All our divisions – political and psychological roots of polarization in Serbia

Analysis19.05.2020Lana Avakumovic, TALAS
Serbian Parliament, two opposite protesting groups in Covid19 pandemic times

by Michael Roick, FNF

The public debate is an essential element of any democratic political culture. But it takes damage when hatred and agitation, rumours and conspiracy theories poison the debates, polarise society more and more and when dissenters are no longer seen as legitimate competitors in the exchange of opinions but as enemies.

Conflicts are guarantors and motors of progress and social developments, said the great social scientist and politician Ralf Dahrendorf decades ago. But the conduct of conflicts must be bound by rules to which the parties to the conflict adhere without either of them being favoured or disadvantaged. Conflicts that are carried out without rules usually end in violence and the loss of freedom. For the liberal civil society in Dahrendorf's sense, therefore, not only autonomy/self-organisation and plurality are characteristic, but also " civilness", i.e. the willingness to compromise, to listen and above all to renounce violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further intensified the polarization dynamics within societies that already exist in many European countries. But what are the deeper reasons for these waves of excitement, loud confrontations within societies and between government and opposition?

Lana Avakumovic (Talas) spoke with Dusan Spasojevic, assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, and Zoran Pavlovic, social psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, about roots of political divisions and polarization in Serbia, as well as potential areas of their mitigation.


By Lana Avakumovic, Talas

The regime and the opposition, Kosovo and Europe, the East and the West, pots and torches, protests and rallies, parallel hunger strikes and, most recently, armed police forces physically dividing government and opposition supporters into two groups in front of the National Assembly – it seems that, wherever we look, we find indicators of divisions within our society, most of which seem to revolve around support for the current regime. Other divisions seem to either remain in the shadow of this principal one, or are manifested to a higher or lesser degree, depending on the political moment.

In times of crisis, as is the current one – caused by the coronavirus pandemic, our attention is drawn to questions of polarization and escalating conflicts as we wonder about possible ways to overcome, or at least reduce political divisions. They are, of course, an integral part of social life and have deeper roots – both in political processes, as well as values and individual and group psychology.

What are the central lines of political division in Serbia, who is articulating them and what are potential areas of their mitigation?

The East or the West? The regime or the opposition?

„The principal line of division in Serbia is no different than that in other Eastern European societies – it is defined as the divide between traditionalist and modernist Serbia. In terms of foreign policy, it is manifested as the dilemma between the East and the West, or, in other terms, through pro-European and Kosovo-centric politics“, says Dusan Spasojevic, assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, in a conversation for Talas. In his view, that is the most thorough division in Serbia, and it is there to stay, although ways it manifests itself might change with time.

This line of division was altered in the recent past, as Spasojevic explains, with the formation of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), when former radicals (members of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS) went on to become a pro-European party, entered the center of the political spectrum and „dispersed their opposition both ways – towards the traditionalist and the modernist pole“.

„This essential cleavage in regards to the regime (the regime cleavage) is not an ideological one, because SNS stands in the center with opposition from various ideological positions. The pro-European opposition actors, such as the Alliance for Serbia (SZS), mostly tend to articulate this as a matter of pro-democratic versus nondemocratic sides, seeing as that is the way we understood the divide between Milosevic and his opposition in 2000. In that period, the pro-democratic actors were indeed pro-European as well. Hence, it is crucial for (president Aleksandar) Vucic to maintain his formal pro-European image, since the alternative would displace him to one end of the political spectrum. The polarization that we are seeing today is strictly tied to regime versus opposition forces, but it also plays out along various ideological lines of conflict. We see Dveri (Serbian Movement Dveri) attacking the regime from one end, United Democratic Serbia (UDS) attacking from the other, radicals (SRS) criticizing from a third, but in a specific way, and so on“, says Spasojevic.

Aside from divisions tied to the identity of our society, and the question of where we belong, he highlights that there are other divisions that mostly remain peripheral. Spasojevic goes on to explain that „the biggest issue lies within economic differences that mostly remain politically unarticulated. A simple comparison with Croatia shows just how poorly defined parties in Serbia are, so much so that we can’t tell who represents the economic left and who the economic right is.”

