In Serbia, pursuing right populism through mildly left rhetoric is neither an uncommon nor a recent phenomenon. Its start can probably be located in the aftermath of the political changes in 2000 and the end of the regime of Slobodan Milošević.
During the nineties, combination of right and left was visible in social programs for workers laid off in the privatized or shut down enterprises, while the public sphere was dominated by nationalistic and identity questions, allowing for uncontested maintenance of the process of primitive accumulation.
After 2000, situation changed, with Serbian official politics officially embracing Euro(-Atlantic) integration. No longer was Serbia overwhelmingly represented, internally or externally, as opposed to the West, but rather as an aspiring nation willing to join its ranks.
However, certain ambiguity in the relations between Serbia and Western powers remained, nurturing a feeling that the West had been against legitimate Serbian interests in all wars during the 90s. This allowed for the emergence of a strong oppositional discourse to the Euro(-Atlantic) integration, which persisted in Serbia ever since.
After 2000, the welfare state maintained during the nineties was renounced. The processes of its dismantlement, as well as privatization of increasing number of enterprises, social and state services, got intensified. This left social questions unaddressed, which was a circumstance seized upon by rightist movements.
The latter fused the concern over social issues – poverty in first place – with the critique of the official pro-western allegiance of the state. This is how the basis for contemporary local Third position movements and groups was laid down.
However, even though the right focused more on social issues, aside from nationalism, it still embraces certain type of pro-capitalist position as well. Their ideal is capitalism of a strong national bourgeoisie, assertion of the right, adequate and natural hierarchies. This economic side of the Third position is less present in the public sphere (deliberations on the economic policies are left to party programs where they revolve around nurturing domestic capitalist class and institutions).
In such circumstances, social discontent can be articulated through support for rightist movements, which are ready to use a rhetoric that could sound leftish through its calls for (national) independence, freedom and self-determination. Ultimately, what remains leftist in these movements is their wish to appeal to wider swaths of (working class) population, but little else apart from that.
Issues, groups, parties and movements
It should be kept in mind that “third position”, the term used in this text, is not a term which those groups use for themselves. This corresponds with the seeming disunity on the rightist/Third position scene. We can say that a group or a movement belongs to the Third position when it claims to be beyond the left-right division, or to use the best of both.
Serbia, like other Eastern European countries, has a multitude of problems which stem from its peripheral position in the international political and economic system.
An example of the effects of that position is the sudden appreciation of Swiss frank in 2015. Many consumer credits in Serbia were nominated in Swiss franks, which led to the sudden rise in the credit burden for many households in the country. There was no systemic response on the part of the state, which provided the chance for the public articulation of the Third position. Many such groups and movements accused the state of being weak in the face of (foreign) finance capital and failing to protect its own citizens.
One of the actors who criticized the government most vocally over the handling of the Swiss frank debt, was a party called “Dveri” (Doors). It is one of the main proponents of the Third position, which is visible in its declarations of being beyond left and right, and primarily concerned with national interests and traditional values.
The fate of Swiss frank debtors was one of the topics they recognized as a crucial example of the crisis of the present Serbian government, as well as of the broader international system. This was used to assert the need for a government loyal to the interests of its own nation, which would not allow such kind of economic injustice.
How is this to be achieved? Internationally, the party advocates the concept of the “Europe of nations”, while domestically it argues for the need to protect domestic capital, seeing it as inherently opposed to the foreign capital, and neglecting inherent negative social implications of capitalism, whether national or international.
The party openly singles out the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban as a model politician. It has a strong affiliation with the main church in the country, Serbian Ortodox Church. It uses the call for sovereignty as a solution for social and economic problems faced by the majority of local population. And this is probably the essence of the present-day Third position in Serbia.
According to them, the division between left and right should be abolished, and replaced with the division between those who support national interests and those who undermine them. These interests are not properly described, but currently they are recognizable in specific stances in relation to the independence of Kosovo, alliance with Russia or the West and similar, mostly national questions.
Another interesting formation is a local, quite popular rap group called “Belgrade Syndicate”. Most of their songs are aimed against abstract “them” who oppress the people. Their songs and verses are very illustrative of a typical Third position.
A well known verse from one of their songs says “neither left nor right – but directly into flesh”, which directly refers to the state of the political scene and the proposed solution beyond ideologies of left and right. In some of its songs the band is nostalgic of various idealized periods of Serbian history, which are representative of the proper – usually national – values, such as the medieval Serbian state, or the “authentic” spirit of Belgrade between the independence in 1878 and the Second World War.
Recently, the band released a successful single “The System Lies to You”. In the accompanying video people wearing masks of various local and international politicians are shown (with a notable exception of Putin). Another main motif of the video was a scene of a potential clash between protesters and the police, which resolves however in them embracing each other, ready to rebel against the real enemies. The idea is that all the systems are bankrupt, and that all people should join forces; but for what aim, remains vague.
