Day 24: Socialists and Democrats in Belgrade

sps-dssToday was a comparatively slow day but still a very productive one. I got up relatively early and caught up on all of my posting from the last week. It is quite a relief. But with only one interview scheduled in the evening with a representative from the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), I knew that I would have to actively pursue my other contacts.

My first call of the morning was to the contact I had obtained the day before at the Liberal Democratic Party. Unfortunately he was busy today but we arranged to meet sometime next week, likely Tuesday. Next I tried calling my contact at the Socialist Party but no one was responding. Rather than wait to call again, I walked directly to their office, and, as often seems to be the case, my gate crashing paid off. After a short wait in the lobby, my contact arrived and welcomed me up to his office. Over the weekend, they have their annual large party conference, so it was clear that I was not going to get a long interview, but I was thankful to have even a few minutes. After a bit of fuss, he directed me to another official at the office who was able to give me a bit more time.

Our first topic of discussion was the European Union’s proposed liberalization of their visa regime with respect to Serbia. My host admitted that allowing citizens of his country freedom of movement on the continent was a very important step, but that he was concerned that the agreement did not extend to Serbia citizens in Kosovo. His interpretation of the proposal was that since Serbian citizens would not be able to obtain their new passports inside the territory of Kosovo itself, they would be effectively excluded from its benefits. At the same time, he did not believe that this was a reason to scrap the deal altogether as progress for some parts of the country was better than no progress on visa liberalization for all parts of the country.

As for the status of Kosovo, my host was as clear as every political interviewee I have met before him: Kosovo is Serbia, and Serbia will fight with all the legal and political weapons it has available to it to ensure that this position is upheld domestically and internationally. Because his party is currently in government in coalition with Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS), he argued that the position of his party on Kosovo was essentially identical to that of the majority party. When I asked about the status of Republika Srpska, he also assured me that Serbia is committed to the Dayton Agreement and that Serbia sees itself as a guarantor that the two entities within Bosnia-Herzegovina, will function together as a federal state.  Turning back to Kosovo, he remarked that while he believes the United States takes the position that it would be easier for Serbia to simply recognize Kosovo’s independence, there are other solutions. Pointing to Northern Ireland, he argued that even though Irish Catholics and Protestants have fought over this territory for so long, the conflict has largely been resolved within the framework of overarching British sovereignty with extensive internal autonomy. Why must Kosovo be any different?

Turning implicitly to face his party’s past, he argued that the problems which exist now in Kosovo are a result of NATO not allowing Serbia to finish its mission of “pacifying” the province in 1999. he argued that Serbia acted as all states would when faced with terrorism and that force must be met with force. He gave a similar answer when I asked him what the worst possible scenario his party would be willing to accept with regard to Kosovo. While I do not believe my host was calling for armed conflict between Serbs and Albanians, he was definitely displeased with the international community’s handling of the province’s security situation.

Noting the threatened position of Kosovo’s Serbs, he argued that if KFOR and EULEX will not meaningfully protect them from harm and harassment, then Serbia should be allowed to fill the void. I am not sure how much of this more assertive approach was a reflection of my host’s inclinations or his party’s. Turning to the international community, he argued that even if Serbia loses its legal and diplomatic fight, it is important for it to take a stand in the first place. He analogized that if you do not stand up to a bully, the bully will never stop bullying you.

An often repeated trope during this conversation was that Kosovo belongs to Serbia and they cannot be expected to give it up under any conditions. When I asked what precisely it was that gave Serbs this entitlement to Kosovo, he responded that it is Serbia’s heritage in the territory; that this is where Serbia began and this is where it has history. Kosovo and Metohija, he told me, were Serbian 500 years before Belgrade. For him, he argued, heritage is emotional and there is no place for emotion in international law. However, there are facts and fictions. For him, Serbia’s heritage in Kosovo is an undeniable historical fact.

Turning a final time to Serbia’s recent past, he argued that no one in Serbia claimed that crimes were not committed by Serbs in Kosovo in 1999. In fact, he claims, the Milosevic regime caught and prosecuted those who broke the law. In reference to Serbian militias that operated in Kosovo, he asked how Serbia could have defended a territory such as this without giving the people there the ability to defend themselves. While the portrayal of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo have been overstated and KLA Albanian atrocities during the same period have been vastly understated, my interview made it clear to me that not all Serbs have come to terms with the violence perpetrated by the Milosevic regime. This fact aside, the Socialists clearly have one point in common with every other party I have spoken with so far; the belief that Kosovo is the historical entitlement of the Serb nation.

After finishing up at the Socialist party offices, I walked down to Knez Mihailova to find the offices of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) with hopes that I would be able to speak to people in their history department. Unfortunately no one there seemed to be able to directly help me, but one generous academic who is working on a Serbian encyclopedia, took me over to the History Department at the University of Belgrade. Walking up and down the halls, I knocked on the office doors of the professors he had recommended but no one was in.  I then called the offices of the National Democratic Institute here in Belgrade to see if they might help me a bit with my work. They received me pleasantly and requested that I send them a bit more information about myself and my project before arranging a meeting.

