The current Serbian government has a good chance of being the worst since 2000. It strongly resembles those under Slobodan Milošević, when ministers would lurch from one thing to another, depending on what the people at the top decided. At this moment it is not even clear who is at the top, nor how they come up with all those ideas. The propensity to rely on spiritual unity with Russia, displayed particularly by the country’s president and foreign minister, arises I guess from sheer helplessness, intellectual as well as political. That the idea of a timeless collective, and probably religious, spirit that floats about uniting people and nations should come from a graduate of physics and a graduate of psychiatry, I find quite fascinating. In its deeper implications it reflects both on the structure of legitimacy in Serbia and on Serbia’s strategy of development.

The question of legitimacy is posed for the reason that at the last elections voters were asked where they wished to go, and they gave a decisive answer – we want to go into the European Union. This raises a question of responsibility for a government which, as we see, insists through the mouth of its foreign minister that it may even abandon European integration, since it is not written into the constitution. In other words, a mandate won through democratic procedure means nothing. And following upon that, when someone says that integration into the European Union is Serbia’s first priority, but that Russia will be its most important bilateral partner during the coming decades, then he has no idea what kind of foreign policy he is supposed to conduct while preparing the country for EU membership. It is not possible to have special bilateral relations with a country outside the EU, if you are a member of it or wish to become one. Only the EU can have relations with Russia. You cannot have one foot in the EU and another in Iran.

There exists right now in Serbia a discord between the authority of the government and its outstanding tasks; between the requisite political stability and the political ambitions of the people in government and the parties that compose it, as well as those that don’t. There exists too a complete lack of strategy about how to draw closer to the EU. At this moment this is not the government’s strategic aim. Add to this the fact that the Democratic Party has ceased to function. No one in this party says anything of importance. The man with the highest position in the government from the Democratic Party is Božidar Đelić, who has become practically mute, because he evidently has no support of any kind for what he is supposed to be doing. He was given the job of European integration, and you can see by his weight in the government just how important that whole business is. He was also given the department of science, about which he knows very little, and which is of no interest to anyone as is shown by the budget allocated to science. This, though, is the traditional Serbian approach to science. Everyone knows just how much the minister of science is worth. Nothing, in practice.

So far as I know, the prime minister himself is not a member of the Democratic Party – or if he is, he became one only yesterday. The same is true of the minister of finance – she neither speaks for the party nor commands any authority within it. If anyone wields any authority in the party, setting aside the president, then he remains unknown. Mićunović does crop up here and there from time to time, seeking ways to rationalise this whole imbecility. But he evidently does not speak in the party’s name. The Democratic Party, consequently, does not function as a party.

The basic problem is that Serbia is unable to think democratically. The people here voted for something – not fifty years ago, but last May. The voters were asked not a thousand questions, but only one: yes or no to joining the EU. At the time of the May elections, the DS itself insisted that the elections amounted to a referendum. The answer was yes, so what more is there to discuss? About what consensus are people talking? You can speak only about being bound by the democratic will expressed in the elections that brought you to power. The key issue of the elections had nothing to do with spiritual unity with Russia, whatever that means. Nor did it address spiritual unity with Iran. In democratic states, one rarely confronts elections with a single question. This happens only when some important decision has to be made. This happened in 2000 and again last May. Not just once, moreover, since apart from the presidential elections the same question was posed in the parliamentary elections and those in Vojvodina. After that, the government’s only duty is to implement what has been decided. There is no need to muse about some consensus. Even Tomislav Nikolić understood this when he bolted from the Serb Radical Party, because that party is clearly going nowhere.

The question is what the government has done about entry into the EU? It has done nothing, nothing at all. Let us take that crucial condition for entry: the surrender of Ratko Mladić. This condition was in place even before the elections, which means that people knew about it when they voted in favour of the European option. Which means that the government is bound not to Holland, but to its own public – to the people who voted for it – so that it can take this question off the agenda. I repeat, the Agreement on Stablisation and Association was signed by the European Union – with this condition attached – before the elections. And just look at the chaos with our passports. The government has introduced a law aimed at securing Schengen visas for all by 1 January 2009. You can see how divorced it is from reality. The EU keeps saying that Serbia has great administrative capacity. The truth is that Serbia has exceptionally small administrative capacity for anything. Montenegro’s administrative capacity is greater than that of Serbia, which is tragic. We have instead all these amazing stories:- that maybe the EU is dragging its feet because of the crisis; that maybe the Union does not want us, and so on and so forth. The EU has sent a million signals to the contrary. I myself worked very hard on this before the Greek summit in Salonica, so I can testify that the decision to accept Serbia has been made. But our politicians have chosen to pout.

