I’ve run into some flak for hosting Serbian Prime Minister Vučić at SAIS last week. Some people think providing an opportunity for someone to speak at a university represents a political endorsement of his views, past and present.
Certainly Vučić has said things in the past that I find odious, most notably this from July 1995:
one hundred Muslims would be killed for every dead Serb
I haven’t forgotten. But it is a mistake to harp too hard and too long on the past. My interest in hearing Prime Minister Vučić, and providing him a forum in which he could be heard by others, stemmed from the need to understand his vision of Serbia’s future. I’m not interested in settling scores but in bending the arc of history in a good direction.
What Vučić offered was a glimpse of a possible future Serbia, one that makes a strategic choice for Europe and gives up on the non-aligned balancing act it has performed since the end of World War II. In my book, that would be a welcome development.
Non-alignment lost its real meaning 25 years ago. All the other countries of the Balkans have already opted for Brussels, leaving Serbia surrounded by EU and NATO members and aspirants. Many maintain good bilateral relations with Russia, even while joining in Ukraine-related sanctions. Serbia hasn’t done that, despite its candidacy for EU membership.
The question is what would encourage and enable Serbia to take the necessary steps away from its traditional “non-aligned” stance. Here are some ideas worth consideration.
Serbia has progressed in many respects since the Milosevic era and is now in a position to claim that it is on the road towards democracy and to attracting foreign investment on a commercial basis. But it remains laggard in two key areas: media freedom and rule of law. It needs to up its game in both.
The media issue is not formal censorship but rather informal pressures and even self-censorship, often exercised through politically-appointed editors and fear of losing contracts for valuable government advertizing. In addition, politicians in Serbia frequently attack the medium, not only the message. This cows many outlets into submission–memories of what happened to media moguls who resisted Milosevic’s dominance are still fresh. The media need to be far freer to criticize without fear of retaliation.
Rule of law in Serbia suffers two ailments: slowness and lack of independence. Commercial disputes can drag on for decades. Tycoons and war criminals are too often protected from prosecution. One of the prime suspects in the murder of the Bytyqi brothers, American Kosovars killed in 1999 by Serb security forces, is a member of the prime minister’s political party and serves on its executive board. The courts need to be liberated and encouraged to pursue malfeasance wherever it occurs, provided they follow proper procedures.
Serbia is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and will become more so as its own domestic reserves are depleted. It needs alternatives. Theoretical options, at least in the long term, include natural gas from Qatar, Libya (via Italy), Azerbaijan, Croatia, Israel and Cyprus. Many of these options would benefit from resuscitation of the Krk pipeline from Croatia.
Renewables could also begin to make a contribution. Belgrade is hoping to attract General Electric to invest in wind turbines at sites in Serbia.
While located in the heart of the Balkans, Serbia is still not well connected, especially to the Mediterranean. The quickest and easiest way to fix that would be to complete the Durres/Pristina road through Kosovo to the southern Serbian town of Nis. This project, which the European Union is committed in principle to financing, faces obvious political difficulties, as it would be the first major new infrastructure linking Kosovo and Serbia since their 1990s warfare. But it would provide serious economic benefits to both countries and go a long way to healing old wounds.
Also important would be economic cooperation between border/boundary communities in the two countries. Vital for this is an agreement on identification documents that would allow easy transit, like those in use between the US and Mexico as well as the US and Canada.
Serbia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and enjoys active cooperation with the Ohio National Guard. But unlike other Balkan militaries, Serbia’s army has not deployed with NATO or US forces. That would be an important step, one that Macedonia for example has taken by deploying embedded in the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan. I am told the Serbian Army medical corps is good and prepared for an operational deployment of this sort. War deployments are happily a bit hard to come by these days, but a natural disaster deployment embedded with the Americans (or vice versa) could be a step in the right direction, especially if the Serbs bring their own helicopters to the venture.
A NATO Membership Action Plan for Serbia is another possibility, albeit one that Moscow would actively resist, along with portions of Serbia’s population. But it could happen if Belgrade wants it. Once fully qualified Montenegro enters the Alliance, and especially if Sweden and Finland apply, it would make no strategic sense for Serbia to remain outside. Nonalignment really is going out of fashion.
Serbia has a southern military base on the border with Kosovo (Jug) that it might like to make available to NATO for exercises. So long as these are open to participation by the Kosovo armed forces, that might be a positive contribution to regional security.
When it comes to regional security, Serbia has particularly important roles to play in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo, both of which have Serb populations whose welfare Belgrade rightly values.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik has long led Republika Srpska. His political ambitions are tied to independence. It isn’t going to happen, not least because it would leave in central Bosnia a rump Islamic Republic that neither Serbia nor Croatia would find a compatible neighbor. But Dodik’s pursuit of his nationalist project has rendered the Bosnian state pretty much nonfunctional.
What is needed from Serbia is a clear break with Dodik. July will mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre of more than 8000 Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in eastern Bosnia. There is no better occasion for Vučić to renounce his “one hundred Muslims” remark and for Serbia to say it profoundly regrets the genocidal act perpetrated in its name and wants Bosnia’s Serbs to repair the damage by helping to build a Bosnian state capable of providing equal rights and economic opportunity for all its citizens.
In Kosovo, the issue for the moment is nitty gritty. Mediated by the EU, Belgrade and Pristina have reached both a broad agreement of principles, including application of the Kosovo constitution on all its territory, and specific technical agreements that have not yet been fully implemented. Fully activating the agreements would be helpful both to Serbia in its pursuit of EU membership and to Kosovo in its pursuit of a visa waiver and a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Brussels.
Serbia will need some day to face the issue of recognizing Kosovo as a sovereign state and establishing diplomatic relations with it. One or more of the 23 EU members who already recognize Kosovo will surely block Serbia’s membership without recognition, which would reduce Kosovo’s security requirements (and Serbia’s) once NATO forces leave its territory.
Serbia, like many countries, is proud of its history. But what its people need now is focus on the future. There are lots of opportunities to do so.