This scene is also decidedly anti-communist, with a negative attitude to the existence of socialist Yugoslavia. While the critique of that Yugoslavia is primarily concerned with the position of various nations within it, the Communist party is seen as the group from which most of the present-day upper class members come from. Therefore, it is just one among various interest groups which exploited the people. This claim is mentioned in the song “The System Lies to You” as well, and is a common trope in comments on various portals.
Thus, Communist party, and accordingly, communism as such, are discredited as a hypocritical ideology and organization that in practice leads to the enrichment of the anational few. This claim has its tradition: it can be traced back to the socialist times with their well-known contempt for the “red bourgeoisie”, which continued its reproduction through various cultural or economic channels after the fall of socialism.
Therefore, in Serbia Third position movements and parties may be more ready than in other European countries to accept rightist self-identification. Another, bigger and older rightist party, Serbian Radical Party, also slips occasionally into leftist rhetoric. During an election campaign thirteen years ago, the current president of Serbia, then being a member of that party, promised “bread for 3 dinars” (1 euro equaled around 66 dinars at that point, in 2003). Today, they are ready to mention the grave economic condition, but its solution comes automatically with the shift in international allegiance, from the West to Russia.
Most of the other groups and movements are small in size or public visibility. Even when some of them claim that they are beyond left or right, most of them remain in the confines of nationalism, while some are quite close to fascism.
Their promise of restoring the domestic ownership of economy can fall flat, since a number of local capitalists already operate in the country, and their place of birth doesn’t bring any benefit to the country. Since a number of different groups and movements offer basically the same rhetoric to deal with the social discontent, they can be played against each other by the government.
For example, Dveri accused the Serbian Radical Party and the Serbian Progressive Party (mutually opposed on the question of European integration) of coordinated attack against them. Another party, “Srpski Sabor Zavetnici”, emerged in the months leading to the parliamentary elections of April 2016. Its iconography is a mixture between Dveri and Serbian Radical Party, and the messages are mostly similar.1 It got less than 2% of votes, but having in mind that coalition in which Dveri participated barely overcame the electoral threshold, its significance becomes clearer.
Third position as a tool of governance in the public sphere?
The existence of the aforementioned movements and groups has to be put into context of recent developments in political scene. Since 2012, Serbian electoral scene has effectively slided from two- to one-party system, where the main party, Serbian Progressive Party, dominates the elections with the results around 50% of all votes cast.
It is fairly possible, and indeed probable, that the ruling party cultivates several different images intended for several different audiences, of which the Third position image is one. This is the image of pragmatic concern for the well-being of the whole nation, making the best possible conditions for the widest swaths of population, but accepting the current state of affairs in international relations.
This “soft” nationalistic image can then be paired with the voices of the Third position, in order to produce certain nationalist hegemony in the public sphere, which then obscures neoliberal hegemony in production (foreign investments) and redistribution (talk of oversized state instead of a talk of failing social services).
In that context, the Third position is one of the most convenient oppositions, from the government’s standpoint, because it serves to swiftly attack certain oppositional movements, or usual scapegoats for social problems such as various minorities. While the government balances between the image of nationally-concerned patriots and that of internationally respectable transition state, Third position groups can attack social or economic opposition from the sole standpoint of national(ist) interests.
It is illustrative that the president of the Serbian Radical Party put forward only one condition for his collaboration with the ruling party – namely, a shift in its diplomatic allegiance; he neglected the devastating implications of the current neoliberal course of government.
However, the large number of these groups and movements can serve to disperse nationalistic sentiments and create an impression of a prevailing mood in the public opinion. They serve to maintain the never-ending state of emergency, under which national and state interests are constantly threatened. The core capitalist processes and regulations are safe in such environment, since any emancipatory narrative can be swiftly crushed on the grounds that it does not focus primarily on the national interests, usually defined through confrontation with ethnic, racial or civilizational “Other”
On the other hand, it would be wrong to treat Third position movements purely as a tool of the ruling party. The latter commands such power which allows it to utilize almost any movements of any ideological adherence in disorganizing the opposition to its rule.
Also, it remains a fact that many Third position movements, parties and groups relatively consistently point to the local effects of the decaying social services and other socio-economic ills. This is less important for the public sphere, but it is important at the ground level, for building grassroot lines of communication and support.
The actual effects of this meet-up between the local concern for poor socio-economic state, and grand imageries of national supremacy and sovereignty, remain to be examined on a local, micro level in order to assess the origin and potentials of the Third position scene in Serbia.
1. It is interesting to note that its young leaders, along with some other youth leaders of rightist/Third position tendency, went to a summer school for future political leaders in Russia. This points to the development of a new civil society rival to the older one, financed mostly by various Western governments and foundations.↩