The global media’s attention this weekend will be fixed on Crimea, where a status referendum is almost certainly likely to result in its annexation into the Russian Federation.
But the world’s attention should be on Serbia, which is holding snap elections on March 16 — the same day as the Crimean referendum. Serbia’s parliamentary elections come just two months after formally opening negotiations to join the European Union, a landmark step in what’s been a decade-long push for greater Serbian-EU integration.
When political commentators tell you that Ukraine is the frontier of the European Union, they’re right that European policymakers have both an economic and security interest in Ukraine’s stability.
But the true frontier of the European Union is the Balkans, and no country is more vital to the future political and economic stability of the region than Serbia, home to over 7 million residents, the most populous of the Balkan states.
Polls show that the outcome of Sunday’s election is almost certain — a wider majority for the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), which as a member of the current coalition government, is working to tackle corruption, liberalize and privatize sectors of the Serbian economy and bring Serbian budget closer to balance — all while the country faces unsteady economic growth and an unemployment rate of 20%.
Notwithstanding the real economic pain today in Serbia, none of that matters as much as the fact of Serbian continuity with respect to European integration. Though Serbia’s formal accession may take up to a decade, Serbia seems certain to become either the 29th member (or the 30th member, following Montenegro) of the European Union. What’s more, the most significant fact of Serbian political life in the past two years has been the durability of the national commitment, across all major political parties and ideologies, to Serbia’s eventual EU membership.
Think back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Or to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that marked the civil war among Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs between 1992 and 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Or to the Serbian aggression over Kosovo that led to NATO military action against Belgrade in 1998-99 and the emergence of the semi-independent Kosovo today. Or to the dictatorship of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević from 1987 until 2000, with full-throated support from Moscow.
Though it’s something that we take for granted in the year 2014, it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Serbia today would be so united in its push to turn economically and socially toward Europe.
It wasn’t even so clear in 2012.
Nikolić and Dačić: an unlikely pair of EU champions
In the last parliamentary elections in May 2012, the SNS won the greatest number of seats (73) in Serbia’s 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), and the SNS’s Tomislav Nikolić, running for the fifth time, narrowly won the Serbian presidency over incumbent Boris Tadić, whose center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) had governed Serbia since 2004. Tadić, throughout the 2000s, laid the groundwork for greater cooperation with the European Union.
When Tadić lost power in July 2012, no one knew whether Nikolić and the Serbian Progressives would pursue EU cooperation with the same zeal as the Democrats had. Nikolić (pictured above, right, with EU foreign affairs high representative Catherine Ashton, middle, and prime minister Ivica Dačić, left) long favored Russia over the European Union, and his first trip abroad as president was to Moscow, where he declared in September 2012, ‘The only thing I love more than Russia is Serbia.’
As a member of the Radical Party in the 1990s, Nikolić served briefly as a deputy prime minister from 1998 to 2000 in Milošević’s final government, and he disavowed his views favoring a ‘Greater Serbia’ only in 2008. In the 2012 presidential campaign, he further moderated his views, promising not to derail Serbia’s progress toward greater integration with Europe, and he’s kept largely true to his word. In May 2013, Nikolić apologized for the Serbian role in the Srebrenica massacre, even though, as recently as mid-2012, Nikolić denied that Srebrenica even took place.
Serbia and Russia remain close allies. Though over 50% of Serbian exports go to the European Union, Serbia and Russia have entered into a free-trade agreement. Russia has provided Serbia, most recently, with loans to shore up the country’s troubled finances, and Serbia is working with Russia on the South Stream pipeline, which will run through Serbia to provide southern and eastern Europe with significant amounts of natural gas (up to 15% of Europe’s gas supply upon the pipeline’s completion). Serbia has, so far, demurred from joining NATO, and has close ties to the Russian military and other defense forces.
Serbia’s current prime minister, Dačić, belongs to the leftist/nationalist Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), the party that Milošević once led. In fact, Dačić, who served as the spokesman for the Socialists from 1992 to 2000, was once a top Milošević protégé. His own transformation from the spokesman of a criminal regime into a liberal champion of greater Serbian-EU integration is even more astounding than Nikolić’s.