Oh yes, the EU included also the condition of good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation. But this condition was in place even before 2000. This is the same condition that Croatia did not respect in relation to Bosnia-Herzegovina while Tuđman was alive, which is why Croatia came close to having sanctions imposed on it. People who should know this better than I do are now comparing the Gotovina case with that of Ratko Mladić. That is quite nonsensical. The International Court of Justice decided that genocide had been committed at Srebrenica. In line with this judgement, Serbia was condemned for not having prevented it. Most EU countries care nothing for this judgement and would be happy to overlook it, in order to advance Serbia’s entry. But when they come to think seriously about their obligations, they can’t move Serbia forward after this judgement, because it continues to violate the Convention on Genocide. This is no small matter.

I am not acquainted with Boris Tadić, but his behaviour and decisions leave the impression that he thinks that Serbia has a presidential system. He is leader of the strongest party and state president, and all power is concentrated in his hands. I don’t think badly of [premier] Mirko Cvetković, but this is not about him, because he was not elected to any position in the party, nor did he win the post of prime minister through elections. He cannot wield much political weight in a democracy. He might have done so in the system favoured by Josip Broz or Putin, because in such systems one knows exactly who is the boss and who a mere technician. That was true also under Milošević. The leader of the strongest party must indeed have serious political weight, so he doesn’t take a strong individual from his party as prime minister and leave him to get on with it. This is no easy thing to do, which is why Tadić chose Mirko Cvetković. Cvetković will probably be replaced by Jeremić, because Tadić and Jeremić are clearly a duo that is spiritually united.

The problem is that Jeremić has no position in the party and, moreover, has no feeling for what is of crucial importance for the government. For any government, the key issues are economic problems and economic issues. You must be able to wield authority here, because you are the one who says such things as: ‘We have decided that it will be necessary to lay off so many people’, or ‘we must invest here rather than there’, and so on. In other words, you must make decisions with far-reaching consequences, which cannot be done without political authority won through elections.

I am shocked by the foreign minister’s demagogy. It doesn’t really matter whether this is something hatched up on his own, or in someone else’s head. More relevant is the fact that it reflects a policy that for the past twenty years has obsessed the Serbian leadership in all its various forms: the Serb national issue, or how to bring the maximum possible number of Serbs and Serb territories under a single roof. This was the aim twenty years ago, this was the aim ten years ago, and it is the aim now. There are no differences here. Even if someone deviates for a moment, he soon gets back onto the track. It is a separate question how this same source of legitimacy, the one that Milošević discovered twenty years ago, comes to be being renewed. What is obvious is that this is not done by democratic means, since as I have said this option has been rejected twice already. But not where this policy is made and implemented, and where the people who will become president, prime minister and so on are recruited. Other things are evidently more important there. I used to think that this problem would be solved naturally through generational change. You cannot expect Dobrica Ćosić to do that. However, it can be seen that even among the younger generation, few can resist the siren call. Whenever lost for an answer, everyone goes for Bosnia, or Kosovo, or both, and then the whole country becomes the victim of a dreadful demagogy.

The sale of NIS is a scandalous and crude affair. It has nothing to do with Serbia’s energy future. It is a typically demagogic twist that when one talks about oil, they switch to talking about the gas pipeline. But there is only one deal involved: the sale of NIS. All other stories – whether to have a gas pipeline or not, whether it should be a transit one or not, and so on – are in themselves interesting questions, but they have nothing to do with the sale of the Serbian Oil Industry. The Russians insisted that NIS should be sold to them in return for their support over Kosovo, and that’s that. The problem with this, as with Iran, is that it is a political deal, and you don’t know when you will be asked to return the favour. You vote today thinking that it is unimportant whether they cut people’s hands off in Iran, but it may not be important tomorrow whether nuclear bombs are made there. [In view of the fact that Russia is already losing money on the sale of oil], it is quite absurd to count on any investment in 2 or 4 or 5 years’ time. The Russians, quite understandably, cannot commit themselves on that. What is certain is that they have got NIS for very little money, and it remains to be seen whether they will pay even that. This is the most scandalous deal I have come across, ever since I started to follow business deals in Russia.

