Serbia’s Strategic Ambiguity and the EU

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Srdjan Majstorovic

Srdjan Majstorovic

Serbia this week adopted new guidelines for its talks with Kosovo. As usual, the Serbian parliament declared that it would never recognize the independence of the breakaway region. This was not a surprise. But the parliament also called for more autonomy for ethnic Serbians living in Kosovo.

On the face of it, this latter statement seems of a piece with the refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence. But it is actually quite the opposite, for it implies two things. First, Serbia no longer harbors any hopes of asserting direct control over Kosovo. Second, the guidelines indirectly recognize Pristina’s sovereignty over the entire region of Kosovo. This acknowledgment runs counter to the hitherto popular “partition option” that would turn Kosovo into a kind of Korean peninsula, with a DMZ between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian enclaves in the north.

This is a very delicate balance. The nationalist government currently in place in Belgrade does not want to go down in history for “selling out” Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, they also don’t want to go down in history for blowing Serbia’s chance to join the European Union. Caught between unhappy bureaucrats in Brussels and unhappy compatriots in northern Kosovo, the Belgrade politicians are relying on a good deal of finesse: negotiating that which must be negotiated while kicking the rest down the road. Call it the Serbian version of “strategic ambiguity,” the same kind of opacity that has allowed Washington to maintain relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

The European Union, too, is involved in a difficult game. Brussels knows that having half the Balkans inside the EU and half outside is not a tenable situation. On the other hand, the EU is struggling with an economic crisis, and there isn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for further expansion after Croatia enters this summer. In fact, according to the head of Serbia’s EU Integration Office, there won’t be any new entrants in the next six to eight years, with the possible exception of Iceland. So, Serbia has to be both realistic about its chances and flexible in its conduct.

But for many in Serbia, the real question about EU integration is not the relationship with Pristina but what kind of state Serbia wants to be. Back in October, I talked with Srdjan Majstorovic, the deputy director of the EU Integration Office, about this issue.

“The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process,” he explained, “not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.”

What’s quite surprising about all this is the level of support in Serbian society for the EU path – despite the length of the accession process, the entrance requirements that the EU has demanded, and the less appealing prospects for EU members given the current financial crisis. Not only has the level of support in Serbian society for EU accession remained at around 50 percent, but the pro-EU faction in the Serbian parliament has now reached 90 percent. And, Majstorovic points out, most Serbians want to pursue internal reforms regardless of EU accession.

The question remains: how much “strategic ambiguity” will Brussels and Kosovo tolerate, and for how long?

The Interview

When you look at the next couple years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Serbia?

I would put myself in the position of a cautious optimist: 6. That’s cautious enough, since the prospect is not rosy, I’m afraid. I’m not referring to political stability, but rather that Serbia and the rest of the region are facing serious economic and social challenges to which the governments should pay particular attention. Since we are already integrated into broader European, even global, economic processes, everything that happens in the EU has a direct impact on the economies in the region. In such an environment, it’s very difficult for the governments to be persistent in reforming societies, which on the other hand is a necessity. These challenges can spill over into the political sphere and into the perception of the stability of the region as well and produce a downward spiral when it comes to the eagerness of foreign investors to invest in this part of Europe. In such a complex situation, we are facing the risks of increasing political populism.

And that’s something that we must avoid if we want to stay firmly on the European integration path and reform our society. Because the reforms are necessary. The EU itself provides a model that is accepted in the majority of European countries and at the same time provides technical and financial support along with the introduction of those reforms. And that’s why the transformative power of the EU integration process itself, regardless of current crises within the EU, is so important for the stability of Serbia and the region.

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I was a teenager. I sensed that this was something huge, a game-changer, if you will. At that time, former Yugoslavia was starting to feel that something is changing on the European continent. This period when big changes were happening left a considerable trace on my political views: stepping out of the one-party political system and into a pluralist political system based on democratic institutions and the respect for human rights and rule of law. That’s something that made a mark on one’s political ideas for life. It was a cornerstone event for my generation.

For my father’s generation, it was a bit different. He belongs to the post-World War II generation, and he felt that the event was a serious blow to the identity of the generation brought up in the era of a one-party system when the state played a large role in the everyday life of the individual. What followed after the fall of the Berlin Wall was something that his generation was not prepared for.

Unfortunately, the political elite in former Yugoslavia was not prepared for the paradigm change marked by the fall of the Wall. Instead of choosing democratization path and economic transition in the process of wider European integration, we took a dive into nationalist frenzy and an overall disintegration of society marked by wars and ethnic hatred.

