Small nations, if they’re being smart, stay away from trouble, don’t meddle between the great nations or fight them. You choose your part, you know your place, what you want, what kind of cards you’ve got in your hand and what you can hope for. You can’t go against the tide here, hoping to somehow trick the big players and fulfil your unrealistic national interests. But, sometimes, astonished at how good they’ve got it at home, they dare to think that they can do the same with the great powers. You’re a great ruler at home, you’ve conquered everything there was to conquer, the money is flowing in and everything is going fine, the court’s rulings reflect your thoughts, the parliament is unanimous, opposition crushed, the journalists forgot what their job was, the pioneers applaud you, Serbian cause is flourishing and the ratings are sky-rocketing. Promises are made and broken, the people are getting worse and remain silent, everything is quiet and life is as good as it gets. But, if you succumb to that illusion and ask for support from the greats and promise to solve the murder of the Bitici brothers, arrest those responsible for setting embassies on fire, give up nationalist pretensions and ambitions, respect the rule of law, independent institutions and the media freedom, normalize relations with Kosovo and your neighbors, and align your foreign policy with the EU, and then break those promises, it will not end well for you. After mild warnings you pretended you didn’t hear, you are again out of the game.
Figuratively speaking, we are like an arrogant amateur sitting at a poker table with experienced gamblers. The American has four aces, the Russian four kings, and the Serb, when told to show his hand, has only blanks. When we worry too much about our arrogant rulers, we can almost unmistakably count on their international debacles. That’s how they all finish. Ever since I’ve been involved in Serbian politics, from Milosevic to Vucic, each of our rulers finished by losing the game with the big players, while pushing Serbia backwards, into greater poverty and stagnancy. And here we are again, prime minister Vucic’s much praised foreign policy is no longer that ideal. Ever since he came back from the US, we can no longer hear fanfares, but cries for help and appeals to stand united in difficult times and jointly chase the black clouds that came over Serbia. It turned out that Mrs. Merkel didn’t come to Serbia to play dots, but to bring terror and fright. That’s what I understood from what the prime minister said after he came back from the US: „I’ve never been especially pretty, but know I really look awful.“
We’ve tripped over the same stone again. Once again, we are on the radar of great powers. The Americans gave Vucic „homework” which we’ve been neglecting to do since Milosevic. Russia jumped to smack us on the head, too. I am talking about the fact that the Russian ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peter Ivancov, accepted the formulation „Srebrenica genocide“ and, together with other political directors of the Council for the Implementation of Peace, supported the activation of an Action plan for B&H’s membership in NATO. The communique on the rule of law was adopted unanimously. It says that „some politicians from Republika Srpska tried to secure political capital for themselves by denying the rule of law“. With all those problems over Ukraine, this situation came in handy for the Russians to soften relations where it doesn’t cost them anything. And to send the warning that the role of the keeper of our national interests is not their priority.
The saddest thing about this chaos is that our leaders were very upset about the UK’s initiative in the UN to pass the Resolution on the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. It was also interpreted as an act against us. They haggardly called for our Russian brothers to veto the Resolution if it’s against Serbian interests. Instead of thinking about the real Serbian interests and taking this opportunity to finally show that we are truly sorry for Srebrenica, they panicked at the thought of the destruction of Republika Srpska. I’m waiting to see what it says, said prime minister Vucic, and then I’ll decide whether to go to Potocare. That’s where he’s trying to defend Serbia. It’s a crying shame. I’m even embarrassed to analyze whether he’ll go or not. If I must say, he doesn’t deserve to go there. Even if he goes, it will be another clown show with no point. The only real thing to do would be for us to apologize to the Bosnian people and participate in commemorating July 11th, the day of the Srebrenica genocide, every year. That’s when everyone will be able to mourn for their own victims.
From castle to house of cards
Serbian foreign policy during the last three years was considered almost ideal. Nothing can be better than choosing both the west and the east, the EU and Russia: the former is supposed to give us money and the latter to help us make our nationalist dreams come true. That image of a cute lamb feeding off two mothers looked fine, since it reminded us of Tito’s Yugoslavia which played that card right once. However, we too often forget that Serbia is not Yugoslavia. Today’s Serbia can only dream about the international position of former Yugoslavia, not to mention the fact that the time of bipolar world is long gone. President Nikolic’s statement that Serbia can act as an intermediary between the west and Russia is not only pretentious and a bite that Serbia can’t chew, but also completely ignorant. That policy died with the fall of the Berlin wall. Nothing is the same anymore, Yugoslavia is gone and Serbia can’t be its old self anymore.
