"Hope will emerge from vision of the future"

Interview with Milos Nikolic, the President of LibeK
Milos Nikolic Libek
Miloš Nikolić

1. In a recent Blic interview you spoke of "total political marketing" with regard to the President and the SNS. Other keywords in this context were "vulgarity", "personality cult" and "smear campaigns". My question on this: If you are right: Why do these campaigns go down so well with the population?  Why are they so successful?

Our current ruling party relies heavily on power of narratives. When they were fighting for power they had a mantra about fighting corruption and organized crime. Later it became story of economic reforms. These are not simple promises. These are powerful meta-stories with many marketing layers. Some kind of political dogma – you don’t ask when and how you are going to benefit from these reforms. You just believe. And in order to believe you need to have constant reminders from various channels, in so many media forms, both on TV, on the street, but also in digital form etc. This is the logic behind what I called total political marketing. This is also bright side of it. Dark side is permanent construction of political enemy, ever present existential danger to the core of the regime and therefore seeding fear of instability and following chaos because of that instability. It is popular because many people truly believe that only strong hand can lead us to the bright future. Some of the supporters are afraid of losing their position in public sector or state owned companies. Other are just satisfied objectively. It is a combination of political culture, patronage system and some positive economic trends regarding economic growth and improved living standard.


2. You talked about the need to give citizens back their faith in representative democracy. Was this faith stronger in the past? What destroyed it? And above all: How should one imagine this in practice, to give back faith in representative democracy?

Many more or less active citizens had hope that they can control the future of our society. First, these politically aware people were brutally disillusioned and felt betrayed after couple of democratically elected governments failed to deliver them what they had expected. We had fractured economic transition. Political elites weren’t willing to let go privileges and benefits of government presence in national economy. As a result, when we felt consequences of global economic crisis, with many lost their jobs, there was a growing perception that political elites were both incapable and corrupted. Secondly, many left – dominantly to the western countries. Enthusiasts linked their belief in representative democracy to the perspective of decent and high quality life, guaranteed by EU integration process. Then slowly even they started to lose faith because EU started to lose interest even to pretend they want Serbia as a member in future.

As in case with rulling party – revitalising of that faith will require emotional narratives that will trigger hope and action. But without clear and strong willingness of EU to accept us it would be very difficult to envision that path as a liberal and truly democratic. This is generational challenge. And it won’t be resolved in short period of time. In practice this will require new people with strong belief in pluralism and open society, equipped as well with skills and knowledge adopted both to present digital era but also to demanding Serbian reality.


3. You also said, "Hope for change must be awakened." But how is that to happen, in practical terms?

Hope will emerge from vision of the future. Role of politicians is to present that vision. Practically, emotionally, vividly. We know and we hear every day what is the vision of Vučić. But we don’t see alternative vision. Do we need to be Balkan version of Dubai? Or main Chinese partner in this part of the world? What are alternatives? So again – convincing narratives trigger emotions. Emotions drive you to the street to protest. It will drive you to vote and to regain confidence in politicians and political parties. Without them there won’t be any articulation. Citizens will follow those who can and want to articulate that. Right now, that process of articulation is in political coma.  


4. You mentioned the fact that there is no vision of the future in Serbian society. That is certainly a central point. But here, too, the question arises: where are the bright minds, the intellectuals and politicians who could formulate such a vision?

Main political responsibility rests with politicians and their organizations. I am not expecting from intellectuals to replace politicians. They certainly have their own sense of social responsibility which seems to be lost for most of them. But since our government is so present and influential in economy, media, culture, education, many of these intellectuals just follow that opportunistic trend and they are finding their own role in that presence. Intellectual patronage system is maybe even more dangerous then bureaucratic one.


5. What significance would the European Union have in such a vision of the future? It seems to be losing its appeal among the population.

The biggest EU enthusiasm was when we got visa free regime back in 2009. People were so desperately in need of some practical and useful benefits from EU. Again it is solely our responsibility to implement reforms and change in order to have free and prosperous society.  But EU was kind of anchor of these hopes. I am afraid to say – was. But it is reality. Unfortunately pandemic only fostered that negative image of EU in Serbian population mostly because of fake news and propaganda machinery. Even in our civil society there is growing concern that EU is not honestly worried about decline in rule of law and dangerous concertation of power. So having all that in mind, it is not realistic to expect EU to central point of that vision for some time. European way of thinking – yes of course. European living standards and norms - definitely. But with rational and honest approach from all sides.      


6. The talks moderated by the European Parliament between government and opposition on fair electoral conditions are not making any progress either. Where do you see the main reasons for this? What would have to happen for both sides to reach a viable result after all?

Sadly these talks were like some bad love affair – there were huge expectations, no clear motivations and it all ended with virtue signalling about fault and guilt. Opposition doesn’t have leverage. They cannot call people to go out to the street and protest because it will be disappointing. Government in this case wanted to present itself as compliant partner willing to do so much. And European MPs wanted success story from Belgrade and that is that everyone will participate in elections which is a bit more formalistic and bureaucratic approach. At the end, some aesthetic improvements will take place. Opposition will have really hard time ahead but it is certainly more proper way than to passively boycott the whole process and to wait for something to happen.