There’s a perception that the current Serbian government has adopted a go-slow attitude toward European integration compared to the previous government. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s still early to say whether this is true or not. It’s still not the full 100 days of this government to assess properly what the dynamism of the EU reforms in Serbia will be. What is obvious is that the prime minister himself, as well as the first deputy prime minister and the deputy minister for EU integration, are all firm that the EU integration process is a primary goal of this government. I would stick to that and suggest holding them accountable to produce tangible results. But perhaps it is too early to assess what the dynamism of the process will be.

Mind you, this dynamism is not solely based on internal social, political and economic conditions. There is an external factor as well. Unfortunately, what’s happening inside the EU and its economy is influencing not only European-wide political debate, it’s also spilling over into the internal political debate here in Serbia. There are those saying, “Do you see what is happening inside the EU? Are we going to rush in or are we going to prepare ourselves better?”

Although political and economic issues are playing the most influential part our relations with the EU at this moment, we shouldn’t neglect reforms that are necessary to undertake in the process of EU accession. They need to be implemented no matter the tempo of our EU integration process. The important thing is that the government does not lose its goal, which is the EU integration process. Then, in open dialogue with the EU and the European Commission, we can agree on the tempo of the EU accession process, respecting the objective circumstances on both sides. But this tempo of the EU accession process should not affect in any way the internal reforms, which need to be undertaken if Serbia wants to be recognized as a successful, democratic, and modern European state.

In the media, it was presented as an expectation on the part of this government, or this government and previous government, that the discussion of EU integration and Kosovo would proceed in parallel. But in some sense, the two have collided. EU accession, it seems, has been made contingent on an acknowledgement or recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Is this the case? If so, how to resolve this?

First of all, it’s very difficult to ask Serbia to recognize something that five other EU states don’t recognize, namely Kosovo’s independence. The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process: not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The reality in Kosovo is rather complex. Institutions in Kosovo are ruling this administrative area. Serbia still relies on UNSC Resolution 1244 and deems the same area as being UN administrated. The reality is that Serbia does not have the instruments to rule the territory that is, in accordance with its constitution, part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Serbia. Nor do Kosovo institutions, which declared independence in 2008, have the instruments to rule the northern part of Kosovo populated by Serbs. So, this is a potential jumping off point for negotiations between the two sides, and there is room here for some future compromise. Both sides can agree to disagree and explore possibilities to find some way out of the deadlock, which has grave consequences on the everyday life of people living in this area.

We need a compromise, because otherwise this situation can breed very bad sentiments on both sides and become a destabilizing factor. In this volatile social and economic situation, it can produce very negative effects. There is 45 percent unemployment in Kosovo, 90 percent of which are young people. This is a social time bomb. The situation in Serbia is just a bit better, with 25 percent unemployment and 80 percent being young people. If not offered a peaceful and constructive alternative, these young people could become susceptible to populism and nationalism and other volatile ideas and ideologies.

We are now eagerly waiting to see what the platform will be for the negotiations between the two sides. The president has been saying that he would like to see this platform adopted by the parliament as well and have full democratic legitimacy to negotiate with Pristina. Then obviously the next stage would be some kind of agreement between the two sides, which will be a crucial historic moment for the start of the process of reconciliation.

We’re speaking today at the same time we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Balkan wars, when the Balkan nations fought against Turkey. There is a lot of history in this region, as Churchill put it, perhaps too much to absorb. Such an amount of history, combined with economic and social difficulties and a lack of European perspective, can be easily misused as a legitimizing factor for some dangerous political ideas.

It sounds like the compromise would simply be maintaining more-or-less parallel discussions on integration and reconciliation.

It’s time to behave in a European way. It is necessary to engage everyone in the region in the European integration process. And on the parallel track, it is necessary to find some sustainable resolution of the Kosovo issue. But if you put this issue as a condition too early in the process, you’re just risking a prolongation of the EU integration process and the process of reforming these countries. It might provoke certain nationalistic ideas, which rise much faster in a volatile economic and social environment.

Obviously, as we draw closer to the end of EU accession negotiations, this condition will become more present and visible. But at that stage, democratic institutions and processes and actors will become capable of sustaining political pressure.

In the last week [October 2012], as if this issue weren’t enough to deal with, there was the cancellation of the Pride march here in Belgrade and at least one EU representative saying that this was unacceptable from the standpoint of EU principles. What was your reaction to that?

I was disappointed as a citizen of Serbia. I strongly believe in human rights and liberties. And if a certain right is protected by the constitution of this country, then the state should make it possible for each and every minority to express themselves freely. If we believe in the rule of law, if we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, the march should have been allowed.

