Day 32: American Republicans and Serb Democrats

ds-iri My final Friday in Belgrade was a busy one; no surprise there. I spent most of the morning finalizing my interviews for the day, which were all scheduled for the afternoon.

I also put in a good few hours on my Fulbright IIE Grant proposal, which I hope to have in serviceable condition before leaving the country on Wednesday. If there is anything that this trip has made abundantly clear to me, it is that my fieldwork is the most critical part of my studies. Without significant time on the ground, I do not believe I can take my own work seriously nor could I expect anyone else to do so. Therefore, I really need to ramp up my grant writing. These trips are not cheap.

My first interview of the day was with the Belgrade office director of the International Republican Institute (IRI). This NGO is loosely associated with the Republican Party in the United States just as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), is associated with the Democratic Party. Also, like the NDI, the IRI receives funding from USAID and actively works with domestic political parties on good governance practices and institution building. The IRI has also commissioned a number of public opinion surveys focusing on political attitudes, national economic priorities, and other issues (such as Kosovo) on behalf of many mainstream Serbian political parties. I hope that they will be able to share some of this empirical data with me, but those sorts of requests cannot be answered by the field office; they must come from Washington.

The stated mission of both organizations is to help emerging democracies develop pluralistic, open polities in which programmatic political parties must draw support from and be accountable to their voting public. A particularly important goal here in Serbia is to move the existing parties away from mere scrambles for power between elite to disciplined competition among parties representing and intent on fulfilling meaningful political platforms. In short, they see their objective as building the institutions of democracy from the bottom up. The IRI has been the subject of some controversy with some accusing it of training and funding groups that let the 2004 coup in Haiti. In Serbia however, few accuse either organization of such direct meddling although some nationalist groups with whom neither NGO cooperate are wary of their influence.

When my host and I began discussing the outcomes of their polls, he told me, like many pollsters before him, that when ranking the most important issues for the country, most Serbs assigned very low priority to Kosovo. Rather, the top issue of concern for most is the state of the national economy coupled with household earnings and standard of living concerns. In terms of the question whether Serbs would rather keep Kosovo and settle for slow EU integration, or lose Kosovo in exchange for fast EU integration, there is apparently a 48/48 split divided largely along party lines. The former position seems to get the most support from DSS, Radical, and Socialist voters, while the latter position is mostly supported by DS, G17 Plus, and LDP voters. Similar results are observed when the question comes to the partition of Kosovo. Yet, he argued, these numbers do not say much on their own.

Based on more intensive work in focus groups, he said that it soon became obvious that although economics are a top priority for voters, very few people vote according to them. It seems that no one trusts any political party to do anything to improve their economic well-being. When understood in these terms, campaign promises with regard to economic improvements can be seen as something of a toss-up. Rather political struggles often seem to come down to more emotional or value-based concerns: which party is more likely to protect Serbian cultural values or institutions?

For instance, he told me that in one focus group in Kragujevac, although all participants professed to value economic well-being above all other concerns, the most often repeated complaint was that local politicians had not done enough to reopen the city’s main bookstore. Similar results were observed in many other focus groups where participants said they would vote for any politician who would support the construction of a local swimming pool. Why? Because Serbs have developed a particular national pride for their performance in water polo. The men’s national team holds the record for the most European championships won in a row.

Kosovo then remains an important issue, he believes, in large part because of its emotionally evocative nature. Kosovo is a source of national pride and the country’s loss of control over this province is a matter of continued national embarrassment in a culture that idolizes machismo and collective strength. Kosovo is also portrayed as something of a historical ideal; representing a time when Serbs were a great and powerful people in Europe. This can be seen, he suggested, in many recent domestic movies that are either remakes of lyrical poetry and national legends or period pieces simply set in those supposedly more auspicious times. How these emotions translate to political outcomes may not be particularly rational, but they are incredibly meaningful.