What can a prime minister without a mandate do? Even if he had the best ideas in the world, he cannot sell them to his own government, not to speak of the party of which he is not a member. This has produced a wholly un-ambitious and defensive budget, that will have to be revised like all the others. The idea is to wait and see what happens. The 2009 budget is the decisive one. Key to it is the fiscal policy, which is 45 per cent of the gross national product. A serious correction of the fiscal policy would be necessary even in the most favourable circumstances, based on a mid-term plan for a complete restructuring of the public sector, on both the revenue and the expenditure sides. This will not be possible, because the government has no idea on the subject. First because there is no money, and secondly because there are no exports, thanks to a policy that has ensured that the Serbian export sector would consist of just 3 or 4 products. These products are such that their prices vary greatly. Prices of metals, of ore, are falling and the same will happen in the end to the price of food. In which case Serbia has nothing to export. This means that Serbia does not export, that the Smederevo steel plant is closed down, that foreign credit is scarce, the sale of public property is in decline, and it is an open question what will happen to the remittences from abroad. What is most important is that the situation will not return to the status quo ante for a year or more. The strategy of transition that the countries of central Europe were lucky enough to conduct, based on foreign investment and exports to the EU market – that strategy is no longer available.

The question is what will finance the high growth rates that are indispensable to Serbia? Without a high growth rate – of 6-7% for at least 5-6 years – the situation in the country will become very complicated. There are few employed here and many dependents, so that in the event of low growth rates the economic, social and political situation will become very complicated. So the key question is not how to survive until the next budget correction, which now preoccupies the Serbian government, but rather how to conceive a strategy for high growth rates under totally changed circumstances, in which we can no longer rely on foreign credits. Even should an economic revival occur in the EU, in the USA, China and rest of the world, the financial system will not be the same as before the crisis. What then will finance growth of 6-7 per cent in Serbia? It is possible that there will be a recession, which is already visible in industrial production. The question of how to secure high growth rates is the key question for this government, especially if it wishes to stay in power for the whole four-year period. No one in the government or around it, not to speak of the president, has any idea how to achieve this. This cannot be achieved through the sale of NIS, or with fantasies about the great sums of money that will come as the result of a gas pipeline passing through the country. Nor can it be achieved with further sales of state property, because there is nothing to sell.

You must start to re-industrialise, if you want to have some sort of an advanced economy. This is what the countries of central Europe did in much more favourable circumstances, when they started to make some things for the first time, and which will help them more easily to navigate this crisis.

One should have been more accommodating in relation to the EU, in meeting their demands. One should have disciplined one’s political behaviour, but there was no will for that. Why was there no will? Because a certain political stratum has done very well over the past nine years. And there is practically no opposition. It is bad that we have practically the same people in power, because this signals a lack of internal control, based on a fear of losing power to someone else. We don’t have ideological control either, because for the past twenty years the whole ideological space in Serbia has been filled with nationalism. There is no debate between socialists and conservatives, between one model and another, between market economy and the idea of social justice. What is in the national interest, who is a traitor and who is not, whether one should give in to the European Union , and so on – you don’t have a serious debate on any issue here. This ideological narrow-mindedness negates even the will of the people. Whichever way the nation votes, nationalists always come to power, because there is nothing else on offer; and the nationalists who come to power are always the same people too. The behaviour of the Progressive Party shows how they have understood that in Serbia you cannot compete, you have to be coopted. [Ivica] Dačić was coopted, Toma Nikolić could be coopted tomorrow ,and maybe – who knows – the Radicals too could change their minds. That is how it goes. In other words, we are dealing here with a system of cooption into government, without true political competition. This is what makes Serbia different from other countries, where you find ideological conflicts and political competition, and a strategic choice in favour of the European Union that goes back to the 1990s, as the place where you look for development and modernisation, for security and stability.

Bosnian Institute News, 24.01.2009.

Pešč, 04.02.2009.