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Ham or freedom: Propaganda in Serbia

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One in four people in Serbia lives on the verge of poverty, making it one of the poorest countries in Europe. Decades of crime and corruption caused the current problem, and the future isn't looking that brighter either with 34.6% of youth unemployment. While all of this takes a toll on democracy, the government decided to use food as a means of electoral manipulation and propaganda. Wait, what?

In Serbia, the word “sandwich” doesn't have the same meaning as it does in other countries. Here, sandwiches have become a form of political currency. People can sell their voting rights and get a sandwich in return.

In a poor country, survival will always be more important than freedom, and the government understood how easy it is to manipulate a starving person. They offer food for the ‘small’ price of someone’s vote. Good deal, right? For some, it’s the only way out. When confronted with extreme poverty, that political sandwich starts looking tastier and tastier each minute.

Sandwich seduction

The first time I was offered to exchange my vote for a sandwich, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Three campaigners stood on my doorstep. They knew my name and asked me which candidate I was going to vote for. I refused to respond, but they continued pressuring me, demanding answers in an intrusive and even aggressive way. I stated my reasons and was about to close the door when they extended one last offer: an invitation to a rally, a moment for me to get familiar with the party and, of course, be rewarded with a sandwich. I shut the door, knowing that an average sandwich costs about one euro, much less than the cost of a guilty conscience. I felt sorry for all those who didn’t have the privilege to close their doors and understood that I was living in a country where the poor have to sell their dignity to eat.

It can be hard to single out key issues in a country battling a multitude of societal ills, but hunger seems to be a priority. Since Serbia became a member of the UN in 2000, hunger is at the top of the country’s ‘Sustainable Development’ agenda. The agenda is made up of 17 goals in total, with “zero hunger” in second place. Recent figures indicated that almost a quarter (24.5%) of the total population lives at risk of poverty, mostly due to the downfall of industrial production and damaged foreign trade policies.

It’s no surprise that a population who relies on bread as a main meal and eats three times more bread than the average EU citizen considers sandwiches a treat. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) eventually picked up on this tendency and decided to make sandwiches a symbol of the 2016 parliamentary elections. Before the elections and in the midst of major political events, sandwiches started being traded for votes.

According to Nenad, a law student from Kragujevac: “This trade is an evidence that the current political system is nothing more than an oligarchy with an illusory halo of democracy. The Greeks invented direct and indirect democracy, but the Serbs invented a famous pâté democracy; a backwards civilisation.” The bready temptation became bait for poor and hungry inhabitants to attend political rallies, mostly held in Belgrade, falsely implying the immense support and popularity the country has for the SNS and President Aleksandar Vučić. At the rallies, during the campaigns for parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential ones in 2017, they were coerced into wearing custom-made T-shirts with political logos, wave flags or raise banners with messages of love and support.

Up until recently, the sandwich was a pinnacle of modern Serbian propaganda. But leading up to the 2017 presidential elections, food propaganda suddenly became more elaborate. Food boxes containing pâté with Aleksandar Vučić’s face on it were distributed by SNS supporters and usually delivered to home addresses of voters marked as targets.

The production of sandwiches and food boxes was financed by the SNS and made by local bakers or food companies that supported their cause. As for the groundwork, campaigners approached citizens on the streets, during rallies or went to visit them at home, as they did with me. If they accepted the offer, their names would appear on a list of potential (but not secured) votes. Then, to secure the votes on election day, citizens who accepted the offer from the SNS (sandwich or money) gave their ballot to an employee of the party stationed outside the voting centre and were provided with pre-filled ballots they would cast once inside. Their vote was then marked as secure and their names crossed out from the list of potential voters.

Food aside, another interesting phenomenon that marked the 2017 presidential elections in Serbia was an exhaustive list of TV hosts, singers, writers, actors, artists, professors and scientists that showed popular support for a given political party. It bedazzled the public.

Campaign promoters lined up on the streets serve a similar purpose. They charmed voters by handing out lighters, pens, Easter eggs, roses, brochures and other propaganda material, depending on the occasion. Promoters also went from door to door, canvassing for the Serbian Progressive Party. If no one was home, promoters were given phone numbers and started calling. (Un)surprisingly enough, they didn’t get paid but received sandwiches for their service.

An untouchable president

Aleksandar Vučić is the most influential politician in country’s recent history. He controls everything and everybody, to the extent that nothing can be done without his permission. He is the lone ruler of Serbia: the judge, the jury and the executioner.

He joined the far right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in 1993 and quickly rose through the ranks becoming secretary-general at the age of 24. In 1996, the SRS won local elections in Zemun, allowing Vučić to start his first job as the director of a sports hall. As a member of the SRS, he was elected to the National Assembly and was minister of information during the 1990s, widely recognised as the worst times in Serbia’s modern history.

While in office, Aleksadar Vučić banned foreign TV networks, introduced fines for journalists who criticised the regime and insisted on constant broadcast of nationalist propaganda. People against war, murder, violence and primitivism were depicted as traitors and cowards by the media in his control. As a fierce nationalist, he energetically fought for the creation of Greater Serbia, the persecution of Bosnians, Croats and Albanians, and passionately defended Slobodan Milosevic, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who are all now convicted of war crimes.

