The future of Serbia is in defining its interests

Instead of focusing on the old habit of ‘nationalism’ and ‘national interest’, Serbia needs to define its future position regionally and globally, particularly with respect to EU integration, Kosovo and Bosnia.

By Soeren Keil

Stefan Dragojevic’s article, ‘The future of Serbia is in the defense of its interests‘, argues that Serbia should focus on the preservation of its national interests, in particular in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. But can a focus on “national” interests really be the answer at a time, when no nation-state in the world is able to cope with the economic, political and environmental challenges of tomorrow? Further, does the Serbian elite even know what its “national” interest is? When looking at Serbia in 2011, one has to but recognise that the major problem for Serbia will be to overcome this focus on “nationalism.”

Three years after the independence of Kosovo, five years after the end of the Serbian and Montenegrin state union and two decades after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbia has still not found its position in the Western Balkans, in Europe and the world. Serbia is indeed haunted by the ghosts of the past, be it the continued debates about Kosovo, the ambivalent relationship with the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Serbian foreign policy dichotomy of European and Atlantic integration and a close relationship with Russia.

What this symbolises however, is not as Dragojevic has argued, a focus away from the national interests of Serbia. It is instead a symbol of a lack of orientation, a lack of current analysis and future perspectives for Serbia. There can be no doubt that the Serbian society remains deeply-divided regarding core questions of identity, European integration and Kosovo. However, it is the task of the government of a country to present policies that tackle these important issues, ideally manage to bridge the gap, but at least offer a perspective for future development. Serbian governments since the end of Milosevic have failed to address these underlying conflicts.

1. European integration – is this really what we want and to what cost?

The majority of Serbs want to be citizens of the European Union. However, there is also a strong core that sees the integration of Serbia into European structures as another example of Serbia being dominated by Western powers. All of a sudden, Brussels is able to tell the Serbs what to do in their internal policies, how to reform their economic system, which environmental rules to apply and how to monitor public spending. Indeed, this is all part of the integration process, and it is not an attempt by the member states or the EU institutions to take over control of Serbia but to prepare the country for membership in the largest and most vibrant single market in the world. Serbs need to understand that they are not the only ones that go through these processes and that they have nothing to do with “losing” power, but much more with being prepared for eventual accession.

Of course there is another issue in the Serbian relationship with the European Union – Kosovo. It is an open question if Serbia will need to either recognise or at least come to some form of agreement with Kosovo before it can join the EU. That this issue is of core importance, not only when it comes to the question of eventual Serb membership in the EU but during the accession negotiations as well, can be seen in the stalemate between Turkey and Cyprus, and the consequences for Turkey’s membership bid. What is needed is a clear definition of Serbia’s interest. Do Serbs want to join the European Union? If yes, are they willing the pay the price for membership, even if this includes an agreement with Kosovo? Are Serbs hoping that the EU will not bring up the Kosovo issue in the negotiations at all? What if the EU does? Is it really likely that countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, who have been at the forefront of Kosovo’s independence, will allow Serbia to enter the European Union without coming to an agreement with the former Serbian province? And what consequences would this have for Kosovo? Does the Serbian government really believe that the EU has not learnt its lesson from the disaster in Cyprus?

2. Kosovo – Our land, forever?

Nobody asks Serbia to recognise the Republic of Kosovo at the moment. However, the Serbian government needs a reality check. Yes, Kosovo is only recognised by 74 countries so far. However, is it really likely that Serbia, after failing to persuade the International Court of Justice, will ever gain control over Kosovo again?

