Observers of the Serbian political scene have been experiencing the same déjà vu for years now: at every press conference, at every public appearance, behind every journalist’s question lurks an alleged conspiracy against Aleksandar Vučić. Whether as Prime Minister or now as President of the Republic, time and time again he feels compelled to fight off enemies both internally (in the form of the hopelessly dilettantish and ideologically battered opposition) and externally (above all in the form of the television station N1, whose majority shareholder is CNN). The posture of the individual sacrificing himself for his people, surrounded by vile political opponents, lies with the president. Even at present, as can be seen in the way the crisis situation surrounding the spread of the COVD-19 virus has been dealt with, the victim myth is still being pursued.
Here stands a politician who—contrary to widespread public opinion and despite (non-existent) slander by a financially overpowering opposition—has to take unpopular measures to save the population of his state from catastrophe. The president intuitively senses that these measures are unpopular and not appreciated. He does not hide this fact either, because, as the President says in his daily speeches to the nation, even if he is torn apart in public for his measures, even if he is hated again: no price is too high for the people’s wellbeing, approval ratings and public sentiment aside. Aleksandar Vučić’s public self-dramatization fits almost perfectly with a verse from Friedrich Schiller’s play, Maria Stuart:
O, he is not yet king that must please the world. It is only he who does not need to ask for applause for his actions / after no man.
But observers of the Serbian political scene also know that Aleksandar Vučić is permanently on the campaign trail, as is also the case this time. Just as his posture as a political David is only played, because no politician in the country is even remotely as powerful, his pathetic renunciation of public “applause” is pure masquerade. This is exemplified by his current handling of the pandemic.
One of the president’s first public appearances on the subject of COVID-19 was a press conference on 26 February, at which the controversial pulmonologist Branimir Nestorović appeared alongside him. Nestorović, who in the past had attracted attention mainly because he publicly railed against vaccinations, went so far as to make the already more than outdated assessment that the virus was harmless and on the retreat. In order to underline his thesis, Nestorović reached deep into the misogynistic fun box and recommended women go shopping in Milan, where they could find especially cheap offers. Nestorović rated the pandemic itself as a “Facebook problem” that did not exist in the real world. The Serbian people survived the NATO bombing, so this virus would be a real laughing stock. Aleksandar Vučić shared the podium with this quack and laughed heartily. At a time when eleven communities in Lombardy were already under quarantine.
The question of “why?” can be answered relatively clearly: Serbia was at the beginning of the parliamentary election campaign, originally planned for mid-April, and nothing was to disturb the script. The epidemic was downplayed, the possible consequences made light of, “experts” close to the ruling SNS were questioned—and all this to give the population the impression that with the SNS and Aleksandar Vučić at the helm nothing could happen to Serbia. The Serbian political leadership apparently did not inform its own population about the spread of the virus for days in order not to disturb the election campaign preparations of the ruling SNS. When the crisis finally spread more and more uncontrollably throughout Europe, the Serbian President decided to act. He accused journalists and critical segments of the public of lying, that nobody had made fun of the virus—according to Aleksandar Vučić during a TV speech on 11 March, especially not such a respected doctor like Branimir Nestorović. Since 11 March the “respected” Mr. Nestorović has nevertheless not appeared in public at the president’s side.
Since then, the Serbian state has taken a number of measures to slow down the further spread of the virus. Many are useful, especially from a medical point of view. Nevertheless, it is important to critically reflect on the individual steps to examine their effectiveness and, above all, to analyse the expected social consequences. We can roughly differentiate between two directions: Efforts that can be described as medical measures in the narrower sense, the aim of which is to achieve an improvement in treatment capacities. At present (26 March), there are officially 457 people infected with the virus in Serbia, seven of whom have died.
In addition, measures are being taken to contain the further spread of the virus. These are of a restrictive nature, and the state has announced the use of its repressive apparatus (if necessary) to comply with them. To this end, a state of emergency was declared in Serbia on 15 March.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brutally exposed the devastation caused by decades of austerity in the health sector—not only in Serbia, but across Europe. At the end of 2019 the Serbian government cut the equivalent of 14 million euro from the health sector to finance infrastructure projects. Also in 2019, more than 500,000 euros were diverted from the budget of the Ministry of Health to the state advertising campaign «Serbia is creating».
A central problem of the Serbian health system is the poor working conditions (poor equipment, overtime) for doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, as well as insufficient remuneration. With an average wage for doctors of just under 750 euro and around 400 for nurses, labour emigration is more or less only a matter of time for most young professionals in Serbia. A psychiatrist friend of mine who works at a prestigious clinic described the problems to me as follows:
“As a doctor, I know that we lack staff at all levels. In my clinic we have about ten doctors less than ten years ago. Last year we had calls for nurses, but they all failed because no one applied for the positions. Last year, three highly qualified nurses went to Germany within a month, two of them were department heads, all in their prime, about 35–45 years old. This quality and work experience—it will take years to replace them.”
