Serbia’s European integration: strategic goal, or tactical tool?

Serbia has made little progress in its push for European integration in the time available. And whlie Belgrade is complacent about this, Brussels is lenient, knowing that an integrated Serbia is necessary for stability in the region

Milan Marinkovic
26 April 2012

A creeping coup d’etat

When, in October 2000, then-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown together with his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), many Western observers took it for granted that the country was irreversibly on the right course. They apparently forgot a couple of facts. First: Milosevic did lose the elections, but still managed to win nearly two million votes (or 38 percent) – an impressive result for someone who had caused almost irreparable damage to his country (not to mention the neighborhood). Secondly, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) that defeated him was a conglomerate composed of parties that were too ideologically different to grow into a coherent political force.

From the very beginning, DOS was just a tactical coalition bound to disintegrate at any time after the only common objective had been achieved. Moreover, a number of opposition parties in 1990s were effectively controlled – and some even created – by Milosevic’s secret police, as part of the strategy devised to keep his political opponents divided so that the regime could remain unchallenged even when Milosevic’s popularity dropped. Several such parties were members of the DOS coalition.

October 2000 therefore did not see a real democratic revolution in Serbia; rather, Milosevic was dethroned when individuals from his own power structure decided to sacrifice him in order to preserve the system in which they enjoyed almost unlimited privileges – in a somewhat similar move to the Egyptian army’s sacrifice of Hosni Mubarak in response to last year’s popular unrest in Egypt.

The infighting that soon ensued between the two factions of the DOS – reformists led by late prime minister Zoran Djindjic and the conservative nationalists of Milosevic’s successor Vojislav Kostunica – allowed Milosevic’s former accomplices to gradually reconsolidate their influence. The assassination of Djindjic, who headed the only unquestionably pro-Western Serbian government ever, was a turning point that paved the way for the eventual comeback of retrogressive forces. At that time very few were farsighted enough to understand that Djindjic’s death actually opened the final stage of a creeping counterrevolutionary coup d’etat.

Ironically enough, owing to the result of the last parliamentary elections, Slobodan Milosevic’s party (SPS) is today an important member of the ruling coalition and almost certain to participate in the next government, as well.

Explaining logical contradictions

And so we are led logically to the question: how is it possible that Serbia has not yet given up its pursuit of EU membership? The simplest answer is that Serbia has no other viable choice at the moment.

Serbia desperately needs foreign capital to revive its technologically obsolete and largely uncompetitive economy. The EU is still by far the biggest source of that capital. But due to the absence of courage to carry out necessary reforms, most of the money has been spent on buying social peace instead of vital infrastructural projects, while part also ended up in private pockets through institutional corruption.

And it’s precisely that endemic corruption, along with cronyism and arbitrariness, that has crippled reforms in some of the most important areas. Privatization that should have liberalized the economy and encouraged open market competition, has only enabled prominent members and collaborators of the former (Milosevic’s) regime – including crime bosses and war profiteers - to gain monopoly in the most lucrative economic sectors and thus virtually legalize their unlawfully earned profits from 1990s.

Similarly, due to excessive employment of party loyalists, as well as politicians’ relatives and companions, the state administration, which initially was supposed to be halved, has instead been tripled. On top of that, the purported judiciary reform has rendered courts even more susceptible to pressure from both political and criminal circles than prior to the reform, which ultimately has led to a further growth of an already worrisomely high crime rate and violence (especially among the young).

Also problematic is Serbia’s role in the region. While there has been some improvement in relations with Croatia over the past couple of years, Belgrade’s policy toward Bosnia is, to say the least, ambiguous. The latter mostly pertains to the impression that Serbia increasingly treats Republika Srpska as a de facto independent state.

The truth is that thorough systemic reformation is always painful. Accordingly, a reformer cannot expect to be popular, which may be a partial explanation why the Serbian political elite chose to feign reforms instead of changing the system fundamentally. Serbian parliament has passed dozens of laws congruent with EU standards, but in most cases the implementation has failed. In other words, the reform process in Serbia has only form, but is lacking substance.

Meanwhile, Serbian President Boris Tadic and his aides behave as if EU membership is already assured. In a certain sense, Brussels’ leniency significantly contributes to Belgrade’s complacency. Despite all the deficiencies in the fulfillment of EU criteria, the European Council rewarded Serbia with canditate status earlier this year. The arrest of Ratko Mladic and a few agreements reached in negotiations with Kosovo – most of which have yet to be implemented – proved to be quite sufficient for major EU states to turn a blind eye to Serbia’s faults on other issues.

However, Brussels’ indulgence toward Serbia is not without reason and, on the whole, the decision to grant Serbia candidacy was, in essence, prudent and well-timed. EU policymakers realize that the integration of Serbia, as the major troublemaker in the region, into European political system is vital for any long-term stabilization of the Western Balkans. Belgrade, for its part, is logically trying to take advantage of this geopolitical reality.

As part of the attempt to strengthen its international position, Serbia also occasionally emphasizes its readily available option of a closer alignment with Russia ↑ . Tactical vacillation between Brussels and Moscow is calculated to discourage Serbia’s western partners from putting too much pressure on Belgrade, especially when it comes to the Kosovo issue.

In practice, however, such policy looks more like an unskillful bluff than a sophisticated balancing act and is unlikely to bear much fruit. Even though major EU powers have a clear interest in Serbia’s European integration, it’s definitely not a matter of life and death for the Europeans, especially at a time when they are struggling with the worst crisis in the Union’s history. After all, Serbia’s military power is today too small to destabilize the region in the way it did in 1990s and the worst thing Belgrade can do is to cause some headache to certain neighbors from time to time.

But Serbia obviously likes to overestimate its importance in global affairs. Partly for that reason, the country has made relatively small advances in the European integration process given the amount of time Milosevic’s successors have had at their disposal. One could argue that little is better than nothing, but even that little would not have been possible without constant pressure from Brussels (and sometimes, if necessary, Washington). And while Serbia seeks membership in the Union merely for the potential economic benefits, it obstinately resists any idea of westernization. Such an attitude probably points, among other things, to a serious lack of confidence in one’s own abilities.

Another, and potentially even bigger, problem for Serbia is that the pro-Western faction of its elite seems to have no visible plan B for how to modernize their society in case EU membership, for whatever reason, eventually proves to be unattainable. What is more, ethnonationalistic expansionism still appears to be the ideological base of Serbian national policy, which raises the question of how genuine Serbia’s alleged commitment to Eurointegration really is.

Yet, for all its strategic incostistencies – and regardless of one’s political or ideological preferences - Serbia’s future is, in one way or another, inextricably tied to the future of the European union. And, for the present at least, both look uncertain.


– Read also: Europeanization in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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