Day 28: Of Pollsters and Political Cancellations

slivovicaTo the left of this post is a picture of a bottle of slivovica, locally distilled plum brandy, that I purchased at one of the local markets for 250 dinar. This was one high point of my day. Interviewing the director of a prominent Serbian polling agency was another. Other happy moments included scheduling a whole slough of meetings for the remainder of the week, walking the streets of Belgrade in finally mild warm weather, and getting a good night’s sleep.

The exceptionally low point of my day was when I was informed that my discussion, the Future of Serbia and Kosovo, scheduled for tomorrow at the American Corner, was canceled by the demand of the American Embassy. Apparently the topic was “too politically sensitive.” The cancellation, it seems, had nothing to do with my program violating the American Corner’s mandate. Rather, the diplomatic staff here feared that I might cover unapproved ground. Unsure of my credentials or intentions, the clear message was sent to the American Corner to ditch the discussion. Someone should inform the embassy (and maybe the American government in general) that it is precisely this instinct to block open conversation about sensitive topics that has left Serbs feeling that a solution regarding Kosovo has been unjustly imposed upon them. I would do it myself, but I am already on their bad list. Remember my earlier visit? Oh well, so much for that event. It would have been fun. Fortunately this happened late in the day, so my bad mood did not hamper my progress.

First thing in the morning, some of the new visitors to Manga popped the movie, Behind Enemy Lines, into the DVD player. For those of you who have not seen it, it stars Owen Wilson as a fighter pilot who captures aerial photograph of a Bosnian Muslim mass grave in a demilitarized zone. Shot down by a Bosnian Serb SAM, he spends the remainder of the movie evading their military and a particularly determined and murderous Serbian sniper. The script is so blatantly politically one-sided that not a single Serb actor agreed to star in the film. It was so bad, I had to see it through to the end. I won’t spoil the climax, but needless to say the Americans win in a blaze of glory, the Serbs suffer ignominious defeat unambiguously reinforcing the image of Serbs as the Nazis of the late 20th century.

After the film, I called up one of my contacts at one of the prominent polling agencies here in Serbia. Fortunately for me, a meeting he had scheduled for that morning had been canceled leaving a big hole that I could fill. Because of the sensitivity of the data and the clientele his company serves, I cannot divulge the name of the agency or the specific data he shared, but it was a very productive meeting. His two primary messages for me were these. First, only time series data is reasonably reliable as a measure of public opinion. Second, the Serbian public rarely puts Kosovo high on its list of priorities, only rising to the top when significant events occur in the province. At the same time, he told me that Kosovo is the only issue in Serbian politics that can be manipulated that will lead to near immediate political outcomes.

He argued that this is because Kosovo is not a rational issue, but an emotional one for Serbs. In particular, he contrasted the behavior of Serbs from Bosnia and Croatia with those from Kosovo. In the former cases, most Serbs before the wars in the 90s, came to Serbia for education and left their families and their homes behind. While integrating into Serbian society and moving up the social and political ranks, they always had an interest in supporting their communities back home. Kosovo Serbs, on the other hand, seem to follow a pattern of selling off their properties entirely and relocating their families to the north when the price is right. They, he argued, are rarely educated and rarely become part of the political elite. Nor are they particularly numerous, at about 50,000 in all. Yet when violence or other social disorder erupts in Kosovo, they are the first to demand action by the state on the behalf of their homeland.

Other Serbs, he believes, cannot be bothered to care about Kosovo. For me, this seemed to represent something of an empirical disconnect. If Kosovo Serbs are neither politically well placed nor demographically significant and other Serbs are happy to let Kosovo go, how can it be that Kosovo remains central to the platforms and political rhetoric of every single major political party in Serbia? He believes that the minor parties, who are competing for only small portions of the national electorate, avoid the issue because it does not win them votes. Conversely, major parties for whom small percentages can make significant differences between capturing the government and sitting in opposition, need these apparently marginal players. Moreover, he argued, Kosovo Serbs along with the uneducated and the elderly vote, while other demographic groups tend not to participate. Unfortunately he said they have no election demographic data that could confirm this argument. While this may be a compelling argument (and data would make it stronger), I have trouble accepting this at face value given the many Serbs with whom I have spoken that are neither from Kosovo nor have they visited the province, who still feel passionately that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia.

Perhaps the most striking thing he told me was his belief that while Serbian politicians will not give up Kosovo, they are quite willing to lose it. A key problem, he believes, is that after 1999, NATO allowed Milosevic to claim victory such that no one in Serbia could claim that they had lost Kosovo, despite its transfer to United Nations administration and NATO security control. Now all Serbian politicians recognize that Kosovo is a lost cause, but they are trying to get out while still being able to claim they got something in return. He believes this will ultimately take the form of border corrections (don’t say partition) to include Serb majority areas. Because the borders of Kosovo have never been clearly demarcated and have often been shifted in a northerly direction to make the province more “multicultural”, there is historical precedent for shifting them south. Indeed, it seems from the data I was shown that people across the political board in Serbia would be wiling to accept some form of partition. The problem, of course, is that every person’s idea of what a fair partition would look like is different. The position of members of the Radical Party, he pointed out, is unlikely to look much like that of members of the LDP.

At the conclusion of our meeting, my host offered to search his databases to see what empirical data he could share with me. I have meetings with two other polling agencies later in the week and I am very curious to see if their thoughts on Kosovo will be similar. Clearly the greatest challenge to my research with regard to what I was told today will be to demonstrate that it is not Kosovo Serbs alone who sustain political interest in the province. Of course, even if it is Kosovo Serbs who are responsible for Serbia’s seemingly dogged determination to maintain sovereignty over Kosovo, the challenge will be to show how they could accomplish this without large numbers, effective political organization, or well placed elites. Needless to say, I am skeptical.

Tomorrow I will be meeting with representatives from the Serbian office of the National Democratic Institute, a “pro-democracy” development NGO loosely associated with the American Democratic party. I will also be meeting with a representative of the Serbian Radical Party in Zemun. This is sure to be an interesting political contrast.  In the evening, I was supposed to lead the discussion at the American Corner, but obviously that is no longer happening. On the up-side, this cancellation has been the only significant roadblock I have faced so far on this trip. I am incredibly conscious that I have been very fortunate to have met all the contacts and gathered all the data that I have, so in the end, this setback does not truly bother me at all.

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