Heading for Belgrade next week

I haven’t been to Belgrade for a long time.  I am looking forward to seeing many friends, meeting new ones and participating in a conference on “What Next for Dealing with the Past in Serbia?” sponsored by the Fund “Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco.”

Here are the questions that are on my mind.  As usual I am open to suggestions of others that I should be asking, and any reading I should be doing:

1.  What is the political lay of the land?  Who is going up, who is coming down?  Why? What role do different issues play:  economic issues, Bosnia, Kosovo?

2.  How far has Serbia’s democratic transition progressed?  Are its courts independent?  Is its parliament doing the kind of oversight that a European parliament should do?  Is its government being held accountable?  Are its institutions reformed?  Are its army and other security forces under civilian control?  Is its press free?  Are its civil society organizations having a real impact?

3.  What are Serbia’s long-term objectives?  Does it continue to believe in the prospect of European Union membership, or is that fading?  Is there interest in NATO membership, or not?  Is anyone seriously interested in aligning Serbia with Russia?

4.  What is Belgrade hoping to achieve in Bosnia?  In Kosovo?  How does it balance those aspirations with its interest in good relations with the U.S. and Europe?  How can the U.S. best use its influence to ensure satisfactory outcomes?

During one of my last trips to Serbia, a prominent civilian of the more nationalist (but anti-Milosevic) variety showed me around Belgrade, pointing out with satisfaction the damage NATO did to security force targets.  He praised the accuracy of most of the strikes and bemoaned the hit on the Chinese embassy.  I gather attitudes have turned more sour since then.  This is not surprising.  I don’t expect anyone to appreciate bombing, even if it is accurate.  What caused the shift?  How far will it go?


Tags : , ,

8 thoughts on “Heading for Belgrade next week”

  1. Dear Mr. Serwer,

    It would contribute to the greater picture about Serbia’s foreign policy to know that it is still nurturing its ties with Greece which are founded on tenets of Christian Orthodoxy and the preventing of the spread of Islam in the Balkans. In this capacity Serbia has become an impediment to the integrative processes not only in Bosnia and Kosovo but in Macedonia too. Serbia caters to the needs of Greece in antagonizing Macedonia with little provocations such as naming the country with the dreaded acronym in sports matches, but this is only the veil of things. While it can not be presented in palpable terms, Serbia is intent on slowing down Macedonia by working from within it. Many in Macedonia are aware of it.

  2. First of all, welcome to Serbia, Mr. Serwer!

    Now, as someone who lives here all his life and knows pretty well how things work, I’ll try to answer your questions as best as I can, one by one:

    1. The dominant faction of Serbia’s national political elite believes that the country has two major strategic advantages which it needs to use in shaping its foreign policy: the first is the fact that Serbia, thanks to its geographic position, controls the shortest and at the same time one of only two land routes that connect central Europe to the Aegean sea and further to the Asia Minor; the second is Serbia’s ability to politically destabilize its neighborhood to varying degrees and thus disrupt regional balance of power from time to time.

    On the other hand, Belgrade is aware that due to the country’s general uncompetitiveness caused by technological lag and relatively poor infrastructure, any effort at its economic consolidation heavily depends on its relationships with major Western European powers, so that it would be unwise to go too far in making troubles around. As a result, we can see a policy which is chronically inconsistent and seems unsure of what it actually wants to achieve, especially in the long run.

    On the whole, the bottom line is that how Serbia will behave in the coming years depends directly on how successful the European Union will be in dealing with its own crisis. In case the EU survives, it is reasonable to expect that Serbia is at least going to avoid the worst-case scenario, albeit still without any substantial progress. Otherwise, the re-emergence of militant nationalism is by far the most probable outcome because: a) euro-skepticism, which in Serbia regularly goes hand in hand with nationalism, is already on the rise for quite some time; b) growing social discontent over consequences of prolonged economic recession is by definition the most fertile ground for all sorts of extremism; 3) even though Milosevic was ousted more than a decade ago, no denazification has taken place in Serbia ever since.

    If anti-Western nationalists happen to prevail in Serbia, Bosnia – rather than Kosovo –will be affected the most. While Serbia no longer has a military force with which to invade its neighbors, it does have a number of other political tools to destabilize them from inside.

    (to be continued)

    1. 1) The E10 may be of as great importance to Serbia as it is to the rest of Europe – the government is counting on it to spur development along its entire length, isn’t it? Even a nationalist government should be interested in finally completing the thing and not raising the tolls to a point that holds down usage.

