Future Serbia

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

excoriated

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.

Internal reform

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.

Economic interconnectedness

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.

Military posture

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.

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.

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6 thoughts on “Future Serbia”

  1. Serbia needs a lustration law like no other country in Europe. However, Serbia is one of the very few former Eastern European communist countries that has not adopted lustration law yet. Additionally, Serbia has remained the ONLY former communist Eastern European country that has not even disclosed its police secret archives.
    Even without disclosing them, there would be numerous evidence against Vucic and his clique to be not only prohibited from serving in public office but also to be sentenced for long prison terms.
    Just observing the available publicly available facts, there are numerous examples that would potentially serve as evidence against Aleksandar Vucic before the Serbian courts:
    1) Member of a paramilitary group in the early 90s fighting in Sarajevo Grbavica region,
    2) Journalist for the Karadzic and Mladic TV station during the Bosnian War,
    3) Infamous statement “100 Muslims for one Serb” voiced before the Serbian Parliament DURING the Srebrenica massacre,
    4) Vucic’s statement as the Serbian Information Minister in the Serbian daily “Nedeljni Telegraf” that he was “going to retaliate” against the daily’s director Slavko Curuvija just few days before his execution by the Serbian secret police. During that time Slobodan Milosevic controlled government awarded Vucic with a spacious apartment in Belgrade that he still owns.
    5) Control of various hooligans groups on football stadiums as well as in the Northern Kosovo region,
    6) Posting Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic placards on a Belgrade’s street covering street signs of the former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djnijdjic executed by the Serbian secret police. Vucic did not do that in the 90s, he DID IT in 2008.
    7) Members of his government such as Minister of Internal Affairs and Mayor of Belgrade both have not only plagiarized their PhD degrees but also wrote preposterous dissertation which became publicly available after pressure made by few NGOs .
    I can go on and on with this, In any case, I would love to hear Mr. Serwer’s opinion how does he think Serbia can “focus on future” and to what extent Serbia would be able to progress on its path to be a democratic society under the Vucic’s rule and without opening secret police archives and without a lustration law? If anything, I look forward to see the outcome of the Bytyqi brothers execution.
    For all the evidence above, feel free to contact me via my email.

    1. I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that Peacefare allows individuals to make anonymous postings, especially at a time when some governments are paying trolls to spread misinformation and mayhem on blogs like this. Surely genuine contributors should have no fear of being accountable for their views and their names would make it possible for those of us who like to sort out the different types of nuts by category.

  2. To be non-aligned, or what Serb believe to be an independent spirit (and I have been told to have something of that in spirit, probably upbringing) does not preclude the road to the EU. As for the Russia, China the US, there is enough going around to be of truly independent spirit. The problem is that the Serbs (and the other nations of Balkan except for Slovenia in some degree) have never been taught individualism which is necessary for personal freedom and in turn for true democracy. E.g. one in which it would be recognized that my true stance on being for the sanctions against Russia is in that independent spirit. To want to have more than one source of energy on the market and being against any monopoly on the market, whether that be mobile or internet provider or energy source provider. That is the freedom of choice of an independent spirit, replaced with blind obedience to a local ‘patriot’ that trumps the very free spirit of an individual. Simply put European tribes from the south tend to sacrifice freedom to an altar of communism, nationalism, the state (where every monstrous form of such a sate is allowed), to a person who is a prism for their collective desires (mostly destructive). Serbia is in a greater problem. While in the other countries a bit north the distinction between the evil, Soviet or Stalin type of communism in Yugoslavia there was a mild communism with Yugoslavia in alliance with NATO via Greece. The mutant created in Serbia in its goal for a greater Serbia, obvious to even the most suspicious, or those who were friends with Milosevic from his time in the west, came after Slovenia was pushed out of Yugoslavia. What was in Serbia was a poisonous combination of Nationalism and Socialism on the one side and the Royalists on the other side. It is important to note that The Royalists were against the war for greater Serbia and with them a smaller group of members of Democratic Party. The number among the people are still the same. A large number of people is behind SNS.

    I like the expression bending the arc of history toward greater good. The very same way I like building a more perfect union. But the one I prefer the most is: finding the natural flows and our harmonized movement with it toward safer, peaceful and prosperous waters.

  3. It’s stupid because nothing is really being offered to Serbia here. A lot is asked: legalize the theft of its own territory, cut ties with RS. Accept that nations in the Balkans only have the right to self-determination when they are not Serbs and only have the right to territorial integrity when it’s not Serbia. Legitimize the fallacy that Srebrenica was one sided act of aggression, despite the fact that over 3,000 Serbs were butchered in and around Srebrenica.

    And for what? Entry to the EU…one day? Sounds like a lot of conditions without absolutely anything in return. What will Serbia’s Western investors who only came to take advantage of access to the Russian market say? Will the EU pay up when these companies leave Serbia?

    Serwer, as always, is a complete nut.

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