Europe is Losing Serbia

15. 3. 2017

Almost all the generals and politicians wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Former Yugoslavia have been captured. Still, we should not expect either a rapid nor an easy accession to the EU, and much less so to the NATO.

In Belgrade you can hear the clamor dying away. Correspondents reporting on the presidential election have already packed their recording equipment; Herman van Rompuy has assured that “the region of Western Balkans is a key priority for the EU”. The president-elect has managed to compare Serbia to “a house whose door is open both to the East and to the West” scores of times and he has been sworn in. The beginning of June was marked by the preparation of a festive inauguration and whipping together a government under Boris Tadić. This will allow Serbia to have the benefits of a political clinch or, to put it in an elegant way, of cohabitation.

For a moment, there was some nervousness though. On Monday, 21st May, after Tomislav Nikolić won the presidential election, dispatches spread around the globe heralding “the victory of a nationalist, the right hand of Miloševic”. Such recognized statesmen as the president of Socialists and Democrats Group in EP, Hannes Swoboda lamented “the tough blow for European policy in the Balkans”. Only later did someone bother to check that the new president had, already in 2008 when he left his previous party, spoken in favor of Serbia’s accession to the EU, which made the red warning stripes at the bottom of TV screens turn yellow, fade away and disappear completely. Admittedly the president-elect, during the first post-election weekend, did visit Moscow. He took part in the One Russia rally but his first official visit was a meeting with EU leadership in June. And again, you could read Twitter posts by Carl Bildt and Michael Spindelegger, expressing a balanced mixture of warning and hope: if Serbia continues its pro-European path of reform, it can count on our support!

Yet Georges Dandin of Brussels gazes at Belgrade with sadness. Admittedly almost all the generals and politicians wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Former Yugoslavia have been captured. Also, negotiations over acquis, which started recently, have already resulted in the transfer of so much best practice. Still, we should not expect either a rapid nor an easy accession to the EU, and much less so to the NATO. “Europe has lost Serbia”, as our hero might sigh, if only he were used to longterm thinking.

But, dear George, let’s be frank: did you really care?

Between Hope and Despair

Perhaps you did. EU leaders have declared their interest in European enlargement in the Western Balkans as early as in the 90’s. The fall of Slobodan Miloševic, in September 2000, marked the commencement of a honeymoon. Even in October 2007 the level of public support for EU integration amounted to 71.5%. In December 2009, nine years after the first free election, a visa free travel was introduced.

If things were going so well, why did they turn so bad? Why as of this spring only 46.5% of the citizens supported EU accession and as many as 75% of those surveyed were opposed to membership in the NATO? One of the reasons might be, as was noted a long time ago during a visit to Moscow by the Polish intellectual—known both for his subversiveness and brilliance—Jan Kott, “If two people share one bed it does not follow that they will share the same dreams.”

The EU has decided to get involved in the Balkans and has never concealed their stance. Local elites and nations need to round out the 90’s. In practice, this requires unconditional cooperation with the Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including arresting all those accused by the Hague. But it was the “Serbian list” that was most extensive—the social resistance against interference in internal affairs—that was the fiercest and the opportunities for sparking debates or even blocking the negotiation process were the most numerous.

Wondering what the effects were? Ten years after the most intensive hammering of public opinion, 42% of Serbs responded to the question, “Do trials of war criminals contribute to normalization in our region?” with the answer, “Yes, but only providing that all states in the region also put ‘theirs’ to trial.” Another 23% of Serbs chose the answer, “No, not at all.” What do they make of the massacre of Bosnians in Srebrenica? 55% agreed that, “This was one of the many crimes committed during these wars, whose scale is exaggerated by our enemies and the media.” The offense is seen as “the gravest crime committed during these wars” by 16% of Serbs, 7% negate it and the rest have “no opinion.” This data comes from a survey conducted by Politikum in December of 2010 and used a representative sample of 1000 people.

And bear in mind that the Hague trials and reprimands, which have been continued for over a decade, over “insufficient cooperation will”, were but a trifle if you look at the fate of Kosovo. In this case it’s hard to judge if the EU has from the very outset had a concept and a vision how to solve the future of this inflammable province. In Belgrade the prevalent view is “yes” there was a vision in the first place, which was fundamentally malevolent towards Serbia, with as much as 61% of people convinced that their country is being partitioned; this is according to a study from February 2012 by NSPM agency. However, there are many signs showing that Brussels was actually moving blindly, looking for lesser evil, navigating so as to steer clear of the Scylla of the Serbian militia and army who displaced Kosovar towns in the fall of 1998. But sailing this way, it harbored a different place. Welcome to the coast of Charybdis.

Already in the preamble of the constitution adopted unanimously in September 2006 you can read that “Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia”. To the question, “If Serbia’s accession to the EU’s was conditional upon its renunciation of Kosovo, should we accept this condition?” 72.3% of the Serbs answered “No” and 12.1% answered “Yes” (NSPM agency, February 2012). Indeed, what’s surprising is not the fact that Tomislav Nikolić won the election but rather that his time came so late given that he ran for the office five times since 2000.

The reason is the following, Tomislav Nikolić is hardly a Machiavellian genius. Plump and clumsy, both in his gestures and even more so in his words, this politician is treated with allergic reluctance by the mainstream media and he gives them as good as he gets. He would have never won against Boris Tadić, had it not been for the dramatic economic collapse. The EU economic crises loudly echo in the European periphery. This deep sense of hopelessness was necessary in Serbia—if you ask people about future prospects 80.5% will choose the options “poor” or “very poor”—for the revival of the desperate and dust covered Serbian political myth recalled by Nikolić.

