In Serbia, Protests as Therapy

Citizen showing the victory sign at a protest against the government in Belgrade. Photo: Srdjan Suki/EPA.

In Serbia, Protests as Therapy

Prominent psychologists in Serbia have come out in support of weeks of anti-government protests as a challenge to the “apathy and hopelessness” that pervades Serbian society.

That “crypto-depression” emerges, he said, as a result of the constant portrayal of Serbia by its ruling party and loyal media as enjoying a “golden era”.

“If you’re confronted with this unanimous opinion that everything is not good but excellent, you must blame yourself if you don’t feel this way,” he said. Ordinary Serbs “are apathetic, they are very worried and they can’t see any objective sign that they are not guilty for their own situation.”

‘Crushing hopelessness’

For more than three months, thousands have turned out for a weekly march through downtown Belgrade, and more recently other cities, in protest at Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party and its leader, President Aleksandar Vucic.

Spurred to action by the beating of an opposition politician in late November, the protesters accuse the Progressives of nurturing a climate of ‘political violence’ and of monopolising power to a degree not seen since the rule of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.

Vucic, a former hardline nationalist who has spent the past decade recasting himself as a pro-European reformer while maintaining friendly ties with Russia, denies the accusations and insists Serbia has not had it so good in decades.

Poster depicting President Vucic as Pinocchio at one of Belgrade’s protests. Photo: BIRN.

Clinical psychologist Tatjana Vukosavljevic-Gvozden disagreed.

“During the past 30 years things have progressively gotten worse concerning democratic freedoms and our public institutions,” Vukosavljevic-Gvozden wrote in emailed comments to BIRN. “This worsening of living conditions has resulted in a general state of apathy and hopelessness.”

Such hopelessness, she said, manifests itself in an exodus of young people, “obviously not expecting anything good from this government.”

In 2017 alone, 58,000 people emigrated.

“Among the ones who stay, rates of depression and anxiety have undoubtedly increased, in my opinion. Those are precisely the feelings which are caused by crushing hopelessness,” said Vukosavljevic-Gvozden.

Generational differences

Living standards in Serbia have plummeted since the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990s, with Serbs currently earning on average a little over 400 euros per month after tax. Almost two decades since popular protests ousted Milosevic, the country is still years away from its stated goal of joining the European Union.

In 2015, a World Health Organisation report estimated that five per cent of the Serbian population suffers from depression, while 3.8 per cent have an anxiety disorder.

Multiple studies, however, suggest that depression is significantly underdiagnosed in Serbia, due to a range of factors including social taboos and the country’s under-resourced mental health infrastructure.

A 2016 study of 1,940 university students in Kragujevac found 23.6 per cent exhibited symptoms of depression and 33.5 per cent had symptoms of anxiety.

Illustration. Photo: Pixabay.

Despite such figures, Kaja Damjanovic, an experimental psychologist specialising in decision making, said the students attending her classes today give her cause for optimism.

“They’re so different, visually different, ideologically different,” Damjanovic told BIRN. “They don’t have the thoughts that we had. They’re a self-raised generation, which in our case is better than if we had raised them because we wouldn’t have done a good job.”

Thirty-year-old Ivana, however, is part of the generation between the professors who penned the petition and the young students offering some semblance of hope.

Asking that her surname not be published, Ivana said that at the start of the year she began attending psychodrama therapy, a form of group therapy in which members act out each other’s emotional conflicts. She decided to seek therapy in the hope of understanding why she had been “stuck” for a decade trying to finish her degree in Serbian language and literature.

“There is this way that my generation sees themselves,” she said.

“For example, I think the younger kids have seen shit, they are more productive and ready to cope. But I think my generation – and I cannot only blame this government, but the government before them and the government before them – I think there is this connection to us being the kids of transition, and this feeling of being powerless and weak.”

If those who came after Ivana were ‘self-raised’, Ivana feels her own generation has been held back.

“Our parents tried the raise us well in the traditional way, that you should be quiet, respect authority and work hard,” she said. “And since times have started changing they’re like, ‘Oh no, you should fight for yourself, you should watch your own ass.’ And it’s too late – you should have told us this while we were growing up.”

‘Everyone is corrupted’

Zoran Pavlovic, a social psychologist at Belgrade University, said this handing down of old ideas is something that holds back democratisation in Serbia.

“[A] host of empirical findings show that the prevailing socio-political-economic conditions highly influence what people value,” Pavlovic said in written answers to BIRN.

“Serbia is still a young democracy, the post-communist and post-conflict society in which the majority of people were socialized under and spent their formative years in various forms of authoritarian regimes,” he said.

“People learn to value those goals, ideals and norms that are prevailing in one’s social environment primarily during the early, formative years of life.”

Ivana said that while her generation might recognise the flawed values they were raised with, they cannot seem to escape them.

“We’re seeing that all [our parents’] beliefs were wrong. Not wrong in the way that the ideas are wrong, but just that the people who are supposed to be making these ideas come true, that actually all of them are wrong,” she said. “Everyone is corrupted. Every political thought, as much as it seems amazing and good and progressive, it turns into something bad.”

“Especially when you’re aware that there is always the same group of people for the last 20 years deciding about your life, you feel powerless and you feel that absolutely everything is pointless.”

‘Lying governments’ encourage irrational thinking

Protesters in front of the Serbian parliament. Photo: Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA.

There is a direct correlation between a country’s levels of corruption and its incidence of depression, according to a 2016 study of 24 European countries, not including Serbia.

In Serbia, corruption runs deep. The country scored 39 out of 100 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption perceptions index – the lower a country’s score the more its citizens perceive it to be corrupt.

Ivana does not to attend the weekly protests as they clash with her Saturday night psychodrama sessions. But she said she took heart from the fact that people are not so “desperate and tired” that they are giving up.

“It gives me the impression that I’m not only surrounded by idiots.”

Damjanovic said the assumption that a person is surrounded by ‘idiots’ had become worryingly common.

Her research works on the assumption that everyone has the capacity to think both rationally and irrationally.

Rational decision making – the considered balancing of all the relevant facts before choosing a course of action – is well suited to situations where there is no time limit on the decision-making process; whereas irrational thinking is an evolutionary trait that allows humans to make imperfect but “good enough” decisions in moments when the luxury of time is not available.

“The brain, and hence the mind, of contemporary man is no different to the brain and mind of prehistoric man. What’s different is the environment and we are adapted to that environment,” Damjanovic said.

The more confusing or overwhelming our environment, the more prone we are to irrational thinking. The problem is exacerbated, she said, “if you are confused systematically by the system and lying governments, such as ours.”

“People are induced to be somewhat irrational. They are treated like idiots and hence they are behaving like idiots.”

Popadic, the social psychologist, said the current protests served as a reminder to those taking part that they are not necessarily ‘idiots’, nor are those to their left or right.

“I think the role of these protests is extremely important, not because something will change but because people experience some hours of freedom or relief,” he said. “You can see: ‘Okay, I’m normal.’”

Jack Davies