Libertarian Enthusiasts Find Serbia a Hard Sell
Srdjan GarcevicBelgradeBIRNMarch 14, 2019
Avowedly free-market and individualist ideologies struggle to make headway in communitarian Serbia – but a couple of upfront libertarians are determined to find a space for their ideas in the country.
US writer John Rogers once compared the effects of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Ayn Rand’s seminal pro-libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged on bookish teens.
He called one of them “a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world”.
The joke, of course, was that the book with the supposedly pernicious effect on society was not the one about orcs and elves.
Sitting in an office in Belgrade, the leaders of the Serbian Libertarian Club, Libek, Milos Nikolic and Petar Cekerevac, seem quite in tune with Serbia’s political realities.
Both are aware that the gospel of free markets and free society is a tough sell in a country where the only experience of capitalism is of the crony sort, and where many look back with nostalgia to the Socialist past.
“The point is not to force [libertarianism] into Serbian culture but to recognise the elements that are compatible with it here … and then see how those ideas are best adapted to Serbia,” Cekarevac, Libek’s executive manager, says.
A cross between a club and a think tank, Libek has no ambitions to become a party. It was founded in 2008, while Nikolic, its current president and one of the three founders, was at Belgrade University’s School of Political Science.
Nikolic found the atmosphere at the university oversaturated with “leftist, egalitarian, collectivist” ideas.
In 2009 they film a documentary about libertarianism that focused on education, and organised courses on liberalism and against totalitarianism – a catch-all term controversially covering both fascism and socialist governments like Yugoslavia – to draw in like-minded people.
The wider political climate at the time also helped draw in supporters: the public was increasingly disillusioned with Serbia’s quick recovery from the effects of Slobodan Milosevic’s disastrous reign, which ended in 2000, and the country would soon enter an economic and debt crisis.
Cekerevac, who joined almost at the start in 2008, was drawn to Libek because he found the options on the political scene at that point unsatisfactory.
They ranged between the then nominally socially liberal pro-EU government, which had failed to deliver long-promised prosperity or the rule of law, and the discredited, nationalist parties, with their roots in the 1990s.
Although the power dynamics on Serbia’s political scene changed when Aleksandar Vucic’s Progressive Party took on the pro-EU reformist mantle, and combined that with their nationalist appeal, Serbian politics has remains heavily polarised, between roughly the same pro- and anti-Milosevic camps.
Petar Cekerevac. Photo: Courtesy of Libek
It is there that Nikolic and Cekerevac see an opportunity for the further expansion of libertarian thought in Serbia.
Libek-organised education courses and policy proposals to political parties and the government on topics such as public debt and primary education already gave them niche appeal among politically minded youth. Now they see an opportunity in the current environment to engage a wider audience.
Last year, Libek launched Talas.rs , an online portal that seeks to provide a platform for debate across the political spectrum, a rarity given the declining diversity in the mainstream media in Serbia.
“We want to pierce [ideological] bubbles, be provocative and politically incorrect… and push a narrative that is meta-ideological: the narrative of freedom,” Nikolic says.
“People are always saying that they want more freedom and would fight for freedom… but they tend to always provide you with a manual of how they expect you to behave to be ‘free’. That’s the paradox inside even much of our ‘liberal’ public”, Nikolic adds.
He describes their core audience as those who are thirsty for in-depth criticism and discussion, but also those who want to hear more critical analyses of the Serbian economy, a major talking point of the current government.
While he places most of the blame for the lack of serious political debates on the government and on the media close to them, Nikolic thinks the opposition is not serious about engaging in debate, especially on economic topics, where they often lack expertise.
Milos Nikolic. Photo: Courtesy of Libek
“They are just waiting for Vucic to deal with Kosovo and then to step in more seriously,” he sighs, referencing the ongoing talks between Serbia and its former province.
The topics on Talas are diverse: from commentary on transitional justice and recent political developments to YouTube videos about success stories of countries such as Estonia and Chile.
“These are small movements and people are responsive [to our messages],” Nikolic notes. He explains that many Talas readers and contributors are prominent members of political parties who use the portal to find information for their policy agendas.
The birth of Talas and Libek’s attempts to spread libertarianism more widely in Serbia match the rising profile of libertarian movements around the world.
The US Libertarian party announced it almost doubled its membership in 2018, while prominent public figures including tech billionaires Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, as well as star podcaster Joe Rogan, align themselves with the cause.
Libek’s wish to spread libertarian thinking in Serbia is helped by that fact that Students for Liberty, a global youth organisation with whom they are partnered, is organising LibertyCon in April in Belgrade.
Speakers at the pan-European conference will include author and libertarian guru Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Branko Milanovic, a Serbian economist who focuses on global inequality.
Speaking of Ayn Rand, Cekerevac, who Nikolic recalls as “an expert for the topic” is circumspect.
“It was not her who made me go into libertarianism. But she provides an ethical defence [of capitalism], while others just defend it in terms of efficiency,” he says.
“Her framework is also a good filter for the tricks used to draw people into collectivism. They are … not a blueprint for society, but it’s good that her books are making their way around Serbia.”