When society collapses, humour comes as the savior — the unusual case of presidential candidate in Serbia

Foto: Campaign clip 2016, Balkan Insight

A group of friends decided to mock politicians and run a parody campaign—and got elected in a local assembly from the small Serbian city Mladenovac.

Now they have a candidate for the presidential elections and polls show him second.

The candidate is using a fake name, Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, as he goes around on a white horse delivering impossible promises to people. He wears white suits with wool socks and wears his hair like Hollywood imagined Ragnar Lodbrok, the viking king.

His campaign clips show him doing pushups in an undershirt, or wearing king-like fur coat and sceptre.

But there is more to it, says journalist Natalia Zaba, who covered the story of Beli and his team since the 2016 elections: his fake lies make the most sincere politician in the eyes of many Serbs.

We talked to Belgarade based journalist Natalia Zaba about the context that erected unusual politics.

Listen to the Podcast:

Natalia Zaba: It’s just crazy time here, we didn’t expect it would be so crazy. That’s the beauty of elections in the Balkans. It’s really exciting to follow it. Politics became topic number 1 in Serbia. Because of Beli (“the white”) He just brought this kind of change, huge refreshment into what is going on. All of a sudden, a guy from nowhere (Mladenovac is just a tiny, tiny place near Belgrade) a guy who is jobless currently, who didn’t manage to study in the Academy of Arts, of Drama — he wanted to become an actor, but his father didn’t have connections to put him there.

He made all this riot: Guys, what are you doing with politics actually? And he is just mirroring the worst kind of Serbian politician who actually is showing up in this or that space every single day on TV. It’s what they watch, he just made a satire out of it and people are laughing because what else could they do?

It’s sincere and it’s the thing that people are lacking and they are ready to give their vote just because they feel it’s sincere.

Laura Stefanut: What does the fake name of Luka Maksimovic mean?

Ljubisa is a Serbian name, but Preletacevic, which is supposed to be his surname, means “switchover”—so it refers to a person who has joined every single political party and has changed it because of personal interest. They call him Beli (“white” in Serbian) because he was supposed to be transparent and white, brand new, someone who is totally pure and clear, untouched, like a virgin, literally, in politics — which he actually is. So it has a lot of symbol.

How did it all start?

One year ago just before the parliamentary elections, which took place on April 24th, he and his folks from Mladenovac, they would always hang out in local kafanas (traditional Serbian bar and restaurant), most of them are in the same age (range), 26–27 years old, so they would just crack a joke like Hey, let’s run in the local elections in Mladenovic.

So they prepared a first (campaign), just having fun, presenting Maksimovic ”Beli” like a typical Balkan macho guy who is a fighter, who is strong, who is dominant.

But everything they did was based on real events which took place during other campaigns in previous years.

Beli was saving children out of the river, Beli was riding a horse, Beli was promising things that can’t happen really. He promised to build a sea in Mladenovac and It will be really salty, he said. These kind of things.

I’m lying transparently is his thing.

Basically he took everything out of the system, what politicians are really doing in their campaigns and just started to laugh it all off.

I remember last year they didn’t even have money to start, to pay all those administrative taxes to star in the elections. So people were giving the money on the streets.

All of a sudden they figured out that people really love them and that people would actually vote for them to run for the assembly in Mladenovac. They took 20% of the votes. They were second on the list and still very unsure of how did it happen. How is this possible? We are making fun of it and people want us there. They just want sincerity.

Can you give me some examples? Most famous scenes from his campaign? The past campaign, the present one? How does it look like?

They really love him. It looks like a march, like a parade literally. When he was submitting collective signatures, he came with gypsies who were playing on trumpets.

Every time he shows up it’s a huge spectacle, but nothing is pointless.

Something is somehow connected with Serbian culture, which people know very well. Gypsies here play trumpets during weddings, funerals, different gatherings. This is something people feel familiar with. They fell this guy is ours, he lives like we do, he’s spending time in kafana, he loves music, he’s very cheerful.

He says:

I want to spread love, I don’t want to talk about hate anymore. This region should just end with it.

These are things people really want.

How does the political scene of the past years look like in Serbia?

Serbian politics for the past 20 years are quite dissatisfactory for the people here. Starting with the 90s and war, then great expectations after Milosevic was done, after huge protests when literally the whole nation stood up and said Hey, guys, we don’t want you anymore! Stop doing this.

