By MAYA WHITNEY, with BROOKS TIGNER
BELGRADE – Serbia’s future accession to the EU must jump over several serious hurdles to reach that goal, not the least of which is to win over the support of Serbians for the European project. Only 15 percent of the population approves of joining the Union – a number which shrinks further when it comes to joining NATO. While the country is considered second in line after Montenegro for accession to the EU, if the issue were put to a referendum, the Serbian public would shoot it down immediately.
The reasons are well known. NATO’s 1999 bombings of Serbia during its conflict with Kosovo; the participation of many EU countries in that campaign: the recognition by 23 of the EU’s 28 nations of Kosovo’s self-declared independence; and the EU’s request for a “neutralisation” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which the latter considers impossible, if not insulting.
So, where do the hearts and minds of Serbians lie? Walking along the streets of Belgrade, there is one foreign flag that flutters almost equally with that of Serbia itself: Russia’s. While Japanese, Swiss, Chinese and Turkish emblems are blazed across constructions sites in the Serbian capital as evidence of the country’s growing foreign direct investment, those of the EU – a major financial donor – are hard to find. By contrast, a huge banner against the USA, NATO and EU hangs outside Serbia’s parliament as a reminder of where the country’s heart and mind do not reside.
As one member of a Belgrade-based NGO that supports EU accession, told SECURITY EUROPE on 29 March, “little to no publicity” effort by the EU is to blame for the public’s indifference toward the Union. Indeed, an EU official stationed in the Serbian capital said Serbians “wouldn’t put EU flags out even if they wanted to” due to the general hostility toward Brussels.
Serbia’s Foreign Ministry stresses “neutrality” vis-à-vis its neighbours and investors, claiming to be open to all opportunities. Yet the government’s actions speak louder than its official statements.
Take the issue of media ownership in Serbia. The majority of radio and television stations in Serbia are either state-run or Russia-funded, which raises questions about and the neutrality of its press. In April, for example, the Russia-funded newspaper, Argumenty i Fakty, issued its first Serbian edition, largely devoted to dismissing accusations of Russian involvement in the March 4 2018 poisoning in Salisbury, UK of a former Russian spy and his daughter.
According to Freedom House, Serbia’s freedom of speech and press is constitutionally protected, but not heavily enforced. The US-based independent watchdog ranks Serbia at 49 on its 100-scale freedom index. By comparison, Belgium ranks 12 and North Korea lies almost at the bottom, with a ranking of 98.
Two other important challenges for the country are to firmly establish the rule of law and reduce the levels of public administration corruption, both key criteria for EU membership.
On the other hand, Belgrade conducts joint military exercises with Russia, while maintaining close cultural and political relations with the latter.
Nothing wrong with playing two card games at once. However, as Russia’s relations with the West grow ever more hostile, Belgrade will at some point have to choose where its long term interests best lie, particularly in terms of attracting foreign investment and stabilising relations with its immediate neighbours in a region where stability is a precious commodity.