The black troika: Toma, Boris and us - the circus leaving our little town

Author: Vladimir Arsenijevic
Uploaded: Tuesday, 10 July, 2012

A sardonic first reaction to the victory of Tomislav Nikolic in May's presidential elections in Serbia from a well-known Belgrade journalist

 It had to happen sometime: Tomislav Nikolic finally won the race for president of the Republic of Serbia. In the second round of voting on Sunday, 20 May, the leader of the Progressives beat his opponent, Boris Tadic from the Democratic Party. Nikolic won 49.55 and Tadic 47.30 per cent of the votes. Victory was declared that same night, and soon after, both candidates gave conciliatory, even exceptionally civilised statements from their election headquarters. Tadic surrendered power peacefully, and Nikolic assumed it equally peacefully. By doing so, they both demonstrated an entirely new political culture in Serbia, as a visible signal that the logic of conflict and the destructive sensibility of the nineties are, after all, at least partially, behind our backs. One thing is most certainly irrefutable: Serbia has once again got exactly the president it deserves.
After all, this victory came neither lightly, nor quickly. Just like in the folk poem, Tomislav Nikolic ran for president of Serbia (and the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) five times. He ran five times, he fought like a hero, lost four times in a row, and finally made it on his fifth try. His odyssey lasted for 12 years and now, the outlines of Ithaca are finally on the horizon.
For 12 long years, exactly as long as this dysfunctional post-Milosevic Serbia has existed, which has matured into something very strange and disappointing, something that we most certainly didn’t hope for back in October 2000. In that sense, there has to be some justice in all this, however complex and uncomfortable for us it may be.
So, Tomislav Nikolic.
For those who don’t know much about him, he is a conservative nationalist politician, with limited education and intellectual abilities. A man of few words, not given to smiling, disastrous in public communication. He looks mainly gruff and depressed, as if he has been done some evil that’s not easily paid back. Sometimes he’s crude or stern, often cynical and unpleasant.   His main characteristic, nevertheless, seems to be incompetence. However, that’s something that remains to be felt on our own skin.
There is one thing that cannot be taken away from him. Unlike Tadic, Tomislav Nikolic has covered during these 12 sad years of ours quite a long, one could even say impressive, road. From being Seselj’s one-time, and it seemed lifelong, vice-president in that humane and pacifist Serbian Radical Party, well-known around the region, through the painful break-up with his former boss and political father (now indicted in The Hague) to the foundation of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the president of which he, Nikolic, has been from the very beginning. During that process, he went through a few sudden and not exactly convincing transformations and exhibitionist shows, which certainly did him no honour. He said all kinds of things and often put his foot in his mouth.
Still, a clear evolution is noticeable in Nikolic’s political path, regardless of what motivated it at this or that moment of his career. From a frighteningly aggressive and primitive, specifically radical extremism, he advanced to pragmatism, relatively moderate for Serbian circumstances, although with an undoubted nationalist tint, which characterises the politics pursued by Nikolic’s Progressives today.
Apart from the non-conflicting way in which he assumed power, by removing any doubts about his own European and democratic orientation, the added value that Tomislav Nikolic brought to Serbian politics when it became clear that he would be the next President of Serbia, is that he immediately handed in his resignation from the position of boss of his own party.   For this was a gesture for which his opponent never had the requisite power or will. Even though that was certainly expected of him, apart from many other things that remained let down during his sombre eight-year mandate.
Anyway, from the very beginning there was something unpromising about the character and work of Boris Tadic. This politician, of prominent build and speech, although a member of the Democratic Party from its foundation, was practically invisible to the general public during the gloomy nineties, until the fall of Milosevic. His rise is in direct connection with the tragic assassination of his predecessor, Zoran Djindjic in 2003. A year after Djindjic’s death, Boris Tadic was elected president of the party, and soon after he became the President of Serbia. He didn’t even have such a bad start: he went to Srebrenica to show his respect for the victims of genocide, and to an REM concert, where they dedicated to him his favourite song Orange Crush. I remember that with his ‘irresistible’ salt-and-pepper-hair-youthful- face look, he seemed to me like a brand new Zoran Djindjic, produced in secret Democratic Party (DS) laboratories, but a pointlessly diluted one. As if he himself was wondering at the time whether anything good could be expected from Djindjic’s diluted clone in a country like Serbia.
Today, eight years later, we know the answer to that question very well.
For years, this only seemingly doll-like president of ours, very much prone to gaining unlimited power with his various unconstitutional and undemocratic moves, ‘successfully’ sat on two chairs, as the untouchable president of his party and the untouchable president of our country at the same time. He’ll be able to tell his grandchildren about how during his time, instead of the real Democratic Party with which we fought against Milosevic during the nineties and an entire way of thinking personified in it, we were tricked by its utmost travesty. About how instead of a serious social-democratic party and civic orientation and strong intellectual charge, we ended up with the not at all discreet ‘charm’ of the new Serbian marketing-tycoon and anti-intellectual bourgeoisie of thinly masked nationalists in fancy ties.
