Day 34: Not So Lazy Sunday and G17 Plus

g17plusFirst off, let me be clear, I did not forget to write about Day 33. I included it in yesterday’s post about Day 32 (Friday) but neglected to mention it in the title. Besides, a title like Day 32 and 33: American Republicans and Serbian Democrats and Sleeping and Souvenir Shopping in Belgrade is a bit cumbersome. Secondly, I must report that my youngest brother Jody has finally returned to the blogging world reporting his adventures in Nepal. He is wittier than I and has much more interesting stories. You should visit his website, seriously. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wet yourself.

Back to the narrative; today was not overly busy but it was not particularly quiet either. While I did some final shopping, some work on my Fulbright, and took a nice nap, I also interviewed a representative from G17 Plus, a center-conservative political party with 25 seats in coalition government with the Democratic Party (DS). Before meeting up with my contact, I ran into a group of New Serbia party activists handing out leaflets protesting a new media control law. They currently hold 10 seats in the National Assembly and ran on a joint ticket in 2008 with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). That, I realized, put them right at my semi-arbitrary threshold for parties I planned to interview. Although I spoke with one party activist for about ten minutes about Kosovo, which they are adamant is an inseparable part of Serbia, I will have to stop by their offices on Monday to secure a proper interview.

I met my contact from G17 Plus at about 12:30 at Trg Republike. At the outset of our conversation, he launched directly into the issue of Kosovo and the critical role of the Battle of 1389 as a defining conflict in Serbian history and culture. Generations of Serbs, he argued, have been taught to believe that the downfall of the medieval Serbian state was a direct consequence of the defeat at Kosovo Polje at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. From here, two important narratives take form. The first is of the great sacrifice of Serbs on behalf of Christian Europe to defend the continent against Muslim invasion. The second is a treason narrative in which it is argued that had Serbs united against the Turks rather than some taking the side of the Ottoman army, they could have defeated the invaders. The lesson here is one of the importance of Serbian unity in the face of foreign threats, a trope often repeated throughout the 1990s particularly during the NATO bombardments in 1999.

With myths like this being passed from generation to generation of Serbs, even the name Kosovo has powerful emotionally evocative resonance in Serb culture. These stories from and of conflict in Kosovo are a common thread that bind Serbs together across the Balkans and have no real parallel in any of the other conflicts in which Serbs have been embroiled over the past 600 years. To make a rather long story short, the rest of the first hour of our conversation was a rehash of Serb history in Kosovo and a reiteration of the symbolic centrality of the province and its accompanying narratives to Serbian national identity. These narratives are powerfully reinforced by the presence of so many medieval churches in the province, which my host argued were linked to Serb dynasts’ mission, defined and codified by St. Sava in the 1200s, to protect and defend their Serbian Orthodox heritage. It seems that even then, people understood that to fill a territory with religious sites was an incredibly effective way to lay lasting historical claim. Indeed, it was thanks to the efforts of the Church’s preservation of these sites and narratives that Serbs today retain the living “historical memory” of medieval sovereignty in Kosovo.

Turning to his own party’s platform, he said that G17 Plus has consistently maintained the position that Kosovo is an inseparable part of Serbia. He also stated his belief that resolution of the conflict requires that a historical compromise be made between Serbs and Albanians. This does not mean that Kosovo should be independent or that Serbia should be able to retain such extensive control that the province should lose its distinctive Albanian character. Rather he and his party seeks a lasting institutional arrangement under which the needs of Serbs and Albanians alike living in Kosovo can have their needs addressed.

It was only at this point in the conversation when he turned to the issue of international law and the dangerous precedent that he believes Kosovo’s independence will set for the region and the world. He argued that to recognize Kosovo independence is to both neglect the foundation of international law (sovereign statehood) and the internal legal framework of the state itself. More importantly, simple recognition preempts important discussions about the character of Kosovo state institutions, treatment of non-Albanian minorities, restoration of property rights, autonomy and authority of the Orthodox Church, and the division of resources in the territory. Particularly, he highlighted that every citizen of Serbia throughout the Tito years subsidized the economic, social, cultural, and political development through massive tax transfers as well as private investment.

