Making the Jump Together

In April, Serbia and Kosovo signed a landmark normalization treaty. The deal, in what might seem a paradoxical quid pro quo, gives Kosovo authority over the Serbian pocket in the north and greater autonomy to the Serbs living in that region. Despite protests from some Serbs in that area as well as their supporters in Serbia, the parliament in Belgrade approved the agreement. Last month in Kosovo, the parliament also voted in favor of the arrangement, with equally vehement protestors in the streets outside denouncing the deal.

The two sides have exchanged liaison offices and are working out the various details regarding borders and trade. But this is not a Serbian recognition of Kosovo independence. Nor does it mean that Serbia automatically joins the European Union. Moreover, sporadic violence still erupts between the two sides.

But the agreement marks the necessary first step toward eventual reconciliation. Kosovo’s has received a bump up in status, with Egypt becoming the 100th country to recognize its independence last month. And Serbia will begin negotiations over EU accession next January.

“Of course Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo one day,” Ivan Vejvoda told me in an interview in November last year. “But if I had to make a guess it would be at the doorstep of Europe. That would mean everyone holding hands at the same time and making the jump. I don’t think that anyone on the Serbian side has any illusion about that. But no one will ever say that. That’s how politics works. I often use the Northern Irish example. This takes time. This is a European issue involving essentially European historical identity. It’s a cultural issue, a linguistic issue. So please bear with us as we move slowly through it. Don’t try to ram this down our throats, especially after we’ve said we’ll resolve this peacefully.”

Ivan Vejvoda is vice president for programs at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. He is a philosopher and was a long-time civil society activist in Serbia.

For Vejvoda, the soft power of the EU is gradually having an impact in the region. “Maybe this is the only region where it works, but the magnet is still very strong,” he said. “The results we get now on the question, “Are you for the European Union?” is around the 50%, plus or minus 5% depending on the day. I would call this very healthy because people realize the problems.”

But, he stressed, the Kosovo issue is not the priority for most Serbs. “What we’ve seen over the years is that open opinion polls show that Kosovo is somewhere between the sixth or seventh issue in the hierarchy of importance after jobs, obviously, and everything that relates to standard of living and the future of the family,” he pointed out. The Serbian government recently announced that its main economic goal is to reduce unemployment – to below 20 percent. Currently the unemployment rate hovers around 22 percent.

We talked about the long detour Serbia took during the Milosevic era, how the war served as an X-ray machine that revealed the previously hidden sentiments of people in the region, what’s going on with Vojvodina, and the generational shift in the country.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you head about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was in Belgrade, and I knew that this was an earth-shattering moment that came much earlier than some of us thought it would.

I like to relay a story from a couple years earlier, from a panel that took place in Belgrade in maybe 1985 or 1986. On the panel was Cornelius Castoriadus, a Greek-French philosopher, and in the audience was the late Serbian writer Danilo Kis. Kis asked Castoriadus, “Will this ever end? Because I don’t believe it will.” And Castoriadus said, “No, it will end. It’s just a matter of time.” There was no doubt in his mind that a system like Communism could not last forever.

I was exactly of the same mind. I was more junior then and a follower of Castoriadus and Claude Lafleur and the French political-philosophical school as well as Jurgen Habermas in Germany. And so when it happened I wasn’t surprised. For those of us following Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, especially as perestroika began, this system was clearly not sustainable. And of course Mikhail Gorbachev played a huge role as a true ruler who basically said, “The king is naked. We need to stop pretending.”

So that was basically the feeling, that the fall of the Berlin Wall would of course lead to big changes. But I didn’t predict that my country would disappear.


How did you first get involved in civil society activities in Serbia/Yugoslavia?


We have to go back to 1968. I’m a ‘68er. My father was a Yugoslav ambassador. We were in Paris, and that was the year of my high school graduation. That was also my inception into ideas of leftism and civil society and women’s rights and environmental issues. I was brought up in a family that was left-leaning, and my father had been in the Spanish Civil War fighting against fascism and then in the Second World War as a partisan commander fighting Italian fascists and German Nazis. So that was the environment I was brought up in: I thought there was a natural propensity to side with rebellion.

