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Serbia: As Balkans Emerge from Bloodstained Past, Belgrade Casts Its Lot with Brussels
The Washington Diplomat / February 2016

By Larry Luxner

Twenty years after the Dayton accords brought peace to the bloodstained Balkans, once-isolated Serbia is finally getting serious about joining the European Union — even as the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II threatens to sink the EU itself.

While few Europe-watchers would call the relationship between Belgrade and Brussels a budding romance, there’s no question the 28-member EU has warmed up to the idea of some day welcoming into its club a country whose leaders, not so long ago, faced accusations of perpetrating Europe’s most horrific atrocities since the Holocaust.

On Dec. 14, 2015, nearly two years after the launch of accession negotiations, Serbia opened the first two of 35 chapters contained in the treaty.

“This is the best news we’ve had in years,” said Djerdj Matkovic, Serbia’s ambassador to the United States. “We became a candidate country in January 2014, and we think that in four or five years, we can successfully conclude all these chapters. After that, it’s the EU’s decision whether it will admit Serbia as a member.”

At the EU-Serbia Intergovernmental Conference in Brussels where the talks were held, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic declared, “We no longer have to dream about the EU. Now we just have to do the hard work.”

Serbia may very well realize its goal of being a full-fledged EU member by 2020, but the thorniest hurdle will be recognizing Kosovo, its former province. It is unclear whether Chapter 35 obliges Serbia to not only “normalize” ties with Kosovo but eventually recognize its independence — a step over 100 nations including the United States have already taken since the predominantly Muslim autonomous region broke from Serbia in 2008. (Within the EU itself, five member states still don’t recognize Kosovo: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.)

Matkovic conceded that 10 years ago, shortly before his government formally applied for EU membership, support for European integration was much higher.

“It is declining partly because the EU is putting more and more conditions on Serbia which none of the other countries had to do before,” said the ambassador, citing a recent poll in which 52 percent of Serbs favored EU membership, while 26 percent strongly opposed it. “That worries me.”

But there’s more to it than the Kosovo issue, said Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

“The EU doesn’t look as good a bet as it did 10 years ago. It’s in trouble, and public opinion senses that,” he told us. “I’d also suggest there are forces inside and outside Serbia that are contributing to defaming the EU and making it look bad — though the EU is doing such a good job of that on its own.”

Between the migrant crisis and anemic economic growth, the EU is not as exclusive a club as it once was. “As the EU confronts the multiple challenges of migration, Russia’s assertiveness, and the eurozone travails, the continuing enlargement process is of the utmost importance,” wrote Ivan Vejvoda, senior vice president of programs at the German Marshall Fund. “Size matters. Serbia is the biggest country in the Western Balkans. And although all six countries of the region matter, if the biggest one advances to membership, there will be further consolidation of stability and security, while enhancing the EU’s credibility as a peacemaker and inspiration of democratic reform.”

Vejvoda said Serbia’s EU accession process has been ongoing ever since the democratic changes following the fall of the Milosevic regime 15 years ago. And that process, he added, will be helped by Belgrade’s principled response to the influx of desperate Middle Eastern refugees now flooding Europe.

From January through early October 2015, the government registered about 200,000 refugees transiting Serbia (of which 600 chose to remain permanently). Of the total, 65 percent were Syrian, 20 percent Afghan and 17 percent Iraqi; the rest are Pakistanis and Africans.

“The refugee crisis has challenged all of Europe, and Serbia is just one piece of that puzzle,” Vejvoda told us. “But Serbia has done exceptionally well and has received kudos from every corner for welcoming these people coming through what is called the Western Balkan route. It has gone the extra mile in being accommodating and working with other major European countries, especially Germany, to be part of the solution.”

Matkovic couldn’t agree more.

“We are a hospitable nation and welcome all foreigners. We know that these people are fleeing their countries aren’t doing it for fun,” the ambassador said. “They are forced to leave, so we try to approach this issue in a very humane way.”

Unlike Hungary, for example, which in September built a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia. That dropped the number of migrants entering Hungary on a daily basis from 6,353 to 29 within a week of the fence’s completion, forcing them to find an alternative route to Germany and points beyond.

Matkovic said “the EU should deal with this crisis,” because the moment they cross from Turkey to Greece, the refugees are entering EU territory; they then cross into Serbia and re-enter the EU in Hungary or Croatia. “According to EU regulations, the country where they first enter should deal with them,” he noted.

Late last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders finalized a 17-point plan calling for 100,000 refugees to be temporarily housed in processing centers on their way north; half are to stay in Greece, and half in the Western Balkans, mainly Serbia, according to Vejvoda.

“Serbia has stepped up to the plate and has taken on its full responsibility,” said the Serbian scholar. “An aspiring EU member is expected to behave according to EU values and rules, however challenged it may be.”

Blank agrees with the ambassador that Serbia will likely join the EU by 2020, but he thinks it will have to bite the bullet on Kosovo, home to a sizable, vocal Serb minority.

