Today in the Balkans continue occurring complex processes, which change the balance of power in it and the geopolitical orientation of the region as a whole. However, there are still issues, such as, for example, the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, which, due to its complexity, because of the interweaving of historical, ethnic and international aspects and the involving of diametrically opposite interests in it, maintain a degree of tension in the region and impede the safe existence of its countries and largely reduces their opportunities for development and cooperation. About the possible further development of the above-mentioned issues, and the impact of their participants, as well as third parties on them – in the interview with the Director of The Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Balkan region still faces complex challenges that hinder its sustainable development. When talking about them, one can say that the most serious is the Kosovo issue, another say this is Milorad Dodik and the way he leads Bosnia and Herzegovina, some even mention so-called “Great Albania”. What do you consider as the most serious challenge here in the region?
It’s definitely the unresolved Kosovo dispute. “Great Albania” is a story between three NATO member-states. So let’s not exaggerate it. Dodik is a leader of only two millions, he doesn’t have his own army, still he has this slightly heavily armed police, but there is US FBI, D.O.D in Republika Srpska, there is EUFOR in Bosnia. So let’s not exaggerate him as well.
As for Bosnia and Herzegovina in general, I think that to certain extent its stabilization goes through Belgrade and Pristina. I believe that the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, and subsequent Serbia’s demonstration of the progressive alignment its foreign policy with the EU, will mean less ground for Dodik to manipulate the citizens of the Republica Srpska, and to lead Bosnia and Herzegovina in the different direction. And that might be the best possible peaceful way to start positive processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which that can ultimately make some changes in their attitude towards the NATO, and the EU integration.
How the things are going around Kosovo issue now?
Last year the US has finally decided to push for the agreement between Belgrade and Kosovo, because the way EU was handling things, was slow and not very effective. Besides, EU is facing such challenges as the European elections, new set of the Commission etc., which will distract his already small attention from the Balkans.
So, due to Americans, Serbian President and the government seem to come on board with some kind of a deal with Thaci. In general, I’d say Vucic is opened for more incentives to make a deal along these lines the Americans are offering. But, at the same time, this triggers Putin to strengthen his levers of influence in Serbia and there is no reason why Putin would allow that deal happen, because he would lose then very big lever in the region. So I think the use of hard power by Russia here is inevitable.
How it would look like?
Well, as you might know, we have Gazprom here, who owns the major part of our gas and petrol state industry. And it’s sole biggest contributor to the Serbia’s budget. Russians are coming after our refineries which will then make us really heavily dependent, for example, in the fields of agriculture. There’s the Serbian Orthodox Church, which holds very tight relations with the Russian one and have strong influence on the Serbian society. Unfortunately there are enough universities, in particular - the Belgrade University, with very strong indoctrination, based on the conservative, pro-Putin and anti-West ideology.
Russian propaganda is another story. The core of it is the NATO bombing of 1999. The Russians are twisting the arguments, stating that the reasons for the Americans-led NATO to do that wasn’t because Serbs killed 1400 Kosovo civilians before bombing, but rather because Madeleine Albright felt she would have the lucrative business in one of the industries there.
Apart from the influence in the above-mentioned fields, Putin is also going behind Vucic’s back and establish actively the contacts which the people, who are strongly against the deal with Kosovo. One of them is the military trade Union, called Military Syndicate of Serbia, which counts 5000 members of the active army personnel. That organization is openly and actively cooperating with Russian veteran organizations and, in particular with the Viacheslav Kalinin, Vice President of the Association of Army and Security Services Veterans “Boevoe Bratstvo”, who is known for his connections to Konstantin Malofeev. And today some of these people are participating in current street anti-presidential protests. Besides, the guy, who calls himself as their leader – Novica Antic - he was recently the key speaker at one of the rallies that are happening throughout the country. And the most disturbing thing for me is that the political establishment, who represents themselves as a political leadership of this anti-presidential rally, are not distancing from this guy. And I find it very strange. In its turn, foreign Media that actively cover these protests, do not want to look at them at this angle.
Also there are enough unpunished war crimes, so there are still perpetrators facing the chances of being punished for their crimes. But instead of being prosecuted, some of them are still active servicemen of the Serbian armed forces. Additionally, convicted ones are regular commentators in very well watched TV programs. At the same time, Russia for several years now undermines all the ruling of the international criminal court for former Yugoslavia. Perpetrators are aware that pledging their loyalty to Russia, which offers them impunity, is useful for them. IN another words, Russia is buying them for peanuts. For example, there’s Anna Filimonova from the Russian Foundation for the Strategic Culture, who is one of alleged independent expert on Balkans and is in charge of our region. She has been gathering for common purposes, anti EU and NATO path of Serbia, successfully retired personnel, especially from the above-mentioned category.
Can Russia use these people if, for example, the deal on Kosovo seem to be on the horizon?
I can’t exclude this. Remember Montenegro and Macedonia. Besides, I’m convinced that these rallies we can witness in Podgorica these days are fully Russian-organized and a message to Milo Djukanovic who managed to successfully drag Montenegro into NATO. And that might be some kind of a vengeance, because Russians, despite huge efforts, failed to do the same in Macedonia.