When I came back to Yugoslavia in 1972, I followed the path of staying outside of institutions, trying to remain a free thinker. Eventually I joined the Institute for European Studies in Belgrade. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, I was a junior part of the intellectual scene in Belgrade. I joined the philosophical journal called Teorija in Belgrade and was also part of a literary journal called Knjijevnost (Literature). I was also part of what was called in Belgrade the Petitionist movement, which was linked to people like Vesna Pesic and others. Basically we were signatories to petitions asking for greater freedom or the abolition of the death penalty or releasing prisoners like Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia or Vojislav Seselj in Serbia or even Croatian nationalists. In Yugoslavia, given the system, we had a few real dissidents like Milovan Djilas, who was in jail, and Seselj, who also spent time in prison. This was the intellectual opposition that didn’t go out on a limb but was fully engaged and realized that communism was not the right system.

When Milosevic became the Communist Party secretary in 1983 and his wife became the party secretary of Belgrade University we had firsthand experience already that this was not good. When he then became the party head in 1987, displacing Ivan Stambolic, we knew that this was definitely not going to be good. Paradoxically there was an opening then. Milosevic allowed for greater religious freedom in the sense that people didn’t fear going to church regularly. Milovan Djilas appeared on television for the first time in 1989, I believe, on the new third channel of the television. And I think many people were duped into thinking that this was a real opening. There was an opening, one can’t deny it. But there were other phenomena as well. The way that the takeover of power happened actually indicated that this wasn’t going to be good.

But of course Milosevic, to use the counterfactual, could have called for the first reelections in central, eastern, and southern Europe and legitimize himself democratically, which he didn’t do. Rather, he followed the path that he did take in Yugoslavia, based on his own ideas not on the ideas of others.

So, we ratcheted up our opposition. I was one of the founders of a group called the Democratic Forum in 1989 with someone called Leon Kojen and a group of about 19 others. It was very diverse, and included people like David Albahari, who now lives in Canada, the writer Laszlo Vegel from Novi Sad, and Trivo Indjic, who was one of the Praxis group. Most of us had never been members of the Communist Party. We wanted to have a voice in politics but didn’t want to do full party politics. It was a time when the Democratic Party was being re-founded. We were close to all of those people: Djindjic, Vlada Gligorov, Svetozar Stojanovic, Lyuba Tadic (the father of Boris Tadic). But we wanted to stay in our professions and have a voice in politics. Because, to state the obvious, every government needed to be criticized and we wanted to have that voice.

That was too purist. When we had an official founding in March 1990 — Adam Michnik came from Poland to be there along with many others – someone said that it was too good to be true. As with many such things, it didn’t last too long. Already by June or July, part of the group led by Leon Kojen wanted to go into full politics. I was among a group of 30 people that seceded from the forum. We’re talking about 120 people in all. But it was well seen by the Belgrade Beltway and the good chattering classes. It was a signal of not only good intentions but of a pluralization of civil society, which was beginning to become engaged.

In December 1989, I wrote one of three position papers on the European integration of Yugoslavia, which was published in Borba, the daily newspaper. Later, when the conflict started, we created something much less pure but which lasted much longer called the Belgrade Circle of Independent Intellectuals in March 1992. It was a much more heterogeneous group of artists, actors, film people, intellectuals, people from a variety of walks of life. We produced two edited volumes called The Other Serbia (Druga Srbija). I was one of the organizers of these Saturday panels. At the first one, I was one of 6 or 7 speakers. We had Latinka Perovic and Rade Konstantinovic, the late writer. This launched it. We invited people from Kosovo, people from outside the country, to speak in these. It was a civil society effort, an intellectual exercise, to speak out against the regime and to maintain the voice of that “other Serbia.”

One single point I’d like to stress is that Serbia was never the “evil Serbia” that was portrayed by CNN, to use their catchphrase. In that first election in December 1990, Milosevic got 47% of the vote, and the combined opposition, including nationalists, got 48%. But because of the electoral law, which was the French first-past-the-post system, Milosevic and his allies controlled two-thirds of parliament and that enshrined full Milosevic rule. He was completely in control — literally, individually by himself — of the whole political system, which allowed him then to do what he did and make the deals with Tudjman that he did.


