Day 31: Pollsters and Professors

belgrade-political-science

Today, I was a victim of my own poor scheduling. I had two very interesting interviews today, but planned them far too closely together. Unfortunately they were on near opposite sides of the city. On the positive, it did give the opportunity to get in a nice long walk and to see the Red Star soccer stadium and the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Political Science.

My first meeting was with Marco Blagojevic of the Center for Democracy and Free Elections, or CeCID. His agency does public opinion polling as well as a great deal of election polling. Fortunately for me, they have done quite a lot of work for clients on the issue of Kosovo. When it comes to the question of EU integration, he told me that between 55 and 57% of Serbs say they would not be willing to join the EU if it meant losing Kosovo. But these answers must be probed more deeply. When asking what people would be willing to trade to keep it, such as living standards, economic development, or democracy, these are consistently valued over Kosovo. Moreover, less than 10% of Serbs would be willing to go to war for the province and of that small demographic, most appear to be pensioners and housewives, people who would not actually have to do the fighting.

Of particular interest to my host was that when the first step of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) was signed with Serbia just prior to the election in 2008.  This led to a dramatic upsurge in support for EU integration, and carried the Democratic Party to a surprise victory over the Radicals. Indeed, the agreement was strategically signed at that time in order to achieve such a result. Mr. Blagojevic attributed this rise in support to the fact that European integration changed from something utterly intangible and unreachable to a possibly achievable moment.

Before the SAA, when people lent only low levels of support to integration, he believes it was because people did not actually feel they were giving anything up. On the other hand, Kosovo was and remains something real that Serbs have to lose. Now the idea of choosing between Kosovo and the EU is like choosing between one’s own left and right hands. The tradeoff is now more difficult. However, support for EU integration dropped off as nothing elseonly about 10 was accomplished on this track until the visa liberalization two weeks ago. It seems that EU integration, like Kosovo, is an issue that can get very hot very quickly, but does not consistently register in Serbs’ top three or four priorities.

Asking my host about why it was that no pollster in Serbia conducted a poll about Kosovo’s declaration of independence, he answered that it would have been a complete waste of money. Clearly, everyone knows that the vast majority of Serbs are against Kosovo independence and such polls would not be meaningful. I then asked why it is that Kosovo remains such a significant issue in Serbian politics, even if it is not generally a top priority. He believes that Kosovo’s occasional jumps to prominence is the responsibility of political elites who push the issue strongly when significant events or policies seem to affect Kosovo, its status, or its Serb residents. However, polls cannot measure emotions and he believes Kosovo is more about Serb’s emotions than their rational interests.

The real puzzle for him is why political elites so often jump at the Kosovo issue, and why, when they do, they do so with such aggressiveness. In terms of the ruling DS, he wonders if they were somehow pushed into this, or if they do so to protect themselves from attacks by nationalists. Yet nationalists, he believe, represent only about 10% of the electorate; not enough to sway an election. Their bark is much louder than their bite, but their volume does make them seem much more powerful than they actually are. My host believes that it may be this aggressiveness that pushes other parties on Kosovo as they may fear being labeled as traitors to the cause. However he admitted that polling data does not necessarily strongly support these conclusions, so they are only speculation.

The good thing about the Kosovo issue is that he believes its jumps and cascades in the polls demonstrate that it is an issue that can be controlled. The problem is that no one seems to actually be in control. Indeed, Kosovo has a tendency of backfiring on political “moderates” and even getting out of the control of nationalists. Even the Radical party, he argued, gets votes not from their stand on Kosovo or other nationalist agendas, but on their insistence that the political system provide for what he called “transitional losers,” people who have disproportionately lost out on Serbia’s political and economic liberalization. That many of these voters have gravitated to the break-away Progressives, in large part due to the signing of the SAA, leaving the anti-EU Radicals in a political lurch further supports this point.

After a very interesting interview, I walked south to the University of Belgrade’s Department of Political Science. I had hoped to visit the faculty earlier in my trip, but it is so far away from the center that I really needed an excuse. Today I had the perfect one: an interview with Dr. Slobodan Samardzic, the former Minister for Kosovo and Metohija under former President Kostunica and one of Serbia’s former top negotiators on the status of Kosovo before the release of the Ahtisaari Plan in  March 2007. We talked a bit about my research and then he laid out for me what he sees as the primary issues surrounding the resolution of the status of Kosovo. The first and foremost issue, he argued is the problem of history and culture. No need to rehash the familiar script here. The second is a problem of international law and human rights. This refers to the status of Kosovo’s borders and Serbia’s sovereignty as well as the treatment of the remaining 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo. Finally there is the problem of the Serbian state’s interest in the province which is both material and political: the economic potential and former investment in the territory as well as the territorial and political integrity of the Serbian state.

On the surface, he admits that Kosovo seems lost to Serbia. The argument that Albanians are the majority and are therefore entitled to independence has been accepted by much of the international community and all that remains, many believe, is for Serbia to accept these conditions. Yet he believes that a territory cannot declare independence simply on the basis of its demography. Many comparable situations of regional ethnic near homogeneity exist elsewhere in the world but that has not entitled these territories to independence. Just as important, he believes the argument that Albanians are entitled to Kosovo independence because they suffered under Milosevic is a non-starter. While he admits that Albanians indeed, their demands for independence far pre-dated the Milosevic era. Even when Kosovo’s Albanians had everything but a republic after the ratification of the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, this was not enough. Moreover, if the experience of suffering as a collective is enough to entitle an ethnic group to independence, what should be done for the over 200,000 Serbs and other 50,000 non-Albanians who were forced to flee Kosovo during and after 1999?

The final portion of our conversation turned around the process which led to the presentation of the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo Independence, which was rejected by Serbia. These negotiations stretched from February of 2006 to December of 2007, and Samardzic and his team felt from the start that the process was rigged. The mediators, he argued, acted more like judges, and had no real interest in considering alternatives to Kosovo independence. Recalling one early interaction with Ahtisaari, he said that the UN’s negotiator told him he had come to “save democracy in Serbia.” Why? Because Serbia had “already” lost Kosovo and the challenge now was to prepare Serbian society to accept this new reality. It seems, according to my host, that the primary goal of the negotiations were not to find a mutually acceptable solution to Kosovo’s status, but to get Serbia to pacify the country into accepting secession. While his negotiating team provided a number of drafts of alternatives which included high degrees of autonomy for Kosovo and parallel tracks for Kosovo Serb and Albanian interactions with Belgrade, the Albanian party presented no alternatives. They simply waited for the imposition of the solution they had already been promised: independence.

With quite a lot to think about, I made my way back to the hostel in the scorching sun. On my way, I made a few phone calls to several of my government insiders to see if I could get access to some of the proprietary polling data I had been allowed to briefly glimpse during one of my earlier meetings. I also got in touch with a representative from the International Republican Institute to arrange a meeting for tomorrow morning. Later on, I received a call back from a friend of a friend at the Democratic Party (DS), who also agreed to meet with me tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, I will also be calling my contact at the Liberal Democratic Party to arrange a third meeting. Never a dull moment.

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