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Serbia Is at Crossroads, while Kosovo is Unstable

Published on , , Sofia

In the Western Balkans there is a feeling of new hope but there also is a feeling that only a spark would be enough to inflame the old hostilities again. The EU is too consumed by its own problems, popular discontent is rising, the nationalists score success after success. USA is far away and it has already changed its foreign policy focus - it is now watching the Pacific region and China in particular. Russia is also busy with the developments in the Middle East, Iran and North Korea. And the Western Balkans' neighbouring countries continue to be too insecure what they want from life. Such is the situation on the Balkan peninsula a few days before extremely important and even crucial elections in Serbia on May 6th - the day when there will be not less important and crucial elections in Greece and France. Crucial, because on the outcome of the elections will depend the future of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. This was made clear by two politicians - a Serb and a Kosovar. The former is a former official and is pro-European and the latter - incumbent and sober realist.

Serbia is facing a strategic choice

This is what professor Zarko Korac, a leader of the Social Democratic Union of Serbia, said in an interview with euinside. Professor Korac is a psychologist and a professor in the philosophic faculty of the University of Belgrade. He is one of the founders of the Social Democratic Union and is a former deputy prime minister in the government of Zoran Gingic between 2001 and 2003. After the Assassination of Zoran Gingic, he briefly acted as prime minister. At the moment prof. Korac is a member of Parliament. My conversation with him took place after his very interesting lecture in Sofia on April 23rd, organised by the Diplomatic Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he spoke about the challenges of Serbia's European integration. He told me several things, which are very important and show quite clearly that indeed Serbia is again facing a choice - a European future or implosion, followed by another portion of tensions on the Balkans.

Unlike all the other Western Balkan countries, in Serbia there is no full consensus regarding EU accession. There is a large number of people who want accession but those who are not sure or are firmly against are not to be underestimated too. This uncertainty in society risks to be enhanced additionally after the elections when it will become clear who will the next president of Serbia be. Be it the incumbent, whom prof. Korac defined as a slow reformist but nonetheless definitely a pro-European Boris Tadic, or the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, whose Serbian Progressive Party has the biggest support. The problem with Nikolic is, as Zarko Korac explains, that he claims that he is a reformer but he was never in power. Not only that he lacks governing experience but he was also part of the Serbian radicals of Vojislav Seselj who openly opposed the EU, NATO and were pro war.

According to the professor, there is a great danger Serbia's European path to be slowed down or stalled, which, for its part, could provoke some more radical Albanians in Kosovo. It is Kosovo that is the second largest challenge for Serbia. There is tacit agreement among Serb politicians not to talk to their Kosovo counterparts. "Who else if not politicians should talk"?, professor Korac asks and tells that the Kosovo topic at the moment is not a major one in the election rhetoric. There is a lack of understanding what is going on in Kosovo. There they also have problems of their own - economic problems, corruption, as everywhere in the Balkans.

Serbia will not be able to repeat the success of Cyprus to join the EU with a frozen conflict, the Serbian professor believes. In order to continue forward, Serbia needs to stop viewing Kosovo as a territory but as people, a large part of whom do not want to live in Serbia. He even drew a hypothetic scenario of what could happen if Kosovo were to be returned to Serbia and pointed out that to the question "Is this what you want?" Serbian nationalists responded with silence. The professor is aware, though, that a lot of generations need to change in order the war to be forgotten and gave the example with the issue of the former Western provinces of Bulgaria, which still entertains the Bulgarians and some politicians in the country, although Bulgaria lost this territory a little after World War I.

Prof. Zarko Korac is convinced that those who oppose Serbia's European integration are those who play the Kosovo card. All countries in the moment experience economic, political and social problems. Too much energy is wasted in disputes about Kosovo, when there are so many other problems to solve. And even the sadder conclusion of prof. Korac is that Europe is too far and too consumed by its own problems. The EU does not pay enough attention to the Western Balkans and they still need a large doze of attention and care.

The West has to confront the nationalist politicians

Only a weekend before professor Zarko Korac, a lecture in Sofia had a Kosovo politician - the deputy prime minister of the young independent republic, Bujar Bukoshi. His lecture was extremely straightforward, direct and without redundancy. It contained a very sober view on what Kosovo is in 2012. His words, however, contained also unhidden doubts in Serbia's transformation, which invested a lot of efforts in getting a candidate status for EU accession.

