What’s the Path to the EU? A Stroll through the Political Belgrade

What’s the Path to the EU? A Stroll through the Political Belgrade

Creator: Damjan Rehm Bogunovic. All rights reserved.

Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear friends and partners of the Heinrich Böll Foundation,

Today I say goodbye to you and thank all of you for more than four years of good and trustful cooperation. Rounding off my time as head of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s Belgrade Office, please allow me to take you for a brief political stroll that will touch upon several topics and areas of work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation which I consider to be of particular significance at this moment.

For more than four years, I walked from my Rige od Fere apartment to the Heinrich Böll Foundation office. I enjoyed walking half an hour twice a day – over the Students' Square, through Knez Mihailova street, towards Terazije and into Kralja Milana street, and back. On Sundays I mostly strolled along the Danube and then upstream the Sava to Branko's bridge, and from there to the Evangelical Church in Zemun or to the Waterfront construction site. Thus I saw that Belgrade was a pretty, lively and cosmopolitan city. But I also saw that Belgrade falls far short of its potential. This is demonstrated by the fact that the public plays no role in the city's appearance. Most of the people have withdrawn to the inside of their homes and families.

Sure, both the state and the city are poor. As are the majority of people in Serbia. On the other hand, there is a small class of the rich and the super rich. This divide comes as a consequence of an unprecedented downfall of the Serbian economy as a whole, and its deindustrialization in particular. This downfall was caused by a corrupt political elite which drove the country to war and which has been plundering it since the 1990s, for the most part unobstructed and unpunished. Against this backdrop, it becomes understandable why many of the impoverished people turn to whichever party in power, in the hope of being able to take part in the grand plundering of the public sector with its help. I believe that the fact that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party has nearly 600,000 members – an extraordinary large number, particularly when compared to 135,000 in 2012 – is enough of an indicator. Public administration, state-owned enterprises and provision of public goods are thus turned into means of entrenching power for the party currently in power through party patronage and preference of its own   clientele. The center of such a policy is assumed by personal relationships – ultimately, those maintained with the party president, chief of government or head of state. This was the case in the Boris Tadić era and applies just as much to the era of Aleksandar Vučić. The distinction between the two only lies in the fact that Vučić presents himself as a champion of the struggle against corruption and clientelism. On the other hand, institutions that work for the general interest by their own rules and regardless of who’s in power only play a subordinate role in Serbia. Here, too, we encounter the role model of the family once again. At the top of the government sits the pater familias who hands out opportunities and resources. When it comes to the language of politics, in Serbia we are confronted with the authoritarianism of a parallel state, one that grants or withholds its citizens opportunities and access to public goods and resources at its own discretion and according to the latter's proximity to the ruling party, its president and chief of government.

Whoever evades this submission to the hierarchy or even goes further and criticizes the head of government, vacates the personal network. From the perspective of those in power and their media, criticism exemplifies treason and hatred. That is why the government has a structurally distorted relationship towards critical media and a critical public opinion. And since the head of government takes everything personally, he does not tolerate jokes. At times, this brings him into impossible situations which are unintentionally funny. For instance, when Aleksandar Vučić – as part of the ever-popular "Conspiracy against Serbia" political theater – submits to a lie detector so as to defend himself against supposed blackmail which apparently had been made up by his own people beforehand. It is a theater of absurdity, one that overshadows satire and caricature! Hence, there are good preconditions in Serbia for the subversive power of satire, parody and carnival.

This is best exemplified by the months-long protests against the apparent failure of the state during the illegal and violent raid against the inhabitants of Savamala in the night of national elections. By its absence, the state provided these criminals with the necessary leeway for action. On the other hand, it abandoned the people who called for help that night. What is more: it demonstrated that rights as fundamental as public safety, protection of property and basic human rights are disregarded. Furthermore, even the state monopoly on the use of force stands at disposal when it is a matter of pushing through a construction project which seems to have been selected by Aleksandar Vučić as his personal prestige project, one that he, his government support staff and the criminals intend to carry out on any given night, at all costs. This construction project of a Dubai on the Sava, the very destination of my Sunday walks, I won't even elaborate on. I do not know anyone who believes that it will be executed as magnificently as promised. But I know many people who are convinced that this is, once again, a case of public property being plundered in the interest of a few private persons.

This scandalous suspension of rule of law was protested by the Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, as well as a broad alliance of civil society organizations. The latter always utilizes satire and parody as means of peaceful protest. A yellow duck as the symbol of the protest movement and the slogan: Don't Drown Belgrade are infuriating the government. The government is eager to deliver a blow and hopes for violence; it attempts to falsely impute violence to the protesters or instigate violence aided by its subservient media. It perceives satire, parody and carnival – which in Serbia, ever since the 1990s, have developed as a peaceful protest tradition of sorts against authoritarian rulers – as an invitation for regime change. All European autocrats fear colorful and funny revolutions.