      2) A traditional invasion is undoubtedly out, but I wonder what the purpose of that new 600-man special forces team is? Cross-border attacks on individuals, sabotage, a standing threat to peace-loving peacekeeping forces…? Allowing the entry of a country into any group because of implied threats seems like a generally bad idea.

      If the nationalists do come to power again they’ll only remind people what life was like under Milosevic. The next clean-out will be much more thorough, you have to assume. (Of course, I don’t live there and don’t have to consider the personal consequences, this is all entirely theoretical for a foreigner.)

      About support for joining the EU – today’s headlines bear you out – it’s down to 51%. When something goes right – Fiat, handing over Mladic to universal praise – it tends to go back up again, though, doesn’t it?

  3. It’s time for the answer to the question number two.

    While Serbia is nominally defined as a “parliamentary democracy” by its Constitution, the country’s political system is de facto presidential. More precisely, all political decisions of any importance at the national level are being made exclusively within a small circle consisting of the President and his closest aides, whereas both the Government and the Parliament only serve to execute those decisions.

    Among dozens of the government’s agencies formed over the past several years – many of which have meanwhile become major sources of systemic corruption – few can be said to be truly professional and independent in their work. The problem is, however, that those few have no executive power and are continually facing obstruction from various sides. Therefore, although their contribution to democratization is by no means insignificant – especially when compared to other state institutions – it is considerably limited.

    As for “independence of the courts” you asked about: when it comes to politically sensitive trials, their “independence” immediately vanishes into thin air (not to mention their role in persecution of free media which are already few and far between). In other cases, the situation is so-so, and what people are complaining about the most is that trials usually last unnecessarily long. Probably the biggest irony is that the recent so-called “judiciary reform”, which was touted by the ruling coalition as “the most successful of all theretofore implemented”, has rendered the courts even more susceptible to political pressure than before.

    I suppose you think I’m exaggerating? Well, just wait until I acquaint you with the “freedom of media”… in the next comment.

    1. I’m looking forward to your further comments.

      While we’re waiting for them, here’s an article detailing the problems with the judicial reform referred to above: http://euobserver.com/15/114714 . This is a (leaked) EU report that claims that “[t]he entire decision review process was conducted only to satisfy form and is a schoolbook example of travesty of justice.”

  4. Freedom of media in Serbia? A very tough question, indeed.

    At the time of Milosevic’s reign, the repression against disobedient media – as well as the repression in general – was quite open. The dictator was not even trying to disguise the true nature of his regime. Some of the most prominent opposition figures, including journalist Slavko Curuvija, were murdered by professional killers officially employed at Milosevic’s intelligence service – the key mainstay of the entire system.

    Having learned from Milosevic’s mistakes, the ruling oligarchy today tends to use more sophisticated methods of control over media – ranging from fixed privatizations to implicit political pressure to financial blackmail through the monopoly over advertising market which virtually all private media depend on for survival given that the income from the sale of the newspapers in most cases proves insufficient following the revolution of online journalism.

    And can you guess who are those that own the three major advertising companies which hold this monopoly? Of course, the most prominent figures from President Tadic’s inner circle: his two media advisers – Srdjan Saper and Nebojsa Krstic – and Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas.

    To help you get a more concrete picture of how this media control works, I’ll give you just one, but more than illustrative example: when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal, operatives from the President’s cabinet staff were ordered to visit all mainstream media’s editorial boards and give them instructions on how they should report about the ICJ’s decision in order to make the minister Jeremic’s obvious diplomatic defeat look far less unfavorable in the eyes of the readership than it actually was.

    However, given that journalism is separated into several fields – such as analytical, investigative, critical, simple news coverage, and so on – it’s also important to say that both levels and types of the pressure on media vary from branch to branch. Thus, investigative journalism – apart from rare exceptions – most often serves as an instrument for smear campaigns by various interest groups against their rival factions or during infighting within the same group (sometimes political parties’ leaderships use it in order to discipline their less compliant subordinates).

    Further, when you find in a mainstream media an article in which a political analyst loyal to the regime criticizes a certain segment of its policy, you can expect that some tactical shift in that particular area could be made soon (on Kosovo issue, for instance). In such cases, however, it’s hard to be sure whether that happens because the analyst is really so influential or the article was simply ordered in advance by the regime as a means to find out how the public would react if the policy was modified to a certain degree.

