The populist conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012 on the basis of a “backlash from voters buffeted by the economic crisis”, and subsequently under the leadership of Prime Minister and then later President, Aleksandar Vučić. The two core elements of populism are present in Serbia as follows:
anti-elitism: Serbia has a long history at the “vanguard” of populism, most recently deploying a complex mix of socio-economic and nationalist narratives: using rhetoric which promotes the EU integration agenda and economic reform, but also borrowing securitarian discourses from Western governments fighting terrorism. Populists and right-wing parties have used austerity measures, worsening economic conditions and nationalistic framings as political opportunities to undermine overall gender equality in Serbia. Opponents, especially independent media, are cast as “traitors” and “foreign mercenaries”.
anti-pluralism: Increasingly, Vučić has been exercising almost autocratic control over the country’s affairs, symbolised by his iron grip on the media. This was part of the reason for big protests sparked around the country for several months in early 2019.
In recent years, new national policies in Serbia have been characterised by serious gender stereotyping, traditionalism and patriarchal discourse that promotes and “protects” highly conservative ideas about family and traditional gender roles (“women as mothers”). The adoption of the new Law on Gender Equality has been stalled for almost three years without meaningful public dialogue, and the responsible government ministry has even stated that “forcing gender equality is not good for our country, especially if we want to draw new investors in Serbia”. In other words, the use of anti-gender rhetoric and traditional “Serbian national family values” are often conflated with fear-mongering socio-economic populist narratives.
Gender stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory statements are widely present, perpetuated and continuously reinforced in the media and across Serbia’s political spectrum, very often by powerful public officials such as ministers, state secretaries and even the President. These discriminatory and sexist statements are not isolated incidents but clearly portray longstanding patriarchal attitudes in governmental authorities, that shape public policies about women’s rights and influence their positions in Serbian society.
This populist language is inflammatory, offensive and above all dangerous, as it is capable of shaping citizens’ attitudes and influencing a “public backlash in the perception of gender equality”, and is fast becoming a mainstream narrative. It also reinforces a culture of acceptance and impunity to (online) gender-based violence. Threats, intimidation and harassment of female journalists, women’s rights defenders and female public figures and opposition leaders have become normalised.
In recent years, CSOs publicly criticising the government or working on sensitive issues have been threatened and harassed. Serbia is currently classed by the CIVICUS Monitor as having narrowed civic space.