In 2008, his political views changed drastically and he joined the newly formed Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Before the transformation, which came with the new political party, he used to describe the European Union as an aggressive force whose only goal was the “extermination of Serbian people during the war back in the 1990’s”. Today, he is known for being the EU’s greatest promoter and stated that the EU membership is essential for Serbia’s survival. He set a whole new policy contradicting everything he used to say and stand for during his 15-year-long career in the Serbian Radical Party.

Vučić was at the helm of the state when he was prime minister and remains there as a president, although Serbia is not a presidential democracy, but a parliamentary one according to the Constitution.

Since the presidential elections in 2017, the government is no longer responsible exclusively to the National Assembly, but to the president as well. Mr. Vucic de facto chooses every single minister and other administrative members.

A professor at Belgrade University, Stanko (58), claims that there is no democracy in Serbia, because “we have a far too dominant person on the top that made us feel like nothing has been changed since the 90s.” He added that: “This system is the closest one to dictatorship, because somebody can kill me and not be held responsible for that.”

Being a majority in the National Assembly, the SNS pulls all the strings in politics, as it does in all other spheres of life. Privileges are reserved only to the most loyal, who are rewarded with important offices and immunity, resulting in a spoiled system where all civil service jobs go to a particular group of people. On the other hand, those who dissent from the obedient majority are outcasts for the regime. The list of the unwanted is filled with members of the opposition bloc and others sharing their dissident opinions such as scientists, actors, singers, academics and the rest of the elite.

Similar to other young Serbs, Olja (20) is afraid that one day she will be forced to leave her country in search of a better future. “Everything is corrupted and only a privileged minority profits, who then abuses its position to manipulate the poor and uneducated in order to remain in power.”

The fourth estate in danger

The end goal of all this propaganda is to produce the perfect public image of Aleksandar Vučić, bringing him closer to the masses. Preoccupied with the problems of his people, he does not sleep nor eat. Ordinary working hours do not exist for him, so he works overtime every single day in order to provide for his fellow countrymen. He is generally thought to have been the best student in Belgrade Law School’s history. During a snow blizzard in 2014, a video of him saving a child was broadcasted on every TV station, deepening his saviour persona. Government-influenced media presents Mr. Vučić as a great statesman, but more importantly, as an extraordinary human being.

In the midst of the 2017 electoral campaign, a database with personal information and phone numbers of 400,000 Serbian citizens surfaced. They were randomly picked probably because their information was easiest to access and weren’t part of a specific social group. The purpose of the list was to enable promoters to reach people at their homes, ask them election-related questions and in doing so slightly intimidate them. This database could have been created only with access to medical records, lists of support and with the help of Telekom Serbia, the country’s main telecommunications company. It represents direct violation of laws designed to protect personal information.

Propaganda is also a direct violation of freedom of speech, press and the right to be informed. Exceptions do exist, but their numbers are constantly plummeting due to frequent attacks on journalists. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders emphasised the fact that media freedom in Serbia is in decline. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) documented 69 attacks on journalists last year alone. Contrary to the so called pro-regime journalists, who are paid to follow instructions, write and say what they are told to, being objective and truthful in Serbia can mean trouble. The only role of the media is to suppress information about political murders, corruption, theft, abuse of power and other criminal acts typical of our politicians.

“We can change things”

Serbian propaganda is designed to be impossible to evade no matter how hard you try. At some point, hope emerges and you decide to vote, however, soon enough, you realise no one besides you believes anything anymore; they have all been brainwashed and maybe it is time for you to give up, too.

Olga is 18 and will begin her studies in international relations this year. But according to her, the biggest mistake would be to give up. “Every vote is important because it shows that we can change things even though we are an individual. When it comes to change, everyone should start with themselves first.”

Serbia is a country of contradictions, one of superior leaders and inferior people. Eternal conflict between the two ultimately results in violence and riots, but the power dynamic never changes. We remain stuck between hope and a better tomorrow, past and future, reality and fantasy. That reality can be absurd, inspirational or downright funny, but most of the time is just cold and dark. Mistakenly, we think of a sandwich as our way out, without realising that we are the way in and out, we are the problem and the solution.

To overcome government manipulation, Serbs must learn to recognise fake news and change the current ‘political currency’ by replacing sandwiches with the truth. According to 19-year-old Miodrag, a computer science student from Belgrade, doing so would help change people’s political consciousness. “It is the only solution to fixing bad decisions in a democratic society,” he says. And the first step is having access to freedom of speech.

What is somewhat encouraging is the fact that, although they might be invisible to the majority, an increasing number of young people are turning to social media, protests and youth movements to denounce the political situation in Serbia. But it can all be in vain if people don’t vote. Anja, a 20-year-old sociology student, advocates the fact that “people should protest through elections, not riots”. Here is to hoping that this invisible undercurrent becomes visible before the next elections in 2020, and that their sandwiches will represent solidarity instead of sinister propaganda.

Cover image (cc) Unsplash

Story by

Djordje Todorovic

Law student living in Vienna