MEP: Serbs think they’re top dogs in Balkans

Gyorgy Schopflin.jpg

Many Serbs feel they are superior in South Eastern Europe and feel offended that Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union first, Hungarian centre-right MEP György Schöpflin (European People's Party), shadow rapporteur on Serbia, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

György Schöpflin, born in Budapest, lived in the UK from 1950 to 2004. He has published academic works about politics in Eastern Europe, nationhood and national identity, and state building. When writing in English, he signs as George Schöpflin.

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor.

You have just returned from a visit to Serbia. What were your impressions?

I'm certainly one of those who see that Serbia has to be integrated at some point in the EU. If you look at Serbia from my Hungarian perspective, it's very important that this neighbour of ours should be in the EU. But from the European perspective it can't be done too early.

Indeed, Serbia is not ready yet. One of the two big issues are Mladic and Hadzic [General Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži?, the two war criminals sought by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia who are still at large]. From my discussions in Belgrade I think that all the major parties except Vojislav Koštunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) would like them to be handed over to The Hague.

There were various suggestions, true or not, that they are not in Serbia, that they are in Republika Srpska [the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina]. My guess is that this may well be correct, as in Serbia the police would have found them. The traditions of UDBA [the political police of Yugoslavia] haven't disappeared completely.

The second big issue is Kosovo, and I think it's the most difficult one. I think what the Serbs are doing is saying: let time work this one through. Public opinion has to get used to losing Kosovo, it's painful, I accept that. But I think they understand now: it's never going to be Serbian again. What they need is a good deal, that is fair enough for the Serbian population there, and I think they are now prepared for a reasonable deal with the Preševo valley [a region in southern Serbia bordering Kosovo with majority ethnic Albanian population].

Will there be a territorial exchange with Serb-populated northern Kosovo?

No, I don't think so. If they had tried it in the 90s it would have worked. I asked various people what the population breakdown was, nobody was quite sure. But if you could design a system that would respect the rights of minorities, I think it could work.

What is interesting is that the young generation in Serbia is inclined to think: this is not ours any more.

My understanding is that Serbia and Kosovo will start negotiations in the spring: March was mentioned. Elections in Kosovo are due in December, and the new government would be able to start negotiations, at a technical level, in early spring. What could be discussed are issues such as customs, with possibly serious political discussions some time after. But the political will in Serbia to go in that direction is there. This is where Koštunica differs.

As a Hungarian, how do you assess the treatment by the Serb authorities of the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina [northern Serbia]?

Not just me, but I think we are all very satisfied. It seems that it has improved, these nationalities councils are a step in the right direction. We would like to see them given content, given financial autonomy. What I would certainly like to see is also an ethnically neutral police force.

Are there many ethnic Hungarians from Serbia applying for Hungarian nationality, following the recent Budapest initiative to grant easily citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad?

There would certainly be some, but an awful lot went anyway, in the 90s. They basically said 'there is no future for us here'. Many were deserters from the war who said 'this is not my war, I don’t want to fight'.

My sense of it is that by and large, those who are there [in Vojvodina] will stay. All are quite happy to travel back and forth between the two countries.

Unlike the other East European countries, all of which joined NATO before their EU accession, Serbia will probably not join the Atlantic alliance. Do you see this as a problem?

I don't myself see this as a problem. It's not a necessary condition for membership. There is a lot of resentment in Serbia because of the bombing campaign [by NATO in 1999, to put an end to ethnic cleansing and atrocities in Kosovo]. It's understandable. My guess is it's up to Serbia. If they want to join NATO, they can, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that if they refuse, that would be a problem with regard to EU accession.

Serbs claim to have a greater administrative capacity to join the EU compared to other Western Balkan countries, as Serbia was the backbone of the former Yugoslavia. Do you think this is indeed one of their strengths?

I'm inclined to think that this is a self-legitimising narrative. A lot of people who had that experience, working for the federal bureaucracy for example, are not there any more. They have retired, or have gone to the West. In the period 1992-1993 a very large number of young professionals went abroad.

Serbs traditionally argue that they are the most skilled, the most sophisticated in Yugoslavia, but I think so are the Slovenes, and the Croats say the same about themselves. It's normal for a multinational state. Think about Austria-Hungary. The Hungarians certainly thought they were the best. True, not true?

Do you think that Belgrade harbours ambitions to finish negotiations before Croatia becomes an EU member?