“If Serbia is going to become a member of the EU, I think [full recognition of Kosovo] will be a condition,” he said. “I’m almost certain it would be a condition for NATO membership. NATO is not going to accept a country with outstanding issues.”

Yet ethnicity is still a big deal in this part of the world, and has been ever since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the invading Ottoman army defeated a Serbian prince for control of the region.

“Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian civilization, culture and statehood. Medieval Serbia was established in Kosovo, and our first capital was Prizren,” said the ambassador, who was born in a village near Vojvodina.

“There is still some hatred. But hatred is one of the most irrational feelings. Although we cannot forget the past, we cannot repeat the atrocities,” Matkovic said, recalling the bloodshed of the 1990s. “We don’t have to be in love with each other, but we should support each other in this EU process. I think it’s our best guarantee for a better future.”

Matkovic observed that despite past hostilities, his country today enjoys “excellent relations” with the other five republics that once comprised Yugoslavia. That includes Macedonia, which the U.N. still officially — and awkwardly — refers to as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” out of deference to Greece, though the ambassador stressed that “we would like the name issue to be solved as soon as possible.”

Matkovic, who presented his credentials to President Obama one year ago, spoke to The Washington Diplomat in late December from his Wisconsin Avenue office suite. The Serbs moved into their nondescript building (which also houses the embassies of Afghanistan, Burundi and Gambia) following the mid-2015 expiration of a lease on the Kalorama property they had been renting from the Ethiopian government.

Slovenia inherited the former Yugoslav Embassy, but once workers finish renovating the old ambassador’s residence at 2221 R Street, the Belgrade government will formally move its mission back there, permanently.

Serbia is landlocked, yet the medieval monasteries, quaint villages and Danube River vistas depicted in travel posters throughout the embassy could potentially draw millions of tourists — if only the country were better developed and more accessible.

“Unfortunately, Serbia has a negative image in the United States and it is not based on truth,” said Matkovic. “Those who visit Serbia are surprised by how friendly and open the people are. Everyone is accepted, and they will show you around.”

Come next June, Air Serbia will offer direct flights between New York and Belgrade five times a week for the first time since 1992, when sanctions ended the daily nonstop flights that linked Belgrade to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

It’s easy to see why Matkovic harbors so much nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia, a Wyoming-size communist federation that consisted — people often joked — of six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets and one boss: President Josip Broz Tito, who ruled the country from the end of World War II until his death in 1980.

“I am from the generation which grew up in Yugoslavia, and which lived very well,” said the 60-year-old diplomat. “We had all the advantages of a respected country, traveling abroad and without any limitations.”

Indeed, he said, security, prosperity and even freedom flourished under Tito — the son of a Croat father and a Slovene mother — who promoted “brotherhood and unity” while managing to keep a lid on nationalist sentiments.

But after Tito’s death on May 4, 1980, tensions among the six Yugoslav republics emerged, leading to the country’s disintegration in 1991 and the horrific Balkan wars that came to dominate the 1990s. About 140,000 Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Kosovar Albanians, Macedonians and Slovenes died, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice, in a conflict that became synonymous with ethnic cleansing, genocide and rape.

Even after the November 1995 accords signed at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio, put an end to the Bosnian war, hostilities broke out between Serbs and Kosovars three years later. The United States responded to increasing human rights abuses against Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking population by spearheading a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia — marking the first time in NATO’s history that it used military force without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

On Oct. 6, 2000, President Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown by his own people, and by 2003, Yugoslavia had been effectively reduced to nothing more than Serbia and Montenegro. But even that rump state didn’t last long; in June 2006, tiny Montenegro declared its independence, with Serbia following two days later.

In Yugoslavia, we had a high standard of living and could afford to go skiing in the winter and take shopping trips to Italy. We had 16 airports, with internal flights to Zagreb, Skopje and Ohrid,” recalled Matkovic. “Today, even the bus is more expensive than the flights were back then.”

The diplomat has decorated his office with a scale-model Airbus A320 jumbo jet emblazoned with the Air Serbia logo, as well as a portrait of Serbian-American physicist, inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, who was born in Croatia and immigrated to New York, where he died in 1943.

Matkovic began his Foreign Ministry career in 1981, and his first post was to Ottawa (1986-90). From 1993 to 1998, he also served in Zimbabwe — the only member of the U.N. Security Council that voted against sanctions on Yugoslavia.

Next came a four-year stint in Budapest, and in 2007, Matkovic arrived in Washington as a political counselor at the Serbian Embassy. After that, he directed the Americas division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and finally served as foreign policy advisor to the prime minister before returning to Washington for his current assignment.

“I’m really honored to be the ambassador of Serbia here at this time,” Matkovic told The Diplomat. “I very much appreciate U.S. support for Serbia’s integration, and the attention they give us.”

Serbia’s relations with the West and long-term EU prospects improved after the May 2011 arrest of Europe’s most-wanted war crimes suspect, Gen. Ratko Mladic, who had evaded capture for 16 years. Upon Mladic’s arrest, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle told reporters that “a great obstacle on the Serbian road to the European Union has been removed.”

