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The EU and the Serbian Civil Society

By Sonja Biserko


The response of the Serbian leadership to the declaration of independence of Kosovo demonstrated the deep and dangerous impact of the long-standing radical nationalism on the internal social and moral fiber of the nation. The response also demonstrated the continuous threat that the developments in Serbia represent for the security and the democratic consolidation of the region. The Serbian political class demonstrated again its inability to renounce the Greater Serbia project and find a way out of the nationalistic metastasis. The inflammatory rightist rhetoric and planned demolition of foreign embassies and Liberal Democratic Party offices across Serbia, along with an increased NGO demonization, have shown the depth of anti-Western and anti-European nature of the ruling elite. Eight years after Milosevic's ouster Serbia is still not even close to a much-needed change of course and a political consensus on its (European) future.

To understand the current developments in Serbia, we must briefly revisit the past, the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis and the differences in the interpretations of those historical events. We have to remember the fear of the democratic transformation of Yugoslavia and its constitutional evolution has dominated the political, intellectual and cultural elite of Serbia since 1960s. Ever since Serbia has not been ready to face the complex historical developments and embrace the democratic changes brought about by the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War.

The glorification of the traditional, "authentic" Serbian values and a continuing political and media campaign against Europe and the West have resulted in a wide skepticism towards the Western democratic practices. They have resulted in the new identity matrix of the Serb nation as a historically correct nation, victimized by the world powers. That self-induced delusion has not only paved the way for an immoral conduct, but has also freed the nation from all the wrongs of the past and those possible in the future. The new mind-set, removed from reality, has plunged the nation into a permanent conflict with its neighbors and the rest of the world, generating frustration, arrogance and aggression. The rabid nationalism has thus devastated the social fiber of the nation. Compounded by the lack of will to confront the recent past, including by bringing to justice war criminals, it has almost destroyed the country's potential for a democratic transition and the creation of a modern state.

Despite the image of a European Serbia projected in the public since 2000, the conservative political class of Serbia has never actually shown its readiness to seriously embark upon the pro-European road. On the other hand, in order to survive it did accept foreign economic aid. Despite the fact that 70% of the population favors closer ties with the EU, the political class has predominantly opted for the traditional, patriarchal, conservative, Christian Orthodox values.

The lingering lack of resolution of the issue of its identity and, consequently, of Serbia's place in the Balkans has deepened the population's frustration. The dilemma Whither Serbia? is still open. The pro-European course promoted by the Djindjic's liberal leadership in the 2001-2003 was short-lived. In 2003, when Vojislav KoŇ°tunica became a Prime Minister, Serbia defined itself as a neutral country aligned with Moscow. The prospect of the change of the current cultural blueprint depends on the deep social and economic reforms, ranging from intellectual innovation to enlightened leadership. The assassination of Zoran Djindjic, who was a true reformer, has created a huge political vacuum which is acutely felt in Serbia. Certainly, that is not the problem typical only for Serbia, but Serbia now more than ever needs not only a leader, but a leader with greatness.

In hindsight, we have to note regretfully that a timely, decisive, tailor-made and efficient engagement of the international community, and in particular, of the EU, was missing at the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis. Moreover, they were inclined to pursue a policy of appeasement towards Serbia because of its perceived and objectively central role in maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. That was particularly the case in the period after the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic. However, with time the policy of appeasement lost its meaning, because, contrary to all other regional countries galvanized by the prospect of the EU membership, Serbia failed to show a genuine interest in getting closer to the EU. In that, and many other respects, Serbia is a sui generic case in the region.

Also, the international community eventually - albeit slowly - realized that the Serbian radical nationalism was still alive, even after hundreds of thousands of war dead, after all the devastations in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo, and even after the first NATO intervention in Europe after the WW2. Even today, the Serbian nationalists' priority remains the realization of unification of all Serbs as it had been defined by Slobodan MiloŇ°evic and the Serbian Academy Memorandum of 1986!

After a slow start the international community became a major factor in the resolution of the Yugoslav crisis, either through its mediation of peace accords, through the humanitarian aid, the organization of various humanitarian actions, the establishment of the Hague Tribunal, the institution-building, the establishment of the framework for the democratic transformation, or through a direct military intervention. The EU's role has been indispensable, especially in establishing the framework and a road map for a democratic transformation and integration of the Balkans into the European structures.

At this juncture I believe that the adjusted international strategy for Serbia, on which the developments in the country and its future course depend to a large extent, has to more focused and comprehensive. It has to help both to restrain the destructive expansionist course of the ruling elites, as well as to restore the damaged moral and social fabric. So far the EU and other organizations have not seriously taken into consideration, let alone addressed the latter issues and concerns. The social reconstruction of a possible failed state in the heart of Europe is a new, difficult, long-lasting and still untried experience. Its importance for the democratic change in Serbia and peace and security in the Balkans cannot be overestimated.

Obviously, changes in Serbia must come from the within the country and society themselves. But, simultaneously, the external support, and in particular the EU support have to be well thought-out, extensive and continuous. The support has to be channeled primarily towards liberal forces and parties, the civil society, the independent media, small-scale enterprises, trade-unions, student and youth organizations. Concerted efforts have to be made to support the efforts by the democratic part of the society, still quite a small one, to widen the space for Europeanization and democratization. Only the evolution of a critical mass of intellectual and cultural elite may in the future create the conditions for a genuine democratic change, a change on the basis of a truly European, democratic blueprint.

The civil society - a part of the mass media, youth and student organizations, small and medium-size enterprises, trade unions, various professional organizations, smaller political parties, minority organizations and minor political parties - can and should play a decisive role in creating the general atmosphere leading towards the change of the value system. They can and should help to open up the avenue for Serbia's rapprochement with Europe and reduce the monopoly of the political elite on the future of the SAA.

At this particular moment there the EU can make a decisive contribution to help mending the social and moral fabric of the Serbian society by:
- Supporting the establishment of a "Coalition for Europe" that would include representatives of all social strata; this support is of particular importance in view of the forthcoming local elections and, possibly, also parliamentary elections;
- Involving the civil sector in the EU's political dialogue with Serbia;
- Establishing a regional task force for the Western Balkans' European future;
- Supporting the establishment of an alternative education system, promoting European values;
- Recognizing the role of human rights organizations as partners in the creation of a new cultural model;
- Instead of suspending the visa regime, introducing a large-scale student exchange program and promoting the inclusion of young people from Serbia into the European educational system;
- Inviting as many as possible young professionals (of various profiles) to attend training courses organized by the EC;
- Paying special attention to strengthening the contacts and cooperation between the young political leaders within the EU framework and the region;
- Putting in place a direct access of the civil sector organizations to the EU funds;
- Kick-starting regional courses for graduate students in international law;
- Assisting the independent local media in professional/vocational training of young journalists;
- Intensifying the civil sector's communication with the European Parliament and strengthening the parliamentary, trade unions' and all other sorts of people-to-people exchanges.



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