So, as you were on this trajectory from 1968 to the Democratic Forum in Serbia, what was the reaction from your family, from your father the former Partisan fighter?


My father was supportive. He was not against anything that I did or that my brothers did for that matter. My parents were in that respect very liberal parents. My father came to communism through culture basically, and architecture. He was a student of architecture in Prague in the 1930s when many German intellectuals were fleeing Germany and came to Prague as a halfway house on their way elsewhere. It was the time of Bauhaus, of Red Vienna architecture. So he became socially aware and, through that, joined the political stream. There was a culture of pluralism on the left. He would talk about the trenches in the Spanish Civil War where there would be, side by side, a Socialist, a Trotskyite, an Anarchist, a Republican, a Soviet, a NKVD guy, and they learned to live with each other. You didn’t have to be dogmatic to be on the same side fighting the fascists.

My father passed away in 1991, on December 1. That was an interesting date because it was the day that Yugoslavia was formed in 1918 after the Versailles Conference. So this was an interesting, serendipitous historical ending for the trajectory of his life, someone who had devoted himself to Yugoslavia and to that post-war country that had a certain legitimacy, which it lost because communist politicians brought it down. My mother, who carried on for another 20 years or so, was the same.


I’ve met a number of people who had a similar genealogy. They are the children of diplomats in the communist bloc, and many of them went on the same trajectory you did. They acquired intellectual capital when they were children abroad, picked up languages, and then came back and were kind of inserted in the system. Have you met people who have the same kind of background you’ve had and followed the same political trajectory?


In Belgrade, most of the friends that I have and the acquaintances that I know followed this trajectory. Although I think what happened from the early days of the breakdown was that the war was like an X-ray or a CT Scan. Suddenly there were things revealed in people, principally nationalist leanings. That was a very revealing moment. If that had not happened, one would not find out really that people deep down were nationalists, not cosmopolitans. I mean, we’re all patriots, and we love our country. But it’s about understanding that the world is a complex place, and you have to understand that there are other views and that other people also care about their identity and other people are patriots in their own right. Conversely, some people turned out to be more courageous, speaking up and upholding the values of rights and freedom, which again maybe one would not have expected of them if the opportunity had not occurred.


During the 1980s, was the emerging nationalist movement in Serbia exemplified by Cosic then largely hidden from view? Was it not something identified within intellectual circles as part of the political landscape? There was Praxis, there was the Democratic Forum, and then there was this group around Cosic…?


It was not invisible. “Veiled” is not the right word either. The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) was seen in the social sciences as more of a conservative place. Of course, the 1986 SANU memorandum defined a nationalist trajectory that particularly irked intellectuals who were liberal-democratic oriented and didn’t see this as the appropriate way to address Serbia’s historical grievances.

Which doesn’t mean to say that there were no constitutional issues. The famous 1974 constitution did create a lot of challenges, to put it mildly. The two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, did have lots of say in their own affairs. The mother republic Serbia could not have a say in their affairs whereas these representatives were sitting in the Serbian parliament. So there was a sense of imbalance, but the memorandum’s recommendations were again not the way to resolve these things.

Milosevic’s playing of the Kosovo card in the late 1980s signaled that this was going to be his way to strengthen the legitimacy of his own power base. Again, this was the wrong direction. Another signal was the attempt to re-legitimize the Chetnik movement. Again, this is a complex phenomenon, and there were earnest patriots that wanted to fight for king and country and not under a communist banner. But of course, the Chetniks also were seen as part of the Axis coalition and were defeated in the Second World War. There were other indications in other places as well. In the 1970s, the so-called MASPOK (“mass movement” or Croatian Spring) attempted to apply that nationalistic approach to the Ustasha past but which also had some rightful grievances about having more say.

In Serbia the communist leadership that came in 1972 with Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic was a generational change, a new crowd of, I dare say, enlightened communist leaders who saw these problems and thought there was a way to resolve them that was different from Tito’s way. But of course, given Tito’s power, he simply chopped off all of these young heads in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, which led to the negative selection that finally led to Milosevic — the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time — and Tudjman in Croatia. Instead, we might have had someone like Stambolic, who I think could have at least avoided war and followed a Czechoslovak way of doing things.