Meanwhile, he said, the state turned a blind eye to residents of Kosovo failing to pay their utility bills and taxes more broadly. There is then a strong sense among Serbs that Kosovo Albanians never appreciated nor took a sense of responsibility for these goods provided by the state. Meanwhile, Albanians benefited from a heavily subsidized higher education system and developed a sizeable intelligentsia. Yet because of their lack of Serbian language skills and rampant discrimination owing to their ethnic background, they were not able to find jobs and opportunities for advancement outside of Kosovo or the Yugoslavian political apparatus. After the death of Tito, scrambles for political power between the republics and a severe economic downturn in Yugoslavia led to even these opportunities drying up. Coupled with increasing Serb resentment of what they believed to be the privileged status of Albanians in Serbia, Albanians were increasingly shut out of even state institutions and lost much of the aid from the central government to which they had become accustomed. My host believes that this in small part because of these factors that Kosovo Albanian nationalism became so rampant and violent in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Moving to the topic of Serbia’s relationship with the international community and possible solutions to the conflict, he argued that most politicians are desperate for good relations with the United States. One need only look to the grand welcome given to Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to Serbia in May 2009. Not bad for a man who once, during an outburst on CNN’s Larry King Live, said that Serbs were “a bunch of illiterates, degenerates, baby killers, butchers and rapists.” For G17 Plus, the priority is to get Serbia into both the European Union and NATO but at the same time they want to increase the world’s understanding of Serbs’ perspectives on developments in the region. While he acknowledges that the United States is not likely to change tack on Kosovo independence, he feels at the very least it is critical to get American diplomats and policymakers to hear the Serbian position.

Asking him what he believed would be the worst possible solution his party would accept with respect to Kosovo, he gave an answer much like every other political party has given thus far: the problem is not the provision of autonomy for Kosovo as an essentially Albanian political unit within Serbia, but the lack of effective protection for Serbs and Serbian historical and religious sites there. Serbs, he said, could not rely on Albanian good will to help the Serb community there. Belgrade must be allowed to take an active role in sustaining and supporting that community no matter how much autonomy Pristina would receive. He believes that there are only two basic options with regard to Kosovo: either it becomes a frozen conflict which could erupt again at any moment or it is transformed through active participation and compromise on both sides with the ultimate goal of EU integration. Pointing to the example of increasing cooperation and good will between the governments and private individuals of Serbia and Croatia, he believes that reconciliation is possible no matter Serbs and Albanians troubled past. This example, of course, is premised on two sovereign states with clearly defined and largely non-contiguous borders; not broad political autonomy within the sovereign borders of a single state.

Turning to the topic of Republika Srpska and Montenegro, my host also reiterated the same commitments to international law and state sovereignty that have been familiar from every other major political party save qualified answers from the Radicals. With respect to Bosnia Herzegovina, he said that Serbia is a committed guarantor of the Dayton Peace Accords and that any internal changes in the political status of the two federal republics or the national government is the business of Bosnians alone. Serbia, he says, has no right to interfere in the consensual internal political affairs of its neighbors. The same, he argued, applies to Montenegro. Moreover, he said that G17 Plus actually pushed for Montenegran independence believing that the relationship between the two countries was a dysfunctional and institutionally unsustainable one. They may be twin countries, but each is entitled to their own affairs. I then asked him why he believed Montenegro has come out in support of Kosovo independence. He said that this probably has much more to do with the gains political elite have made as a result of backroom deals than the actual desires of the majority of the population, who are largely Serb.

The remainder of our conversation revolved around the difficulties of compromise and the cold relations which have developed between Serbs and Albanians as a result of the conflict. In particular, he was saddened that relations with his Albanian friends in Kosovo have soured, especially after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence last year. Still, he is hopeful that by maintaining these contacts when he and a new generation of politicians control government, negotiated solutions based on compromise and mutual understanding may be reached. I hope he is right. Thanks for reading.

One Response to Day 34: Not So Lazy Sunday and G17 Plus

  1. Nukhet Sandal says:

    Now that you are approaching the end of this field episode, on behalf of your readers I would like extend my gratitude for making all of us feel like we were in Serbia! Even I feel like writing an article based on your field research :-p

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