There are no official statistics on emigration, at least not available to the public, but according to the director of the Serbian Medical Chamber Milan Dinić, the figures at the beginning of last year were 300 doctors per year. One of the most popular destinations for young and well-trained doctors is Germany. While it is naturally difficult for Serbia to compensate for this, Germany benefits in three ways: firstly, the German education system saves on training highly qualified doctors; secondly, it covers rural areas in particular, which are not very attractive for German doctors; and thirdly, the German health system also saves on wages and salaries, as statistics show that foreign employees, regardless of their qualifications, earn considerably less than their German colleagues.
The emigration of medical professionals outlined above not only forces countries like Serbia into a potential supply crisis for their own population, it also perpetuates the absurd tendency in Germany to artificially restrict access to medical studies. Data from studymed, an Internet portal for prospective medical students, show that the numerus clausus for medicine is between 1.0 and 1.1 nationwide. The consequence of this elitist educational policy is that the number of medical students in Germany is kept artificially low. As a result, those who graduate in Germany fill well-paid and attractive positions or emigrate to high-wage countries such as Switzerland or Luxembourg. The lack of medical cover in Germany is then filled by “cheap” doctors from places like Serbia.
The German education system not only saves money on training, but also exploits the Serbian health and education system and young Serbian doctors who come to Germany and save the German health system from collapsing. The fact that the Serbian health system has not collapsed long ago is mainly due to the fact that, despite all the policy of cutting back, basic medical care still exists throughout the country and fundamental infrastructural decisions from the time of socialist Yugoslavia persist. For the reasons described above, there are 285 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants in Serbia, which is significantly below the EU average (333 per 100,000 inhabitants). In the case of nurses this discrepancy is even greater, with 554 nurses per 100,000 inhabitants, whereas the EU average is 825 per 100,000 inhabitants. However, in terms of the number of hospital beds, Serbia’s 567 beds per 100,000 inhabitants is even slightly above the EU average (541 per 100,000).
Another problem is the necessary medical equipment. In the case of the current crisis, this is illustrated above all by the question of whether Serbia has sufficient respiratory equipment and around which a grotesque information policy has been pursued. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić began a press conference on 12 March by claiming that the exact number of ventilators was a state secret, as in all other states. Thereupon the hour finally struck for the President of the Republic. In the days that followed, the press conferences turned into a monologue led and conducted by Aleksandar Vučić, who even publicly took responsibility for his prime minister’s statement by saying that this was his tactical attempt to procure new ventilators abroad despite export restrictions on medical equipment, such as in Germany. Later it was said that Serbia possessed 1,008 ventilators and that he, as President, would procure additional ones on the black market if necessary, no matter what the opposition said and whether they would publicly tear him apart for this. The experts and doctors at the press conferences were left with nothing but an extra role, and it was now up to the head of state to answer the major epidemiological and medical questions of principle.
In order to slow down the further spread of the virus, Serbia’s political leadership decided on 15 March to declare a state of emergency. This could last up to 90 days. In detail this means that universities, schools, and kindergartens were closed, as well as theatres and cinemas. Shops and restaurants have only shortened opening hours, and border and air traffic has been suspended. People over 65 years of age must stay at home. In the beginning, a curfew was imposed between 20:00 and 5:00, but has since been extended to the period between 17:00 and 5:00.
In general, it ought to be noted that the restrictions affecting public life have been continuously tightened since 15 March. The way in which information policy has been implemented has varied between hair-raising and worrying. Hair-raising because the measures introduced were not primarily justified on objective grounds, but resulted in a kind of public insult. The President of the Republic did not refrain from implicitly portraying Serbian citizens as underage and irresponsible, and even threatening them with a 24-hour curfew if they did not comply sufficiently with the demands for social distancing and self-isolation. This was pretty much exactly what Sascha Lobo recently described as “rational panic”. A public debate on such far-reaching encroachments on fundamental rights did not even begin to take place, apart from an association of critical lawyers who critically commented on certain effects.
Worrying because critical inquiries were perceived as attacks on the state and the integrity of the president, as deliberate disruptive manoeuvres by a kind of fifth column, and were lambasted accordingly. “Serbia is at war”, the president announced on the day of the declaration of the state of emergency, and dissonance and critical questions are tolerated even less in wartime than they were anyway. But here as well, Serbia is more a reflection of a general tendency than an exception. Restrictions of democratic rights, disparagement of democratic processes, and ignorance of democratic decision-making—especially when directed against the dictates of the capitalist logic of exploitation or when challenging the austerity that had coagulated into a hegemonic consensus (keyword: blackmailing Greece by the troika headed by Wolfgang Schäuble)—was and is under constant attack, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. We should be concerned, however, that this creeping erosion process is now accelerating.
