For most Americans, having a president who poses a direct threat to democracy is uncharted, perilous territory. But it’s useful to remember that other societies have dealt with the same challenges in the recent past. To truly understand the gravity of the threat we face, it’s helpful to turn abroad — to talk to people who have seen democracy in their own country crumble.
Serbian journalist Stevan Dojčinović is just such a person. The editor-in-chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network in Belgrade, he, along with his reporters, has doggedly documented corruption and lawlessness in the Serbian government — an elected regime that, according to international watchdogs, has worked hard to undermine the fairness of the political system and freedom of the press. Under the leadership of the right-wing populist Serbian Progressive Party, the country has fallen lower on one widely used ranking of democracy than neighboring Hungary.
The decline of democracy in Serbia is a bitter pill for people like Dojčinović to swallow, given that Serbia worked hard to build a real democracy after throwing off first a communist regime and then Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship in 2000.
“We were kind of building democracy for 12 years, and now we are in the process of going backward,” he tells me.
While America is not yet as bad off as Serbia, Dojčinović sees warning signs that America could go down the same road. In particular, he says, President Trump has the same willingness to abuse his position — cultivating a captive media, enriching himself and his family — that characterizes the current Serbian government.
For this reason, Dojčinović sees the Serbian experience as a warning for America: A second term could, in his view, prove catastrophic for American democracy. Populist authoritarians undermine democracy in an insidious way, dressing up attacks on the press and courts as what the people truly want. After reelection, they believe they have a freer hand.
“Mentally, for these guys, the second time they win is really important,” Dojčinović tells me. “Then they really feel kind of that they have a right to do some deep changes.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Give me some concrete examples of the ways the current government has attacked democracy in Serbia.
The first thing that they did was to crack down on media. They did it one day after they won election. They started cracking down on the media because, for these guys, the media is actually the biggest threat.
In Milosevic’s time, he was doing propaganda through state-owned media. [This government is] smarter. They didn’t want to create state-owned media or take control over private media. They understood that the best way actually is to keep media private but find ways to control them. In Serbia, they control it through financial measures, basically. The state suddenly started giving a lot of money to media through many different ways. Basically, the media understands that if they want to receive this money, they have to stop criticizing the people in power.
The biggest TV station in Serbia, for instance, they owe dozens of millions of euros of taxes and nobody pays; they’re not being charged for taxes. The state turns a blind eye while they don’t pay taxes. Instead of censoring media, the media becomes self-censored.
They are much smarter than Milosevic was; they’ve had time to learn lessons. What they understand is they should not change any laws in a way that [seems] undemocratic. So the laws stay the same. But they understand that they can really easily undermine all the laws. On paper, our laws are perfect. But in reality, none of these laws apply.
How has the crackdown on media and hollowing out of the legal system affected you as a journalist?
We have our own website. There is a lot of independent media in Serbia, mostly online.
But the internet is still not mainstream in Serbia. It’s really bizarre: When we discover some big story on corruption, we publish it online, and it gets really big hype. People discuss about it for weeks. But we don’t have one single big media organization do any piece about it. It’s kind of like two realities in Serbia: There’s big mainstream and the rest of the media. They have literally different stories. There’s nothing in common.
There’s lots of different measures that they do against the [independent] media. First thing is they cut you out of the finance. They’ll just send a bunch of tax inspectors to companies who advertise in media they don’t like. They will send police. They’ll really harass you. In the end, you understand it’s not good for business.
The second big problem is that the government established [its own pliant] media. The whole purpose is just to attack all opponents of the government or voices of opposition. This happened to me many times: I publish something, and tomorrow they open some smear campaign against me that will run for a week.
There’s a third really important element: Serbian state security, who, with this government, became really active in monitoring the journalists. They will investigate you, and what they gather they will give to the tabloids to publish.
If this is not enough, you can get some even more hard warnings.
This happened to two of our journalists from our newsroom. One day they came back home and they saw that their door was broken. When they entered their home, inside they saw everything was turned upside down, literally. Nothing was stolen from the house. We understand this was a message coming from the government.
All day, every day, you don’t know what will happen, if somebody is watching you. Every day you’re under some pressure.
We’re not there yet in the United States, obviously. But what echoes of your plight do you see here in the States?
I think, for the part of the population in the US, he [Trump] managed to kind of damage the reputation of some of the media. This is the same thing they’re doing here to us. When they attack us and smear us, basically our readers will support us more. But the problem is when I talk with the people in Serbia who support our government, I see that what they say against us and what the media publishes really affects these people. It’s really hard to fight.
What about Trump makes you worry that a second term would be so dangerous and so destructive?
There is a lot of connection if you look at all these populists. If you look at Hungary, if you look at Serbia, if you look at Turkey — with these new guys, they will not brutally cancel some basics of democracy. They are much smarter; on the surface, they want to keep things to look the same.
But they will change the system by placing as much of their own players inside of the system; through personal connection, they will control the system. We publish some story to expose corruption, then [a] prosecutor basically stops investigations into these kinds of things.
I think the endgame is they want to make corruption as legal as possible. In the end, they want money. They want to make their own deals. There’s lots of rules there to actually stop them from making some deals. They create in a way to make corruption possible to do and not to get yourself [arrested].
You know, [Rudy] Giuliani, who is working for Trump, he was hired by our guys to take part in one of their political campaigns. This is no coincidence.
So two major US-Serbia parallels are attacks on the media and the rise of personal corruption. I assume it matters, then, that the president is staffing his government with his family? That his sons run the Trump business empire but are also deeply involved in politics?
That’s exactly the same.
Usually, the head of the state will always stay clean and out of the businesses. On paper, our president [doesn’t have a lot of money]. One of the stories when they attacked us the most, when we were under the biggest pressure, is when we started messing into the business of his family members. It turns out that they, the family members, are the ones who are basically handling all the stuff because the leader himself is trying to be the one who will sign nothing. No property will be his.
The difference maybe a little bit is that Trump, when he came in power, he was rich, right? Our president was not. He wants to stay poor in the documents, but his family members are the ones who are actually getting richer.
What does it look like from outside the US, especially in a country that has struggled to get democracy to function in recent years, to see the United States struggle like this?
Historically speaking, the US has described itself as the bulwark of democracy internationally. But now, in the Trump era, we’ve started looking more like we’re backsliding. What does that mean to people in Serbia and other countries?
Everything that happens there affects the whole world in a way, especially Europe. That’s why everybody here is also interested to see what’s going to happen in the election in the United States in November. It’s one of the biggest topics because it’s like chain reactions, you know?
Many things that Trump does, our leaders use as an excuse. For instance, our president really brutally attacks publicly some journalists. If you say something about it, he’ll say what’s the problem? You have the United States president doing the same.
In the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the US is used as a reference for democracy. If something happens there, it must be okay. It’s not something we question. What’s happening in the United States makes democracy much worse in Europe also.
That’s why, more than ever now, everybody cares. People who are nationalists in Serbia, they’re really supportive toward Trump. This is how it goes. When he wins, they also feel more empowered here. It’s all kind of connected.