Serbia – a decade of missed opportunities?

A decade on from the overthrow of president Slobodan Milošević’s regime, Serbia is still struggling to contend with the negative legacies of the nineties.

By Ian Bancroft

On October 5th 2000, demonstrations by an estimated half a million people from throughout Serbia – led by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a coalition comprised of eighteen parties – helped bring down the regime of president Slobodan Milošević. Ten years on from this momentous occasion, reflections on Serbia’s progress remain clouded by the weight of expectations that the transition to democracy created. Few, for instance, expected Serbia’s road towards the EU to be so arduous and for candidate status to remain as elusive. Whilst the 2003 assassination of the then prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, is often cited as the prime reason for Serbia’s lost momentum, it is the various legacies of the nineties that continue to have the most pervasive and paralysing, yet often under-stated, impact.

Serbia’s infrastructure and economy remain scarred by sanctions (including trade and financing embargoes imposed in 1999), NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 (which caused extensive damage to schools, hospitals, factories, roads, railways and bridges that is estimated to total some $30 billion) and years of economic mismanagement (particularly hyperinflation, which reached a peak of 363,000,000,000,000 per cent in December 1993). The costs of reconstruction far exceed the capabilities of an economy whose current GDP stands at around three-quarters of its size in 1989; forcing Serbia to look elsewhere, particularly to Russia and China, to fund its capital investments. Economically, the persistence of businesses and individuals who prospered during the nineties, combined with a poorly regulated privatization process that largely served to further reinforce their standing, continues to inhibit the creation of a free market economy; one where domestic firms can acquire the levels of competitiveness required for the European marketplace.

Organized crime and corruption – the most notorious side-effects of the regimes of sanctions and Milošević – both continue to exert a profound and distorting influence on political and economic life. By infiltrating politics and subverting the rule of law, organized crime has – not only in Serbia, but throughout the region – over the past decade compromised the very forces capable of curtailing Balkan-wide networks of counterfeiting, trafficking (of, in particular, drugs, arms and humans) and extortion. Though some important progress has been made – for instance in pursuing prosecutions, training police and the judiciary, and improving regional and inter-agency co-operation – more needs to be done to ensure that the region’s European perspective is not infected by those for whom borders or boundaries long ceased to be a concern.

The conflicts of the nineties have also left Serbia struggling to contend with the social and economic challenges of incorporating over over 400,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, respectively. Refugees and IDPs have placed an enormous strain on already over-stretched social welfare systems, particularly the need for social housing, with some still living in collective centres. On the flip-side, the nineties saw many of the country’s best educated and most experienced fleeing west in search of opportunities; depriving the country, and indeed the region, of vital human capital.

Each of these respective legacies of the nineties continues to have a profound and unavoidable impact upon the reform environment in Serbia. Whilst some – particularly organized crime and corruption – require greater political will to erase, others – such as infrastructural and economic decimation, plus the protracted problems caused by refugee/IDP inflows – are more difficult to overcome. Progress on each front will require that Serbia fully exploit the powerful framework and incentives for reform offered by the prospect of European membership; not merely to pursue it as an end in itself. The question of ‘when will we join?’ must yield to that of ‘in what condition will we join?’. As the cases of Romania and Bulgaria suggest, membership in and of itself is not a panacea for countries in transition. Restraining the expectations created by events a decade ago and remembering the stark realities left behind after the nineties will help Serbia better appreciate both the progress made and the challenges ahead.

Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.

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