Day 22: Political Party Madness in Belgrade

democratic-party-hq-belgradeToday I was very happy to start by leaving my temporary hostel to return to Manga. While I will not mention the name of the place, it really was one of my more unpleasant experiences this trip. I sat in the lobby catching up on posts for awhile before settling into my room. My first phone call of the day was to my journalist contact at B92, who said that she would be able to meet with me tomorrow evening.

With no other plans for the day, I decided to be adventurous and just start ambushing people and parties with whom I wanted to speak rather than wait for emailed replies. Recall that I sent emails to all the major political parties two weeks ago about my work, but never received a response from a single one. So today, I took it upon myself to find the addresses for every party in Serbia with more than 10 seats in the national assembly. Marking them on my colorful tourism map, I set out to visit each and every one that I could find in Stari Beograd. The Radical Party headquarters is located in Zemun, so I will put off that visit for another day.

My first stop was at the office of the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic. Unfortunately, the building was closed for renovation and the staff had moved to a temporary space elsewhere in the city. Seeing the building itself, however, was still quite interesting. Displaying the pro-European inclinations of the party, hanging from the front of the building were three flags, one of the party, one of Serbia, and one of the EU (pictured above). There were also some great pictures of Democratic Party leaders in the display cases in the front of the building shaking hands of people, kissing children, and smiling for the cameras. These guys make no bones about their political savvy. Unfortunately I had forgotten my own camera to take pictures of these sights, so I ran back to hostel to retrieve it.

After going there and back again, I made my way across town to the temporary offices of the party. Thankfully, this location is much closer to most of the other parties, so the remainder of my travels were not nearly as far from place to place. Entering the office, the staff there told me that if I wanted to talk about Kosovo, I should contact the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija. Having done this already, I counted my previous interactions with the governing party to be sufficient for my purposes.

My next stop was at the offices of G17 Plus, located right off of Trg Republike. A smaller political party with that has benefited greatly from American NGO funding, it began its political life as an NGO in 1997 founded by 17 free market economists before becoming a full-fledged party in 2002. While the people working there were very friendly, they did not have anyone in that day who they felt could speak with me. So, instead I was given a business card and told to call another day. I had a similar experience on my next stop, the offices of the Liberal Democratic Party. Another beneficiary of American NGO funding, it is the only relatively popular party of which I am aware in Serbia which has entirely renounced claims to Kosovo. Hopefully they will have someone available to speak with me soon.

My next visit was to the office of the Progressive Party, a recent splinter from the Radical Party which broke away after its deputy leader, Tomislav Nikolic, was unable to change its anti-European orientation. Unlike my previous three stops, people at this office jumped at the opportunity to speak with me. While I had to wait a bit while the young man who agreed to speak with me finished up some work, it was well worth the wait. Sitting in a cafe near Knez Mihailova, he took the time to lay out his thoughts on his party’s platform with respect to Kosovo and to answer some difficult and direct questions. As with my conversations with individuals in the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija, his candor and straightforward responses were greatly appreciated.

He framed the problem of Kosovo in two ways: as a problem of territory and as a problem of human rights. The first problem gets down to his party’s basic contention that Kosovo is an inseparable part of Serbia. The second relates to the treatment of Serbs living in Kosovo as well as the need to address the state of people displaced from Kosovo during and after the war in 1999. He believes that resolving both these problems through negotiation are critical to what he terms “our European future.” The borders of Serbia, he contended, have already been legitimately determined in many prior international summits, conferences, and treaties dating back 200 years in European history.

But even more important that than the current legal conflict over the status of the territory and its residents, current and former, is the territory’s place in Serbian national and ethnic identity and tradition. Addressing this issue, he pointed out the difference between (ideal) types of western versus eastern European nationalism. The former has civic origins which attempt to incorporate all present residents of a territory into a single collective identity. The latter is based on Romantic notions of the nation where the land is not only for the people currently living in a place, but for those who lived there in the past and those who will live there in the future. For Serbs, he argued, Kosovo is an eternal national endowment and homeland which cannot be traded away or abandoned. Returning partly to legal arguments, he also made the point that no other state which has joined the European Union has had their membership conditioned on giving up any part of its sovereign territory. Moreover, given that at least six other members of the EU have refused to recognize Kosovo independence, he feels it is not illegitimate for Serbia to do the same.

When I asked him what the worst possible acceptable solution to the conflict in Kosovo would be for his party, he said that no solution could be better than the one that Serbia has already offered: the widest possible autonomy for the southern province in the context of a sovereign Serbian state. He argued that no other major party in Serbia would say anything different and that this, at least, points to a unifying ideology across the mainstream political spectrum. Even more importantly, he told me that for him, 100 years of negotiation over the status of Kosovo are better than even a single day of war. It is his hope that dialogue will prevail to resolve the status of Kosovo in a mutually acceptable fashion.

After thirty minutes, he really had to get going, so I made my way to my next party of interest: the Socialist Party of Serbia. Headquartered next door to the Ethnographic Museum, the party was founded in 1990 by none other than Slobodan Milosevic himself. In many ways the party has publicly come a long way since those days and now professes to be pro-European and more interested in a program of state socialism than nationalism. Sceptics of the honesty of this internal reform are not hard to find among the general public where Milosevic and his party are still reviled by the majority. Much to my surprise, however, the gentleman at the front desk was quite welcoming and searched for a good 15 minutes through the party directory to find someone with whom I could speak. Finally another man came down from the offices to give me the number of someone I should call tomorrow.

My final stop was at the office of the Democratic Party of Serbia, following up on my visit yesterday. Unfortunately the person whose name I had been given previously was out of the country on vacation, but the secretaries there put me in touch with someone else. We spoke briefly on the phone and will try to meet in person tomorrow. So much for my concern that I would not have enough to do for the next two weeks. It looks like my schedule is already getting fairly packed.

Returning later in the evening to Manga, I chatted with the fellow guests and cooked up some dinner. The real news of the evening was that the purpose of Javier Solana’s visit was revealed to be his announcement that Serbia (as well as Macedonia and Montenegro) are to be seriously considered by the European Commission to be eligible for visa-free travel on the continent. This is incredibly good news for Serbs who have, since the 1990s, found it to be very difficult to obtain visas to travel, isolating them from much of Europe. Meanwhile, most residents of Europe were able to enter Serbia without an entrance visa of their own. Check out more about this story here. This of course raises the question of at what cost this breakthrough was achieved. Did the government promise to hand over wanted and missing war-criminal Ratko Mladić? Did they make a breakthrough compromise on the status of Kosovo? Or was the government simply able to demonstrate that they could meet the technological standards necessary to introduce biometric passports? Speculation is rampant, but I am afraid we will not know for some time. I will be asking a lot of questions about this of my contacts tomorrow.

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