Publication of my reflections on Kosovo’s new year made me wonder why I hadn’t done a comparable piece on Serbia. So here it is.
Serbia struggled through 2012, which saw the fall from power after more than 10 years of its Democratic Party and the defeat in the May election of its incumbent president, a tougher line from the European Union and the United States on dismantling Belgrade’s governing structures in Kosovo and continued weak economic growth. Belgrade’s success in slowing recognition of Kosovo has not translated into anything positive for Serbia, which seems to be running a foreign policy based on inat (spite), or at least on delaying the inevitable. This has driven it in showy but unproductive directions: the Non Aligned Movement and Russia are far from the European aspirations of most of Serbia’s citizens. Former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic’s presidency of the General Assembly keeps Serbia’s profile high but has produced few concrete results. His announced intention to hold a debate on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has acquitted several high-level indictees of alleged crimes committed against Serbs, promises more of the same.
Relations with Kosovo have nevertheless improved, with implementation of some of technical agreements progressing and political-level talks begun. Serbia’s platform for the talks was prepared late. I welcomed it with my version of a Bronx cheer. It may be revised, but more likely ignored.
According to the platform, Belgrade continues to claim sovereignty over all of Kosovo and aims at separate governance of the Serbs there, including those south of the Ibar river who have already integrated to a significant degree in Pristina’s institutions while enjoying the autonomy the Ahtisaari plan provides. Serbia’s campaign against recognition of Kosovo by other states has been moderately successful, but recognitions continue (13 in 2012). Belgrade failed in its concerted effort to prevent Kosovo from joining the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Serbia faces two big problems on the domestic front: its slow economic growth since 2009 and its rapidly aging population. Combined, they are straining the country’s finances, causing the dinar to depreciate and inflation to rise, while unemployment remains high. Per capita income is now at about the same level as Kosovo’s, which used to be much lower. The global economic environment is not positive, in particular in Europe. “Doing business” conditions have improved and foreign direct investment has been a big plus.
Serbs are already enjoying visa-free travel to the Schengen area of Europe and Serbia has achieved the status of candidate for European Union membership. It does not, however, yet have a date to begin negotiations. Brussels, reluctant to open the door to further enlargement, will be exacting not only in the eventual negotiations but also in agreeing to a date for their start.
The still fairly new president and government in Belgrade have yet to solve the equation that stumped their predecessors. Serbia’s European ambitions require modernization and reform. But Serbia is still attached to ideas about state legitimacy, the role of religion in the state and the relationship of Serbs to non-Serbs that are backward-looking. It is not surprising that President Nikolic and Prime Minister Dacic think it natural that they visit Banja Luka before Sarajevo, a move that presumably foreshadows their intention to continue their predecessors’ habit of favoring relations with Republika Srpska over relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the hastily arranged visit of the foreign minister to Sarajevo notwithstanding.
The American role vis-a-vis Serbia has declined significantly. The Europeans have most of the leverage. Berlin has the biggest say in how they use it, though London, The Hague, Ljubljana and eventually Zagreb will also insist on reform and modernization while Paris, Rome, Stockholm and others try to win Belgrade’s affections with softer approaches. In the end, though, it takes consensus of all the EU members to decide on membership. Serbia will get there, but the road is going to be long and difficult.
In 2013, the key issue will be a date to begin negotiations. That depends on improving relations with Pristina. A solution for the Serb-controlled north seems far off, but I hope it will be found. Serbia needs to declare independence from Kosovo.
PS: There is a translation (thank you Milan Marinkovic!) into English of the picture here.