Driving from the airport into the city centre on an unusually cool August evening, I ask my taxi driver what the hot topics in Serbia are at the moment. Expecting a characteristically impassioned view on the new coalition government or the perennial question of Kosovo’s status, I am given a local version of James Carville’s famous adage, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’.
The taxi driver tells me that he feels humiliated when he hears how much money people make abroad and annoyed when his New York-based son complains to him about the state of the US economy. Over the course of my trip, I hear variations of the same point.
There’s certainly plenty to worry about, people tell me. In February 2012 the IMF froze the government’s credit facility in response to concerns about the country’s rising debt levels. Serbia has also recently been given a credit rating cut and a negative outlook by one of the major rating agencies, a response to rising concerns about the government’s perceived interference into the affairs of the central bank, as well as the coalition’s inability to implement the public spending cuts required by international lenders. The government, political and economic observers advise, is in a difficult position. In order to form a government following the May 2012 election, the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party needed the support of the unions-backed Socialist Party and the United Pensioners Party, both of which are entrenched in their opposition to public sector cuts.
Politics is never far from coffee-shop conversations in a country where people discuss political protagonists with the kind of ease and passion that people reserve for major sports in other countries. There is a broad consensus that Serbia is reaching a point where a new political generation is ready to step up. Belgrade’s current mayor, Dragan Đilas, is widely talked about as the next leader of the Democratic Party, the largest party in successive coalition governments from 2003 to May 2012. The new coalition government’s Deputy Prime Minister, the 42-year-old Aleksandar Vučić, is seen by many as Đilas’ adversary and the real powerhouse in the Progressive Party.
The political discourse has become more sophisticated since I last visited in 2010. There is, in particular, a growing scepticism about the independence of the domestic press. While there is some concern about the lack of ownership transparency, most people I spoke to are more worried about the influence of the handful of advertising and public relations agencies, most of which are strongly linked to the major political parties.
Scepticism has also found a friend in pragmatism. The age-old debate about whether Serbia should forge stronger links with the EU or its traditional backer, Russia, is losing its polarising force. People talk about both Russia and the EU as essential partners for a small and economically troubled country like Serbia. Yet, despite the country’s economic woes, Belgrade is an exceptionally quiet place in August, with most locals having migrated to beach destinations for the month. Here too pragmatism has taken force.
The locals, I am told, are eschewing traditional holiday haunts such as Montenegro and Greece for cheaper destinations like Tunisia and Egypt – on the other side not just of the Mediterranean, but of the religious and cultural divide.
Serbia seems to be changing with the times.