Welcoming the pariah back? Thoughts on Serbia’s steep and thorny way to Europe

by Giorgos Monogioudis

Giorgos Monogioudis conducted PhD research at School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. His thesis was entitled “Tracing public accountability in Serbia: the ombudsman institutions in search of allies”.

Overshadowed by the ongoing Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, international media paid little attention to a remarkable occurrence that characterised the 2014 Serbian parliamentary election on March 16; Aleksandar Vučić, a former Minister of Information that fined journalists and banned foreign TV networks while Slobodan Milošević was in power, received 48.34% of votes, promising among others Serbia’s EU accession in the near future. On the contrary, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, a major player in the first years of the post- Milošević era, failed to pass the 5% threshold for the first time since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, same as other, mostly right-wing, Eurosceptic parties. What does this landslide victory mean for Serbia’s Europeanisation? Is it time for one of Europe’s last pariahs to normalise?Europeanisation is understood in this context as the adaptation of domestic preferences, policies and practices to the EU system of governance that is motivated by the ultimate goal of EU membership. In other words, it is an incentive-based agreement between the EU and potential candidates that demands compliance of the latter with EU rules as a prerequisite for them becoming member-states of the former. Overall, the more credible a membership perspective is, the more likely it is that the potential candidate will put effort into adjusting to EU demands.The above conceptualisation argues that rational calculation is the driving force that explains why states choose to Europeanise. However, Serbia has been perceived for a long time as an exception to this rule as domestic elites were often reluctant, if not sceptical and directly opposed, to relevant European incentives and pressures. In spite of the EU’s declared will to include Serbia in future enlargements as a central pillar for democracy, stability and security in the Western Balkans, what are the reasons explaining this Serbian Sonderfall [exceptional case]?The answer stems arguably from the objectives of Serbian state-building in the 1990s as well as the actors that dominated public discourse before and after Serbia’s regime change in 2000. More precisely, the tumultuous 1990s were characterised by an atmosphere of increasing nationalist authoritarianism under Milošević that was expressed, among others, through personalised power, nationalist populism as public rhetoric, a polarised party system with strong right and left extremist potential as well as fragmented, marginalised and suppressed voices of opposition. This exceptional political and social setting was complemented by Serbia’s unfinished state-building project; the unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was followed by military intervention in Bosnia and Croatia with the aim to protect Serbian populations and enclose them in a future state of Greater Serbia and it was later completed with the 1999 NATO bombing after Milošević decided to uphold Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo through police and military repression.However, Serbia’s involvement in the Yugoslav Wars and the question of Kosovo’s sovereignty are not yet another chapter of traumatic events and controversial conflicts that belong to turbulent Balkan history but core issues that still shape nowadays Serbia’s trajectory to Europe. More precisely, aside the so-called Copenhagen criteria (e.g. democratic institutions, rule of law, respect for human rights, functioning market economy) that candidate states are expected to meet in order to become eventually EU members, Serbia is requested to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Hague in terms of prosecuting persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law in the Yugoslav Wars as well as to contribute to a viable solution regarding 2008 Kosovo’s declared independence. Both issues are not explicitly referred to as prerequisites for EU membership but they are correlated with good neighbourly relations for the purpose of EU integration. In spite of longstanding reluctance to cooperate with the ICTY, Serbia delivered results eventually by extraditing the accused for crimes Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić to Hague in 2008 and 2011 respectively, whereas consecutive governments have failed so far to Europeanize the Kosovo issue, demonstrating the limitations of EU conditionality in politically and symbolically hot topics for potential candidates. In particular, the Kosovo issue reveals arguably the complex pattern of Europeanisation in Serbia. Since the regime change in 2000, political elites have been dispersed across three distinct groups of actors that express varying perceptions towards Europeanisation; the euro resisters, the instrumental promoters and the euro enthusiasts. As a consequence of this polarised political setting, not only have Serbian elites been disagreeing on the EU agenda but they also manipulated systematically controversial issues like Kosovo’s declared independence in order to expand their influence over a politically-disenchanted but nationalist-prone populace. Indeed, Serbia’s reluctance to Europeanise goes hand in hand with widespread past denial regarding the country’s blame for what happened in the Yugoslav wars as well as a populist national narrative of victimisation that distinguishes only between innocent “selves” and guilty “others”.So, what has changed recently? Do intensified diplomatic relations and increasing dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo indicate the pariah’s gradual normalisation through Europeanisation? Since the assumption of power by Boris Tadić’s Democratic Party in the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary elections, a qualitative shift in Serbian politics has indeed taken place in terms of confronting the past and negotiating the future. Nevertheless, the reluctance to acknowledge Kosovo’s new status quo indicates not only the persisting delegitimisation of the European idea and the West in general in the eyes of certain political elites and of a significant part of the Serbian people but also a discursive denial of Kosovo’s independence as a reverse condition of Jacoby’s so called “Potemkin harmonisation”; in other words, Serbian governments acknowledge in practice the new reality in Kosovo as a way of approaching Europe while simultaneously denying it in public discourse.The complexity of Kosovo’s independence indicates that Serbia’s Europeanisation is an adventurous journey between the Scylla of territorial retreat and the Charybdis of nationalist populism. Serbia’s EU perspective is certainly not a panacea, yet the only realistic option for the time being.