Support Serbia’s “One In Five Million” movement, but for the right reasons

Coming from Serbia, but living in Germany for more than 10 years, it is easy to lose perspective. Every time I visit my home town of Belgrade I wonder if it is only my view which is getting distorted, or the country is indeed continuously deteriorating. However, it seems I am not the only one to notice that things are going south: many of my old friends still living in Serbia are unanimously talking about the general poverty with corrupt ruling party members and criminals (a thin separation line) getting shamelessly wealthy, about the failing health system with month-long waiting ques, tax evasion, job insecurity and pension cuts, about illegal construction of luxury condominiums next door to run-down neighborhoods, about the down-and-out infrastructure, etc. The official statistic is reporting a booming industry and record-low unemployment, whereas in reality as much as 10% of the working population has left the country in the past 10 years [1] and/or are simply not registered with the employment office. But probably the hardest part to stomach is the people’s lost dignity and general hopelessness.

Serbia has a long history of nationalist governments and of protests against it. In the best tradition of the anti-Milošević demonstrations from the early 2000s, the movement “1od5miliona” (One In Five Million) has been organizing tens of thousands of protesters every Saturday afternoon for already a couple of months [2]. Their demands are rather straightforward: prosecution of criminals, resignations of many government officials including the president Vučić, free and transparent elections, freedom of the press, the end of the omnipresent corruption as well as a myriad of more specific demands on the local level. Although all of them are sound and deserve full support, they are by far not sufficient.

If I would mention to a friend from Serbia that his or her worker’s rights (let alone state income) are getting brutally stumped by handing a large portion of their monthly salary under-the-counter, i.e. as an unregistered cash payment, I would get a typical reply that it is indeed not optimal, but that is how the system works nowadays. Indeed, one cannot ask them to forfeit a part of their hard-earned income in favor of some obscure rights they do no remember they have ever had, to a state they do not feel is working for them. And we did not even start talking about a progressive tax rate, distribution of wealth, fading labor unions, or about subverting the local economy by dubious privatizations and by deregulating the market in favor of predatory multinational corporations, all of which are also admittedly “not optimal”. Should I mention pollution, CO2 emissions and global warming I will most probably be laughed at, and rightly so, because you simply do not think about ecology if you are barely making ends meet. This is all rooted deep in the system of keeping the middle class, such as it is in Serbia, passive and under control.

So all the while “1od5miliona” is not protesting for the wrong reasons, we should not allow the immediate problems to blind us for the global ones. While demanding the removal of a corrupt government we should not forget that the social justice has been constantly reaching new lows ever since the Balkan wars in the 90s. On the way towards the rule of law we should not ignore the overwhelming tendency of pushing the people out of the decision-making process that establishes the law. While this is obvious in the case of Serbia and similar countries, it is by no means exclusive, but just a matter of a base level. For various historical reasons, the degradation of west-European democracy, social justice and public infrastructure is a process that started from a different level, but it keeps pace with eastern Europe very well. In order to keep our minds away from this problem, the free market capitalism often chooses to direct our attention towards scapegoats like refugees, minorities, external enemies or, as often the case with developing countries, towards corrupt governments which at some point get replaced by another ones with the same agenda and some buffer time to start the cycle again. As George Orwell has put it in his account of the Spanish civil war: “the war and the revolution are inseparable”, meaning that if we fight only for our freedom and not for participatory democracy and egalitarianism at the same time, we will just end up replacing one form of capitalism with another, which is what eventually indeed happened in Spain. Although an extreme case compared to modern-day Serbia, it is nevertheless a valuable history lesson to remember.

Should you support #1od5miliona? The movement organizes a large number of people in peaceful protests and every activist worldwide will tell you that organization is alpha and omega of every fight for political change. So I would say yes, support the movement and spread the word, but do not forget where the true enemy lies. Although transparency, human rights and market regulation do get mentioned from time to time, they still remain deep in the shadow of a (justified) request for a regime change. Most of the so-called political discussions are limited to petty quarrels on the level of school children about who started the fight and who is a bigger crook. One cannot even speak about a left or right orientation of a political party, ruling or opposition, because one simply never reaches a true political discussion. Do not let this or any other movement fall into that trap! Fight for regime change and the rule of law, but continue to discuss and demand social justice, otherwise you will change just the name and not the cause of the problem.


  1. Danilo Milinin March 10, 2019 4:10 pm 

    “This is all rooted deep in the system of keeping the middle class, such as it is in Serbia, passive and under control.”

    I disagree that middle class even exists in today serbia- more than three quarters of grown up population live with less then 300 euro per month , and with salary with more than 500 euro you become “member” of 10 percent richest “club” and
    with 900 euro you are one percenter in serbia. with average basic cost of living being around 550 euro i don’t think we can talk about influence of middle class.


  2. Danilo Milinin March 10, 2019 3:57 pm 

    “Serbia has a long history of nationalist governments and of protests against it.”

    i would disagree about this statement about history of protest against government because in this sentence one might think the reasons for protest were fight against nationalism, which is far from true
    during Milošević era- big part of opposition attitude against Milošević always was that he is “communist” and not “serb enough” and that he is not defending serbias national interest and also -losing the wars.
    governments which came afterwards continued with nationalistic rethoric and always had support from general population with these policies.
    Even today , with protests of “1od5miliona” (One In Five Million) it is well known that organisers of protest (at least in belgrade) are connected to, past members and part of opposition party groups.
    and main political topic of those opposition parties is Kosovo problem and free elections, which is continuation of nationalistic rhetoric of previous governments – for them topic is not neoliberal hammer which is smashing remains of almost destroyed institutions,economy and infrastructure which have history of several economic collapses.
    while i believe that majority of people on the protest are there for protesting devastated economy and widespread corruption
    – looking at the leaders of oposition parties who are there on the streets as some of the unofficial “leaders” of protest, it is important to say some of this groups have straight up fascist positions (Dveri) ,spreading racism and homophobia (Dragan Djilas, ex mayor of belgrade with many profitable businesses) and misogyny (Sergej Trifunović actor and leader of PSG party)
    Many people recognize this “leaders” for what they represent and while i agree it is important to keep resistance and protest against government alive i am not sure how many people would walk side by side with people who are in some sense very similar to what they are fighting against.

    • avatar
      Zoran Andelkovic April 10, 2019 9:31 am 

      Thanks for the comments – I fully agree with them. The exact wording the “protests against nationalistic governments” is indeed unfortunate and can be misleading. It is also true that the opposition leaders are not essentially different in their positions. A part of the problem is relying upon leaders as a concept and disregarding democratic organization from below, not top-down. This seesaw game of overthrowing populist governments in favor of similar ones proved sufficiently accommodating to the needs of capital with the resulting corruption and inequalities. It will not change if one does not recognize it.

      As for the classes, while your point about the income distribution in Serbia is correct, I prefer to think about them not as connected to income, but rather on basis of exploitation. In that sense the middle class would be the one with elements of both labor and capital, like restaurant owners, professional employees or freelancers. But in the end it is just a question of semantics.

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