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How Serbia Learned to Stop Worrying About Kosovo and Love the EU

When Serbia embarked on its democratic transition in October 2000, its main obstacles, on the way to liberal democracy, were the remnants of the former authoritarian regime and nationalist political forces coalesced around a strong anti-European discourse.  Serbia’s Europeanization process, until 2008, was slow and deeply contested as a result of deep symbolic divisions, an “identity divergence” vis-a-vis Europe (as Jelena Subotić termed it). When Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, Belgrade fiercely opposed it. Serbia was deeply divided between “pro-European forces,” who wanted to move the country toward Brussels, and “the patriotic bloc” that planned to reverse history and hold on to ancient territorial claims at all costs. Serbia’s European future seemed bleak.

Six years later, Serbia’s government, now composed exclusively of former Milošević loyalists, signed the Brussels Agreement with Prishtina, and, shortly thereafter, opened accession negotiations with the EU. Serbia, today, seems to have reached a consensus, at least at the level of political elites, about the necessity of EU membership and the normalization of relations with Kosovo. Ironically, it made its biggest progress, towards EU membership and away from the ethno-nationalist obsession with Kosovo, thanks to the same people who originally produced the anti-Western hysteria in the 1990s.

How did this tremendous change come about? According to Milada Vachudova, self-interested, former authoritarian and anti-EU parties strategically decided to “make themselves EU compatible, realizing that this is the only way to get back into the electoral game.” Vachudova’s “adapting” model is very compelling, but it falls short in explaining the timing, gradual nature and incompleteness of the transformation of in the Serbian case. Why did the transformation of Serbia’s former authoritarian and anti-EU parties start in 2008 and not earlier (or later)? How can the current democratic backslide in Serbia be explained in the face of great progress, both with EU integration and the normalization of relations with Kosovo?

I argue that, in order to better understand this transformation, we should construe the adaptation not as a unilateral and abrupt strategic decision, but rather a process of complex social learning, defined by Jeffrey Checkel as “a process whereby agent interests and identities are shaped through and during interaction.” According to Checkel, social learning is “more likely to be effective when the persuadee is in a novel and uncertain environment generated by the newness of the issue, a crisis or serious policy failure and thus cognitively motivated to analyze new information.”

In the case of Serbia, this novel and uncertain environment was created by Kosovo’s declaration of independence. In spite of Serbia’s efforts to prevent this secession, Kosovo was soon recognized by a vast majority of European states. After almost two decades of efforts, Serbia’s counter-secessionist policy faced a complete and utter failure. One faction of the Serbian government, led by Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica, was against the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, angered by the EU’s favorable view of Kosovo’s independence. The other faction, led by President Boris Tadić, agreed that Kosovo’s independence should be rejected and EU integration continued. Unable to find a compromise, Serbia’s government fell apart and parliamentary elections were held in May 2008. Although the coalition “For European Serbia” won the most votes (38,42%), the majority of Parliament seats were allocated to the so-called “patriotic bloc,” composed of parties openly campaigning against further EU integration.

Instead of joining the ranks of other anti-European parties, as was initially expected, the Milošević-era Socialist Party joined the pro-European government coalition led by Tadić. The novel political environment created by Kosovo’s declaration of independence helped the pro-European forces persuade the Socialist Party’s leadership that the nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric, although domestically still a very powerful mobilizing tool, was of little use in shaping realistic policies. In an essay published in the weekly magazine NIN, in March 2013, the Socialist Party leader Ivica Dačić explained that Socialists were not “some sort of converts” who accepted Djindjić’s political ideals “in the function of their own political prosperity.” Instead, Dačić argued that the Socialists had, since, learned that it was impossible to solve the problem of Kosovo through war, but only through peace and dialogue.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence also triggered a similar process of social learning within the far right Radical Party, an important ally of Milošević during the 1990s. Up until the summer of 2008, the Radicals were unanimously demonizing the EU as Serbia’s archenemy. By early September 2008, leading Radicals, persuaded by a number of domestic and international interlocutors, started to change their minds. Tomislav Nikolić, the Radicals’ acting leader, favored the ratification of the SAA with the EU, while the party leader, Šešelj (emprisoned in the Netherlands where he is currently standing trial for war crimes in front of the ICTY) was fiercely opposed to it. Nikolić soon left the Radical Party and established the Serbian Progressive Party on 21 October 2008. A week later, Aleksandar Vučić, another high-ranking official of the Radical Party who had joined the Nikolić faction, was asked about the idea of Greater Serbia, which he had championed since the early 1990s. He answered that “it would be nice if somebody allowed it, but it is not real at this moment due to power relations in the world.” The norm of self-restraint, so characteristic of the European security community, has, obviously, not yet been internalized as legitimate, but was instead accepted as necessary. By early 2014, Vučić had further transformed his views on national interests stating, “It is our mistake that we did not realize what had happened with the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the end of the Cold War…” He admitted his past mistakes, learned his lessons, changed his mind, and had now set himself on a mission to “start to change the consciousness […] to change the entire mindset of the Serbian society.”

To reward the architects of this transformation of creating the new normal, the West backed the Serbian leadership with, almost, unequivocal support. Thanks to his pragmatism and a “can-do“ attitude, Serbia’s Prime Minister, Vučić, became the new “darling” of the international community, the same international community whose domestic demonization he actively participated in for almost two decades. Together with Dačić, he is now, ironically, credited for finding the solution to the Kosovo problem, which their parties not only created in the 1990s, but were also cultivating during the first decade of the 2000s by banging the drums of nationalism and obstructing all the international efforts of early democratic reformers.

It remains an open question to what degree the former nationalists have internalized, not only the norms of peace and self-restraint, but also of democracy and the rule of law. The EU has, so far, turned a blind eye to the Putin-esque ruling style of Vučić, including the securitization of political opposition, production of internal enemies and media censorship. Brussels has, obviously, been much more interested in the strategic effects of Serbia’s normalization with Prishtina than with its compliance to the Copenhagen Criteria. We are, unfortunately, heading towards another “strategic EU accession,” as Bernard Stahl has recently warned. This may be beneficial to the EU in some grand-strategic calculation, but it will be detrimental to Serbia’s domestic reforms. In the meantime, the early champions of the European idea in Serbia have fallen by the wayside. Whereas, the once all-powerful Democratic Party barely passed the 5% electoral threshold in the last parliamentary elections, most of the other early advocates of the European idea failed miserably. The revamped “red and black“ ruling coalition, epitomized in Serbia's strongman Aleksandar Vučić, has, practically, no domestic opposition. To paraphrase a famous quote, European integration has devoured its own children. It remains to be seen whether it will also devour the prospects for Serbia’s democracy.


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