We Need To Talk About Alek

November 22, 2016
Serbia’s indefatigable PM is creating an Orwellian world in which two plus two equals five - and no one disagrees - or even notices.
Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian Prime Minister. Photo: Beta

He did it again on Sunday night. Aleksandar Vucic, our Prime Minister, also known as Alek to some of his friends. He went live on one of his favorite television studios and ranted and rambled for full two hours, using words like “cretins”, “idiots”, and “monsters” to describe his opponents, making impossible promises, churning out one lie after another.

He said, for example, that he never endorsed Hillary Clinton for US president, although he did, quite publicly and on the record, less than a month ago, and even went to a Clinton Foundation event in New York, where he was filmed hugging husband Bill. The sycophantic anchor, who also owns the television station, not only failed to ask a single confrontational question, but actually spurred him on.

And Alek keeps doing that, over and over again. When he’s not in the studio, he’s addressing the Serbian parliament, or holding a press conference, or opening a road, or a tunnel or somesuch. Most premiers do that occasionally, but he does it seven days a week, sometimes several times a day, and we are so overwhelmed by his perpetual presence that hardly anything or anyone else can exist in the Serbian public space any more. Everything revolves around him, him, him.

Just a couple of weeks ago, he stated that not a single business enterprise in Serbia would work if it wasn’t for his involvement. In any other country apart from North Korea, this would cause uproar; here, barely anyone noticed.

If overdeveloped narcissism was the only problem, I could live with that. What bothers me is his constant drive to deconstruct reality and create a parallel one, something he has perfected into a form of art. Take his last week’s address to parliament, dedicated to the first hundred days of his cabinet, in which he said: “Serbia today is stable, economically sound, safe and secure”. 

Nothing wrong there, right? Well, just about everything is wrong: first, his cabinet is much more than a hundred days old, because the “new” government, forged in late August after early elections, is almost the same as the old government, elected in 2014; only a couple of ministers (out of 19) have been replaced.

Economically sound? Indices show that Serbia has lower growth, higher youth unemployment and less income per capita than most of its neighbors. Safe and secure?  What about those two caches of weapons discovered near the PM’s family home, and another near his brother’s apartment earlier this month, that were supposedly meant to be used to assassinate Vucic, or the brother, or both? 

After two weeks of raging about a “monstrous plot” organized by mysterious foreign powers, the story suddenly disappeared from the news. To this day, no suspects have been arrested or even named. So how are we supposed to feel safe, and how can the country be stable if a new conspiracy against the Prime Minister and a new set of enemies is revealed every week, and then promptly forgotten and replaced by another. Again, hardly anyone noticed.

Let me be clear: after more than 25 years as a professional journalist, I don’t really expect politicians to always tell the truth, or even most of the time.

However, there is something deeply disturbing in the way that our Alek lies: he doesn’t spin an elaborate network of half-truths to hide his mistakes, or evade the subject. Instead, he bluntly asserts things so obviously wrong that even five-year-olds could see through them.

When Alek lies, he knows that we know that he’s lying, and relishes that, because our docile media and spineless politicians do not dare to challenge him. When he speaks, it is always a power play, never a debate or a conversation. It is humiliating because he doesn’t just go against the truth, but against common sense.

Some would call this manner of ruling Orwellian (remember “1984”: War is peace, Ignorance is power, and Freedom is slavery). I detect a Shakespearian trait, and can’t stop thinking about his earliest play, The “Taming of the Shrew”.

In the final scene, Petruchio brings Katharina, formerly a shrew and now completely broken, among his friends to test her total subjection. First he tells her that the moon is shining; she agrees: than he tells her it’s the sun: she agrees again. In the end, she proclaims:

“But sun it is not, when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind:
What you will have it named, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.”

And so it already is for Serbia, with Alek as the lead. In the play, Petruchio’s friends are impressed with the job he did on Katherine, and so are Alek’s friends when they come to visit (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the champion of illiberalism, dropped by just this weekend, and commended Vucic’s efforts). But I see more and more people around me giving up and accepting their place in Alek’s parallel universe, and wonder how much longer I can resist.

We need to get reality back before the plot takes a more sinister twist. Bear in mind that, unlike in The Shrew, most of the Bard’s plays did not end on a happy note.