Feeling a bit tired, I headed back to the hostel. Along the way, I ran into two of my fellow guests. I joined them at a small restaurant in Skadarlija for a few beers and some relaxed conversation. While they worked on their scrapbooks, I spoke with my contact at B92 obtaining phone numbers for several Serbian polling agencies and caught up on a bit of academic reading. When six o’clock rolled around, I walked back up to Knez Mihailova near Kalemegdan for my meeting with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). This meeting too was well worth my time.

Once situated in the salon of the DSS offices, we cut right to the heart of the discussion: the party’s position on Kosovo. My host stated outright that the most crucial thing for him is that the whole of Serbia was born in Kosovo along with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Moreover, his party believes in international law and the importance of UN Resolution 1244, but a great problem persists in terms of the international community’s commitment to its principles. Point to what he sees as both a double standard and evidence of great power politics at work, he noted that when it came, last year, to the war in Georgia, the EU demanded that all of its members make a unified front in support of the territorial integrity of the former Soviet state. Yet when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo, the EU allows its members to make their own decision on the matter of recognition of Kosovo’s independence. He believes that the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 had little to do with the Albanians and much more to do with American interests in securing a military base in Bondsteel and a Muslim ally. Ultimately the DSS asserts that Kosovo is not a state, it will never be recognized by Serbia as a state, and it will fight for Kosovo with all the political and diplomatic weapons it has available under international law.

I asked him what made the position of his party, which currently sits in opposition, different from the government under the Democratic Party (DS). He said that while their principles are similar, when it comes to actual action on the international stage, they take a different tact. For instance, in terms of the case in front of the ICJ regarding the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, the DS has requested only the court’s opinion rather than a legal ruling, which would have been binding on its litigants. It was over primarily over this difference that he claimed the DSS split from the governing coalition in 2007/8. He also said that although the DSS supports EU integration, their opposition to this first round of talks are premised on conditions which he believes might force Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo. Finally, in terms of the proposed EU visa liberalization, his party is upset that Serbs living in Kosovo and Metohija appear not to have the same rights to obtain new passports as do citizens in the rest of Serbia.  He believes that while the DS talks broadly about Kosovo and their commitment to its return to Serbian control, he believes it is just talk. Instead, he feels the government is making bad deals that can only hurt Serbia’s case.

Next my host breeched the subject of majority self-determination versus historical right in Kosovo. He believes Serbia is seeking a fair deal to resolve the status of Kosovo while Albanians are unwilling to negotiate on anything. While he acknowledged Serbs are a definite minority today, he believes that deciding the future of the province on this basis ignores two important things: the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the province, and the many Albanians who have moved in during and since the 1999 war. Both have dramatically contributed to changing the demographic facts on the ground. While Albanians talk about a referendum as the basis for Kosovo’s independence, he believes that all of Serbia has a right to vote in such a referendum. Here he mentioned to me the continuing importance of Serbian history in the province and the many religious and ethnic artifacts that fill the province.

If given the choice of joining the EU without Kosovo, or keeping Kosovo and rejecting EU membership, he believes Serbs would choose the latter option. In response to my question regarding the worst possible solution his party would accept, he made it clear that the DSS would accept extensive, unprecedented sovereignty for the province unmatched by Vojvodina or any autonomous region elsewhere in the world, but that Serbs could not accept an independent Kosovo. The situation, he believes, is grossly unfair in that non-Albanians in Kosovo do not have their crucial rights south of the Ibar. They cannot work their land, they do not have economic opportunities available to them, they have no regular access to water or electricity, and they face regular harassment. Moreover, he believes the Albanians are not making any deals with Serbia because they enjoy the support of the biggest power in the world. This situation is not conducive to a negotiated solution.

In terms of Republika Srpska, he told me clearly that it is a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina guaranteed as part of the Dayton Agreement, and his party stands solidly behind it. As a member of the UN, Bosnia is a country like any other. That Serbia maintains a special relationship with Republika Srpska is not, for him indicative of irredentism but a matter of natural cooperation encouraged, again, by Dayton. In terms of Montenegro, he says that his party always believed that the two countries were better together than apart. They are one people with one religion and one culture. At the same time, he does not believe that Montenegro is Serbia. Not only was it a separate republic within Yugoslavia, but it had a history of independence apart from Serbia for hundreds of years prior.

Finally, I asked him to share his thoughts on the apathy regarding Kosovo I have encountered, particularly among Serbia’s young adult population. He acknowledged that the first concern of most Serbs is to provide for their families and live normally. At the same time, he believes that polls demonstrate that Serbs are still committed to Kosovo as a part of Serbia despite other concerns. In the end, he recognizes that Serbia is a small power that must follow the dictates of powerful states, but there is a deep belief among Serbs that Kosovo will never be a real independent state.

After another long meeting, I thanked my host profusely for his time and walked back to the hostel. I made dinner, chatted with the other guests, and enjoyed a beer on the patio. We had planned to go out in the evening, but by the time people were ready to get going, it was too late for me. I decided instead to call it a night. Tomrorow, I will relocate from Manga to another hostel for the weekend. Space is tight. Hopefully these temporary accommodations will prove to be more pleasant than my last ones. Tomorrow I also will make a lot of follow-up calls, but I have not grand ambitions for a busy day. Shabbat is coming soon and I want a break. It has been a hectic week.

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