Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hard Men of Serbian Right in Bullish Mood

Radicals have succeeded in fusing populist nationalism with social discontent.
By Vladimir Sudar

Few journalists passed up the opportunity to taste the legendary hospitality of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, at their Belgrade headquarters on election night on June 13.

The nationalist operations centre is well known for the hearty portions of traditional roast pork served to guests and visitors, not to mention the apricot brandy made by the Radicals’ presidential candidate himself, Tomislav Nikolic.

The emphasis on traditional food and peasant drinks is typical of a party that has always strived to portray itself as the people’s voice, standing up for the Serbian heartland against interfering foreigners and their friends, the big-city liberals.

In the parliamentary elections held last December, the SRS celebrated in similar style, this time with a gypsy brass band playing patriotic songs about Serbian heroes and their deeds of old.

But on June 13, despite early promising results for the SRS, the celebrations did not match that earlier event.

The gypsy band failed to appear after the security guards on the door sent them home before they could blow so much as a trumpet.

They were told to go back to their home town of Vladicin Han in south Serbia, under orders to return in a fortnight, when the SRS expects to celebrate Nikolic's victory in the second round of the election.

Whether the SRS campaign staff will ever hear their musical offerings is uncertain, however. Though Nikolic topped the June 13 poll with just over 30 per cent of votes cast, many officials looked worried on hearing the results.

The gap between Nikolic and his nearest rival, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, DS, was closer than expected after Tadic scored around 27 per cent.

Off the record, party officials blamed Kosovo Serb tycoon Bogoljub Karic for stealing their supporters. Karic, a dark horse in the race, took 18 per cent of the votes, prompting Nikolic to claim at a later press conference that Karic had been “ordered” to take votes from him.

In spite of the relative setback, no one expects the SRS to fade from political prominence in Serbia any time soon.

The populist and hard-line nationalist SRS has been the strongest party in Serbia since last December’s parliamentary elections, despite the collapse of the projects of the Nineties to build a “Greater Serbia” on the ruins of Yugoslavia and the fact that their leader, Vojislav Seselj, is in The Hague on trial for war crimes.

Zoran Stojiljkovic, sociologist of the Belgrade University School of Political Sciences, says the rise of the SRS is proof of popular disappointment with the changes since 2000, when the regime of Slobodan Milosevic collapsed.

Stojiljkovic told IWPR the Radicals had successfully tapped into popular fears over “pressing national and social welfare issues”.

In his view, many ordinary people see the SRS as an authentic popular force, loyal to Serbia’s historic “national programme” of territorial expansion, while at the same time mining social discontent.

Stojiljkovic recalled that several polls said more than 40 per cent of voters described their living standards as unbearable and believed society was worse off now than at any time before.

“Thanks to most people’s short-term memory, the SRS has become a sort of a third option,” he said. “They have been forgiven for their participation in the rule of Milosevic's Socialists before 2000.”

According to Slobodan Markovic, of the Belgrade Institute for European Studies, “Unemployment was the main reason why many people to vote for SRS.”

Public opinion polls in Serbia suggest the party does best among the poorest classes, among those who see themselves as victims of Serbia’s botched transition from socialism to a capitalist society.

For all the party’s official agenda of fire-breathing nationalism, Nikolic has concentrated on joblessness and the high price of basic foods in his campaigns, promising in the November presidential election to peg the price of a loaf of bread at three dinars (nearly two US cents).

Such promises, however difficult to keep, strike a chord with many. One middle aged woman told IWPR that she had “stayed without work in the transition period” and looked forward to cheap food under Nikolic’s presidency.

“If Toma wins, there will be bread for us all,” she opined. “When the Radicals were in power during the NATO aggression against our country [in 1999], no one went hungry.”

Another woman working in a state-run enterprise said she voted for the SRS because she, too, had become worse off after all the democratic changes than she had been under Milosevic.

“My pay is miserable. It is late for months, yet our general manager earns more than his colleagues in the West,” she said.

While the Socialists and the Radicals were in power, she added, life was hard but the gap between rich and poor was narrower.

Davor Djurdjevic, a Serb from Sarajevo, in Bosnia, said he had voted for Nikolic mainly because of his nationalist views.

While Nikolic has downplayed the issue, Seselj has continued to insist he remains committed to forging a greater Serbian state encompassing most of Bosnia and Croatia.

“Nikolic is aware that the Greater Serbia platform can only be achieved today through diplomatic means,” Djurdjevic said.

Though the Radicals oppose the transfer of war crimes indictees to The Hague, Djurdjevic said he was not bothered by the thought that they might back down if they came to power.

“Most people believe [ex-Bosnian Serb general] Ratko Mladic is a cool guy but there would not be major protests in Serbia if he was handed over to the tribunal,” he said.

His seeming lack of passion on the issue of the tribunal is a reminder of the fact that under Nikolic, the Radicals have moderated their once strident tone.

The days when Seselj promised to gouge out Croats’ eyes with rusty spoons are long gone, as Nikolic prefers to insist his fancy diplomatic footwork will conjure up Greater Serbia without a bullet fired.

The Radicals “have significantly moderated their political discourse after the surrender of their leader Vojislav Seselj to The Hague”, says Zoran Vacic, of the Centre for Liberal Democratic Studies.

“This is the main reason their ratings have rocketed in only three-and-a-half years from 300,000 votes to about one million.”

Zeljko Vojinovic, of the political marketing agency Senat, says the Radicals have successfully trimmed their image and programme to meet new demands. “They have proved themselves as the most serious political party in Serbia,” he said.

“Their image has been tweaked to appeal to voters. Their reluctance to present their extremist views in public, which used to be their trademark, illustrates the point.”

The SRS leaders “have shifted from their radical position in words, but still give an impression of being consistent”, Vojinovic says, adding that their own “core” vote corresponded to a nationalist “hard core” of 15 to 20 per cent of the electorate.

On top of this hard core of around 500,000 nationalists, they had attracted many so-called “victims of transition”, Stojiljkovic said.

“Given the squabbling and infighting among the democratic players on the political scene, the Radicals are increasingly convincing and appealing to people.”

On election night on June 13, it was the nationalist true believers who dominated the proceedings, however.

One was a war veteran seated in his invalid’s wheelchair.

The middle aged man did not want to give his name and would only say that after being wounded in one of the “liberation wars” of the Nineties, help had come from the Radicals’ office in his home town of Zemun, outside Belgrade. “I vote for the SRS because they are the only true patriots,” he told IWPR.

Vladimir Sudar is a journalist with Reporter Magazine.