But the government decided that there was a serious security risk for participants and cancelled it. It sent the wrong message, especially to those hooligans, extremists basically, who were threatening the participants of that parade. That’s not the way to fight intolerance and discrimination. Obviously there’s a lot to be done in order to raise awareness among citizens concerning the rights of especially sexual minorities and to improve the overall climate in society regarding the tolerance of those who are different. To be fair, this year’s Pride week was marked by a couple of exhibitions and public events that took place, and these should be considered a small, a very small, but still important contribution to similar events in the future.

Many Bulgarians said to me that the EU brought Bulgaria on board too quickly and missed an opportunity to use accession as leverage to push more reforms through Bulgaria. How do you feel about using EU accession as a tool?

It’s a very useful tool if you implement it properly. I’m glad that you got a realistic picture in Bulgaria. Because Romania and Bulgaria are good examples of how things should not be done. I’m not saying that Serbia would become an EU member state tomorrow. In that sense, we are aware of the lengthiness of the process ahead. But what is important is to start accession talks as soon as possible. Because each and every one of the 35 chapters that we are negotiating basically screens our capability to adopt or not the EU acquis. It provides an objective picture of your own capacities to advance. If done properly, then yes, accession is a perfect tool to improve a country’s position. But still, the accession process is just an opportunity. Success depends on the candidate’s readiness to accept the values and implement the standards of the EU.

Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding that accession is a two-sided process: political and normative. These have to go hand in hand as well and, the process is successful only when both parts are taken seriously and complement one another. There have been a couple of examples of countries acceding to the EU on the merit of a political decision rather than the fulfillment of technical criteria, which proved to have grave, long-term consequences. If a candidate does it properly, yes, EU accession is a very useful tool. But obviously you need to have first of all, political willingness within the country to engage in sometimes very difficult and serious reforms.

Second, there needs to be fully fledged dedication and administrative capacity to negotiate and properly implement all the required technical standards and rules. And then, there should be clear political will, or vision if you wish, on the EU side as well that this process needs to start as early as possible and that this process will lead to the actual accession of candidate countries to the EU. The problem is that the EU today lacks the vision and self-confidence that its appeal still has sufficient transformative power to make aspiring candidates engage in the necessary reforms.

What will be the most difficult chapters for Serbia to undertake?

This is not secret. It will be like the cases of Romania and Bulgaria. There’s judiciary and fundamental rights on the one hand, and issues related to internal affairs on the other: justice, freedom, and security. Those are going to be crucial. The quality of reforms performed in those two areas influences the quality of the overall transformation and success in the EU integration process.

Based on that, the European Commission has begun to use a new methodology in the accession talks, prioritizing these two chapters (23 and 24). This is to avoid the same mistakes that the EU made in previous waves of enlargement. The new methodology implies that, after the screening process, a new series of benchmarks will need to be fulfilled before negotiations on a particular chapter are opened. Depending on the success achieved in these two chapters, the country will move deeper into accession negotiations. If a candidate gets stuck in these fundamental chapters, it will not be able to proceed to the other chapters. This is a new system of checks and balances to assess the readiness of candidate countries regarding the importance and acceptance of the rule of law as a major EU accession condition.

Apart from those two areas, the chapters on agriculture and environment are traditionally very challenging, because these are very large and expensive chapters to negotiate and implement. And the majority of the European acquis is based in these two areas.

Another question that will determine the complexity of our accession process is what the EU will look like in the future. Even more important, what will the EU look like when Serbia is ready to join the EU? Based on the complexity of the current economic and financial situation in the EU, we can say that issues of financial prudence will be very important for the future accession candidates.

Decentralization has been a challenge for Turkey, and some people oppose decentralization there arguing that the country will fall apart if too much autonomy is given to the regions. A debate is also taking place here in Serbia over decentralization, around the issue of Vojvodina. At the same time, centralization is intensifying in Serbia, with so many people moving to Belgrade and some villages in the countryside disappearing. How do you think this debate will play into EU accession?

There is no special request coming from the EU with regard to decentralization. As you know, in the EU this particular topic is left to the competence of the member states with respect to their own tradition when it comes to the territorial division of governance. Thus, there are federal countries, regionalized countries, countries in the process of devolution and traditionally centralized countries. When I was a student, I argued that the Spanish model of autonomous provinces, for example, would have been a good model for addressing secessionist movements in former Yugoslavia, especially in the case of Kosovo back in the 1990s.

According to the constitution of the Republic of Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo are two autonomous provinces and as such they do have additional administrative competences. The EU doesn’t have standards on this particular issue. The EU is interested and is following developments in this particular area strictly in terms of respecting the rule of law and respecting the existing competences of the autonomous province. The recent decision of the Constitutional Court on the income of Vojvodina is going to be acknowledged in the forthcoming progress report due to be published shortly, and the two governments (the central and the autonomous province’s) will have to acknowledge that this issue should be addressed and resolved.