We know that Serbia chose the worst possible path in the tectonic changes of the late eighties. It turned its back on the winning west and started wars to implement the nineteenth-century goals of a “Great Serbia”. Even after the complete defeat and thirty years of degradation, it hasn’t given up on these unrealistic goals. And it was told so many times that those goals are unfeasible, which doesn’t mean that a compromise can’t be reached if things go well. Due to that fixation on nationalist policy (which we transformed into a policy of peace with the neighbors and the world after Milosevic), Serbia’s progress towards the EU was slow. And Serbia made sure to combine that path with already defeated nationalist interests.
However, playing games with the west was not our only and dominant commitment. This is evident if you look at two political blocs which are alive today: one, patriotic, which rejected the EU for supporting Kosovo (headed by Kostunica, his party and Serbian radical party) and, another, pro-European, headed by the Democratic party and similar parties. Do I need to remind you that the EU saved the pro-European coalition from almost guaranteed defeat in the 2008 Serbian elections, by signing the Agreement on Stabilization and Accession, and that Tadic, as soon as he came into power, appointed Vuk Jeremic to lead Kosovo politics, traveling around the globe multiple times to prevent the recognition of Kosovo. He promised to start the pro-European politics in 2010! Then, Serbia asked the International court of justice to rule on whether Kosovo had broken international law by declaring independence. Tadic lost that case and sentenced himself to political death. The same government decided to send out hooligans to set the border crossing to Kosovo in Jarinje on fire. The politics of “both the EU and Kosovo”, launched by Boris Tadic, was defeated.
After the fiasco of Tadic’s policy cost him the elections, the EU turned to the back-up political candidate – a transformed Serbian radical party (SRS) now called the Serbian progressive party. It was born out of the SRS’s defeat in 2008 after its leaders realized two things. The first is that Serbia can’t survive without the west and neither can the politicians who lead anti-European politics. The second is that all parties which turned their backs on the west, like the Kostunica’s DSS, have lost their popularity with the citizens and can’t win the elections. The 2012 government told the EU and the USA that it would overcome the delay about Kosovo, which was already labeled as the primary condition for Serbia to move closer to the EU. That ticket needed to be paid in cash and so the Brussels agreement was signed and relations with Pristina, although incomplete, fragile and uncertain, were improved.
Compromise about Kosovo improved Aleksandar Vucic’s position in the west, but it was compensated by a new kind of the same foreign policy. Meaning that this time Serbian nationalist policy was preserved by improvement of relations with Russia; protection of Serbian national interests and “patriotism” was transferred to that policy. For Vucic and, especially, Nikolic, this deal was natural, i.e. they didn’t have to fake anything, because their policy was always under heavy influence of the “Russian hypnosis”. By placing Mother Russia on the same political level as the European Union, Vucic and Nikolic disavowed their political opponents’ and the Serbian Ortodox Church’s criticisms about giving up on Kosovo, and relations with the EU were improved.
That’s how we got to the new/old foreign policy position: our strategic goal is to be admitted to the EU, while improving our traditional relations with Russia. This “traditional” part means that Russia is the keeper of our Kosovo and protector of Serbian national interests. Continuity was kept this time, too, meaning that Serbia, once again, failed to decide where it’s actually going. The famous predecessors did sign a harmful contract and sold our oil industry to the Russians, but Democratic party didn’t conduct Russian propaganda. This nationalist love for Russia is now constantly supported by media propaganda on enormous Russian power, the organization of the military parade for Putin, constant visits of various Russian propagandists, equalization of the Russian and EU media presence in Serbia, adoration of Putin (and bikers, the Night Wolves!). This is supported by the promotion of euro-skepticism and the story about double standards and hypocrisy of the EU: from claims that it keeps posing new (penalty) challenges to Serbia, which it never posed to anyone else, to the stories that the EU and USA are trying to bring down prime minister Vucic’s government.
Since the Ukraine crisis started, pro-Russian propaganda intensified. Even though Serbia declared its support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the impression is completely different if you look at our mainstream media: riots against the “legitimate government” in Ukraine were cause by fascists, Ukrainian president Poroshenko is portrayed as guilty for the “civil war”. The media report only about the negative things about that country, including the lie that Ukraine attacked Russia; they basically said that Putin is popular in Russia for defending the fatherland which is under attack. They don’t mention the fact that it was Russia which attacked Ukraine and claimed parts of that country as their own. They predict that Russia will win the war with the west and say that the sanctions against Russia are unfair. This key propaganda assignment was given to the best and the most reliable: Ljiljana Smajlovic, the editor in chief of Politika and Ratko Dmitrovic, the editor in chief of Novosti. The tabloids go without saying.