This is where the Yugoslav advantage turns out to have been a disadvantage. We had the light version of a totalitarian system. We had unfortunately what I call in a piece I wrote in the edited volume of Yugoslavia and After “decentralization without democracy.” There was huge over-experimentation and devolution of power, which under communism meant nothing because power remained centralized. But then one day the Berlin Wall fell and the cement of central power was sucked out. And then you had six proto states that were totally unaccountable to each other or internationally. And that’s why we experienced a free for all.

The French would call the nationalist discussions in Serbia cafe du commerce [a talking shop]. In a corner of the cafe are Texans wanting an independent Texas and Scots talking about independence. That’s what the Serbian nationalists were like. But suddenly, Milosevic brought these people who were dreaming their nationalistic dreams, by which I mean Cosic and the Memorandum people, to the center of power. This minority of the silent majority was brought to center stage. That was the choice made by Milosevic and the other communist leaders in former Yugoslavia. They found a new legitimation in nationalism.

Compare the situation to Spain after Franco died. There, the whole political spectrum, from the monarchists to the communists, made a deliberate choice not to touch the civil war because it would otherwise explode in their faces. And they managed to do that. Here, the opposite happened. They dug their hands into our nasty past, which then blew up into our faces.


Was there a point when you realized that a democratic federation was no longer possible?


That was definitely in 1991. Until then, I believed that a democratic federation was still possible. In April 1991, we were in Dubrovnik at this inter-university center for these seminars called “Philosophy and Social Science.” We had a panel on the side of the conference about what was happening in Yugoslavia. The first skirmishes had occurred in Croatia, and I was speaking with my friend from Zagreb, Gvozden Flego, a professor of philosophy who eventually became a minister of culture in the Croatian government from the Social Democratic Party and now is a member of parliament. I remember that I maintained that this would remain, as the euphemism has it, “low-intensity violence” and a solution would be found. He was more pessimistic.

I simply could not believe at the end of the 20th century and in the center of Europe people could do this to themselves. Especially since we had learned all the same lessons about World War II and the Holocaust. We had been to the concentration camp of Jasenovac, and we had seen movies about what the Nazis had done. Also, Yugoslavia had been the first in line to join both the EU and NATO. Negotiations had begun in fact under [the last prime minister of Socialist Yugoslavia] Ante Markovic. So it defied logic! You learn the lessons of history the hard way: by banging your head and having your head banged. And, you see, that history comes back with a vengeance.

That was my big lesson as a social scientist. What helped me paradoxically was that I was interested in political theory. In July 1989, I prepared a big conference on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It brought people together from Slovenia to Kosovo, and it was held in Smederovo, just outside of Belgrade. We had people like [Croatian philosopher] Zarko Puhovski and [future Serbian president] Vojislav Kostunica and others, some of whom remained on the right side of history, I dare say, and others who slid onto the wrong side. We produced an edited volume on the conference. I mention all this because, having studied the French Revolution in those years, I realized how complicated the transition was in that case from aristocratic rule to democratic rule. France basically stabilized themselves only in 1870 with the coming of the Third Republic. In between, it went through a pretty big roller-coaster ride through empires and wars and the like.

What didn’t surprise me about what happened in Yugoslavia was that it was complicated and lengthy, and we had to brace ourselves for the long haul. What did surprise me, of course, was the war and all the violence that I did not expect to happen. When the JNA went into Croatia to interpose itself between Serbs and Croats, I knew this was going to go the wrong way.


Since we’re on this subject, are there other assumptions that you have reexamined from that period of 1989-1991?


I don’t think I have changed any opinions seriously about democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. What I have understood more clearly, deeply, and poignantly is the importance of institutions and institutional frameworks. What was clear about the movement that Ante Markovic created, namely the Yugoslav party that a lot of people joined — and in a sense the Democratic Forum was a kind of sideline to that effort — was that there was no institutional underpinning to all those people who tried to stop the war. Sonja Licht’s famous trip through Yugoslavia, the meeting that she organized in Belgrade — and I was honored to take part as the full-day translator for the Michniks, Geremeks, and Milovan Djilas’s of the world — were to no avail.

