Day 23: Gate Crashing in Belgrade

american-embassyIt seemed that today was destined to be full of dead-ends. I was, of course, wrong. First thing in the morning, I tried getting in touch with people whose numbers I had been given at several of the party offices I visited yesterday. Unfortunately, no one was answering. Next I called up my contact at B92, and thankfully, we arranged a meeting for late this evening.

With nothing else scheduled and no other concrete leads, I decided to get back to my usual strategy of gate crashing. My first stop was the National Assembly. I know you cannot just walk up to a country’s legislative building and expect that you can just wander the halls until you spot someone with whom you wish to speak… but you never know. Unsurprisingly, the guards at the door were unwilling to admit me without an appointment. After a few phone calls and meeting with representatives from the Protocol Office, they gave me a few more phone numbers and sent me on my way.

Next, I decided to revisit the political party offices I had been to the day before to see if those people who were failing to answer their phones were sitting at their desks. On my way to the Socialist Party headquarters, I came across a building with a plaque reading “Serbian Unity Congress.” Intrigued, I walked in to ask for a meeting. Again, the security would not let me up the front steps, but they did put me on the phone with the organization’s director. It turns out that the Congress is a Serbian Diaspora organization based here in Belgrade, and might be worth investigating further. The director suggested I send her an email to arrange a meeting for next week.

Stopping at the Socialist Party offices, the receptionist told me my contact was not in today, but that I should try tomorrow. I then went to the offices of the Democratic Party of Serbia, where I again chatted with my contact on the phone. He apologized saying that he was quite busy today but that we could meeting tomorrow evening. At least I got an appointment this time.

On my way to the next office, I came across a young BBC reporter interviewing people on Knez Mihailova about the proposed European visa liberalization announced yesterday by Javier Solana. She believed that a quiet deal was made between the Serbian government and the EU to accept the secession of Kosovo in order to secure the visa liberalization. I have heard many of these rumors flying around… particularly from the opposition parties. I took her prompt as an opportunity to ask her what she, as a Serbian journalist, thought of the Kosovo issue. She, like many 20-somethings, believes that Kosovo is Serbia but that there is nothing her country can do to get it back; it no longer belongs to Serbia nor will it any time in the future. In short, she thinks Kosovo is a lost cause and that politicians should just relinquish the fight. I asked her why it was that every major political party continued to place Kosovo at the center of their platforms. She argued it even though politicians are aware of the realities on the ground, they want to score political points. I then asked, why, if it was that so many people, the young in particular, were willing to relinquish Kosovo, that it remained such a salient issue. Her response was that young people are disillusioned and apathetic, so they do not vote. I would like to see some reports on voting demographics; maybe it will give me some better insight into these issues.

My next stop was at the offices of G17 Plus. This time I  spoke with someone who promised to do some follow up for me. Hopefully I will have someone to speak with in the party by the end of the week. Then I headed over to the offices of the LDP, where one of the same people I spoke with yesterday said that someone would contact me soon. Having very little luck, I decided to head back to Manga to retrieve my passport, and then head to the US Embassy to see if they could offer any assistance. On my way, I called my contacts at the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija to ask them about the rumors about the new visa liberalization. They vehemently denied that the deal was linked in any way to concessions on Kosovo, and assured me the Ministry is still hard at work dealing with the same issues it was earlier in the week. Admittedly, they could tell me whatever they wanted and I would have no way of knowing if they are telling the truth. Yet given how adamant they were just two days ago about their claims to Kosovo, in the unlikely event that such a deal was made, I highly doubt that they know anything about it.

When I arrived at the US Embassy, I made the mistake of taking a picture. The security guards did not like that at all. When I crossed the street to request admittance, they confiscated my passport and demanded that I delete my pictures. As such, the picture I have above is not my own, but one I found on Flickr. After 15 minutes or so of waiting, the particularly aggressive little security guard who initially grabbed my passport said that I was now on a government list. Moreover, if I were to ever take another picture of another US Embassy in the world, I would be in “big trouble.” After this unpleasant experience, I tried to actually enter the embassy. Unfortunately, unless you want to access consular services, even US citizens are not welcome without an appointment. I did have a nice brief chat with the guard inside who I also asked about Kosovo. He repeated the familiar dictum, that Kosovo is Serbia but that it is permanently lost to them. Asking about Joe Biden’s visit to the country earlier this year, he said that it represented a big step forward in US-Serbia relations even if the two countries must “agree to disagree” on Kosovo. When the angry little guard showed up, I bid the other guard good day and headed back to Manga. The US Consulate is definitely the most unfriendly and unwelcoming place in the whole of the country.

Returning to Manga, I made dinner, collected my thoughts, prepared for my meeting with my contact at B92, and rested from a long day of trudging around the city. While waiting, I got a call from the Liberal Democrats with the name and number of someone in their press office who was able to speak with me. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to call him today, but I will try to reach him tomorrow.

