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Serbia Struggles to Redefine Itself - 2003-12-08


Which way for Serbia? That was the question put to panelists at a recent discussion held by the Serbian service of the Voice of America. Will the Balkan nation go forward or backward - toward a more international outlook or a more insular nationalism? Parliamentary elections later in December should give some indication of what direction it will be. VOA's Ed Warner reports the views of the guest speakers on the prospects for a country faced with territorial disputes and sharp internal division.

In 2000, Serbs rose up to overthrow their autocratic leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who had waged continuing war in the Balkans while stifling opposition at home.

That was the easy part, says Obrad Kesic of TSM Global Consultants: “The day after he was gone there was very little consensus as to what should come next. You see this when it comes to any issue of significance within Serbia. Over the last three years, it is hard to identify a coherent concrete policy and say it is the policy of Serbia on issues such as what should happen with the joint state, with Montenegro. Should it be a federation? Should it be a confederation? Should it be independent? Should Serbia secede from the joint state?”

Mr. Kesic says in their drive to oust Mr. Milosevic, Serbs made compromises that now entangle them; for instance, monarchists in a coalition with anti-monarchists. There is a great deal of political incoherence.

And there is the lingering influence of Milosevic supporters or at least those who subscribe to his vision of a greater Serbia. The Radical party remains a large indigestible part of the Serbian body politic, says Janusz Bugajski, Director of the Eastern European project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

“The strong showing of ultra-nationalists in the recent failed presidential elections indicates the potential dangers ahead. The crackdown on crime following the murder of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic indicated the extent of organized criminality and the persistent connections between criminality and politics. It is insufficient to point at neighbors as the source of problems when there is so much work at home that still needs to be accomplished.”

The choice in the upcoming elections is between reform and anti-reform, says Daniel Serwer, Director of the Balkans Initiative program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The Radicals in Serbia are still beyond the spectrum of modernizing versus traditionalist. They really want to take Serbia backwards. I think it really is quite appalling that you have a number of indictees in the Hague tribunal in these elections. It is particularly disturbing because one or two of them may get some pretty strong votes.”

The damage the Radicals can do should be understood, says Mr. Serwer, who cites the assassination of the democratic-minded Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic last March: “A number of the people who had been associated with the Milosevic regime one way or another in their past lives said to me: ‘You must urge them to go faster on reform in changing the old structures.’ And I would say why? And they would say: ‘You can't imagine what these people are capable of.’ Well, now we know what they are capable of. They are capable of even assassinating a prime minister.”

A basic problem, says Mr. Kesic of TSM Global Consultants, is that Serbs are not sure what their country should be. Their divisions today reflect a divided history of alternating regimes of sharply different character: “What is Serbia? Is Serbia a predominantly leftist- oriented country that takes stock in its roots from the experiences of the socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia and the experiences under socialism? Or does Serbia take its roots from the anti-Communist tradition that is found in traditional Serbian society that is preserved in the church, that is seen in nationalist movements?”

This battle for the soul of Serbia is waged in every conceivable way, says Mr. Kesic in schools and textbooks, in the media and cultural institutions, in intense conversations of Serbs trying to decide what their nation means to them. Polarization is commonplace.

“There is a lot of talk about the need for Serbia to reconcile with its neighbors, says Mr. Kesic. “But very few people are standing up and saying we need reconciliation within Serbia, and I think before you can even truly reconcile with your neighbors there has to be a true process of reconciliation within the country. There has to be an airing of positions. There has to be the ability to wage a democratic and open discourse on every subject.”

One issue that polarizes the country with no reconciliation in sight is the Hague Tribunal, where Serbian leaders accused of war crimes are brought to trial. A former Serbian general, Stanislav Galic, has just received a 20 year prison sentence for his role in the four year siege of Sarajevo.

Justice must be served, argues Obrad Kesic, but not this way. It has been removed from Serbs themselves, who remain passive onlookers instead of participants in a cleansing process. “The Hague is actually a deterrent to stabilization within the region and it is a deterrent to actually building reconciliation. What we have in The Hague is a process that has been organized by the international community. There is no ownership on the part of the local people in this process other than to go in front of the court if you are accused. That court is perceived to be alien.”

Daniel Serwer says there was no alternative. Serbian war criminals would not have been brought to justice in Serbia, considering its hostility to the outside world. Over time, he says, many Serbs have come to understand the need for the tribunal. “Frankly, I find in Belgrade that the atmosphere about the Hague tribunal is much more positive. In fact, there is pretty good evidence that there was a massacre in Srebrenica. And I think that is true because of the trials in The Hague. I think the situation would have been truly dreadful had we not had The Hague tribunal to take over that responsibility.

For the future, says Mr. Kesic, a new constitution is a necessity for rallying Serbs and creating the sense of nationhood that is missing. “I am confident that after the next election, regardless of the results, this is going to be the primary preoccupation of the new government and of all the political parties in the country. This is positive in the sense that it is something of substance, and it is going to be able to draw a lot of energy that otherwise might go in destructive directions.”

Obrad Kesic says Serbia through trial and error is building a system of checks and balances to thwart autocratic rule. The next government is going to have to operate within existing institutions, not outside them.

Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sees a change in the climate of opinion that should lead to democratic consolidation rather than political regression: “Some sectors of the Serbian elite, I believe, understand that the country needs to more clearly define its identity, its territorial scope and its administrative competence and to give up illusions of some kind of regional predominance if it is to be fully accepted by the European and Trans-Atlantic family.”

And acceptance by that family, adds Mr. Bujaski, will contribute to ongoing reform in Serbia.

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