While Vucic was showing off his pro-European attitude, the Serbian media were implementing Russian propaganda, believing that this schizophrenic division of roles is the policy of balance between the east and the west. It is clear now that the attitude “both EU and Russia” is schizophrenic and dilettante and that that’s the reason why it collapsed like a house of cards. It turned out that the cute lamb didn’t have two mothers, but two step-mothers. The Ukrainian crisis sank the fake policy “both EU and Russia”. Serbia wasn’t asked to impose sanctions against Russia, because that’s not what matters. What matters is commitment. Serbia is asked to commit to one side. The EU and the US won’t allow Russian presence and “Trojan horses” in the Balkans. And Serbia, Republika Srpska and Macedonia are considered to be those.
President Nikolic’s presence at the parade in Moscow, together with the army marching across the Red square, was the last straw. Everyone here, including the experts, somehow thought that this parade is not important. Maybe not, but it came at a very bad time, when USA was deciding to come back to the Balkans and prevent Russia from staying there. While USA was dealing with other things, Bosnia was almost destroyed, Macedonia too, and Serbia continued to play a double role, saving its nationalist dreams by relying on Russia.
It seems that everyone here failed to notice that a turn was underway. This is evident from all of prime minister Vucic’s preparations for visiting America. He prepared an answer to every question. He hurried to visit Edi Rama in Albania and it all went incredibly well, he hastily made peace with the NGO sector and talked about human rights and the media freedom, met with the prosecuted ombudsman, put Veran Matic on another commission for the Bitici murder; right before his departure, he even mentioned the key thing: that Serbia will diversify its sources of gas (which he immediately revoked and said that it doesn’t mean distancing from Russia).
Yet, somehow, everything changed, everything collapsed. The idyll is gone. Our American friends asked a direct question: are you with us, or aren’t you? If you’re with us, you’ll get support, under the condition that we bring the Kosovo issue to a happy end, empower the federal government in B&H and weaken Republika Srpska, and cool off relations with Russia. Translated into everyday language, we are asked to contain Serbian nationalism which is still the main obstacle for Serbia and its neighbors to join the EU and NATO.
The offer today is the same one which was offered to Serbia before the wars of the nineties. Serbia was offered to join the west, but it refused, because of its nationalist fantasies. The same is happening now, with the same offer and chance on the table. And what’s so difficult now? The fact that Serbia has to decide which way to turn and whether it will draw the line, look itself in the mirror and reach the truly historical conclusion that its old and unrealistic national dreams are a past which won’t come back.
And what’s going to happen? Probably everything will continue as it is and this government, the worst one yet, will have to leave. Those who come should be prepared to not trip over the same stone and to jump over the wall we’ve been standing in front of for far too long.
Translated by Marijana Simic
Vesna Pešić, političarka, borkinja za ljudska prava i antiratna aktivistkinja, sociološkinja. Diplomirala na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu, doktorirala na Pravnom, radila u Institutu za društvene nauke i Institutu za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, bila profesorka sociologije. Od 70-ih pripada peticionaškom pokretu, 1982. bila zatvarana sa grupom disidenata. 1985. osnivačica Jugoslovenskog helsinškog komiteta. 1989. članica Udruženja za jugoslovensku demokratsku inicijativu. 1991. članica Evropskog pokreta u Jugoslaviji. 1991. osniva Centar za antiratnu akciju, prvu mirovnu organizaciju u Srbiji. 1992-1999. osnivačica i predsednica Građanskog saveza Srbije (GSS), nastalog ujedinjenjem Republikanskog kluba i Reformske stranke, sukcesora Saveza reformskih snaga Jugoslavije Ante Markovića. 1993-1997. jedna od vođa Koalicije Zajedno (sa Zoranom Đinđićem i Vukom Draškovićem). 2001-2005. ambasadorka SR Jugoslavije, pa SCG u Meksiku. Posle gašenja GSS 2007, njegovim prelaskom u Liberalno-demokratsku partiju (LDP), do 2011. predsednica Političkog saveta LDP-a, kada napušta ovu partiju. Narodna poslanica (1993-1997, 2007-2012).