You had to have an institutional ground. We were basically, as Yugoslav civil society, hovering above the earth, totally unattached to anything. We were flee-floating intellectuals in the literal sense of the word. We had many meetings. There was one memorable one in Ljubljana on civil society with Zoran Djindjic and Nebojsa Popov and Vesna Pesic, and Dobrica Cosic was also there. There is an edited journal on this published in Ljubljana with all of our speeches. It was a nice, pluralist group of people who talked about the importance of civil society. And yet, of course, this was to no avail, because those who wielded power and had the weapons of power were stronger.

So, what came to me very strongly was that you need to build institutions. You need to ground them fully and have life injected into them. And clearly you had to have civil society with its own institutions. That’s where the whole political theory or philosophy of the late 18th and early 19th century becomes important: not just leftist thought but also de Tocqueville and the liberal thought of Benjamin Constant and others. Tocqueville talks about the split between the state and civil society and adds political society as another element. But without those two countervailing and checking-and-balancing forces you can’t count on stability in society (barring natural catastrophes and total economic meltdowns that don’t save anyone).

That’s where I see the European Union: as this valiant and, up until now, successful attempt to actually create those institutional conditions in historically traumatic places, in particular between France and Germany. And the EU still stands today, even with the crisis it faces, because it does have that institutional underpinning and the mechanisms and the framework to resolve conflict. And conflict is necessary. To go back to Machiavelli, there’s no society without conflict. But conflict needs to be structured and framed within certain confines and rules, and that’s how we advance. Of course, the jury is still out on the European Union. Again, I don’t want to sound overly optimistic, as I did with former Yugoslavia. So I am extremely cautious, having learned that lesson. But for now, the EU seems to be chugging along.

The difference between a Yugoslavian and a European Union is that the European Union is a union of choice — as opposed to Yugoslavia, which was intellectually the choice of elites, of Croatian, Serbian, and Slovenian intellectuals vying for it at the end of the 19th century. As small nations or small cultures, they knew that only by coming together could they stand a chance against large powers. But then they inherited the communist system, which didn’t allow them to get to a democratic Yugoslavia.

I think there was really a chance for a democratic Yugoslavia. This is where individuals play an important role. Had we had at least two or three individuals in Serbia and Croatia, there might have been a chance, certainly for democracy, maybe not for keeping the country together but for avoiding violence.

To sum up, I’ve been reinforced in my democratic belief in the ways that democracy is made a real life thing. People who lived in authoritarian cultures think that you peel off the red facade and there’s something beautifully underneath. No, you have to reinvent democracy everyday. It’s something you need to work on.

There is a lovely sentence in Tocqueville where he says that you can have a brilliant and ideal society, but if people don’t have anything to eat you can throw all that out the window. You need what we call in jargon a “sustainable economy” for people to earn their living decently. And you need a state. The state is essential, in my view. That’s why, when Sonja Licht and I were at Open Society Yugoslavia, we made a deliberate choice to help the state in two fields: judicial reform and education. While Milosevic was in power, we couldn’t help the state nor did we want to help that state. But when he was gone, we decided that it was now the state that needed the bulk of the support, even while we continued to support civil society. If you are serious about democracy, you do need a well-organized efficient state.


Today there is a lot of conversation about the centralization of the Serbian state. Obviously there are discussions around Kosovo but also around Vojvodina. Some people have talked to me about the recapitulation of history: some of the same discussions that took place on the Yugoslav level are happening now on the Serbian level. There’s a frustration among some that the lessons weren’t learned about democracy plus decentralization. I’m curious what your reaction is to this.


You look at the discussions around Catalonia and Scotland, and this is déjà vu all over again. This is something that won’t go away. This is something eternal in relations within states between richer and poorer regions, especially in difficult economic times. The Catalans have been making the same arguments that the Slovenes were making in the late 1980s: why should we pay for the poor brethren in the south?

What I found really interesting on Vojvodina is one of the latest statements by President Nikolic that “Vojvodina is there to stay and let’s not go overboard.” I think there are a lot of exaggerations in both camps, the one for centralization and the one for full autonomy of Vojvodina. And I think what drives a lot of this is exactly what happened in the 1990s. Many Serbian nationalists are of the view that, following the famous conspiracy theories, “after Kosovo, Vojvodina is next, and then they’ll take away Sandzak.”