But Belgrade’s continued cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal is crucial for eventual EU admission. In fact, the two figures most associated with Bosnian Serb wartime atrocities are now facing trial in The Hague: Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in Serbia in 2008.

“Serbia is the only country which has admitted war crimes were committed in the name of our people, but we have to be very careful of individualizing these crimes. You cannot hold a whole nation responsible,” said Matkovic. “Those who committed crimes should be tried and punished. Croatia and Bosnia don’t admit war crimes were committed in their name, and nobody from the other countries has ever apologized to Serbia.”

While Belgrade has made significant strides on the legal front, the biggest hurdle on the diplomatic front remains Kosovo.

“Our position is that we would like normalization with Pristina, but not a formal or full recognition as an independent republic,” the ambassador said, noting that “a big percentage of our foreign trade is already with Kosovo.”

Matkovic said he has “an informal relationship” with Kosovo’s envoy in Washington, Vlora Çitaku, “but nothing official.” Even so, Serbia has already negotiated energy, telecommunications and water supply issues with its smaller neighbor — even issues as arcane as whether Kosovo can keep its own +383 international dialing code.

“We can accept that Kosovo has its own code, but we’d like their telecom system to be integrated so that when you’re making calls from Kosovo to Serbia, it doesn’t count as an international call, and that Serbian telecom operators can be present in Kosovo,” said Matkovic. “The aim is to have a good business relationship and more profits.”

Profits and business is precisely what the nation of 7.1 million needs. Serbia has still not fully recovered economically — neither from the bruising sanctions of the 1990s, nor from the regional financial crisis that hit Europe over a decade later. Annual per-capita income is only $6,000, and the country’s projected GDP growth of 0.8 percent won’t be enough to pull it out of its current difficulties, Vejvoda warned.

Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council said that the Balkan states, particularly Serbia, suffered disproportionally as a result of the 2008 economic crisis. And 2016 doesn’t look any brighter.

“The refugee crisis will really hit them hard because the Balkans are directly in the line of fire,” he said. “The real problem is that Europe doesn’t have fast growth or jobs for these people. The Europeans have to respond not with the ungracious attitudes we’ve seen but by liberalizing their own labor laws.”

In late December, Serbia was also hit with its biggest corruption scandal in decades, with police arresting 80 people, including a former minister. Two former interior ministry officials, several current and former mayors, and others were detained on abuse of office and money laundering charges.

According to Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, the alleged offenses date to 2004 and involve the suspected embezzlement of 7.8 billion dinars (about $70 million).

“This shows Serbia’s determination to address systemic corruption — unlike Ukraine, where they’re not moving on this very crucial issue,” said Vejvoda of the German Marshall Fund. “The fact that Serbia has the promise of full EU membership is a huge incentive to deal with the challenges of a society coming out of communism and war. That goes hand in hand with structural reforms. You can’t be serious as a country if you don’t deal with corruption.”

Not everyone, however, is thrilled with the prospect of Serbia aligning itself with Europe. Blank cited Moscow’s “nefarious” opposition to anything that would improve Serbia’s ties with Kosovo and result in mutual recognition, and eventual EU membership for both countries.

“The Russians are determined to prevent the integration of Serbia into Europe and resolution of issues arising out of the conflicts of the 1990s. They want to gain control of strategic sectors of the Balkan economy — not just Serbia — and use that as leverage. They’re also selling arms to Serbia, and in 2009, they wanted to establish an army base at Nis.”

Matkovic says that Serbia enjoys “excellent relations” with Moscow despite its unhappiness with the Kremlin’s recent aggression against Ukraine.

“After the annexation of Crimea, Serbia stated on several occasions that we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea,” he said. “We opposed Russia’s move to annex Crimea, but we will not introduce sanctions because Russia is one of our most important economic partners.”

For one thing, Serbia imports 90 percent of its gas from Russia, and although gas “is only 20 percent of our energy mix, we are very much dependent on that.”

Even so, Matkovic says his country is seeking ways to diversify its gas supply.

“We are in negotiations with EU partners and the U.S. about the possibility of building interconnections. Southern Stream has been cancelled and we are in a quite delicate situation, because we have to supply our people and industries with energy.”

Although Coca-Cola, Philip Morris and a few other U.S. multinationals operate in Serbia, less than 10 percent of the country’s foreign direct investment comes from the United States. Serbia’s current leading sources of FDI are Germany, Italy and Austria.

Asked if there are any downsides to casting Serbia’s lot with Brussels, Matkovic thought for a minute.

“You have to harmonize your foreign and security policies 100 percent with the EU. And if you want to be a member, you have to act accordingly,” he replied.

“Sometimes, we have different views, like with regard to Russia. Also if you want to be in the eurozone, you don’t have independence but instead must rely on richer countries, which will decide what is best for everyone. Sometimes small countries suffer, but the advantages [of EU membership] far outweigh the disadvantages.”

They certainly do, says Blank.

“There’s no other game in town,” he observed. “What’s the alternative, staying outside the EU? That’s a non-starter.”

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