Instead of a pie with cherry on top, what we got was just a pie. However, the damage that was done is in fact of megalomaniacal size. That is the basic paradox of this last period, marked by the rule of recent President Tadic. During these eight years he managed not only to turn inside-out the soul of the party which he led, but also to alienate from it a significant number of people, the author of these lines being one of them. These are exactly those people who considered the Democratic Party to be their real, or anyway only possible, choice. Except, as can be expected in this country of trampled hopes, we have lived to see this political party arrogantly trample their most serious and deepest expectations. Their failure to vote in these elections contributed to Tadic’s loss.   Except that, he still doesn’t appear to understand any of it, and persists in living on his pink cloud. He’s looking for someone to blame for his loss: the abstainers, the professional public (which, he said, does not understand well enough all the subtle mechanisms of pursuing politics), the intellectuals, anyone, but himself. Or those around him.
So, Boris Tadic is leaving after eight long years. Thank God, and the best of luck to him. We could remember him by many things, but it will be easiest to remember him by those colourful election campaigns in which, acting like the American presidential candidate, he drove around the devastated land of Serbia in a special bus. He would play the guitar or otherwise entertain the journalists present, and whenever they drove through some settlement, he would have a big smile and wave to the people, exhausted by their tired, harsh reality. He would visit specially selected and carefully prepared homes, have his picture taken with babies, children, youths, mothers, fathers, relatives, neighbours, anyone and everyone, have many pictures taken with poultry and cattle in village households. All this was most certainly advised by those same so-called marketing experts. While doing all this he seemed fulfilled and deeply satisfied, as if he were visiting some kind of tiny yet highly successful Holland or Denmark, a stable and rich country, which is simply blossoming under his wise leadership and which will, happy and satisfied as it is, surely vote for him again. Yeah right, ‘no such luck’, as Slobodan Milosevic, Tadic’s famous predecessor nicely put it once.
In the middle of all this, i.e. in the middle of this entire dynamic presidential game, are we, the citizens of Serbia.   After all, this show is going on for us too, but not because of us, everywhere around us, and yet past us. Those who participate in it most often refer to us, they seduce and mantra us, they serve us all their futile, unbearably light promises, they wink at us, smile at us, flirt with us, engage stylists and marketing agencies, think up campaigns, spend vast amounts of money on TV commercials, public appearances, tours and conventions, only in order to deceive and let us down, as soon as they manage to gain our trust. And each of them in his own unique way.   Our experience of parliamentary democracy is such, and no other.   Still, we are equally active participants in this game. Because, if we can’t do much, we can certainly do a little (to paraphrase St, singer of the great Goribor). And our ‘little’ is personified in the institution of the right to vote, which everyone can use any way they find useful.
So some of us voted for Boris Tadic this year as well. Not because they were particularly satisfied with reality, but because of the usual, extremely often abused and very corny argument of the Democrats about being the lesser of two evils.  
Some voted for Nikolic, hoping that if nobody before him managed to, this hero would be the one to solve all their life problems and difficulties. Yeah right, he’s just about to.
A third group decided not to vote for anyone, but within the unique, informal, viral movement of the ‘white votes’ (invalid votes). They went to the polls only to throw empty or imaginatively decorated ballots into the ballot boxes, thus turning their abstinence into a clear and eloquent political opinion.
A fourth group simply stayed at home, feeling that they were fed up with everything and that they did not wish to send any message to anyone even with their passivity. This group is at the same time the largest, since the total number of voters in the second round of the presidential elections in Serbia in 2012 was less than 50%.
And anyway, all in all, it was just an ordinary, even rather relaxed May Sunday. Nobody, who happened to be on the streets of Belgrade that day, would have said that the second round of presidential elections was underway in Serbia. Elections which were crucial in many ways. People walked around the city peacefully, enjoying the sunny, mild weather. People talked about this and that, but least about Tadic and Nikolic. One could say, based on many things that marked the general atmosphere of the 2012 elections, that as a society, despite all the circumstances, we nevertheless reached an entirely new phase of civic maturity which, if nothing else, can at least be an investment into a somewhat better future.
Only in the evening, when the election results were published and when it became clear that Tomislav Nikolic would be our next president, did things somewhat change.
Since I live in the very centre of Belgrade, that night between the Sunday and the Monday I was forced to listen to the loud celebration of Nikolic’s supporters who, accompanied by screaming sirens, gathered in the squares to mark this ‘major victory’ with like-minded people.   Even though the experts mainly agree that these election results do not represent Nikolic’s victory as much as Tadic’s defeat, the supporters of the new president of Serbia couldn’t care less about nuances. Tomislav Nikolic is now president, everything else is insignificant. Not even the fact that we have ahead of us some very intense post-election combinations regarding the formation of the government, and that this time actually everything is possible, managed to upset the celebration of Nikolic’s supporters. They blew their horns cheerfully and waved the Serbian flag while frenetically shouting, ‘Tomo, Srbine! [Tomo, you Serbian man!] Tomo, Srbine! Tomo, Srbine’!
Sometime after midnight, tired of everything, I closed the window and lay down. Regardless of everything, the next day was a new, working day, and I needed energy and sleep. So, I tried to get to sleep, but in vain. Everywhere around me, with its eternally exhausting complications, Serbia was pulsating.
This comment was published on (Belgrade), 29 May 2012
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