I don’t see it that way. I think Kosovo has been the way it’s been at least since I came of age in 1968, when at the first demonstrations that I witnessed they were asking for a republic. They got a republic in all but the name in 1974. When I served my military service in 1972 in Slovenia on the Italian border, every unit of the Yugoslav army was a mini-Yugoslavia. We had people from everywhere. The Kosovar Albanians in our unit kind of kept to themselves. I shared a bunk with a shepherd from the mountains who barely spoke any Serbo-Croatian. He was a wonderful guy. We got along very well, because shepherds are heavenly people. But there were a lot of soldiers that kept to themselves. We interacted, but you could see that there was an issue there. That came to a head in 1981 and then later in 1989.

Of course, Milosevic chose all the wrong tools to deal with it. And the Albanians didn’t want to participate in the Serbian elections in December 1990. History would have been different if they had decided differently. Again, these are counterfactuals and big ifs. But we are where we are, and that’s a roundabout way of saying that when you mention greater degrees of autonomy for Vojvodina, people on the centralist side get worried. And in Vojvodina, when they hear people saying that there is a limit to levels of autonomy, they get the sense that Serbia wants to centralize. Given that the Democratic Party is running Vojvodina and Bojan Pajtic is a very reasonable man and now the deputy head of the Democratic Party as of Sunday, I think there will be a way forward. That doesn’t meant this will be settled tomorrow. It’s an ongoing issue.

The difference of course with Kosovo is enormous. Vojvodina is a richer region. Second, there’s a majority of Serbs. The Hungarian minority of course is important, but the size of the non-Serb population isn’t what it is in Kosovo. What is similar to the other historical cases that we mentioned is, of course, that Vojvodina is the richer, more developed part. There’s a question of redistribution. Dragan Djilas, in his acceptance speech as the head of the Democratic Party, said on Sunday that Belgrade is 40% of the Serbian budget. It’s not a question of diminishing Belgrade’s or Vojvodina’s budget. Rather, it’s how do we lift the south of Serbia. But that’s easier said than done.


Several recent polls indicated that the Serbian population would give up the EU option if it meant giving up Kosovo. What do you think it will take for the Serbian political class or the majority of the Serbian population to accept an autonomous, independent, or sovereign Kosovo?


At the moment, the great majority of Serbs accept an autonomous Kosovo. To add “independent and sovereign,” that’s a bridge too far. I think the polls you’re mentioning are particularly unhelpful. If you were to do a qualitative public opinion poll, you would get a completely different result. What we’ve seen over the years is that open opinion polls show that Kosovo is somewhere between the sixth or seventh issue in the hierarchy of importance after jobs, obviously, and everything that relates to standard of living and the future of the family. I think that people have realized that Serbia is not de facto sovereign in Kosovo. President Nikolic has said as much, that he is not the president of Pristina. You can’t be clearer than that. Tadic previously had many versions of that saying: “We don’t have a minister of agriculture that deals with Kosovo” and things like that. There’s a realism reflected in the majority of public opinion polls.

The previous government took it to this level and, thanks to that, this government will take it further, all the way up to the level of recognition. As we all know, nobody is asking for recognition at this point in time. The judicious way is to normalize relations. Given what happened in the 1990s, nobody in substance or in declaration wants to go back to that. We have all suffered enormously, and some have suffered more than others.

People forget in these times of European crisis that soft power does work in this region. Maybe this is the only region where it works, but the magnet is still very strong. The results we get now on the question, “Are you for the European Union?” is around the 50%, plus or minus 5% depending on the day. I would call this very healthy because people realize the problems. There are many people living in these countries who have, since the 1960s and the opening of the borders by Tito and the gastarbeiter phenomenon, traveled for 50 years to Sweden, Germany, and other west European countries. They know what Europe looks like, they know the complexity of the European Union, they know its problems. But they also know that it’s better to be inside, as part of half a billion people, than to stay outside as a seven and a half million people. Because there’s a little more certainty, a little more prosperity, and a little more predictability on the inside. I wouldn’t call this a minimalist view. I would call it a common sense view. You want to join a union that has accomplished so much even though it has big family problems at the moment.

