(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
If I wanted to, I could walk right through the front doors of Serbia’s National Assembly without seeing a single security guard or camera. I live directly behind it, I can pick out the Prime Minister’s car from the unguarded lot, and yet, not once have I seen more than a meter-maid patrolling the building’s adjacent park or street parking spots.
It’s a bizarre notion for an American citizen, something I didn’t expect to see. The White House is likely one of the most secure buildings in the world. Few ever get the privilege of getting any closer to the Oval Office than standing outside the wrought-iron fences of Pennsylvania Avenue. Wholly disregarding the matter of security checks for entry, cleared tourists couldn’t even take photos in the building before the ban was lifted this past year.
What results is a sense of physical distance between citizen and executive, a sense I expected to find duplicated in nearly all government institutions. What’s surprised me is that, in Belgrade, I’ve found entirely the opposite.
While, in the US, there’s such a prominent physical distance – made apparent by security cameras, checkpoints, guards and guard dogs at government offices – I think many would agree that political distance – by that I mean the belief that elected officials (for the most part) attempt to follow public opinion – between official and constituent is relatively small. This claim may seem overly idealistic, but I mean it in terms relative to the entirety of the world, where dictators and monarchies still strangle the seats of power.
In Belgrade, the political situation is tense to say the least. Few seem to support the recently-reelected Prime Minister Vučić, as some cry election fraud, others point out the shadowy work of his officers, and still more remain confused by the unstable balancing act he attempts to maintain between the West and Putin. Biweekly protests, originally sparked by citizen backlash against the massive foreign-led urban gentrification project the city has seen (called Belgrade Waterfront), have taken on new meaning, being described by local media as even purely “anti-Vučić.” The demonstrations draw nearly 25,000 protesters each iteration, shut down busy streets for hours, and are still growing. And yet many still think government will continue as usual regardless – that the protests’ spark will fizzle out, as the National Assembly continues undisturbed but paradoxically, seemingly approachable.
It’s a strange dichotomy to observe: a government with no physical distance between itself and its citizens but such strong political distance. It can sometimes even feel that on my way to work, I pass the office window of an institutional oppressor.
But on the surface, it seems much less of a problem. It seems almost a part of the propaganda endlessly fed to the ubiquitous state-supporting media, a deception.