The second important issue with regard to decentralization and regionalization in the EU accession process has to do with development aid and policy within the EU. With regard to that, Serbia adopted a law on the statistical regions of Serbia. These are just development regions that basically gave us the opportunity to accumulate statistical data in those regions in order to draw development data and assessments. It is necessary to produce this regional statistical data in order to draw all potential development assistance in different parts of Serbia. The EU structural funds are based on the logic of supporting depopulated areas or areas facing structural problems such as industries moving out or the need for rural development. Obviously the EU integration process will have more impact, of necessity, on improving the capacities of local self-governments (municipalities) and statistical devolution rather than governance devolution.

However, there is a political party in Serbia campaigning on the issue of regionalization. So, these statistical regions could become something more than just statistical gathering areas in the future. But that’s still not a part of the political debate. And if all relevant stakeholders accept this idea the process of decentralization will have to be transparent and based on the widest possible social consensus that respects the numerous regional specificities of Serbia’s multiethnic society.

Every time I ask people here about their impression of the EU, people who are not working on this issue, they turn it around and ask me when I think Serbia will become part of the EU. And I say, “I don’t really know.” I guess there are two scenarios. In the first, accession goes relatively smoothly, with an emphasis on “relative”: the accession talks continue and Serbia enters in ten years or so. The second is the Turkey option. Turkey has been in accession discussions for something like three decades. This is obviously not just a technical question. There’s considerable political opposition in some capitals in Europe. I’m curious what you think in terms of Serbia’s timeline.

I believe Serbia can finish EU accession negotiations in five years, once they start. Perhaps an additional two years will be needed to ratify the Accession Treaty in the EU Member States. But that doesn’t mean that those five/seven years will start from now. It obviously depends on how the Kosovo dialogue ends up. It will depend on the readiness not only of the incumbent government but future governments as well to engage in sometimes very crucial, difficult, and unpleasant reforms: reform of the labor market and the pension system, to name just a few. So, if we draw the parallel between Serbia and Croatia’s EU accession process we can say that Serbia should be able to at least finish the accession negotiations if not join the EU by the end of the next financial perspective period, 2014-2020.

It will also depend on the future of the EU itself. But I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict how long it will take for the EU to resolve its internal issues. What is necessary is that there should be a proper political vision with regard to the broader picture of what the EU should look like in the next ten or twenty years. The accession process for the Western Balkans, not only Serbia, should be speeded up, and it should go hand in hand with a deepening of the integration of the EU Member States. That should be a sign of the clear vision, the strength, and the still existing appeal of the EU enlargement policy. Otherwise, it’s going to be even more difficult to cope with transition fatigue in candidate countries and more challenging to motivate political elites to remain dedicated to necessary reforms.

How robust is Serbian support for EU accession. We often see fluctuations in public opinion around this issue, related to economic issues or Kosovo. How large a core group of people will support EU accession no matter what?

We’ve been conducting public polls ever since 2002. You can check them out on our website. We are conducting them in line with Eurobarometer methodology, and they say that 49 percent of Serbian citizens would vote yes if a referendum on EU accession were to be held tomorrow. But this data fluctuates. In 2003, after the assassination of late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, support was at its highest peak: 76 percent. If there is conditionality regarding Kosovo, support goes down in that particular period. If candidate status is about to be awarded, support goes up. So one can say that public opinion depends on the major paradigm that best describes the major issue in the current relationship with the EU.

What is important for us, and what shows rather the rational side of the public when it comes to the EU accession process, is that when we ask citizens about reforms that we are introducing and implementing during the course of EU accession, there is huge support (68% of citizens support reforms regardless of the prospect of EU accession). Even with doubts surrounding the prospects for EU membership, citizens tend to be very rational on this issue. They are also rational on the Kosovo issue, because the public believes it should be resolved regardless of EU membership (61%). So this is an additional element of legitimacy for the political stakeholders to continue to engage both in reforms and dialogue with Pristina.

And then there is an additional way of measuring support when you look at the number of political parties that are currently part of the mainstream in the parliament. Some 90 percent of those political parties sitting in the parliament belong to the faction of EU accession supporters.

That’s a change!

That’s a dramatic change. The best way to explore the transformative power of EU accession is to go back to 2008 when we signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with EU and there was a debate in parliament about whether to ratify the agreement or not. That was the tipping point when the former Radical Party split. That was the game changer when it came to a political consensus on EU integration for Serbia.

So, the political consensus exists. But the social consensus needs to be strengthened. And that can be done only with the proper communication with the citizens, to explain what exactly the EU means today, what accession will bring to the citizens of this country, and how these reforms are necessary if we want to be a well-regulated and modern European society.

Belgrade, October 8, 2012