    Of course, the misuse of political influence over media during election campaigns is a commonplace.

    Yet, it’s not only the regime, or political class in general, that should be blamed for such situation in media. Some editors and journalists have willingly accepted to serve as political puppets out of their personal interest, while some other are simply incompetent, or at least not competent enough for the job they are doing. On the other hand, there is a number, relatively small though, of independent, brave journalists who have either opened their personal online blogs or work as freelancers for some media in the neighbor countries in order to reveal to the public what is otherwise impossible to do due to editorial censorship in the domestic media they are employed at.

    Perhaps the most strange fact is that under Milosevic there were more independent media, in spite of all the risk criticism of his regime entailed, than there are today. To explain how it is possible is very difficult for a variety of reasons, but may become clearer when I publish the comment on security forces – with particular emphasis on intelligence service.

    P.S: As far as I have understood from some of your previous posts, you consider B92, for example, to be an “independent media”. I am not going to try to dissuade you; I just want to tell you this: how really independent B92 is is, to say the least, extremely questionable. But that’s another story.

    Now, if you would like to learn at first hand what it’s like to be a truly independent media in Serbia, then I recommend you to visit e-novine – an online portal located in Belgrade, which is struggling hard to survive amid enormous pressure. In fact, if it were not for private donations by their readers, as well as one they received from NED (National Endowment for Democracy), they would have already ceased to exist.

    In case you can find some time to drop by and have a cup of coffee with these brave and creative people – which are fighting not only against the regime and its hypocrisy but also against many other social evils such as discrimination toward various minorities, systemic corruption, growing fascism and clericalization of the state affairs – I would be glad to connect you with them.

    1. A question: a couple of years ago, at the time when the Freedom House international media rankings came out, there was an interview in B92 with the official in charge of improving Serbia’s ranking. They were really disappointed, she said, but knew where the problems lay, and these would be dealt with. It sounded vaguely like a threat, but when I went back to reread the article it had apparently been pulled, and I hadn’t thought to download it.

      These ranking are based at least in part on reports by individual journalists – is there pressure on them to provide a rosy picture? It seemed strange that Serbia, where journalists are subject to physical assaults, would rank better than Kosovo, where the persuasion was claimed (in the narrative portion of the report) to be merely threats to keeping one’s job. So – do you have any idea how accurate these rankings may be in the Balkans? Or am I entirely too suspicious?

      (In B92’s defense – they frequently offer lovely, clear stock photos of everyday objects (raspberries, honey jars, handcuffs) perfect for use in vocabulary-learning programs.)

  5. I have to divide the comment on the army and security forces into two posts due to a shortage of time. First, on the army.

    If there is any area of Serbian polity that can be considered to have undergone a reform, it’s the army. Assuming, of course, that the term “reform” means not merely any change as such, but a change which is systemic and contributes to an overall improvement of the matter at hand.

    On balance, the reform of the army can be rated only partly successful, given some obvious flaws.

    The abolishment of conscription (professionalization) and moving closer to NATO standards in terms of training and, to a lesser extent, of the equipment (large parts of which are still obsolete, however, due to a lack of financial means for their replacement with newer items) represent two most positive outcomes of the reform so far (I say “so far” because much has yet to be done).

    Serbian export-oriented defense industry is an important source of income for the army, with a number of third-world countries as the top importers (by the way, Qaddafi was a favorite client).

    In terms of combat capability, Serbian military no longer poses any serious threat to its neighborhood in the form of the potential aggressor. At the same time, it would be able to successfully defend the country against any invasion by its immediate neighbors, even in case of a simultaneous attack from several directions. It can also count on special police units for reinforcement if necessary.

    As for the civilian control you specifically asked about, the greatest concern relates to the army’s security and intelligence departments. Formally, their work is monitored by the relevant parliamentary board (the control by the defense minister is understood), but nevertheless remains completely non-transparent in the sense of methodologies it is allowed to use to collect the data in relation to people’s privacy. This particularly goes for military counterintelligence agency (VBA), since its immediate predecessor (KOS) is widely infamous for its close links with various criminal clans, militant right-wing groups and elements within Russian intelligence-security apparatus – as well as for the involvement of some of its high-ranking officials in the assassination of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

    Anyway, if you meet with Ms. Jelena Milic of CEAS during your visit, I believe she can tell you much more on the subject.

Comments are closed.