It’s in that context that one should view the Kosovo issue. In a taxi driver conversation I had seven or eight years ago, the taxi driver just matter-of-factly said, “Sometimes you have to sell your family belongings, what your grandfathers owned, because if you’re hungry and can’t eat, you have to sell that property. Maybe you’ll buy it back someday. But there are tough decisions to be made on difficult days.” That’s I think a summary of how people feel.

It’s not easy. There’s this whole issue of the Orthodox Church, and the Serbs that have remained in Kosovo. The successive governments in Belgrade have rightly focused on the status of people living there in the Serbian enclaves. How to defend their rights and their livelihoods and then also solve the issues of property? Many Kosovo Albanians will recognize also that the issue of the autonomy of the north is something to be negotiated, because these were municipalities added on by Tito in the late 1950s to make more of an ethnic mix in Kosovo. They know that historical reality. So, it’s about sitting down and finding a solution, and I think that’s happening now.


Kosovo and this question of decentralization aside, what do you think the biggest challenge is for Serbia in terms of accession to the EU? A lot of people say that the door is not exactly closing, but the space has narrowed certainly in terms of the enthusiasm for expansion among the European population and perhaps the Brussels bureaucracy as well.


It’s definitely a difficult moment with European publics. Everybody is strapped for resources, and politicians have to think locally. But I don’t think the enthusiasm has waned, especially with the Brussels bureaucracy. Angela Merkel came to Belgrade with her tough love message in August last year. She had the tough love message on the parallel structures of EU candidate status and negotiations with Kosovo. But she had an equally strong message that enlargement will be pursued, and until Serbia joins the European project the EU’s core prospective is not finished. This message was a bit lost because of the other message.

I honestly don’t think this is paying lip service to the Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans or some grand European federalism. I think it’s genuine. You only need to look at a map to see that this pocket of the Western Balkans is completely encircled by NATO and the European Union. It’s an anomaly on the EU map to have this empty space. More importantly, it’s about the credibility of the EU itself and whether it is incapable of integrating those that want to join (as opposed to Switzerland and Norway, of course, who don’t want to join). To Serbian nationalists who say that we should follow Switzerland, I say there’s a big difference in GDP per capita and also we can’t follow that model on the neutrality issue.

Serbia lost a lot of time for all the reasons that we don’t need to repeat here. We could have caught up with Croatia several times over these ten years. We didn’t, not for deep cultural or other reasons. It’s really because of the war and Milosevic. And there’s a price to be paid for a long detour in history. To understand what happened during this decade requires a lot of work by the intelligentsia, by think tanks, by policy people. But leaders need to speak more forcefully about it. They’ve spoken about it in snippets and tidbits. The Srebrenica declaration in the Serbian parliament is very important because it also talks about the wrong policies of the Milosevic regime. This is the most forceful institutional statement that has been made on this issue. But it needs to go into the history books, into the schools. That’s where more work needs to be done.

On the European side, there’s been a lot of talk that enlargement will stop after the Croatian accession. But it was going to stop even under the most ideal circumstances – for instance, if there had not been the collapse of Lehman Brothers — simply because Serbia is not ready nor is Montenegro ready. Ideally by the end of the decade these two countries will be ready to join. This creates a bit of confusion in the dialogue about enlargement. People think that because the time is not ready that means there’s a closing of the door.

The other thing that muddies the water is of course that when France and Germany express doubts about enlargement, this is code for Turkey and not for the Western Balkans. The right wing says, “Not over our dead bodies will Turkey join,” and that reflects on the Western Balkans. These are two completely different agendas. I’ve talked to French policy makers about this clause about a referendum for any new enlargement after Croatia. They will say privately, “Of course, we will find a contrivance by which you guys enter. This is all about Turkey.” And I think it’s similar in Germany. But of course it doesn’t help when you have problems at home.

Of course Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo one day. But if I had to make a guess it would be at the doorstep of Europe. That would mean everyone holding hands at the same time and making the jump. I don’t think that anyone on the Serbian side has any illusion about that. But no one will ever say that. That’s how politics works. I often use the Northern Irish example. This takes time. This is a European issue involving essentially European historical identity. It’s a cultural issue, a linguistic issue. So please bear with us as we move slowly through it. Don’t try to ram this down our throats, especially after we’ve said we’ll resolve this peacefully. What doesn’t help is what’s happening at the Hague tribunal right now. That really is a shot across the bows.