It's inconceivable. Yes, the Croats may have problems, but with a bit of luck, they will initial their accession treaty during the Hungarian EU Presidency [first half of 2011], and if not, during the Polish Presidency [second half of 2011]. Then the ratifications takes at least a year. At best, first January 2013?

Regarding Serbia, they are now waiting for the avis [the Commission's opinion on the accession bid]. Then the EU should give Serbia full candidate status and I think it will take at least a year before they start opening chapters.

Think about Macedonia, which received the avis way back [in 2005], but because of the Greek problem with the country's name, no chapters have been opened. Frankly, I'm not a terrible pessimist, but I would say: 2018, 2019 for Serbia? Which is not a bad thing, because various areas of the administration, the judiciary, fighting organised crime, will take a lot of work.

But what I noticed in Serbia was that a fair number of people we talked to expressed a kind of resentment – why are Romania and Bulgaria already in and we are not? Because we are superior. They still have the sense that they are the top dogs in the Balkans. They were too polite to say this to me, but I think they may think the same about Hungary.

I was in Serbia during the 1999 bombings and I heard Serbs saying 'we are not angry against you, people from countries on the NATO side, but we are angry against Vaclav Havel', the then president of the Czech Republic. Because when Havel was in jail in Czechoslovakia, Belgrade theatres put on his plays and managed to send some money to his family. Is that a sense of superiority as well?

Yes, I can see the strength of that argument, except that it wasn't him, he just happened to be the president of a country that had just joined NATO. I don't think he had much choice. But I remember how the Hungarian government in 1999 was terrified at the idea of a land war, because it would have gone through Hungary. No question, any invasion of Serbia has to go through Hungary. But Hungary is not good at war. Are you are aware that Hungary has lost every war in 600 years, except the Gulf War [1990-1991]. That's the first war when we were on the right side.

How about the Hungarian EU Presidency? Aside from initialling Croatia's accession treaty, what other enlargement-related ambitions do you have?

Our foreign ministry just declared that we are in favour of Turkish membership. This doesn't cost us anything; we can say these things. I know that in Hungary a fair number of people, on the [centre-right government party] Fidesz side of the divide, are very uneasy about Turkish membership, but that's all right. There has been no proper debate about it. During the presidency Hungary will have a neutral position and it won't be Hungary to veto Turkey's membership. 

On the other countries of the Western Balkans, I must say, Hungarian public opinion is much more pro-Croatia than pro-Slovenia on the Gulf of Piran [a territorial dispute between the two former Yugoslav republics].

On Macedonia, we don't have problems, on Bosnia – standard position, eventually Bosnia could join, but when they are ready, ditto Albania. On Kosovo – we recognised Kosovo. Ukraine is very away from membership and in fact is going in the wrong direction, although opinions differ whether this is irretrievable, or actually it can be turned around. Moldova – we don't have a strong position, we think this is more of a Romanian issue.

But indirectly, it affects us. We have just signed the AGRI agreement, to bring gas from Azerbaijan across Georgia and then to be transported via LNG terminals across the Black Sea. Hungary has built an interconnector to Romania and actually this is a feasible project.

You mentioned AGRI, but you haven’t mentioned Nabucco.

I haven't mentioned Nabucco, I haven't mentioned South Stream, there are a lot of things I haven't mentioned. We are in favour of Nabucco, as it has a Hungarian dimension. And we have increased our gas capacity storage, it's quite big now.

What we're also thinking of, and that may emerge as an important area during the Hungarian and Polish Presidencies, is a system of interconnectors. The Poles as you know are building an LNG terminal at Swinoujscie [on their Baltic coast]. And eventually we want to see that connected with whatever happens with the Croatian project in Krk [an Adriatic island where an LNG terminal is planned].

The North-South interconnector would give us autonomy vis-à-vis Gazprom. Latvia pays 25% more for Gazprom gas than Germany does. This is not a market!

How about shale gas?

Poland apparently is full of it.

But now the Poles may lose appetite for shale gas, since they have signed the Yamal deal, which increases Gazprom deliveries to the country by 38%…

Yes, they have done a very good deal with the Russians, we don't know exactly what the effect will be, but with the shale being there, it's potentially open to exploitation, and the technology will be more advanced in three or four years' time.

I also expect news from an interconnector to be built between Hungary and Slovakia. On the energy front, the medium term says: more autonomy with respect to Gazprom. And that may help Serbia as well, which gets most of its gas from Hungary.

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