INTERVIEW Savo Manojlovic, leader of the "Make Changes" movement in Serbia: Organizing society is a matter of will, organization and strategy, everything else is an excuse
Democracy in society depends above all on us, the people are the last line of defense of the Constitution and no one is stronger than them when they organize, Savo Manojlovic, currently probably the fiercest critic of the government in Serbia, activist and a great fighter for human rights and environmental protection.
When he recently received the award from the Faculty of Law of the University of Belgrade for the best doctorate in constitutional law and political system, Manojlovic said that when an individual occupies the party and the party the whole society, institutions are destroyed. Then there are no deputies in the parliament, but Caligula's horses.
Is the situation in Serbian society monopolized to such an extent by one individual and can civil society and civil society organizations, as well as the academic and scientific public, influence to improve the democratization of a society or is it all just a Sisyphean battle in which those who win which are louder, more insolent and inclined to authoritarian methods of government?
– There is a thought: "Never underestimate the possibility of a small group of people changing the world, in fact, they are the only ones who ever did." Change is absolutely possible. Creating an orderly society is just a matter of will, organization and strategy. Perhaps the societies in the Western Balkans now have a weaker starting position, but all that can change. Everything else is excused. Well, look at Romania. During Yugoslavia, Romania was a symbol of poverty for all of us, and it was like that after it joined the EU, until there was a big purge where corrupt politicians, from both the former and the current government, were put in prison. Is Romania now a perfect country and is there no corruption at all? Of course not. But she went far. In terms of personal income, it belongs to the developed countries, it is indisputable that it is at the bottom of that list, but it entered that club. Ten years ago it was economically at the level of Serbia, now it is almost twice as high.
You became known to the Serbian and the wider public in the region when your civil organization "Kreni čreni" succeeded together with the citizens of Serbia in persuading the Government to terminate the contract with the multinational company Rio Tinto for the exploration and exploitation of lithium and boron in Serbia. Do you consider it a personal success and does winning this battle also mean winning the war with the government?
- I must point out that this is just one of the victories that "Make Changes" together with citizens and other organizations won in the last three years. There are many civil victories there. In Serbia, rivers were saved from destruction through ecologically harmful mini-hydropower plants, many green areas were defended, such as the local park of Banovo Brdo, the famous whistler Aleksandar Obradović was released from detention, students saved their Polyclinic, and scientists saved their Natural History Museum. Undeniably, this is the largest civil uprising and victory since 2000, with more than 130.000 people on the streets. Stopping the Rio Tinto project is a victory for every person who participated in this fight and everyone should be aware that his coming to the protest, signing the petition, paying the donation was extremely important and maybe even crucial to achieve this victory. However, this is only a battle won, not a war. We want a modern, promising country, cleansed of crime, in which corrupt politicians from both the former and current government will end up behind bars, institutions will do their job and apply the law, and society will function according to the principle of knowledge (meritocracy), and not according to nepotism and political eligibility.
According to many, you have succeeded in something, like no one else. The authorities in Serbia terminated the contract with Rio Tinto under the pressure of the blockades organized by "Make Changes". It is the first case that the government accepts the demands of the citizens, and these are not demands from members of the SNS or the coalition parties. Does this mean that changes and democratization of society have begun in Serbia?
- It is the first time that we have such large demands that were adopted after the government explicitly stated that it would not give in. Democracy in society depends primarily on us. The people are the last line of defense of the Constitution and no one is stronger than the people when organized.
The media in Serbia (except for two or three that are, let's say, opposition oriented) are under the protection of the government. They are fierce in condemning those who have even slightly different opinions from Aleksandar Vucic, and you are one of them. How do you accept those accusations and labels?
- I think that readers in Macedonia know how systems work in which politics, crime and media control are intertwined. You cannot fight such a system without expecting the most brutal attacks. I see all threats, insults and media hype as obstacles that will not stop us on the way to a modern and just Serbia.
In your opinion, where does the fascination of citizens in the region of Southeast Europe with politicians who have an authoritarian style of government come from? You have Vucic, we had Gruevski, in Bulgaria it was Borisov, in Hungary it is still Orban...
- That's right. In Montenegro, we have Milo Djukanovic, and in Albania, Edi Rama. You know, I don't think that the citizens are particularly fascinated by these people. A section, mainly the elderly population, may be fascinated by the images projected by the media, but those images are not real. When you read fairy tales, you are also fascinated by the fairy tale characters. The other part of the citizens is often blackmailed by existential issues and by work in the public sector. However, if you offer citizens a vision, organize well and work hard to reach the common man, change is possible. What is very important is to have a clear plan of what to do when the change comes. If you don't have a clear plan and people who will change the life of the common man for the better, then you can kill people's hope and eat whole generations. The bearers of corruption must not be allowed to change the party or the new people to do the same bad things. The main task of the change bearer is not to let down the struggle of the common man.
The most important unresolved issue in Serbia is the Kosovo issue. Can progress be expected in the near future in terms of resolving it and have you perhaps considered what could be a mutually acceptable solution that would end that crisis?
– There is no quick and easy solution to this issue. My opinion is that by recognizing Kosovo, Western NATO countries made a big mistake and opened Pandora's box. And no matter how much they convinced everyone that this was a case and an exception, now you see that Russia is doing the same thing in Ukraine, before it was done in Georgia. It seems to me that some games of geopolitical poker are being played in the Balkans in a leftist way and that human lives are being invested as tokens. Now you have some political elites who are constantly negotiating and blackmailing each other and they are doing well in these mutual negotiations, but the people are doing badly. I see something similar in Macedonia. Thus functional states cannot be created.
Many agree that the only path for the countries of the Western Balkans is the path towards European integration, but the practice is completely different. You open chapters very slowly, we are once again being held back by one member state, BiH is in a constant crisis, and the EU has made no special effort to solve it. Many in Serbia see salvation in Russia - is there a possibility that things will go in a negative direction and the situation in the Western Balkans will escalate again?
- It would be good if the next world earthquake does not affect the Balkans this time. And so far we have paid too dearly for world conflicts. I think that the EU is largely responsible for the current situation in the Balkans. They supported or support most of the Balkan autocrats you listed. For many, they had a decisive influence to come to power, looked through their fingers for governance that is contrary to European values such as the fight against corruption or an independent judiciary. On the other hand, they very often broke their promises and did not make progress that would affect the quality of life of ordinary people. A good example is the breaking of promises related to Macedonia, after you made concessions regarding your own name. Then you can't wonder why citizens are losing confidence in the EU.