The risk of losing Serbia

  
Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EurActiv.com PLC.

The Serbian elections in May brought to power forces that are more ambivalent towards Europe, with a rising anti-EU sentiment in Serbia, write Ioannis Armakolas and Maja Maksimović.

Ioannis Armakolas and Maja Maksimović are research fellows for the South-East Europe Programme at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

Despite the ravaging economic crisis, European policy makers should pay more attention to the Western Balkans. The strategy of anchoring Serbia to the EU and, thus, firmly stabilising the turbulent Western Balkans may be at risk due to the confluence of several negative developments.

The deep EU crisis already weakens the region’s accession prospects. The Serbian elections in May brought to power forces that are more ambivalent towards the EU, thus adding uncertainty about Serbia’s future orientation. And only last month the ICTY acquitted Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač and Kosovo Liberation Army commander Ramush Haradinaj for alleged war crimes committed against Serbs in the 1990s.

The verdicts on these highly symbolic cases have spread disappointment and a feeling of humiliation across Serbia and met the uniform condemnation of politicians and civil society activists. In response to the rulings the government reduced cooperation with the ICTY to technical level. President Tomislav Nikolić called for all Serbs to “be released from The Hague tribunal”. Importantly, the ICTY rulings are again used by eurosceptics to strengthen the anti-EU sentiment in Serbia.

The Western strategy and its new risks

The 1990s taught Europe that a nationalist and revisionist Serbia can destabilise the Balkans. The strategy for promoting the entire region’s accession into the EU incorporated the vision for a democratic and pro-Western Serbia. Indeed, the country was given the prospect of joining the European club together with the rest of the region despite the political uncertainties of the early post-Milošević era.

This trust in Serbia was rewarded only after 2008 when a pro-European coalition around the Democratic Party (DS) sought to tackle the major stumbling blocks in relations with Europe. Chief among them was the full cooperation with the ICTY, which had become formal EU conditionality. The epitome of this cooperation was the arrest and transfer to The Hague of the last remaining fugitives from the Yugoslav wars, Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić.

Under the DS-led government Serbia gained EU candidate status and its citizens were provided with visa liberalisation. Importantly, the political change in Serbia as well as the full cooperation with the ICTY took place after Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. Serbia unleashed a diplomatic overhaul to prevent recognitions, but did not sever relations with any country that recognised Kosovo.

The elections of 2012, however, brought to power a coalition of the Socialist Party of Serbia, previously led by Milošević but also party to the previous reformist government, and the Serbian Progressive Party, a splinter of the extremist ultra-right. Both parties claim they are pro-European, but their controversial past, the work on renewing ties with Russia and their leaders’ lukewarm public attitude towards Europe have revitalised concerns about whether Serbia has what it takes to resolutely follow the EU accession path.

Euroscepticism on the rise

The latest ICTY rulings gave the nationalist opposition the opportunity to make a strong statement. The nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia published a proclamation entitled “Serbia under threat”, demanding that the government withdraws from the EU integration process and declares political neutrality. The far right movement Dveri supported the proclamation and declared that the EU is no friend of Serbia and that the ICTY verdicts were “dictated from Brussels.”

Some analysts fear that the influence of the radical nationalists may rise as a result of the landmark rulings. Opinion polls show that citizens’ support for joining the EU has dropped from 75% in 2008 to only 47% in October 2012. The number of citizens opposing Serbia’s EU accession went up ten percentage points to 35% between June and September 2012.

Traditionally, euroscepticism rose in Serbia when the country tasted more of the stinging stick than of the sweet carrot. EU was very popular when citizens had high expectations of EU financial assistance; popularity also received a bump after the visa liberalisation and the candidate status were awarded.

In contrast, support decreased when citizens started becoming more aware of the disadvantages and difficulties of the accession process. Also, more recently, increased euroscepticism is linked to perceptions that new conditionalities associated to the dialogue with Kosovo will be introduced.

But, perhaps above all, cooperation with the ICTY significantly contributed to the rise of euroscepticism in the past and is now re-emerging. Many fear that the rampant anti-ICTY sentiment will be transformed into a negative attitude towards Europe pushing EU’s popularity to unprecedented lows. This - coupled with the difficult economic reality of the population - may put the country’s entire Western orientation at risk.

Negative prospects?

The relations with Croatia and Kosovo will likely feel the heat of the ICTY furore. Croatia and Serbia have previously progressed in negotiations for dropping their mutual genocide suits. Many now expect that the suits will follow their course to the courtroom since an agreement becomes unrealistic. Similarly, a roll back in the efforts for conciliatory dealing with the past should be expected. Bold conciliatory visits and proclamations of the recent past may be difficult to repeat anytime soon.

The acquittal of Haradinaj will also add uncertainty to the difficult EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbian PM Dačić, hoping that a green light for opening accession negotiations will come soon, has only this week reaffirmed his willingness to continue the process by meeting the Kosovar PM Hasim Thaci in Brussels and agreeing on boundary issues.

But the pressure for ‘playing tough’ with Kosovars will increase. The almost certain participation of Haradinaj in the Kosovo government - aimed to reanimate the ailing PDK rule - can prompt some to try to block the process. It remains to be seen how strong the rejectionists in the government will prove; but surely the moderate voices face an uphill battle.

Saving the day in Serbia

The EU should not forget the lessons of the 1990s when an autocratic and isolated Serbia spread mayhem beyond its borders. Nor should the achievements of recent years be allowed to be wasted.

The preoccupation with the economic crisis notwithstanding, no political measure and symbolic gesture should be spared for demonstrating to the frustrated Serbian society that its future is in Europe. The diplomatic pressure for dialogue with Pristina should continue; but Belgrade should also start seeing more results in its EU accession path.

Croatia and Kosovo can be pressured to uphold rule of law, no less by conducting full and proper investigation of war crimes against Serbs. Croatia and Kosovo may also be advised to tone down their triumphalism over the acquittals since reconciliation in the region requires self-restraint by all sides.

Through engagement, Europe will demonstrate that despite the setbacks the only realistic future for Serbia is in the EU. Alternatives will certainly prove futile but only after Serbia will have lost precious time.

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