My next interview of the day was with a representative of the ruling Democratic Party (DS). Discussing the issue of Kosovo, he immediately brought up the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He sees it as a great puzzle that this greatest of disasters in Serbian history is celebrated by some as a great victory. Yet he does believe that it is this history in large part that makes Kosovo such an important issue for Serbs. Serb feelings of loss and injustice over Kosovo have only be magnified by the post 1999 expulsions of Serbs from the province and the violent campaigns directed against them, particularly the March Program of 2004 in which 19 people were killed, and over 800 homes and 35 Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged or destroyed.

This segued into a discussion about the role of law in the conflict. In legal theory, two concepts of law are predominant: natural law, the notion that law and justice are set by nature and has universal validity, and positive law derived through precedent and jurisprudence. Many Serbs, he argued, derive their sense of legitimacy from natural law and therefore see the crisis in Kosovo as a matter of natural injustice; a fundamental affront to righteous laws of humanity. There is the feeling particularly among the Kosovo Serb refugee and IDP communities that the land is theirs, they did not commit the crimes of the Milosevic regime, and they must absolutely be allowed to return home. Implicitly, this seems to also be a source of lack of understanding among Serbs regarding the position and demands of Kosovo’s Albanian population (and surely this is a two-way street).

For my host, the most important priority is to see that individual people in Kosovo, whether Serb or Albanian, are able to exercise their civil and human rights to life, freedom of movement and consciousness, and to their property. The larger battle of Kosovo independence, he believes is a job for Tadic and the powerful players in Serbian government. It is his ultimate hope that Serbs and Albanians can live next to each other in peace. I pointed out that two peoples can live next to each other in the same communities, or they can live next to each other in the sense that they exist as self-contained neighbors across sovereign borders. Asking him to clarify, he admitted that he believes there is a policy at work of silent recognition of Kosovo independence. While the issue remains a hot one, one day, when both Serbia and Kosovo Albanians enter the European Union, they will all live in the same country anyway.

Turning to the example of ethnic heterogeneity in Vojvodina, he pointed out that people there manage to live together quite nicely despite their national, ethnic, and religious differences. The key is mutual respect and regular friendly relations between and within these different groups. Yet it did not take long to get back to the topic of the March Program, and his fears that these hopes are overly optimistic. While he believes it is true that there were Serbs who did horrible things in Kosovo in 1999, he cannot understand why anyone would “burn churches or kill old ladies.” For these actions, he said he could not find the words in his own language. Coexistence between Serbs and Albanians is clearly a long way off.

Finally, he expressed to me his own fears about the course of the United States. As a synonym for democracy in much of the developing world, he said that countries look to the US to be their example and guiding light for what freedom and democracy should mean. Hearing stories about domestic developments, whether it be the Patriot Act or Guantanamo Bay, he believes that this is causing the decay of American democracy. Likening countries in democratic transition to small ships sailing rough waters, he believes the US is like the lighthouse. And as its light has dimmed following domestic developments since September 11, 2001, he is afraid that many of those small boats will be lost at sea. He is not optimistic that the election of Barack Obama will truly change anything in this regard.

After further chatting a bit longer about the future of Serbia and Kosovo, the implications of developments in the Balkans for international law, and the productive role the United States might take in the region, I thanked him for his time and promised to be in touch. Walking back to Manga, I stopped along the way to buy a few souvenirs from my trip. I am in my final week after all. Stopping at a t-shirt shop, I got into a brief conversation with the kid working there who informed me that the problem in Kosovo was engineered by Jewish bankers. He was a bit disconcerted when I pressed him to justify theory, and could not produce more than the staple answer: someone must be making money from the conflict, and Jews are wealthy, so they must benefit from the situation. Oh well.

Later on in the evening, I made my way to the synagogue for Erev Shabbat davening. The crowd is still smaller than usual, and services were not held this morning as a result. For those unfamiliar with this part of the world, July and August are effectively vacation months here where a large portion of the population goes abroad. The difference is very noticeable, particularly at the night markets and along Knez Mihailova. There are a whole lot less people. I could not have planned a better week to end my trip. I have spent most of Saturday getting much needed rest, and revving my engines for one final push before returning home on Wednesday. Tomorrow I may be meeting with a few representatives from G17 Plus and Monday I have another meeting scheduled with a representative from the LDP. Once having spoken with both groups, I will have met with every notable political party in the country. ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy weekend to all!

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