No Serbian government at the moment will have the courage to discuss the loss of Kosovo as a fact and ask its people to move on. No larger party in Serbia supports such a proposal. The policy by the current government under the leadership of the Democratic Party is therefore the best alternative, namely to slowly start discussions with the Kosovan authorities on technical issues, in particular about the protection of those Serbs that remain in Kosovo. However, in the medium term these technical discussions have to change into consultations among equal partners. Certainly this also means that the EU will have a key role in the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

The recent allegations by the Council of Europe regarding the connection of Kosovo’s elite politicians and crime networks (involving organ trading) need to be taken very seriously and dealt with by national and international legal institutions. However, one cannot seriously argue that because Kosovo’s elite might have been involved in crimes in the past, the legitimacy of the whole Kosovan state is in question. If these arguments were valid, the current Croatian state would not be legitimate, because of the actions of Ivo Sanader and neither would Serbia, because of the criminal actions of Slobodan Milosevic.

It is not clear yet if the Serbian government has a long-term policy on Kosovo. However, ultimately there will be a combination of two major issues in Serbian foreign policy namely EU integration and Kosovo. The current Serbian elite can pave the way for a smooth and slow development of Serb-Kosovan relations and therefore prepare for the moment of ultimate truth when the choice is indeed Kosovo or EU. This does however not mean that Serbia will ever have to recognise Kosovo. Finding agreements below recognition can indeed be an alternative that might be easier to sell to the electorate.

3. Bosnia – protecting our national interest there?

Stefan Dragojevic argued that the current government is not focused enough on the support for the Bosnian Serbs and their constant pressure by international and local actors to contribute to the centralisation of the country. However, if one is serious about Serbia’s interest in a stable Western Balkans, and there can be no doubt about this, then we have to argue that Serbia should be interested in a stable and peaceful Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the latest actions of the government of the Republika Srpska (RS) in Bosnia have not contributed to stability and peace, but to further tensions. Bosnia is on the standstill since 2006 and major reforms need to be addressed urgently. The current negotiations about a new government in Sarajevo can contribute to a renewed dynamic of compromises and reforms, but the RS authorities and in particular Milorad Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats will have to recognise that further reforms, including a centralisation of important policy areas and a softening of complex decision-making rules are desperately required to make the state work. Serbia can play a vital role in these discussions, both as a guarantor of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a signatory of the Dayton Peace Agreement and as the protector of Bosnian Serb interests. In particular, President Tadic is in the position to encourage further reforms while at the same time ensuring Serbian support for the continued existence of the RS and its rights in Bosnia. The internal problems of Bosnia and Herzegovina can very easily spill-over to Serbia and the country might face itself with a Republika Sprska that demands recognition by its kin-state. This surely cannot be in Serbia’s interest as it will lead to further conflict and violence. Therefore, Serbia has a vital interest in a stable and functional Bosnia.

4. What is going on around me? Understanding the world in Serbia

Other potential conflicts might arise with Croatia over the treatment of Serbs in the country, although the situation of Croatian Serbs has improved since a small Serbian Party joined the HDZ government. General consultations on minority issues are of key importance for all countries of the Western Balkans including Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. Existing cooperation networks in economic and energy questions should be extended and provide a regular forum for consultation and cooperation. Further instruments should be encouraged by local actors and the European Union. Serbia has to be interested in a stable and prosperous Western Balkans and it has to be interested in further integration into European structures. There are no viable alternatives to EU membership, close cooperation with its neighbours and a workable relationship with Kosovo for Serbia. Russia has proven in the conflict with Georgia in 2008 that it will put its own interests above the protection of “little” Serbia and the sometimes discussed idea of an independent Serbia in South-Eastern Europe, surrounded by EU member states is all but a nice day dream. Serbia is not Switzerland.

There remain many polarised issues in Serbian foreign policy today. It is up to the Serbian government to address these issues. To do so, the Serbian interests in foreign policy need to be defined. It is therefore important that the Serbian elites assess their situation and future in the Western Balkans, in Europe and in the world. A number of pressing questions will require coherent and complex answers very soon. Instead of focusing on the old habit of “nationalism,” and “national interest,” Serbia needs to define its future position regionally and globally. The answer to the future of Serbian foreign policy and Serbia’s international development might be very “anti-national” and lie in the integration into the EU. I dare not to think of the “national” alternative.

Dr. Soeren Keil is Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom. He has published on the political systems of the Western Balkans countries and the role of the European Union in the region.

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