In many ways, Dačić has taken even more astonishing steps than Nikolić over the past 21 months. His government handed over two Bosnian Serb nationals wanted for crimes against humanity, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps more astonishingly, Dačić, a nationalist who was himself born in Kosovo, sat down in Brussels last February with Hashim Thaçi, the prime minister of Kosovo, the first meeting of its kind to discuss future Serb-Kosovar relations.
Though Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty as an independent nation, the nudge of EU membership has brought Serbia ever closer to normalized relations with Kosovo. The region, which lies just to the southwest of Serbia, split in 1999 from Serbia amid growing ethnic tensions that were exacerbated by Milošević’s government to the point of war. Relations between Serbia and Kosovo remains tense to this day, though European policymakers have effectively used the ‘carrot’ of EU membership to nudge both Serbia and Kosovo closer to negotiations. Dačić has effectively admitted in remarks as prime minister that Serbia understands it won’t regain Kosovo — remarks that have angered the small Serbian community in northern Kosovo, an area where tensions run highest between Albanians and Serbs.
European integration: pacifying the continent since 1945
Though plenty of critics scoffed when the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the EU has been using economic cooperation to bring about both economic and political stability in Europe since the very first days of the European Coal and Steel Commission in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Early European visionaries like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman lived long enough to watch the ECSC and, later, the European Economic Commission unify Germany, France, Italy and other core European countries. But they might have been astonished to watch how European integration boosted the transition of Spain, Portugal and Greece from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, to say nothing of the transition of 10 eastern and central European countries from Soviet satellites to European Union members in the 2000s.
Bringing the Balkans into the European single market — and possibly the eurozone — is the next logical step, no matter what happens in Ukraine or Georgia or Belarus. There’s no denying that European leadership has lowered the temperature of political disputes in the Balkans since Kosovo’s emergence as a semi-independent country. It’s perhaps ironic that Serbia should enter EU accession talks in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I — a war that began when Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, assassinated Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
That history underlines the long road that Europe and the Balkans have traveled to stand so near the precipice of economic and cultural integration.
Despite some initial growing pains, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union in July 2013. Slovenia, which emerged from Yugoslavia’s breakup with the least ethnic, economic or political disturbance, entered the European Union back in 2004 and it’s already a member of the eurozone.
Montenegro formally began EU accession talks in June 2012, though it unilaterally adopted the euro as its national currency long ago, and it could conceivably join the European Union alongside Serbia (or even before) early next decade.
Macedonia, stuck in a slow-running conflict with Greece over its name, is not yet an official EU membership candidate. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which might have the continent’s most inefficient governing system in its tripartite presidency and dual-republic structure, remains far behind the requisite standards for EU membership.
If Sunday’s vote matches the polling that shows a wide SNS lead, Aleksandar Vučić, first deputy prime minister, will take over as Serbia’s prime minister, relegating Dačić and the Socialists to the junior partners that they always probably should have been (or, perhaps, back into opposition).
The only reason that Dačić came to power in July 2012 is because he became the kingmaker for Serbia’s next government — and he decided to crown himself king. Though his Socialists won just 44 seats in the National Assembly, the momentum of his party’s surge meant that he would decide whether the government would include the Democrats (with 67 seats) or the Progressives (with 73 seats).
The SNS, now riding high in the polls and believing that could win an even larger base in the National Assembly, pushed for early snap elections to maximize that support. The Democrats, meanwhile, are fragmented between two camps, one that supports Tadić and another that supports former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas (who lost his September 2013 bid for reelection).
Though this weekend’s snap elections will bring the Dačić government to a premature end, Dačić should be delighted with his short-lived administration. Though Dačić will be remembered by history as the prime minister who opened EU accession talks, his greater role has been to normalize Serbian politics.
If 2012 was Serbia’s first ‘normal’ election in the sense that Serbians had moved firmly away from the troubled nationalism that consumed it during the 1990s and early 2000s, 2014 is Serbia’s first ‘European’ election insofar as no one doubts that Serbia’s path toward European integration is now fixed.
No matter what happens in Kiev or Moscow in the months ahead, the onward march of Balkan-European integration is an accomplishment that no one in Brussels, Berlin or Belgrade will should forget.