Speaking of civil society, Spasojevic refers to Italian author Antonio Gramsci who claimed that the ’trench warfare’ for dominant social values takes place within civil society, and it is therefore common, in stable democracies, to have political divisions replicated in this area as well. „Some would even say that divisions are created in the civil society, and later adopted by political parties. Unfortunately, in Serbia, after years of a suppressed civil society, it is now asymmetrical – far more developed in the civil, modernist or liberal end, and most expressed when it comes to issues of human rights and democracy. Civil society organizations (CSO) that deal with socioeconomic issues are only just becoming visible, while conservative ones are still developing. Meanwhile, SNS has tried to solve this asymmetry by exploiting the very term and creating their own CSOs, so we end up having a sort of a parallel civil society“, as Spasojevic points out.

Total(itarian) politics

Zoran Pavlovic, social psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy, states that there is no objective measure of polarization, so we cannot precisely say whether it is increasing, although he is under the impression that it is on the rise. However, in his opinion, there is no doubt that society in Serbia is in fact polarized and brought to extremes.

Pavlovic goes on to explain that „These days, it takes as little as being on your balcony between 8 and 9 pm to see the insurmountable gap in our society. The list of various criteria of divisions in Serbia is quite long, and it seems to be growing, which collides with the somewhat romanticized idea of our society consisting of well-meaning, warmhearted people living in solidarity. Serbia is typically described in terms of a collectivist society; collectivism has its good (solidarity) and bad sides (suppressing private initiative and independence), but historically, it was always imposed by force, while our society has been tearing at the seams, becoming what it is today – a torn, fragmented community of atomized individuals.”

Professor Pavlovic agrees that the line of division that brings the most tensions, hostility, and even violence, is based on politics – whether or not one supports the current regime or, as he describes it, the “pots versus torches” divide. “Political divisions in a society are nothing unusual, they have been around since the dawn of time; politics are, in fact, a mechanism of channeling the existing social conflicts. However, in Serbia, and especially in the last couple of years, this has been brought to farcical and grotesque proportions. Politics has permeated all pores of our society, and the formula for success is the same, regardless of whether you want to become a street cleaner or a minister in the Government; in that sense, politics is total(itarian)”, says Pavlovic.

He goes on to explain that there are certainly other divisions in Serbia, but that political affiliation has become a sort of “summary” of all the other gaps, and it manifests as the “tip of the iceberg whose largest part remains underwater, and consists of more thorough lines of division that are, at their core, value-based, but are, at the same time, connected to various positions within the social structures of our society” – those other divisions are tied to our personal values, the way we assess current events, our level of education etc. Pavlovic also emphasizes that “this principal conflict might be intense but it, at best, captures approximately half of our society. On that note, there are three groups we can differentiate: the ‘pots’, the ‘torches’ and the ‘observers’ (or ‘ostriches’ in the political sense), those who are simply not interested in politics, and who see their resentment of politics and politicians as a matter of good taste and moral purity, when in fact they are passively watching their own ship sink, reluctant to get their hands wet trying to help out in any way”.

Social psychology and political divisions in Serbia

From a psychologist’s point of view, as professor Zoran Pavlovic explains, such state of affairs originates in the fundamentals of human psychology. “Strictly speaking, social psychology explains polarization through the fact that our attitudes, when faced with opposing facts, do not tend to change, but rather become even more extreme. This phenomenon is only partly relevant for our society. A far more relevant explanation lies in social categorization, the ‘us versus them’ distinction, which is an almost inevitable law of human reasoning in the social world”, says Pavlovic.

He goes on to explain that a typical consequence of this classification is the fact that we tend to think of members of our own group in positive terms, while we see members of the ‘other’ group in negative terms. Simply put, in order to cause antagonization, all we need to do is separate people into two groups and then put those groups in unequal positions. “And in our society, fuel is constantly being added to that fire, making it a ’successful’ endeavor. What we have at play are systematic, open and active efforts to antagonize citizens, tear apart our society and build walls between people”, states Pavlovic, adding that the responsibility for such actions falls on those who are in power.

