Baron Bieberhausen. A lonely dinosaur of a past era. Candeid fruit.
These are some of the wittier terms Serbia’s president and leader of the ruling Progressive Party of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, has used to describe me in press releases, tweets and TV appearances over the past year.
The less flattering include ‘on-duty Serb-hater’, ‘poisonous spice’, ‘propagandist’ and ‘professor of hatred and propaganda’.
It began on television, when Vucic would use his regular talkshow appearances to attack me, often to the surprise of interviewers. He claimed to “rate” me, but felt tormented by my “left-wing ideological dogmatism”, while challenging the interviewer to tell him who I was – “nobody and nothing”, of course.
By that point, his party deputy, Marko Djuric, had joined in, criticising me on a daily basis.
The trigger was my criticism of the Serbian government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and a parliamentary election in June that took place despite an opposition boycott and following the reckless loosening of pandemic restrictions to give voters a false sense of normality.
Over the following weeks, 37 year-old Djuric, who at that time was head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, vice-president of the Progressive Party of Serbia, SNS, and Serbia’s future ambassador to the United States, spent most of his Twitter time posting my interviews and comments only to attack, criticise and dismiss them.
This has been going on for over three months now, leaving the impression that running the government’s office for Kosovo leaves a lot of time for railing against an academic in Graz.
The campaign often took comical turns, such as when Djuric betrayed his ignorance of Russian literature by posting the cover of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot to suggest that I was just that – an idiot. The ‘idiot’ of Dostoevsky’s classic, of course, was far from the fool the term implies, but rather a character of great intelligence, empathy and self-awareness.
Calling me Baron Bieberhausen, in reference to the fictional German nobleman Baron Munchhausen, was particularly entertaining. But when, over the summer, Djuric suggested I be declared ‘persona non-grata’ in the Balkans, he trod a fine line between bad joke and sinister threat.
Beyond the amusement, however, the name-calling and accusations have revealed much about Serbia’s ruling party.
Fake Twitter fans
First, it provided a glimpse of the fake image of support the SNS works to create.
At first, Djuric’s posts and remarks caused little commotion beyond a few ‘likes’ here and there. Then suddenly, hours or even days later, he would earn a flurry of hundreds of ‘likes’ and retweets within a short space of time, usually during work-hours. The pattern was striking. And it would end as quickly as it had started. The bots had done their job and moved on.
Djuric’s fans were remarkably similar – most had only recently opened Twitter accounts, few actually tweeted themselves and all they really cared about were tweets by the SNS and its officials. No surprise, considering Twitter had blocked almost 9,000 accounts promoting Vucic and his party earlier this year.
Secondly, the attacks on Twitter, TV and via press release revealed the nature of the Serbian regime, placing it in the same company as Viktor Orban’s Hungarian government, which has been attacking critical academics and journalists for years, and Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly jails critical academics. Donald Trump also has little patience for critics.
They all share a fundamentally undemocratic understanding of politics, where criticism is dismissed and rejected as illegitimate.
In this understanding, critical journalists and academics inhabit the world of fake news and any criticism is, per se, illegitimate.
For years, the Serbian government has been copying these global trends while also drawing on the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic.
I discussed this in my recent book, The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans. The comments by Vucic, Djuric and other SNS officials against me include classic themes of an authoritarian world view.
First, any criticism of the regime is an attack on the state and the nation.
Calling me an ‘on-duty Serb-hater’ suggests that criticising a government is the same as attacking the nation. Milosevic pursued a similar tactic.
Shortly before his ouster in October 2000, the establishment daily Politika carried a headline suggesting that Milosevic’s opponents were against him because they were against Serbia. The leader merges with the nation, and an attack against the former becomes simultaneously an attack on the latter.
Secondly, the strategy is to claim that critics are motivated by bribes and financial motivations [without offering any evidence].
So Djuric, in his less-than-creative response to my 10 recommendations for a ‘Balkan prince’ in 2015, issued his own 11 proposals for a Luxembourgish royal in which he suggested that attacking Serbia “pays” and that part of the money would come from Pristina and the rest from other “friends” of Serbia.
Thus, criticism is not motivated by professional judgment, but is merely paid propaganda. By associating it with outside enemies, framed ironically as “friends”, the criticism is further discredited.
Thirdly, the critique is dismissed as marginal or ignorant.
Vucic took the time to call me “nobody and nothing” during a television appearance in July, with the goal of downplaying the relevance of any criticism I might make.
Of course, it is a little self-defeating for the president of Serbia to bring up my name only to claim that I am irrelevant, effectively disproving the very point he was trying to make.
Chilling effect on critical voices at home
Finally, regime media framed the exchange with Djuric as a boxing match in which punches are thrown and someone is knocked out.
Sensationalising the exchange reduces it to a game of who beats whom. Of course, for the regime media, every comment by Djuric put me on the ropes whereas I barely landed a punch.
Foreign academics or journalists are easily attacked for being either ignorant or paid propagandists, thus dismissing any critical comments they might have.
I, together with journalists, academics and politicians who have been commenting critically about Serbian politics can afford to become the target of government attacks.
While it might be disconcerting and time-consuming, it carries few real consequences.
I may not enjoy the numerous sources of income in exchange for propaganda that Djuric imagines, but working in an institution that values academic research and protects independence allows me to offer my critical perspectives.
However, such attacks have a chilling effect on critical voices inside the country. Few in Serbia could laugh off such a campaign.
With such slurs loyally reported by regime media, it is hard to ignore them in Serbia or any other country where critics are attacked.
Often, jobs are on the line. The government of Serbia has been silencing critical voices, from seeking control of independent academic institutions to firing and silencing professional and academic voices that dare to voice dissent.
The response of many is to keep quiet or stay at least below the radar of the government and ruling party.
Those who speak up know that they will be ostracized and threatened, their jobs and those of the people closest to them suddenly at risk.
Beyond the entertainment provided by the endless exchanges with Marko Djuric and other SNS officials, I hope they also help highlight the nature of the regime, one that attacks critics, dismisses and downplays their observations and leaves no space for an open critical debate.