It is important to note that Mr Bukoshi started his a little over 20-minute long lecture with NATO. He even apologised that he exaggerated a little his emotions for the pact, but according to him the Alliance had played a key role for the stability of the Balkans and Europe at large. His message was very important especially in a moment when the pact's summit in Chicago is approaching, during which enlargement is to be decided toward Bosnia and Herzegovina. "NATO's enlargement, especially after the end of the Cold War, was an act of high moral order. It redefined the place of the former Warsaw Pact enemies among the democratic states. This was an end to a colossal historical injustice for the newcomers, who had been forcibly separated from their natural European environment for a half a century. The very incentive of NATO enlargement played successfully the role of a stability generator for the aspirant countries in their ambition to join the Alliance have gone a long way in political, economic and military reforms".

Bujar Bukoshi continued recalling that the new democracies had succeeded to resolve border disputes, to ensure minority rights, to discard obsolete weaponry, accelerate privatisation and promote the transformation of civil societies. "Kosova is still not in NATO but NATO is in Kosova", the Kosovo deputy prime minister said tellingly and added that all Kosovo politicians were united and worked hard so that one day Kosovo could be part of "that family". For what they have been through, the Kosovars are may be one of the staunchest defenders of the values, which the Alliance is trying to protect.

Alas, not so long and ardently Bujar Bukoshi spoke of the European Union and Kosovo's European perspective, although this was precisely the topic of his lecture in Sofia, organised by the Atlantic Club in Bulgaria. Moreover, instead of the nice words for NATO, the EU he reproached and sent a warning. The West is tricked by wishful thinking in terms of the real nature of the Serbian government.

"It [the West] believes that Serbia has evolved as a society and that the 1999s should have taught an important lesson. Western weakness fuels Serbia. The West must be determined in confronting nationalist politics or it risks by giving silent approval. The West should judge the government of Serbia and its officials by what they do not by what they say, if you allow me. Their [Serbian] policies should be based on government as they are not as the West wants them to be. Therefore the EU should support this message not merely by sending letters of concern to Belgrade but by publicly condemning Serbia for its poisonous and embracing of Milosevic's era policies".

Can there be a clearer message than that of a former premier in exile of Kosovo and current deputy prime minster about the real situation of the feelings on both sides of the Serbia-Kosovo border? These words are not an indication simply of hatred from the war, they are a sign of a fear for the future, because, as Bujar Bukoshi explained, the situation in Kosovo remains critical, "I have to tell you in a clear text, as the Germans say". "And highly unstable with regard to every important aspect of society, despite the enormous injection of resources by the international community since 1999. This applies in particular to the economic and social situation, the rule of law, with regard to which the judicial system is powerless in the face of deeply entrenched corruption in society and its structure and relations between the Albanian majority and the Serbs. The development of a democratic political culture has been inconsistent", the deputy prime minster added.

It is important to note, though, that Bujar Bukoshi's words regarding Serbia were said after an explicit statement that those were personal views. In his official capacity, Bujar Bukoshi responded to euinside's question, after his meeting with Bulgaria's Minister of Foreign Affairs Nickolay Mladenov, what risks he saw in the elections on May 6th in Serbia like this: "As far as Kosovo is concerned, we do not see any risks, because Kosovo is ready to continue this difficult process of negotiations with Serbia and after every round there has to be another. We have a deja vu from the past, when instead of negotiations other actions were undertaken, so it will very much depend and we are curious to see the developments in Serbia after the elections on May 6. This is a question of 1 million dollars - who will win - but I'd say that I am a moderate optimist. We will wait and see".

euinside will be in Belgrade for the elections and we will be telling you about everything interesting we see there.

A full transcript of the interview with prof. Zarko Korac

A.Marini: Professor Korac, there will be crucial elections like you said at your lecture on May 6th and the two main opponents seem to have talked pretty much about the European integration. Do you interpret this as something, as if Serbia is now ready to embrace European integration and to make certain concessions?

