency where the government censored information and raised suspicion that the political opposition and others who had dissenting opinions regarding their policy and actions were the "instigators and passive participants" of Djindjic’s assassination.
While the public was in shock following the assassination, and the opposition was in fear of persecution and, independent information flow ended under censorship, the government adopted several authoritarian laws in parliament, such as the Law on Changes to the Serbian Constitution, the Law on Prosecutors, and resolving the issue of the judicial system.
After arresting one judge because of alleged ties to the mafia, the government found an excuse to retain surveillance over the remaining 2,200 court judges in Serbia. This move rescinded a short-lived judicial autonomy that was provided by a set of laws in November 2001 and brought the judiciary once more under tight control of the authorities.
Amendments to the law on fighting organized crime and to the criminal law were also adopted. The meaning of the term "organized crime" was expanded to "members of groups that do not commit crimes directly, but are still in the function of organized crime". Members of such ambiguous groups (since the term "in the function of organized crime" can have a great variety of interpretations), can be kept 90 days in custody by the police, without access to legal representation or court protection. Potential witnesses can be held for up to 30 days.
When the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Centre protested against these amendments, claiming they were "in breach of basic European standards for protection of human rights" and that they "introduced the state of emergency on a permanent basis", the new Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic coolly answered that the amendments "were not among the most drastic examples of such legal provisions in the democratic world, since police custody for similar acts of crime could last up to 6 months, or even a lifetime period in the US."
The Law on Public Information was also passed. This law allows the government to spread any sort of information that could "instigate violence", while journalists are now obliged to reveal the sources of practically all the information they use in their writings. When journalists protested to such measures, the government assured that, since they were a democratic authority, they would not misuse the law. A deputy prime minister in the Serbian Government said that "a democratic state does not need an opposition".
The bottom line is that several systemic legal documents were brought during the state of emergency that directly violated the constitutional order and international standards on human rights. It’s true that the Serbian Constitution currently in effect was brought under Milosevic.
However, the problem with Milosevic’s rule was not that the constitution was particularly bad, but that it was used as a facade for his authoritarian rule. The new government, from Djindjic to Zivkovic, lead by what I coined as the "paradigm of authoritarian modernism", disregarded the Constitution and the laws whenever they saw fit. Frequent breaches of the Constitution and the laws resulted in a state of legal uncertainty and an atmosphere of a permanent state of emergency.
At present, there are no limitations whatsoever imposed by the Constitution and the legal system. There are no rules that the government has to abide by and they can resort to anything. The so-called "friendly civil society" and the "advocates of human rights" have been transformed into intellectual commissars of the sitting government. All these intellectuals, analysts, NGO activists chorused that it was our government and we just had to trust them.
These are the same "human rights campaigners" who gained their reputation and wealth "fighting" Milosevic’s authoritarianism and Serbian nationalism, now speak of "national interests", "danger to the system" and "salvation for the state and the people". In this kind of atmosphere, where the majority of information sources was either under the direct control of the political elite or their intellectual commissars and also the entire "friendly civil society", the new authorities upheld a system that is devoid of an independent judicial system, public criticism, parliamentary control over levers of state power and free elections.
The same pattern of "authoritarian idiotism" continued after the state of emergency was formally rescinded on April 22, 2003. The fact that the Serbian oligarchy did not impose a totalitarian order is not a matter of their self-control, or the strength of democratic institutions, or the pressure of the general public. The fact that the government managed to restrain itself just before it seemed they would cross the line and uphold totalitarian rule has been interpreted by most Belgrade analysts as a result of strong pressure coming from western diplomats.
The ruling coalition clings to the image of "pro-European politicians" and to a Serbian state that is supported by the west. This why the government had to restrain their authoritarian instincts. Serbia has apparently been rescued from an "iron broom" (an expression so Bolshevik in nature that it is hard to translate it into English) by US and British ambassadors who simply laid down the rules of the game to our boys. And the boys obeyed. And although this is some advancement in comparison to Milosevic’s era, the fact that the US Ambassador is protecting Serbian democracy does not give it a promising future.
The political and social situation in Serbia is very difficult. Serbia is a country with the largest number of strikes in Europe, a country where more than 1 million unemployed workers march, and a country in which transition boils down to the property of eight million people pouring into the pockets of eight people. An atmosphere of poverty and desperation looms over Serbia. The fact that more than 50% of the population lives on or below the poverty line does not upset the neoliberal elite too much as they maintain their course of "technocratic reformism".
The struggle for a different Serbia is lead by a handful of dissident intellectuals and a social movement in the making called Another World is Possible (Drugaciji svet je moguc – DSM) comprised of a variety of anti-authoritarian collectives. DSM initiated the Belgrade Indymedia (www.belgrade.indymedia.org) project several days ago. The magazine called Global is distributed at gatherings of the unemployed or forums against privatization.
Can this movement, as well as other similar initiatives, succeed in providing a clear progressive articulation of social unrest. It remains to be seen whether they will manage to turn today’s social monologue into tomorrow’s social conflict that will confront the model of a civil society of intellectual commissars and NGOs with a model of a participatory society and, by mobilizing a collective awareness and potential for subversion, approach the ideal of a politics from below. One thing is crystal clear though: with the situation that Serbia is in today, we have no time nor right to be pessimistic.
*Andrej Grubacic is a historian and a social critic from Belgrade, Post Yugoslavia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org