We know little about our government’s attempts to make “great economic arrangements with strategic partners,” as the popular parlance goes. The whole thing looks like a huge improvisation. As if they are trying to find a new geo-political spot for Serbia on the world map, and so, as we seem to be so overly important, let’s then squeeze out some financial or economic support, at least to show to the people that these were not just hollow phrases, but that, instead, great powers and big partners really do take interest in us. Of course, I’m not denying that we areinteresting – at least until they figure us out – but as far as I see, at stake here is the idea of Serbia’s joining the European Union, albeit with certain exceptions. This is where amateur moves like these spring from: perhaps China and Russia will help, why not? We cannot be dependent only on the European Union. But such an amateur approach to serious economic problems can yield only confusion.
The improvisation now goes in the direction of what could this famous Russian billion be spent on. It all seems dubious to me, since our honorable guest, Mr. Medvedev, wasn’t really clear on whether this was going to be a financial credit, or the one made in goods, or perhaps even a mixed one. And the hosts did not dare inquire. That billion is mentioned as likely to be used for the subway system, but the subway system has not been designed yet. Well, then put it into a railway system – and why just railway, use it for the beltway too, and for a center of some sort in Nis as well. And not just mere firefighting center, nor an ordinary military base. That kind of project is built together with big gas or oil pipeline systems. When great powers plow small countries to get their big infrastructural constructions through, they are sure to get some assurance to make the project realized. But in certain cases while the assurance is in place, the infrastructural project doesn’t come through. I’m afraid that this may happen to us. The whole thing seems to me, in the long run, like a flippant improvisation.
All countries that have made agreements with Russia are facing the same problem: chronic slowness. Russia often takes on more than it can deliver. In 1994 or 1995, when Milosevic established the eminent YugoRosGas with the Russians, the initial deal had been 50-50. However, our 25% share was later, under awkward circumstances, handed over to the Russians. It all started as an international company, which became a concessionaire authorized to distribute gas throughout central Serbia. In return, it obtained the right to introduce gas in central Serbia. Now, this was fourteen years ago and so far they have managed to get only from Pojat to Nis, and down to Leskovac, because they lack customers. And why? Because the entire gas sector in Serbia is suffering considerable losses and has not met its obligations toward gas deliverers yet. The power plants in Belgrade and several other towns have failed for years to pay what they are due to gas deliverers. Huge debts have been amassed. It has even been made a topic in the National Parliament of Serbia. There are rumors about a debt of 150 or 160 million of dollars.
And then, last year oil price skyrocketed, and consequently 1,000 cubic meters of gas is now worth 500 dollars. Remember the great scandal from about a year ago, when gas price went up 60% for consumers. Oil plummeted, but gas didn’t go down. What’s been going on here? Who reaps the benefit? Is the YugRosGas ironing out a missed accumulation, paying off the loans it used to cover the area from Nis to Leskovac? This remains unclear, but the expensive gas managed to drive off the consumers. So the following question emerges: why introduce gas in the first place when gas is too expensive and no one will want to connect to this gas network? Let me remind you that according to the national energy strategy, Serbia was supposed to double its consumption of natural gas in this decade. And since this is now unrealistic to expect, the question is whether the very conception of our gas economy can survive. Serbian Ministry of Mining and Energy does not have the answer, and I fear this is because the entire strategy has been moved to gas deliverers.
It is generally held that Serbia should not be pushed into love relations with Russia and China. And Serbia is lucky for that attitude. It is my impression that the world is saying – take them as they are now, and we’ll fix them later. At least this is the impression I get from the fact that the International Monetary Fund does not, actually, insist on further reforms, does not come to us with complete instructions, but instead asks only the simplest requirements be met.
There now emerges a curious situation in Serbia. Everything is postponed by three years. The postponement is introduced, it seems, for the present governing coalition to complete its term. Look at the projection of the Chinese credit – here, too, the grace period is three years. The grace period is the same according to the projection of the new contract with the Russians. As long as we are safely in power for the next two or three years, there is no need for urgent solutions. There is time, we’ll deal with it. This is the notorious point of neutrality, which is spreading from the military to the systemic neutrality. In short, we want neither capitalism, nor socialism; nor national-socialism. And nobody knows what will happen.