In the meantime, the Serbian Government is trying to stall the clarification of the Savamala events, identification and arrest of the perpetrators until the protests have faded away. Serbian civil society will not let it get away with that. And the European Union must not allow it, since it demands – as of this summer – that Serbia takes more energetic steps towards the implementation of an independent judiciary based on integrity. This requires an alert, critical and satirical civil society and thorough research by an independent media. While the Prime Minister urges the EU to distance itself from the protesting civil society and to halt support for the media critical of the government, the EU must show that it considers the civil society and independent media important partners in the struggle for democracy and rule of law. Currently, however, support to civil society and negotiations with the government are running side by side. Consequently, on the one hand there is an extensive and well thought-out list of EU demands pertaining to the development of the rule of law in Serbia, and an action plan on the development of the rule of law which reflects the self-perception of the Serbian Government and which is far less ambitious, on the other. And the latter, too, has been accepted by the EU. The list of demands and the action plan resemble parallel worlds that will meet only when reaching infinity. Politically speaking, it is my impression that the enforcement of fundamental conditions for EU membership, such as rule of law, combating corruption, independence of the judiciary and independent media is not pursued by the EU with the necessary diligence. This is due to geopolitical reasons.

Geopolitics, namely the question whether Serbia sees itself associated with the model of liberal western democracies, or with the autocratic Russian model, always played a role. However, ever since the war in Eastern Ukraine which was instigated by Russia, this question is more pressing than ever. On my way to the office, I pass several kiosks in Knez Mihailova Street that offer Putin-T-shirts: Putin with sunglasses, wearing a pilotka hat, Putin riding a horse. Putin is popular in Serbia. This became particularly apparent two years ago during his visit on the anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from German occupying forces. Again, the military parade had its funny aspects, for instance when the Serbian ministers had to stand in the rain because their Prime Minister wanted to showcase that he, being the country's No. 1 worker, could withstand the rain without an umbrella. At the time of the military parade, the Russian attack against the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea dated back more than half a year. The USA und the EU had imposed sanctions against Russia in July 2014. Serbia did not take part in these sanctions. I anticipate that new sanctions will soon be imposed due to Russia's alleged involvement in war crimes in Syria. Russia is fighting for a new Yalta, one that would once again divide the world into spheres of influence. That is its intended means of escaping globalization. According to these plans, the Western Balkans have been assigned the role of a permanent conflict zone. For internal political reasons, Russia needs conflicts on the margins of its zone of influences. Serbia's political answer thereupon is its slogan: "EU and Russia". It will fail, as the policies of the Tadić era have already failed with the "EU and Kosovo" slogan. With its supposed neutral stance Serbia wanders about between its autocratic friends in China and Russia, and the western world. This indecisiveness is symbolized by a discussion on whether, apart from an EU integration office, Serbia should also set up an office for integration in the Eurasian Union manned by a professed friend of Moscow and a EU opponent. Another example is the fact that, on the one hand, Crimea is not recognized as part of Russia but, on the other, an official Crimea delegation is welcomed by members of the ruling coalition and it seems that henchmen used for Russian coup attempts in the Western Balkans are emerging from the ranks of Serbian volunteers in Eastern Ukraine. I do not question – and this actually needs not be even stressed – the friendship between the peoples of Serbia and Russia. It is founded upon a long common tradition and, yes, the history of joint opposition to fascist Germany. But this fascist Germany has been overcome; a new Germany is now integrated into a European Union which makes up a common European area of peace, democracy and prosperity. However, I do implore the people in Serbia to no longer allow themselves to be misused in the name of friendship with Russia for the sake of Russian interests which are aimed against Serbia's integration into the European Union.

In order to haul Serbia to the side of liberal democracies, the EU has repeatedly gone a long way towards accommodating it. I consider this to be a mistake. For, this policy delays the democratization of Serbia and the reconstruction of its value system. And it surely does not increase European citizens' approval of admitting new members.

Patience is part of the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, as well as other German political foundations – as is adherence to principles. I have always deemed it my duty to place the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the service of European unification, including the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU. However, to me, that included taking a critical stance towards the EU's enlargement policy, as well. The European Union has to keep not only its Thessaloniki promise; it also has to fulfill the promise to its own citizens, namely that new members would be accepted only when ready to fundamentally transform into liberal western democracies.

I would like to close my remarks by expressing hope that I have acted in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo convincingly in the name of principles of liberal democracy, enabling good projects. I wish all friends, partners and staff members of the Heinrich Böll Foundation never to lose their sense of humor in their work. Do not become hardened from anger and disappointment due to the snail's pace of democratization and the unfair distribution of social and economic opportunities. And to quote Wolf Biermann[1]: Don't become hardened, as those who are all too hard break, those who are all too pointed sting, and immediately snap off. I wish all of you, and Serbia, a good future in a unified Europe.

 

 

[1] Wolf Biermann (b. 1936), a German singer-songwriter and former East German dissident, translator’s note.