When democrats with Boris Tadić came into power, people were full of hope— that now everything in Serbia is going to be fine. Some kind of period of transition of course was going to follow, but they were expecting that there was hope in that.

When the democrats were in power, huge corruption stories were on and are still ongoing because of them so even political opponents of guys like Vojislav Šešelj (far-right), Milošević did everything to actually destroy this country.

Then Zoran Djindjic was killed (2003), who was opting for real change, for ending up issues with Kosovo, then joining the EU. As he was killed, hope has almost died.

I’m not saying it’s totally done, but Serbia collapsed after his death because it was really hard to find a political leader who would be strong and smart enough to just go… to that very courageous change, because of the issue of Kosovo, the past and joining the EU— somehow defining your place in the world, whether you are with East or West.

When the Serbian Progressive Party won the election in 2014 and again last year, people who were actively promoting very right wing political programs (which led to the war) were back in the power and in the system.

They are indeed very powerful. They control everything in the country. The state is the main employer in Serbia, so there is almost no private sector of such. You may understand that people feel really hopeless because there is no freedom at all.

Getting back to Beli’s party, which are their campaign messages?

I don’t see their very strong political agenda in terms of what would he would be doing as a president. Our president in Serbia doesn’t have huge possibilities to rule over.

What he is always saying is:

I would just spread love among everyone.

And he is very open about it so he just wants to be sincere and see what will be next, cause nobody knows really. The guy who is the brain of the campaign (Stevan Vlajic), he finished the Faculty of Political Affairs here in Belgrade, Journalism and with that kind of creativity… Everybody knows about Beli in Serbia, he is very popular here.

This guy who branded this campaign and the previous one cannot find a job in any marketing agency. Both of them would have been hired a long time ago and just had a different life.

Is it a matter of corruption?

Corruption, nepotism, also a very tiny market, everything mixed.

Do you trust him? What is your personal opinion? You are an investigative journalist, how do you feel about Beli?

My opinion about him and in general about this group: I think these are very serious guys. I appreciate their creativity, but also courage because to create such a spectacle in the whole country, it requires a lot of courage, as they know very well what they have been dealing with now. I think they are very serious in the way they will figure out things. How to prepare this campaign? What to do? How to behave? Because Beli is not saying I respect Russia just because he thinks it’s good—it’s prepared and he knows to whom he is directing these words.

I really admire them, there are not a lot of young people in Serbia who despite not very brilliant opportunities, have managed to make such a huge, huge riot and create another political situation.

He created a situation in which next time, politicians here (want to) say something stupid or totally pointless or promise things that simply can’t happen, they will think twice. He also made a path for young people who might be interested in politics, who might be leaders in this country but are always reluctant because they feel it’s just a dirty job.

Which is the counter strategy of the other politicians?

It’s actually very interesting because the prime minister is trying to avoid actually commenting. It’s a very smart move because he realises that Beli is so popular that any critique against him can’t bring anything good.

As for the others, he became so popular that the leaders themselves don’t want to comment on it. The leader if Enough Is Enough, Saša Radulović, who is also a presidential candidate, wanted even to support Luka and said We’ll help you. Luka said I don’t need your help.

So you think he will most likely not be the next president, but still, that in time, he might gain some more political power?

Yes, absolutely. Time works for his plans. In this election it’s very hard.

Last year, we had information that people were forced to go to the poles to vote and take a picture of the vote so that they can show to the employer Hey, we voted for this and that person. And it was massive and people admit that only off the record because they say If you find me another job, I will tell you everything what I faced. I have no choice. What can you do then?

If this whole very powerful system is controlled like this, Beli does not have huge chances to win.

On the other hand, it shows great instability of the system and that those democracies are still trying to figure out how they should function. There are many people who want to interrupt them in this process and that’s very worrying because obviously there is a certain group of people, not only in Serbia but in the Balkans who is profiting our of the chaos.

Many famous strategists and people who deal with strategies to make a fight in the campaign or elsewhere say that Sometimes if you have a big monster to kill, you need to kill him with his arms because you are too small to deal with him your way. So he just took the arms of those big guys and he’s decoding them the same way they do it. Maybe this is the only way to fight. Maybe he just found a perfect tool… We’ll see if others will follow.

By Laura Ștefănuț (follow)

With the help of Barna Nemethi and Oana Dorobanțu

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Laura Ștefănuț