This is precisely what concerns me most. The inertia of the conservative idea’s prevalence in Serbia is too strong, and Serbia may not be able to leave behind its delusions, its obsessions and its attachment to the past. But the conservative idea is collapsing too, in fact. Even the idea of military neutrality is an empty shell. Nonparticipation cannot be turned into an action program. Yet, at the same time, our nonparticipation deters investors. To put it crudely: everyone wants to know which military power oversees a given territory. In that sense, the NATO umbrella is important for a number of investors. I am not saying that we should take that umbrella only because of these investors, since this is not a light umbrella and it is not easy to carry it around, but let’s not fool ourselves: it does bring a certain type of investments which you cannot possibly get if you are not part of the alliance. Serbia could survive without them just as well, but it would have to devise a formula for other investments, those that would come without the NATO umbrella. What’s particularly dangerous is that once you reject a NATO umbrella, you’ve actually opened someone else’s. The one belonging to Kremlin, for example. I’m afraid that this is, in fact, the idea behind the anti-NATO forces: instead of neutrality, they favor someone else’s umbrella. And perhaps they don’t want investors in the civil sphere but in another one.
To cut it short: the main function of political life in any country is to produce new ideas all the time. While the old ones are perishing here, I don’t see the new ones being produced. What we have now is a tragic-comic situation: there are almost no arguments whatsoever in the political life of Serbia, other than those concerning Vojvodina and its Statute. As for the development of political institutions, no plan for a modern world is on the horizon, while the old conception of the national, centralized, nationally homogenized, egalitarian, Orthodox Serbia is slowly crumbling.
I am not undermining the power of violent banality. We reap the fruits of an unresolved ending. Our democratic revolution failed and we are dragging on. There is some kind of truce between the liberal and the conservative Serbia because neither side has any initiative. All the players are in the middle of the field, there are no scores. I don’t know what they are waiting for. So, to go back, I am not undermining this violent banality. I think there will be more rather than less of it, but at the same time it is clear that the state cannot survive while tolerating such phenomena. There is awareness that we won’t get anywhere on this road, except to hell. Examine, for example, the Serbian policy towards Kosovo. Or towards Bosnia. I don’t see the opposition crying – let’s have Dodik create a state, and then we’ll take it for ourselves. I guess even they understand that going back to the 1990s is impossible. I sense the end of this idea. I feel it crumbling down, although the right will probably grow more aggressive, but it has nowhere to go.
The experiences we have from Milosevic’s era have not been condemned enough. Lustration did not take place, nor was the extent of the catastrophe illuminated enough. Except for Dinkic’s Economy of Destruction, our economists have not produced a single serious analysis of Serbia’s economic catastrophe. As if they are not interested. Back in the days of the inflation, when it would go up to 1,000 % daily, there was talk that such phenomenon would have to be studied. But it will be studied at Harvard, not here.
Our politicians feel tired by these old narratives and by the old system, but there is nothing new anyway. The space has been opened now for the counter-attack by the liberal, pro-Western idea, but there are not agents to carry it out, no new ideas. Even the new capitalist class is not trying to take more power than it presently has. That’s quite miraculous. In every country the tycoon class, after enough time has elapsed, tries take the lead of the process of modernization. There was a period in Russia when those who gathered billions overnight tried to seize power and modernize Russia, all in keeping with their own interests, of course. They were stopped. But in Serbia there is almost no trace of a constituted bourgeois elite. It is always working in some remote corner, unseen. And sure enough, you can make a million or a hundred of millions when you are unseen, and you can get villas and yachts, but you can’t create the consumer society that these tycoons need.