Z.Korac: As I said, I'm not so sure there is a full consensus in Serbia in EU accession. There is certainly a very large number of people that want EU accession, but there is also a sizable amount of people that are not sure or they are opposed to it. In that respect, it's not the same situation as in other Western Balkan countries. I tried this lecture to give reasons for that - war, assassination of Gingic-reformer, and so on, but the truth is that on this elections to the certain extent Serbia will be faced with this dilemma. It's not a clear cut dilemma. Mister Tadic and his Democratic Party, it was until a few weeks ago president of Serbia - he resigned - he wants to pull his list. He is a pro-European but very cautious European. But mister Nikolic who has the biggest support, 32%-33%, his coalition. He is a very uncertain reformer. He said "I'm for European Union", but he was a deputy president of the party that was anti European and pro-war party until 6 years ago. So this is a question - you have one pro-reformer, slow reformer so to say, and you have another one that claims he's a reformer but we are not sure he's really - he's never been in power. So in Serbia now, in these elections a little bit, Serbia would have to decide whether it really goes further in EU accession or it actually stops.

A.Marini: In your lecture you compared Mr Nikolic as a cannibal who turned to vegetarian but do you think that he might be realising that there is no other way? That EU integration is the only way for Serbia?

Z.Korac: That's an excellent question and I must say what you are asking me, I ask myself every single day. Of course I know him from Parliament - he's been a member of Parliament for 20 years. I would hope that he realises that, that there is no alternative politics in Serbia, that the wife of Milosevic, Mrs. Marko, she had some phantom party, which is calling Yugoslav Unified Left. She always spoke about sun rising in the east, about Serbia having alliance with China and Russia. I wouldn't mind this - it would be nice to have alliance, but I'm not so sure China and Russia really want alliance with Serbia. They are far away. Especially China. So, to be more precise, I'm not sure that Mr Nikolic understands this to the full extent, if he understands whether his voters understand this. It would very much depend on him. If he is in position to create a government it would be a question what does he do when he has a government. So the question is - it's like a question we have now a man that never walked along a certain path. He's never been in power. He's 20 years in Parliament. He's been once in the government of Milosevic, but only a minister very briefly. How he will go, where he will go, if we agree he goes towards Europe it won't be very fast. Is he really capable or his electorate will say: "Well, wait". Waiting what? So, I would hope so, but still I would think of Mr Tadic as certainly more positive reformer than Mr Nikolic.

A.Marini: Do you see any particular risks with these elections?

Z.Korac: Oh, yes I see a risk that this coalition, when it gets elected of Mr Nikolic - he has to join other parties. He cannot make himself a government. One of them is completely anti European of Mr Kostunica, the former president of Yugoslavia, he is now, he will get 6%-7%, I don't know, votes on elections, he will be in Parliament. Mr Kostunica is openly saying "We don't need EU. It's wrong to going to EU. EU is taking Kosovo from us". It's a Kosovo question. And since most of European countries recognise, not all of them, recognise independence of Kosovo, going there means you renounce Kosovo, you give up Kosovo, you give up part of your country. This is what he is saying. So a coalition around Mr Nikolic with at least one party will be completely anti European. How do you progress with a government where at least one party is completely. It's like you have a, sorry to say, comparison with Bulgaria, you have a government where Ataka is a part of government ...

A.Marini: You don't need to be sorry, obviously we're all not evolved enough in the Balkans.

Z.Korac: But, it's a party - it has voters, democracy. But if it is in the government the question is you have a one pro-European party and you have another one anti-European. How does it function and this is the big question to all of us in Serbia.

A.Marini: Well it's a very good example that you said because this is precisely what was the issue in Bulgaria because Ataka was actually supporting the government, although they are not officially in a coalition, so may be this is possible in Serbia too?

Z.Korac: That's an interesting question but, yes, that's a good way for the party to say well "we are not renouncing the programme, but we are helping the country". But that also needs maturity on the part of this small party. We, in Serbia have parties that are now encouraged by phenomena in neighbouring countries, let's say like in Bulgaria I mentioned, but let's see in Hungary with Jobbik you have more and more parties that are quite anti-European actually, at least for some values of Europe they stand, and in Serbia we have similar situation where these parties say and to add "They bombed us, NATO in 1999. We were bombed. More than 1000 people died. Serbia was destroyed, bridges, factories and so on - a lot of factories were destroyed, that produce military hardware - and they say "Why do we need to go there?" So, it's a more appealing in Serbia to be anti-European and also the one of the reasons is that the Europe also is now consumed with all its internal problems and it's really not paying much attention to our region.

A.Marini: Right. And how do you read President Tadic's decision to stand for elections 10 months earlier?