The erosion of democratic processes is accompanied by the successive erosion of social rights already occurring for decades. What all demands for self-isolation and quarantines have in common is that they will affect workers first and foremost—and the less the state intervenes to prevent the worst excesses by the capital fraction, the more drastic the socio-economic consequences and repercussions for the majority of the population will become.
In addition to domestic political polemics, however, Aleksandar Vučić also came up with a foreign policy bomb. And he was not wrong when he said at the press conference on 15 March that “European solidarity does not exist. It was a beautiful fairy-tale!” The background was the refusal of many EU countries to export medical equipment. Regardless of what the EU’s export restrictions actually looked like in detail, what distinguishes Europe’s handling of the pandemic is the lack of any more concrete solidarity. Italy and Spain are almost entirely on their own, and the only countries providing tangible help within their means are Cuba and China. Thus it is not surprising that Vučić called the Chinese president “my brother”. A few days after this appearance, China delivered urgently needed medical equipment and sent crisis-tested medical personnel to Serbia to support local doctors.
On a European scale—and this can be stated without further ado so far—Serbia seems to be keeping the virus under control on its territory, despite its initial ignorance. And yet one has the feeling that the social question that will inevitably and especially arise as a result of the pandemic will not be solved in Serbia or elsewhere in the interests of working people and the poor.
One lesson to be learned from this pandemic is that the development of free health care that is publicly accessible to all, with significantly increased capacities, should be at the top of the agenda. Inevitably, general medical research not subject to short-term profit calculations by pharmaceutical companies that deals with issues relating to the spread of viruses must be carried out prophylactically. Many experts have pointed this out, such as Jason Schwartz of the Yale School of Public Health, who stated in a contribution to The Atlantic that important insights into the new corona virus could have been gained during research into the SARS virus: “If we had not put aside the SARS vaccine research programme, we would now have much more basic knowledge that we could have applied to this new, closely related virus.”
Sustainable development of medical infrastructure and the creation of decent working conditions for medical staff would have to be a pan-European health programme, a programme based on the basic principles of solidarity. The fatal consequences of its absence are currently visible. The only thing is that there are no political actors to support such a project, or they are too politically weak to stand up to capital’s lobbyists in the European Parliament and the national parliaments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that workers are again the hardest hit by the crisis. The reports from Italy are now known to most people, and important analyses of the socio-economic implications in Western Europe have also been published. However, in Southeast Europe, economically dependent and more or less openly subordinated to the guidelines of the core, a turnaround is hardly to be expected of its own accord. In this respect, the Serbian Minister of Social Affairs, Zoran Đorđević, is not at all wrong when he claims that he can only appeal to companies not to lay anyone off during the crisis. Because proscribing or forbidding by law—the European Centre would hardly accept this solo effort.
In order to initiate a socialist-ecological transition, as recently called for by Verena Kreilinger and Christian Zeller, a clear strengthening of left-wing actors is needed, especially in the capitalist core. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders could have been the first steps towards this, but were successively sabotaged by their own social-democratic apparatuses.
Another social problem could become the housing situation. What happens to people who are no longer able to pay their rent due to a lack of income? What happens to people who are no longer able to pay their loan instalments for already purchased housing? The Serbian government, for example, has imposed a so-called moratorium on the repayment of property loans, but without informing citizens that the banks will continue to charge interest for the period that instalments are suspended. Banks will make an additional profit by being able to collect interest for the period of the moratorium. How targeted demands for a social housing policy could look like was shown by the collective “Right to the City”, which is active in the Croatian capital Zagreb: suspension of all forced evictions; moratorium, with no hidden interest clauses, on housing loans; suspension of rent payments in cases of social hardship; reorganization and provision of housing for the homeless.
For women, the crisis potentially becomes an additional burden, especially if they are now forced to live in self-isolation or domestic quarantine with violent partners. Initial reports from China have reported a threefold increase in domestic violence. Solutions, not to mention strategies, have not yet been addressed.
In his recently published interview on Spectre Journal, Michael Roberts is of course right when he analyses that capitalism has not stabilized since 2008 and that an economic recession was imminent anyway, meaning that the pandemic is the trigger but certainly not the reason for the impending recession. Nevertheless, the severity of the social issue at stake has probably taken on a new dimension.
Krunoslav Stojaković is a historian and director of the Regional Offices for Southeast Europe in Belgrade, Serbia and Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina.