Professor: ‘Serbia’s past is hindering its future’

Defining responsibility for war crimes and genuinely confronting its recent past will help Serbia to clear the way for EU accession, Miroljub Radojkovi?, professor of journalism at the University of Belgrade, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Miroljub Radojkovi? is professor of journalism at the faculty of political science at Belgrade University and visiting professor at the Diplomacy University of Gorizia. An expert in Balkan politics and media, he is also an editor of the European Journal of Communication. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV’s Giacomo Fassina 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

What was the media and popular reaction to Serbia’s EU bid in your country (EURACTIV 04/01/10)? 

The reaction was somewhere between optimistic and realistic. The optimism sprung mainly from those media and press which view favourably the action of the government and the ruling coalition. They took this application as the proof that Serbia is taking a second positive step after signing part of the White Schengen agreements [a visa facilitation process for the Western Balkans]. 

The news was also positively received by ordinary people, who are not really aware of the complexity of the negotiation procedure. They believe that there will be a couple of gatherings in Brussels and politicians will sit and say: for us it’s OK, Serbia can join. 

Nonetheless more cautious media know that the journey to reach EU membership is long and burdensome. Serbia will have to undergo a hefty ratification process whereby all the existing members of the EU will have to agree that Serbia is fit for European standards. 

We already know that some countries could stop or condition the application. The Dutch parliament and government are the clearest example. 

The government portrays the submission of the application as a purely positive development, whilst certain journalists and citizens do not employ such a triumphant tone. 

Do you believe that the existing enthusiasm might evaporate once painful reforms are introduced? 

Ordinary people are not aware of what it takes to join the Union and the government is not really explaining why painful reforms are needed. So far the blame has been attached to the economic crisis. This has been the mantra of the last year and it has partly sheltered politicians from losing consensus.

Nonetheless, painful reforms, such as privatisation, are needed if we want to move away from the impasse. The process has already taken place and, due to the obsolescence of our industry plants, there are not many buyers. 

The state of our economy is grim. Unemployment is on the rise. Last year 160,000 people lost their jobs. 

Nonetheless the prospect of EU accession coupled with the free trade agreements that are in place have attracted some notable investors, such as Fiat. 

We have access to quite large markets: one is free access to Russia without customs. The other main market is represented by CEFTA [the Central and European Free Trade Area] which gives access to all other members of ex-Yugoslavia. Once you enter a Western Balkan country, you can trade freely with the others. This is quite a tempting carrot for investors. 

However, we need fresh money, especially to be spent on research, innovation and green-field investment. Our economists have calculated that in order to recover from all the destruction of war, bombings and disputes, Serbia needs three billion dollars. 

Fiat is of course the best news of 2009. 

In a recent article, Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister of Germany, lamented that European leaders had not been more vociferous and positive in relation to Serbia’s EU bid. Why do you think European leaders find it difficult to rejoice in this recent development? 

Serbia has a strategic geopolitical position. This is our advantage and appeal. Unfortunately we also have a number of disadvantages: Europe cannot accept countries which have internal problems. We have a major problem with Kosovo. The only example which runs counter to this view is Cyprus and it is probably a process that the EU does not want to repeat. 

EU policy towards Kosovo was to push out the Americans – who are not really interested in the Balkans anymore – and take up responsibility for the situation. 

As you know divisions run deep in the European camp as well. Some of them recognise Kosovo and some others do not. Europe is clearly ill-placed to start the negotiation process. 

Additionally, alternative ideas to bypass Serbia geopolitically are gaining momentum. We are late with Corridor 10 and at the same time new corridors through Romania, Bulgaria and Albania are being built very speedily. 

Finally, the EU has no strong proof that the democratisation process is consolidated in Serbia. We are aware that our division of powers is not very clear. Politics is too involved in the judiciary and in the media. We are also aware that corruption runs high through the country. 

After Bulgaria’s lesson, the EU would think twice before taking in a country which is not completely cleared of corruption allegations. European member states are not ready to take another gamble. 

How is the political landscape reacting to the prospect of membership? The Radical Party, the Social Democrats – Milosevic’s former party – and, it goes without saying, the Democratic Party, all seem to agree on EU entry. Is this just a cosmetic change? 

You have to distinguish between two levels of support: grassroots and political. Grassroot support is more receptive to the state of affairs and has been waxing and waning during the last decade. It was very low in 1999, then it went up, and then it fell again with The Hague criminal court’s decisions when war criminals from Albania and Bosnia were released. But with recent developments – White Schengen and Fiat – support is increasing. Support for the EU is around 60%. If you take into account the 10% of people who do not have an opinion, the proportion of people which rebukes the EU is quite low. 

At the political level, the situation is different. There is a tacit agreement among the biggest parties on the European direction. This is the official policy of the ruling coalition. 

On the right there is an interesting reshaping of the situation. The People’s Party, formed out of defectors from the Radical Party, is emerging as the main opposition party. We can safely forecast that in five to six years the Radical Party will disappear and we will be left with this centre-right pro-European People’s Party. 

How do you consider the stability of the government? 

We are now in the last year of the established government. This government has the support of five coalition partners, which all have a veto on any piece of legislation. They can blackmail the leading Democratic Party if they need concessions for their electorate. 

Is there any talk of constitutional reform in Serbia? 

Yes. The process of consolidation is taking place. Formally at the beginning of 2009, we had 600 political parties. Of course most of them were just names on a piece of paper, with no influence whatsoever, but they still offered a very fragmented image. 

By the end of 2009, thanks to a new registration system, parties have to bring 10,000 signatures to prove that there is genuine support and that they really exist. So far only five or six parties are formally registered. At the end of the process I foresee that there will be no more than 20 parties. 