At about nine, I met the journalist from B92 for a drink at a nearby cafe. I think we were both relieved to finally have this meeting. We had originally met at the B92 offices on my second or third day here, but after a number of extenuating circumstances, we have had to push off this meeting for the last three weeks. But it was well worth the wait. My first question for her, which I meant to be a simple inquiry about the rumors surrounding the new visa liberalization, became the basis for our discussion. She strongly denied that Solana’s announcement was in any way tied to the issue of Kosovo. Having interviewed the EU foreign policy chief only two days prior, she said he claimed that the EU is not imposing any further conditions for this stage of EU integration other than full cooperation with the Hague on the capture and extradition of two remaining Serbian war criminals from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Kosovo is not of the deal… at least so far.

Delving a bit deeper into the issue, she denied that there had been any kind of backroom deal that led to the visa announcement. Rather, it has been part of a long process of negotiations and internal administrative reform that Serbia has committed to in its efforts to join the EU. Both Macedonia and Montenegro have also been included in this round of proposals, so this is no isolated development in the region. Besides, she argued, trading Kosovo for a relatively minor issue like visa liberalization would be like trading millions of dollars for peanuts; it is simply unimaginable.

In fact, her interpretation of the deal is that it is surprisingly favorable to Serbia, particularly in terms of the status of Kosovo. A key part of the deal is that Serbia must switch over to high-tech biometric passports, but because of agreements with the UN and EU through UNMIK and EULEX, Serbia cannot distribute passports on the territory of Kosovo. Therefore, any resident of Kosovo, Serb or Albanian, that wishes to benefit from the liberalization, must travel to Belgrade to secure a new passport. Even more importantly, they must have all of their Serbian citizenship documents in order including birth certificates. Because Kosovo Albanians have rejected Serbian sovereignty in the province, many of them have neither requested nor secured these documents from the government. The text of the agreement also, when referring to Kosovo, refers to it only as a territory under UN and EU administration rather than as a state, saying that any negotiations must be conducted between the Republic of Serbia, the international authorities, and the government in Pristina (semantically important: not the government of Kosovo).

Turning to the status of Kosovo itself, she argued that for Serbs(and for herself) Kosovo is not independent and remains an integral part of Serbia. While the territory is not the literal cradle of the Serbian nation, with the original capital actual closer to present day Novi Pazar, Kosovo has much greater symbolic importance. Repeating familiar tropes, she said that the territory is home to Serbia’s most important religious and historical sites proving that there have been centuries of Serbian residence. At the same time, she acknowledges that the reality of Serbia’s loss of control over the province is “irreversible.” Yet she also argues that just because Serbia does not have complete control over Kosovo, neither do the Albanians, and that this is likely to be the permanent political reality. Discussing potential solutions to Kosovo’s contentious status, she believes that some kind of partition along the Ibar river, coupled with the granting of extra-territorial status to the province’s most important religious and historical sites is the most realistic answer.

Our conversation then shifted to the status of Republika Srpska and Montenegro. She believes that most Serbs never had any true irredentist ambitions with respect to Bosnia, and that the federal unit’s (and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s) problematic status today and the wars in the early 1990s in general should be blamed first and foremost on power-hungry titular elite who could not decide who the new Tito should be. She did make the point that some argue that if Kosovo can claim independence on the basis of an Albanian ethnic majority and then propose union with Albania at some future date, so too should Republika Srpska (and northern Kosovo) be able to claim the same rights. This, however, is more an argument made to highlight the double standard at work in the Balkans rather than the actual aspirations of Serbs. Most importantly, Serbs feel that their ethnic compatriots across the border in Bosnia are safe, secure, and are not in any need of paternal protection provided by Serbia.

With regard to Montenegro, she was much more emphatic. She argued that the vast majority of Serbs were very happy when Montenegro became independent. Describing Montenegrans as people who complained too much, demanded too much, and were generally unwilling to work for their own well-being, she feels that Serbia is better off without the weight of another federal republic. In the residual Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the 600,000 people of Montenegro had one vote and the 8 million citizens of Serbia had another. This unbalanced situation was already problematic, but still, she believes, Montenegro was unhappy with their lot. More importantly, the split was completely peaceful and there are no hard feelings on either side. She sees the two states as brothers who simply no longer wished to live in the same house. There is no bitterness between the two states, friendships remain strong, trade remains vibrant, and Serbians and Montenegrans travel across each other’s borders with no trouble whatsoever. Referring to the two republics’ shared history, she asserted that the two had many points of interaction and kinship, but that they also had long enjoyed a separate political existence before their integration into Yugoslavia. For Serbia to “lose” Montenegro is therefore by no means as problematic as it has been with regard to Kosovo.

As we wrapped up our conversation, she suggested a number of other people and organizations with whom I should be in touch, including several professors at the University of Belgrade, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a few polling agencies whose surveys she believes to be reasonably reliable. I will call her tomorrow morning to get their telephone numbers. After a long day, I returned to the hostel, resisted the urge to go out to the bars with the other guests, and headed to bed for a relatively early night. Tomorrow will be another very busy day.

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