Z.Korac: I once called this a calculated gamble. He could stay in power but he resigned in order to, we say this in politics, to pull the list. The reason is very simple - the same is in Bulgaria and everywhere - if you have him as a named candidate for presidency and we have for parliamentary election the same name in the party, it's not typical for a man to vote for him as president and against his party. You are usually voting for the same name on two lists. Very few people actually make this very fine distinction, like you have a Bulgarian politician, he is good for prime-minister of government but he is not good for ... usually this is very fine difference, it's not typical. So he calculated gamble, he thinks, and opinion poll shows that he's correct, that if he is on a list for president he will give more votes to his list in parliamentary elections, possibly to make a government.

A.Marini: Is it possible that he made this choice also because the decision Serbia to be granted candidate status was very recent, so he could gain much support because of this?

Z.Korac: Exactly, because of this very little they can show. The standard of living is really poor. There's more and more unemployment these 4 years. The figures he could show are not very good, so he's basically trying, we say capitalise on the fact that we got a candidate status, yes.

A.Marini: And do you think that because Kosovo, you said that it was an issue, not a major one, but do you think that depending on the outcome of the elections there is a risk the Pristina - Belgrade dialogue could be blocked again?

Z.Korac: If you want us speculate in a negative way, some radicals even in Kosovo, even in the Albanian side, might think that if Mr Nikolic is elected as president and has a government, it's a good moment to create more chaos in Kosovo with Serbs, because, unlike Mr Tadic, who was a democrat or his political life, Mr Nikolic was a hardline chauvinist and nationalist, deputy of Seselj. And he would have no credibility if he turns to Europe and says "We are not responsible" and everyone would say "Ah, this is you, you've probably started something there". So, you have this kind of negative thinking that something happens in politics. He might be cornered because of his own words. He recently said, it's very abstract, but he said "If they would face me with a dilemma 'EU or Kosovo' I will choose Kosovo". But he was careful to say 'if I am presented with a dilemma', not that in the European Union he is presented with a dilemma, at the moment.

A.Marini: OK, you talked that Serbia is at cross-roads again and unlike France who are choosing a president among their personalities and different policies, but for Serbia it's again choosing a path. When do you think Serbia would change to that extent to start debating on policies, on different issues, about the future?

Z.Korac: That's a difficult question. I think more time has to pass, new generations to come. This is really different in Serbia than in Bulgaria. I have students, I am finishing my academic career but I always taught at the faculty and I lived on that. I'm a professor. This generation was raised during the war and whatever they saw on TV it was destruction and crimes, they see this Hague Tribunal as a humiliation to the Serb nation because most of accused there are Serbs (50%), all elite political of Milosevic is there - two heads of general staff, two presidents of Yugoslavia, the head of police, the head of state security, and so on. They're all tried there or sentenced or will be sentenced. And they are very resentful and they, you know Baudelaire, the great French poet once has a collection of poems, called Des Fleurs de Mal - The Flower of Evil. And the flower of evil grew up in Serbia. These poor children, they grew up in war. I will give you one example, not known, not even in Bulgaria, although this is a neighbouring country and you know, by the fact that even the language is similar, and you know more about Serbia than somebody in Norway. At one point Serbia had (Serbia's like Bulgaria - 7 million people) 700,000 refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. 9% of the population of Serbia - even you are not aware - 9 per cent were refugees. And you have these refugees, children there, they lost their homes. It's unimportant that the Serbs started the war but the consequence is that they have no hope. And this creates a horribly complex internal atmosphere in Serbia. So, our accession to EU, democratisation has much much much more obstacles, than let's say the Bulgarian one. Yours was easy, compared to ours. And our politicians also had to deal with too many problems at the same time. I'm advocating a more radical approach. Zoran Gingic is famous, he had these quotes. Once he said that if you had to eat frogs alive, always start with the biggest one. Meaning - if you have to solve political problems, don't start with the smallest ones. Always start with the biggest one, because soon you will realise it is better for all of us. Our biggest problem is in the moment Kosovo and Serbian politicians are exactly pushing it aside.

A.Marini: So, this issue must be solved and then move forward?