The Kremlin Brothers

A two-century long dream about a powerful ally and an alternative to the humiliating wait in the antechamber of Europe, dreamt in Šumadija and in the Timok valley has a name: Russia. The fantasy of the “South Stream”, the most surreal energy investment in contemporary Europe, is still alive in Serbia. Belgrade wishes to play the role of “a strategic energy partner for Russia in the Balkans” and to control the South Stream offshoot to the Republika Srpska on the territory of Bosnia. In its wildest dreams there are far lines leading to Kosovo and Macedonia which might help them regain economic influence in those regions. Similarly, vice-president of opposition DSS party, which has probably gone over the hill already, Nenad Popović, has been promising the country Russian investment of up to 10 billion Euro for months.

Admittedly, you will find some Russian investment in Serbia. Gazpromnieft purchased, a trifle really, 51% of the shares of the largest petrochemical conglomerate of Serbia, and of former Yugoslavia, NIS (Naftna Industrija Srbije), which for years had been ailing but in the meantime has turned to a flourishing entity expanding its giant stockpiles. LUKOil owns the petrol station chain Beopetrol which is worth USD 300 million; the Bank of Moscow opened a subsidiary in Belgrade. The local demand for energy resources is huge enough for Russia to remain at the top for years among Serbian trade partners.

The rest is not that breath-taking however. USD 25 million invested in several dozen kilometers of gas pipeline Niš–Leskovac and USD 35 million which saved a foundry in Majdanpek. This is hardly a remedy for the emaciated Serbian budget. In all seriousness, rescuing Jastrebac, a factory for vacuum cleaners, from collapse might be perceived as touching, but the world has seen more aggressive injections of capital from Russians.

Obviously, Moscow has taken decisive steps in the last decade, like protesting against the Ahtisaari Plan, which assumed gradual granting of “controlled independence” to Kosovo in the summer of 2008, insisting on a Belgrade-friendly interpretation of 1244 resolution (“where there is no mention of Kosovo’s sovereignty”) and non-recognition of independence declared by Pristina. The latter position is actually shared by more than half of UN member states. However, Russia represents the heavy weight category among them being a permanent member to the Security Council.

What is left are mere gestures even if they can be quite attractive and spectacular. Like the so-called Primakov loop, when on 24 March 1999 the former Russian prime minister, heading for the USA, ordered the airplane to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean upon hearing the news of NATO’s air intervention in Kosovo. Or the “foray” of General Ivasov, who less than three months later ordered a raid of commando forces by the Russian contingent in Bosnia at the airport in Pristina just a moment before the entry of KFOR forces. Chapeau bas! There were only a few people who in the last century managed to turn a real strategic failure into a beautiful gesture. Now it’s living its own media-supported life and brining continuous profit like a good long-term investment.

The Serbian Hangover

Since these events, Russia did not have to do anything in particular. Vladimir Vladimirovic has learnt the lesson of Archimedes on the importance of a pivoting point. If not directly then definitely during the classes on the mat with Jigoro Kano. After all, you will never get a black belt if you don’t master to perfection the second rule of judo: seriyoku zenyo, saying that you should maximize efficiency and minimize energy. This is what we are observing right now. It’s enough to stand still, it’s enough to not recognize Kosovo, after all Patriarch Kirill will, once a year, shout out on the radio: “Our Kosovar brothers, the Russian Orthodox Church, the prawosławnyj russkij narod shall never renounce you!”

The Serbs will do the rest on their own. Boris Tadić, who can hardly be accused of Orthodox pietas, or being a faithful pilgrim, was one of the few who appeared, along with Alexander Lukashenko and President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, in Moscow at the funeral of Patriarch Alex II in December 2008. In Kragujevac a desperate group established a party to rescue Serbia called My Russia. In an Orthodox monastery in Vlasenica, Republika Srpska, icon makers worked on a mural depicting Prime Minister RS Milorad Dodik next to Putin. Apparently, the dedication of the artists came to the fore over the anatomy as the painted Dodik is considerably shorter than his prototype. And if you would rather hear some hard data instead of these anecdotes, just consider this: what percentage of Serbs approves of “as close as possible ties with Russia”? The answer is 62.8% with 19% being against, according to NSOM data from February 2012.

History knows this type of soreness. This reliance on support which seems so promising because it is so unworldly. Somewhere far away, there are our allies. They will help us out in the moment of trouble. Like Frederick Barbarossa resting under the hills of Kyffhäuser and Fion Mac Cumhaill under Irish granite rocks. Or the knights sleeping under the Polish Giewont or the Czech knights, led by Saint Wenceslaus I, sleeping in the Blanik mountain. And even the last Serbian prince Marko Mrnjavčević is said to be living on in a cave together with his steed!

However, the things which a historian and an ethnographer will find deeply moving will be interpreted by a social psychologist coldly as a “phantasm provoked by abandonment.” Gestures and polling decisions of the Serbs, which under the presidency of Nikolić can lead to the most bizarre moves, like for instance recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, reflect the need for understanding and solidarity. Yet, they will not be reciprocated by the Kremlin chess players. The residents of Belgrade, through their efforts, are treating themselves to inevitable humiliations and these may be far more severe than the reprimands of the EU Commissioners received so far. But Russians at least are not ignorant. Whereas we, dear George Dandin, will end up with a hangover. Because, yes, we were those who disregarded Serbia in the first place.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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