National minorities are clearly protected in such a way that they will always have representation. And those small political parties representing Hungarians and Bosniaks have 3-4 candidates who have great leverage in such an unstable situation. 

Moving to regional cooperation, Serbia has a lot of neighbours, but not good relations with all of them. The first country I would like you to comment on is Bosnia-Herzegovina. 2009 has not been a good year for Bosnia. How does Serbia plan to develop its cooperation with Bosnia? 

Serbia has a clear position, but this is also a schizophrenic one. The official policy is that Serbia wants to help and maintain good relations with ethnic Serbs in Bosnia. But it so happens that these are mostly located in Republika Srpska within Bosnia. The special relationship is also sanctioned in the Dayton Agreement, but this should always remain at the level of civil society, and it is in fact working quite well. 

Nonetheless, some extremists within political parties want to use the argument used for Kosovo to employ it towards Republika Srpska. The idea is that if Kosovo could unilaterally declare independence, the same reasoning should apply for Serbs in Bosnia. 

The official policy in this sense is schizophrenic because the government cannot support the independence of Republika Srpska, since it would immediately imply a recognition of Kosovo. 

Some days ago, the anniversary of the establishment of Republika Srpska took place. [Serbian] President [Boris] Tadic was there and he repeated in front of officials and MPs that he fully recognises the sovereignty of Bosnia Herzegovina as a federal state. 

That will be the official policy until the International Court of Justice (ICJ) pronounces its views on Kosovo’s declaration. If the ICJ pronounces itself in favour of Kosovo, we will see what the repercussions will be. 

Nonetheless the main problem of Bosnia is that foreign investments in the country have evaporated, but Serbs in Bosnia are slightly better off and this might lead to tensions. 

Moving to Kosovo: the recognition process of Kosovo has continued in the last year. Yet many important countries still do not recognise Kosovo: five EU countries and the four BRIC nations, to name just a few. How do you see the evolution of the Kosovo problem? 

Three scenarios exist. 

In the first scenario, the ICJ declares Kosovo’s declaration illegal and contrary to UN practices. This would open up the possibility for Serbia to fight back for Kosovo in a peaceful way. The parallel with the situation in Cyprus could somehow serve as an example. 

In the second scenario, the ICJ stays neutral. If that was the case Serbia would probably continue with its diplomatic effort to isolate Kosovo and ask possibly for a partition of the country where Serbs are, and special rights for the Serbian enclaves and historical monuments. 

The third scenario cannot really be considered, as it would entail the use of force. No-one would accept it. 

Our strategy would be to urge Kosovars to discuss and negotiate, but to stay together in the same way Walloons and Flemish people live in Belgium, or the Scots, English and Welsh do in Britain. 

So is the government prepared to propose a better, federalist alternative to Kosovo? 

I believe the plan would look similar to what was proposed in the previous round of negotiations after the Ahtisaari proposal. This would mean giving Kosovo complete autonomy, but for foreign politics, defence and economic solidarity. 

The plan was not accepted at the time. It was a take it or leave it situation for Serbia. 

The other problematic neighbour is Croatia. After his election, Josipovic stated in an interview with Corriere della Sera that he might drop the lawsuit against Croatia at the ICJ. Croatia said that it will try to help the other countries in the Western Balkans once they are in. So how do you see the development of relations with Croatia in the medium term? 

Paradoxically, before White Schengen, Croatia was the only country Serbs could access to without the need for a visa. 

Political antagonism is decreasing sharply. The only major problem is that Croatia is suing Serbia in front of the International Court of Justice. Serbia’s request has for a long time been to ask Croats to withdraw this accusation. The idea was that the settlement could be carried out politically. 

Again paradoxically, Josipovic, the new president of Croatia, was one of the lawyers who drafted the lawsuit against Serbia. I have not read the interview with the Corriere, but I have seen that he has changed his approach considerably, stating that Serbia and Croatia need to move on, and think about the future. He has seen that the Serbian Court for War Criminals works quite well and can be trusted. If additional repayment measures are agreed, the two heads of state might stop the proceedings at the International Court of Justice. 

A few hours after Josipovic’s victory, Tadic issued a statement in which he expressed the intention to produce a declaration in which the Serbian parliament states that in Srebrenica, genocide took place. The reactions have been mixed. Some MPs have asked for other Balkan countries to issue similar declarations. So the declaration is not going to be an easy issue, but the political will is there and nationalism is losing ground. 

Following the point on Srebrenica, what are the likely developments reagrding Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži?? Do you think the EU will be keen to request that efforts be stepped up to capture them? 

The question about Mladi? and Hadži? would be the final stage by which we can say – similarly to Germany in Nuremberg in 1945 – that the issue could be considered closed by a certain date: say for example 2011 or 2010. But I frankly do not understand how these people can stay at large for such a long time. 

Or maybe, and this is just my speculation, this could be a card that governments are keeping for negotiation. If you bring them to court, you would be left with no major trump card. Maybe the EU is not offering enough. Anyway, the question of war criminals is more important for people of Bosnia than for Croats, especially for what concerns Mladi?. 

But in general I would touch here upon historical memory. Serbia has an account open with its past and it has to face it. We are the only ex-socialist country where people would still say that the situation was better before. We have to cure our post-socialist recent history. We do not want the international community to identify or pinpoint Serbia as a genocide nation. War crimes were committed by people that have or had names and faces, not by Serbs. This is why it is in our interest to prosecute these people and confront our memory. 

So you believe that it is better for Serbia to question its immediate past rather than put it to one side or bury it. Wouldn’t it be better to go back to it once it pertains fully to history? 

We buried the nationalistic problem in the immediate aftermath of World War II only to face it more violently 40 years later. Serbia’s past is hindering its future. We need to come to terms with our recent history. 

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