Z.Korac: This issue has to be more realistically seen today. And all Serbian politicians will say to you, all of them, except my group - if you ask them "Would you talk to Kosovo politicians?", they all say "No". Mr Jovanovic and me, we've been to Pristina five years ago. We were in hotel Grande and we talked to their leaders. How can you resolve anything? If Bulgaria and Serbia have a problem, of course politicians have to talk. Who else is going to? It won't be resolved by itself. So, for example there is a complete ban of talking to politicians in Pristina. Why? There is a lack of understanding what is happening in Kosovo and Pristina. Why don't we on TV and media, you are from media, you present more what's happening there - they have their own problems, economic, crimes, corruption, like everybody in the Balkans. So, Kosovo is like a distant land. It's like somewhere in Siberia and it creates all the problems. But Kosovo is next to your door. Serbia will still have to overcome this tendency not to resolve the Kosovo problem. The Kosovo problem is a problem and it's a very big problem. You have frozen problems, like Cyprus. But unlike Cyprus that entered the EU with a frozen territorial problem, Serbia is not going to be allowed this. And that's a big difference. So, at the end of the day Serbia, if it does not resolve the Kosovo problem, will not enter the EU. I think, I'm not sure, but I think so. But right now Serbia has slowly, through stages, to adapt its people to a new reality - that you lost a part of your territory. But it's not easy. When this conference finished a young, I presume he's here in the ministry, approached me and asked me about what you term as Western provinces - do you know the year when Bulgaria lost that territory? It was after the First World War. But it's still in Bulgaria, some people think that ...

A.Marini: This is an issue being raised in the European Parliament too.

Z.Korac: ... no, no, what I'm trying to say - when you think that some territories were your compatriots, but it always gives a chance to politicians that do not want progress to keep this question and say "So, we have a problem, let's keep this country in track. Do not allow anything unless there is a ..." or you in a positive way enter a debate where this problem have to be resolved. Of course, all minority problems have to be resolved. This is, how to say, all wars in Europe started with minorities. If I may so, the second World War started with Danzig problem, meaning German minority in Poland. This was a casus belli. This how the second World War started. Germany is taking Poland because of a German minority in Gdansk. So, minority problems are extremely important in Europe.

A.Marini: And it was particularly emphasised by the EU.

Z.Korac: It is but, of course, but the Serbs are angry. They say the solution, this is not my position, if you want ...

A.Marini: Yes, but we need to be realistic about the attitudes.

Z.Korac: Ah, but what is realism?

A.Marini: Sure, its a philosophical question.

Z.Korac: Exactly. No, I think Serbia lost Kosovo, for another reason - overall majority of people in Kosovo (90%) do not want to live in Serbia. I don't see Kosovo as a territory. That's the biggest difference between nationalists and a person like me politician. I'm not obsessed with territories. I'm obsessed with people. Let's say somebody gives Serbia Kosovo back. Let's say! We cancel recognition and we say "OK, you have it back". So, what do you do with one million eight hundred thousand, when nobody wants to live with you, in your country? What do you do? I sit with them and they say "thank you, you're a nice man, but I don't want to. I want to participate in elections but I don't want to get elected". Or, as we asked Serbian nationalists, if Kosovo goes back, then minister of foreign affairs of Serbia must be an Albanian, the vice president must be an Albanian, many ministers in government must be Albanians. Do you want this? Then they are silent. You want this? Good, we talk to Pristina and say "Come back, we'll give you everything in Serbia". But you want to exclude them from your political and social life and you want them as part of your territory. But it's not territory, it's Albanians themselves. On the other hand, Serbs live there - up to 200,000 Serbs, 180,000 Serbs, 130,000 Serbs - it's unclear completely because they move. And Serbia has a legitimate reason and a moral obligation to be interested in their fate. But not by saying Kosovo's independence is completely fiction. Right now, some European countries will not recognise the independence of Kosovo - Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus, four of them ...

A.Marini: And Spain.

Z.Korac: ... and Spain. And these countries are saying "It has to be resolved in a different way" and there is a problem in the EU with that. Of course, all these countries have all kinds of problems with minorities but nevertheless Serbia has to be realistic because, and this is may be interesting to you, we are losing so much energy for resolving this, instead lose energy we should address economic problems of Serbia, first of all, social problems. All politicians are consumed with the Kosovo problem and we lose precious energy. The whole day in Parliament they are debating about Kosovo instead to debate how to invest, how to attract investment, how to improve life, how Roma position, which is also a huge problem. These things are all gone from the central stage.

A.Marini: Thank you very much.

Z.Korac: Thank you.

A.Marini: And I wish you success at the elections.

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