Basically, there is now something extraordinary happening: the Serbian version of capitalism, mixed with the conservative idea, has brought us to a stand-still, to exhaustion, and everyone is aware that we cannot be standing still for much longer, that we have to start moving forward. The governing coalition, which feels its position to be unsafe and weak, does not dare move at all – not even to give small, insignificant autonomy to Vojvodina. It set off with the idea of regionalization, but soon it refrained from it. I see now that the member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Ekmecic, ascribes the idea of regionalization to Catholicism and the Pope. Ekmecic’s interview, published in Novosti on Saturday, serves as the best possible example of the conspiracy theory. Everything is back in the game: the Vatican and the Pope, while the eastern border of Poland is mentioned in relation to the Statute of Vojvodina. You really get entertained while reading it. Look, this is the man who destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I guess he now wants to destroy Serbia. It’s there, on two or three pages, Milosevic’s politics in broad daylight again, a complete version of the former national project, all ideas from the Memorandum, in addition to Poland’s eastern border. In other words, modern Europe is the Catholic Europe, and we must fight to prevent Poland’s eastern borders from being redrawn , because this would endanger the heart of Orthodoxy, which is what we must remain bound to. That’s, roughly, the idea. But it is comical. It may receive some attention in some cafes, but I am deeply convinced that everyone, the whole of Serbia, is tired of these conspiracies and of the same narratives, and everyone wants something new. But there is no one to say – let’s go this way.
The idea that Serbia should be heading toward a two-party system is ridiculous. Our leaders say – we’ve had enough of negotiating with our waggish coalition partners, so let’s now create two political blocks and let’s make arrangements about everything. This can be achieved only through a natural societal development and through a gradual decrease of the number of problems and their weight. This way, it comes as a voluntary construction and it does not, in fact, serve the interests of the Democratic Party, which has been loudest in proposing this. In propagating this course, it is pulling the rug out from under its own feet, as if it doesn’t realize that in cutting down the number of problems with its coalition partners, it has been creating more problems with the opposition. Or maybe the Democratic Party wants to share the responsibility. Maybe they feel the surplus of power so let’s share a little – let’s blame Tomislav Nikolic if things are not going well. It’s a totally mindless theory. It is unrealizable and it shows that the leading party in power has been caught in the familiar mechanism: once you are past the critical amount of influence, you think the remedy for all your problems is to increase the amount of influence. This approach does not lead to democracy – it is simply political engineering. Tadic’s cabinet tried to convince us that we’ve had enough of small parties – so, let’s shut them all down, let’s drive them all to opposition, and let’s have the most powerful of them arrange things in their group, so that we can have a partner to negotiate with. I don’t mind that – let them negotiate. But I think the idea itself is ridiculous, and it shows advancing sickness of the Democratic Party itself, which has been trying to move the dynamics of political life entirely to its own yard. It will eventually end up creating separate fractions within the party itself, small parties within the big one, with one arbiter in charge of settling the accounts. The whole idea is only a waste of time, it is not productive. It shows that the hold and range of Democratic Party’s government are, in fact, much stronger than they seem to us. But as this party is also sensitive to the redistribution of power and privileges, it reveals a traditional weakness – its proneness to clientelism. There is always a surplus of people who need better placement. The party itself never has enough income, no matter how high it is. I don’t like this state of affairs: it goes beyond what is called a natural democratic, dynamic political life of a society.
We hear that Serbia is not honest enough in its relations with Russia. But Serbia is, actually, not honest enough when it comes to its European politics. In other words, it is not honest with either of these two politics simply because it is insecure. Serbia does not dare make a decisive move in one direction. There are good sides to this approach. While you are hesitating, while you are being non-aligned, you are courted by everyone for a while. But later you find yourself at a stage when you are not asked what you do or don’t want. I am mainly afraid that our political elite has given up our destiny, the only destiny we have, and handed it over to that old idea which, as far as I can say, is dwindling. And Serbia is dwindling with it too. This comes in waves. We are now overwhelmed by the presence of Milosevic’s people; there are sparks that point to the preservation of the great national project – all Serbs in an extended Serbia, and what not. The only thing that seems important is not to give a share of power to anyone, not even to Vojvodina, and so forth. But regardless of it all, regardless of the rise of the power of the narcissistic right in Serbia, I believe that on the ruins of the ancient conservative idea, a libertarian, liberal movement will again become strong in Serbia and Serbia will, unwillingly, move forward in the right direction.
Pescanik radio show, 30.10.2009.
Translated by Vesna Bogojevic