“All of that is completely consistent with an, in essence, authoritarian philosophy which denies the very idea of equality, and whose rule relies on the fear of real or (more commonly) fictional enemies. This measure of worth, our own as well as that of others, proceeds to become the most ingrained in the minds of citizens, and siding with one group or the other becomes a way to profit – both metaphorically or psychologically (thinking of yourself in positive terms – who would want to socialize with thieves and criminals?), and in the usual sense (getting a job, gaining material wealth etc.). When you are constantly sending the message that members of the opposing parties are thieves and criminals, “siding with coronavirus” and so on, you are also telling your own supporters that virtually any actions towards ‘the others’ are allowed (or, at the very least, will not be sanctioned). In that way, violence brings more violence, and the whole society is brought to a stage of chronic conflict, which brings further escalation”, as professor Pavlovic explains. Consequently, he adds, violence towards members of the opposing groups becomes seen as “an expression of loyalty to your own group (or can be justified as such), or as a way to be in your group’s or its leader’s good graces. At the same time, there is a growing pressure for solidarity and uniformity of members within one group, while the attitudes around which group members are gathering become more and more extreme”. Because of all that, professor Pavlovic concludes that today we live in a culture of violence to which we have become callous.

Areas and mechanisms for mitigating political divisions

“These divisions will never cease to exist, but what can change is the way they are articulated – that is, whether we see them as a zero-sum game or not, whether a victory on one side necessarily means defeat on the other. The more polarized our political scene is, and the further apart political parties are, the smaller the chances of achieving compromise, which then encourages fiercer political competition”, says Dusan Spasojevic. Seeing as regime and ideological cleavages in Serbia are cross-cutting, he adds that our society is not polarized in a clear pattern. There are, however, differences between divisions – as Spasojevic explains, societies have an easier job of handling divisions based on economic issues and “matters we can negotiate”, than in case of divisions based on identity issues. That is, of course, true in “normal, democratic societies”. “Today, our principal line of division originates from a crisis of democracy, from the fact that progressives (SNS) are autocrats who have suppressed democratic institutions, and they reject any form of political competition or political resistance. In that sense, the overarching division is based on the regime versus opposition distinction. As long as our society is not democratized, there can be no talk of surpassing, or even decreasing these divisions”, concludes professor Spasojevic.

When it comes to social psychology, Zoran Pavlovic points out that human behavior is determined by the existing rules of the game within a society, and that, when the rules change, so does the behavior. “Classical research in social psychology shows us that the way a group of people is governed has a significant effect on members of the group – the way they behave, how content they are, how they relate to others, etc. This has two important implications: it means that it is possible to solve conflicts within a society, but that cannot occur unless those who make up the rules of social life, and who bare the greatest responsibility for the political atmosphere, change their ways. It would take far greater capabilities than our society currently holds in order to resist media pressures and the biased, ‘rosy’ media representation of our social reality – even far more developed societies could not withhold such torture and poisoning”, says Pavlovic. On the other hand, he posits that it takes a special sort of moral strength and integrity so as not to abuse the position of absolute power, which our dominant political actors usually hold – on that note, he adds that Serbia has developed an “infrastructure of impunity for those who are on the right side”.

“However, hypothetically speaking, if the roots of mutual animosity are found in the processes of social categorization and group identification, that might also be the way for those divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’ to begin perceiving themselves as members of a more general ‘we’. One possible strategy for solving intergroup conflicts is the so-called re-categorization and the development of a common group identity. For example, we would no longer primarily see ourselves as Serbs versus Albanians, or members of SNS versus SZS, but rather as citizens of this society who are supposed to have common goals, wellbeing and dignity, which can only be achieved through cooperation”, as Pavlovic explains. By introducing a common, superior identity, he says that the processes based on intragroup favoritism would reduce animosity towards those who are no longer ‘others’, but have become members of the general ‘we’.

This, of course, is quite difficult to achieve, as Pavlovic points out that not even a global dangerous threat, such as the coronavirus pandemic, has proven sufficient to unite our society. In conclusion, he says that “calming the passions and establishing a minimum of trust is a necessary precondition for even beginning the process of conflict resolution. It seems to me that such a task will have to wait for a new generation of politicians, because the current one has not passed the test.”