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Students’ political alienation and passivilization raises concerns about the future of Serbian democracy

While universities often are described as pro-democratic institutions that generate inclusive and pro-democratic students,  research conducted at the University of Belgrade found that political alienation and passivation are two dominant student strategies in dealing with the undemocratic system of Serbia. Furthermore, the democratic and political perceptions amongst the students at the University of Belgrade (UoB) are shaped by their political apathy, the historical narratives and the strong anti-western narrative.

The conclusions of this study are based on an extensive mixed-methods design done from November 2022 to January 2023, consisting of a survey, focus-group interviews, and expert interviews.

While the first part of the research found that all the students showed a great understanding of democracy as a concept and acknowledged the democratic backsliding in Serbia, the students had very different ideas about whether democracy was compatible with Serbia and the Serbs. This was especially evident when the students had to answer which kind of government they thought suited Serbia the best; 11% of the students answered an authoritarian government and 42% a democratic government. Compared to a representative public opinion poll done by BCSP in 2022, only 6% of the general population answered an authoritarian government and 44% a democratic government.

This indicated that the students – when reflecting on democracy as a rule in Serbia – had almost the same perceptions as the public, although the students had shown great valuation and understanding of democracy as a non-contextual concept, which implied that the knowledge learned at the university did not affect the students’ general democratic and political perceptions in the context of the Serbian political system.

Using a quantitative regression analysis, the study delved into this observation, and found – against the expectations – that an education at the University of Belgrade did not significantly influence the students pro-democratic and inclusive values. An observation that created the unanswered question about what then influenced the students political and democratic perceptions.

Identity issues influence stances towards democracy

To answer this, the study indulged in a more explorative angle with qualitative focus-group interviews and expert interviews and found that the chronic distrust towards the political system, the anti-Western narrative, and the Yugonostalgia had a big impact on the students’ democratic and political perceptions.

While the study expected that an education at the University of Belgrade would create more pro-democratic and inclusive students as it has been found in many other influential studies, it found that the students’ democratic and political perceptions were affected by other cultural structures and collectivistic topics.

The study found that the students’ democratic and political perceptions were influenced by the Yugonostalgia, the anti-Western sentiments about the NATO bombing in 1999 and the general political apathy directed towards the rigid and unresponsive political system, made opaque by the state-controlled media apparatus.

For an example it was found that the students who described their distrust towards the West often connected it to the NATO bombings in 1999 and that this narrative created a mistrustfulness towards the western kind of democracy.

Apart from that, it was also found that the students who was fascinated by the strongman regime under Tito, also expressed a preference for placing big executive power in the hands of a few strongmen.

The shared anti-western history and the political cynicism acted as a collectivist bond between the students, which was in stark contrast to their elaborations on their future and careers which were based on more self-realizing individualistic values.

The study describes how the students seems trapped in a constant security dilemma, where they must decide whether they want to; 1) fight for more democratic rights, or 2) remain silent, withdraw from the political arena, and focus on their careers.

The study concluded that the political apathy and the students’ pronounced individualism fueled the students’ political cynicism, and when the students had to choose between using their voices to fight for democratic rights or to passivize themselves and focus on their individual careers, they often picked the latter.

Faculty of Philosophy at University of Belgrade; Photo N1

In thread with this, the study concluded that the students to a large extent transformed their democratic perceptions into passive methods of coping with the Serbian political system – implying that the students stayed completely out of politics, or simply emigrated from Serbia, instead of using their voice to change the political system.

While it was found that most students chose to shy away from political life, it was also concluded that the students were more pro-protesting than the public and that 46% of the students had participated in protests during the last year. This indicates that while political apathy was very prevalent, there was still a spark of activism among the student population.

What about the future?

The study implies that whether the students decide to mobilize and try to change the political system might rely on both 1) Whether they have anyone to lead the mobilization and 2) Whether the students are able to mobilize and fight for a common cause or their political apathy and individual aspirations are too strong.

The study implies that one of the reasons why students do not seem to believe in their own role in changing the political system is because the students do not see any young role models in the Serbian political system.

The study includes numerous statements from students who express their desire to have more young progressive politicians in the Serbian political system and more than 80% of the surveyed students evaluated lustration as the best method for making the politicians work in the favor of the Serbs. But when asked whether they wanted to do anything themselves, the students often expressed that they themselves would not be the ones driving the change.

This paradox is described throughout the entire study with reference to multiple senior researchers and professors, whereof one of them depicted the dilemma as: “they [the students] would get into that bus [of change] but there is no driver”.

While the driver of the change is most likely going to be a new face, a new party or a new organization that breaks with the inertia and democratic backsliding in the Serbian political system and drives the “bus” of change, the study shows that while all the students were dissatisfied with the Serbian democracy, only a few wanted to be part of the change, and nobody wanted to drive the change.

Secondly, it was found that while the students at the University of Belgrade often lived in the same dormitories and were even part of the same friend groups, their collectivism wasn’t bound to their status of being a student at the university nor to being a citizen of Belgrade.

Instead, their collectivism was tied to their common past – especially the distrust towards the West manifested by the NATO bombing in 1999 and their common alienation from the political system.

This political alienation was manifested by their cynical attitude towards the political system and was the main driver for passivizing and individualizing the students.

Passivizing the students because most students had lost hope in changing the political system and expressed a general disgust towards all kinds of politics because it was “dirty business”.

Individualizing the students, because when the students lost hope in participating or remedying the political system, they expressed an exit narrative that either meant emigrating from Serbia or relying as little as possible on the political system, which in both cases led the students to focus on the parameters of life that they could actually control; Their career, future and ambitions.

Thus, the study suggests that the students’ political cynicism – manifested by their disgust towards politics – acts as a catalysator for individualism because the more cynicism the students have towards the political system the more alienated they become, and the more alienated they become, the more they opt out of politics and focus solely on their own future.

To sum up the entire research paper, it finds that the students’ democratic perceptions are politically apathetic and mistrustful towards democratic institutions.

The drivers for these perceptions are to a small extent the university and to a larger extent both the gender of the student, the history of Serbia, the political apathy, and the collectivism/individualism paradox, that puts the students in a constant security dilemma, where the students’ future actions depend on whether they choose to fight for more democracy collectively or to strive for their own individual aspirations.

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