I can’t say in general who stands behind the rallies ongoing currently in throughout several cities in Serbia, but CEAS has the ample evidence about the fact that all of them do have strong political and financial ties to current regime in Moscow. And I think Russian interest is to create such tense atmosphere, in which one spark can lead to wards violence and then to a situation, in which somebody would invite Russians to help and stabilize all this.
The western Media shows the rallies in Serbia as something progressive…
The problem is that the western Media is becoming sloppy and they’re tired of the region. Even if the intentions are generally good. For example: the rallies against Orban have started in Hungary – we don’t like him, the rallies against Djukanovic in Montenegro – we don’t like Milo anymore. Here Vucic faces the street rallies – the same story. Maybe Zaev might be the exception, because despite his not very democratic support or blind eyes on several occasions, everyone knows that he had to deliver pretty tough decision, which is leading the entire region towards the West. So Media compares all these semi-authoritarian leaders and as soon as there’s the opposition to their regime, it’s accepted by it as something progressive, which is not always fair. People can be in opposition to such kind of regimes with less good agendas, and that’s exactly what is happening in Serbia.
So what people in the street want?
They want changes. There’s very bad situation in different spheres, especially in justice and Media. But at the same time there’s lack of knowledge what to do with a political system, separation of power, active civil society, free media. Because Serbia has never had actually anything remotely resembling the democratic environment, apart from this three years of 2000-2003, when we had democratic government here.
But if talking about the people, who lead these street rallies, they despite very limited public support, want to come to power, and then, being the part of the system, to participate in the chop-shop business of public goods and enterprises. And they don’t want the deal with Kosovo, they want to postpone it.
Given all you’ve said, are there any chances for Serbia to become the EU member from the current perspective?
Well, in the end of February we had a visit of the French ambassador to the EU and she said such words: “France is Serbia’s friend and it would be an honest gesture to tell you that enlargement is not going to happen anytime soon, because we have our internal concerns, which we have to review and to resolve”. So I think that 2025 was realistic, but not anymore. At the same time, the EU has invented is the parallel process to integration – so called “Berlin process”, which I think was just a huge PR for few auxiliary issues, and means a failure of EU policy here.
What to your opinion could stabilize the situation in the Balkans?
To my mind, today the only way to stabilize and to finish the unresolved businesses in the western Balkans is if Americans march here again, but now in coordination with the EU. I mean, in a way that EU should give perspectives at least in terms of road map for Kosovo visa liberalization and faster membership.
Are there any signs that Americans are considering this option?
I’m not sure about this, but I can give some examples. I think that the US made and extraordinary decision when they said they were willing to hear what are the Serbia’s demands and what it expects in the dialogue with Kosovo. Because if you call it a dialogue, then both sides can ask for the things. It’s not a dialogue if you say: “Ok you have now to recognize Kosovo”. That’s really not acceptable. There had also been very smart public relationship campaigns by the US embassy here. They have filmed very cute videos about Tesla and other prominent Serbs, and also about the fact that we’re commemorating 100 years since Serbian flag was waved on the White House because Woodrow Wilson praised Serbian First World War soldiers’ contribution to the allies.
In our turn, we have conducted very relevant public opinion polling last fall that shows that public sees this improved shift regarding US behavior toward Serbia. So, all this makes me think that the things here are going in the right direction.
And what about NATO?
NATO is showing its very consistent approach to some things, which are happening in the region. For example, Secretary General has condemned the beginning of the unconstitutional transformation of the Kosovo security forces. And it resonated well in Serbian society.
It worth mentioning that Serbia is increasing cooperation with NATO, not only in military and defense sphere, but also in the civilian one. Last October we had big international field exercise on emergency consequence management "SERBIA 2018", organized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs - Emergency Situations and NATO's Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre.
So the Serbia-NATO cooperation is going in the good direction. However it is still below the radar. Unfortunately Serbian state leadership doesn’t want to state it out in order not to provoke its core voters, who are mainly nationalists with strong anti-west, anti-NATO and pro-Russian attitude.
How real is the resolving of the Kosovo issue?
To think is this real or not, we should understand that it’s not only up to Americans and the EU institutions. It’s also up to member states, for example, Spain and Romania, who don’t recognize Kosovo. Without their recognition of Kosovo, the visa-free regime is pretty complicated. Still we have two UN Security Council members, which also don’t recognize Kosovo. Besides, there’s still the UN Security Council resolution No 1244, which can’t be recalled without the new one. A new resolution can’t be recalled without Russia, which turns it in a closed circle. Another thing is the behavior of the Kosovo leadership. The sanctions they’ve introduced toward Serbian goods, the critics of Ms. Mogherini, which is actually not the critics of her person, but an EU institution that she actually represents – are big diplomatic and political mistake and means no will for a Kosovo issue solution.
So there have to be the understanding of the importance of the deal, and the will to make it from different sides. It won’t be easy, but I very hope that it will happen.
What could be the sign that the deal between Serbia and Kosovo is about to happen soon?
Well, if we’re going to have elections soon that mean that some kind of a deal or the outline of the deal will be presented this fall. And I think it’ll be really very good for everyone.
Igor Fedyk (CACDS-Balkans)