Did that verdict, the dismissal of charges against Croatian general Ante Gotovina, surprise you?


Absolutely. You can see that there is not a single person in Serbia that hasn’t reacted, even the most liberal democratic people. The writer Dubravka Stojanovic, for example, said, “I really feel uneasy about this.” How can you go from a first indictment for 24 and 80 years to zero?


I suppose the lawyers would say this was a narrow legal judgment based on the failure of the prosecutors to make their case effectively. But the political ramifications are enormous.


Enormous. It really has thrown the reconciliation process off keel. It will eventually get back on keel. Both the Serbian and Croatian leaders are finding ways to dampen this whole thing. Nikolic and Dacic have been particularly good at it. I’m sure that European and American allies have been there to tell them that we can get over this. My friend Vesna Pusic, the Croatian foreign minister, has done her best as well. But it’s simply fodder for nationalists. Obviously public opinion is confused. Couldn’t they have brought the sentence down to 5 years? They’ve already been in jail for 7 years. Or add just another three years so that both sides are happy. The Croatian freedom fighters will say that they will be back in a year, and the Serbians will say they were condemned. [Former Albanian Prime Minister] Ramush Haradinaj is coming up on soon and he’ll probably be freed also.


I’ve been reading Havel’s last book. His interviewer asked him about Vaclav Klaus. Of course, he had a lot of tensions with Vaclav Klaus. At a certain point, Havel says, this political generation will pass, this political generation tainted by its experience of communism. And he said that the Klauses, the Zemans, and the Havels — he included himself in this — will all pass and a new generation that is not compromised by that mindset will take over politics. Do you agree with that? And do you see that emerging in the Balkans, particularly former Yugoslavia: a mindset not shaped by communism or the partisan struggles of World War II or the recent wars that have gone on in the region.


The mindsets are definitely being changed. Look at Europe’s problem, if you can call it that: the “no’s” to the referenda in France and the Netherlands were basically locally driven. This was not a “no” to Europe. This was a “no” to the policies of their government, which were then couched in the framework of a yes or no to Europe.

That doesn’t help us. But I think it’s important to know there are new generations that don’t know the Second World War or know it only through books. They’ve lived through this huge period of peace and prosperity, and they want governments that are responsive to their needs. So, there’s a lot of talk about the new narrative for Europe: how do we keep up the momentum of the project.

There are some similarities to the situation in Serbia. Our problem is that generations are now coming forward who grew up under Milosevic and under these huge ethnic tensions and were bombarded with ideological media coverage. This is where education has a huge role to play. To go back to your initial question on the Serbian challenges, just to put it in a nutshell, there are two major ones. The first is reforming the educational system: how do we consolidate long-term a democracy that is based on knowledge and fact. And the second one is judicial reform. That’s why Sonja LIcht and I, in our own little way, tried to contribute something to that.

We’re seeing that in Romania and Bulgaria it’s still a big issue: building a truly independent judiciary.


Or in Slovakia. I just heard a lecture by Martin Butora, the former Slovak ambassador to the United States, and that was one of the emphases of his speech. From his point of view, it was just a couple of bad judges. Whereas my experience with talking to folks in Bulgaria was that the judicial system there was rotten.


The Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov came and talked a lot about this. He’s also the minister of interior, and he had a prosecutor who just prosecuted this gang called The Killers, who were doing assassinations. So, the Bulgarians are doing some things. But they still have a lot of people being freed from jail just on legal niceties.

Finally, a lot of polling shows that this generation of 20 year olds and 25 year olds has views that are conservative and less tolerant. Again, I wouldn’t generalize about the young population. We have our rabid nationalistic movements in Serbia like Dveri and 1389. This is the fringe you have everywhere, whether you call them skinheads or whatever. The last elections show that our really rabid right is around 12% when you put everyone together. That puts us around the European norm. Which doesn’t mean we don’t have to counteract and do things. But I wouldn’t say we are outliers in any way.

Still, one of the deeper challenges is definitely how do you socialize the younger generation with broader values in the more positive sense? How do you allow them to experience the world? And how do you build an education system that does that?


Washington, DC, November 28, 2012


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