Yesterday was such a busy and crazy day that I am having a very hard time writing about it or even processing everything I did and learned. I have been sitting staring at my computer screen for the last hour and a half and am only now writing my first two sentences. My marathon rakija drinking session last night has not helped this either… More on this later.
Okay, here it goes: My first meeting of the day was with a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party. The party was formed in 2005 as a break-away faction of the Democratic Party (DS) by Čedomir Jovanović who became famous for his role as a student protest leader against the Milošević regime during the 1990s. A close ally of assassinated former Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and a constant political rival of President Boris Tadić, the two simply could not coexist in the same party. The LDP is a relatively minor player in Serbian parliamentary politics with only 13 seats in the National Assembly. Yet it has distinguished itself not only as the harshest critic of the government from the left, but as the only mainstream political party in Serbia that has called for diplomatic recognition of Kosovo independence. Clearly I was in for an interesting conversation.
Meeting my contact at the LDP office off of Skadarlija, he opened by saying that people in Serbia believe Kosovo is the country’s biggest problem, but it truly is not. Focusing on the status of the territory rather than the condition of people who live there, he thinks that politicians outside of the LDP only use Kosovo as a way to score points with the public. The LDP, by contrast, care only about the people living there and the people living in the rest of Serbia. When I asked him point blank if the party believes Kosovo is Serbia, he said they do, but in a different way than other parties. In short, Kosovo is only Serbia if the people who live there are Serbian. The only importance of the territory, he argued, is its historical legacy, nothing more, nothing less. And this he believes is much less important than the future of the territory and the future of Serbia.
On a bit of a tangent, my host then told me that the biggest problem in Serbia is that politicians campaign on one set of issues, and then do something completely different. There is no follow through. Moreover, the state is dominated by patronage politics which bring down the quality and effectiveness of government. The LDP’s mission, he believes is to bring responsibility, realism, and accountability to government. Relating this to Kosovo, he believes that it is important that politicians are honest with the people about the status of Kosovo. It is independent and that is not going to change. He told me that Serbia need not immediately recognize Kosovo and that they should wait for a decision from the ICJ. But if the court rules that the province’s independence declaration was valid, the state should go along with it.
For the LDP, the solution to the Kosovo conflict is to let it go. Politicians in Kosovo believe it is a state and he believes it is a candidate for EU membership. While Serbs may hate this, it is important for them to recognize the facts on the ground. Kosovo is not Serbia anymore and there is nothing Serbia can do about it. All that remains, he believes, it the “bad heritage of history.” Asking why the party’s position on Kosovo is so different from every other party, he said that it was because the LDP is the only party that is honest on the subject. It is this part of his party’s platform that he believes is responsible for its consistently poor showing at the polls. Asking why every other party is so adamant about Kosovo, he believes it is because “Serbs love Serbia too much,” and are unwilling to give up this part of their heritage. He argued that Serbs are incredibly attached to their history, citing the historical turning point of 1389 and 500 years of Turkish domination in shaping the Serbian national psyche. This tendency of Serbs to look more to the past than to future must be changed, he believes, in order to build a better country and society for the next generation.
When our conversation turned to the topic of Republika Srpska and Montenegro, he reiterated the point that the most important thing is that the people there live a good life, but that this is not the responsibility of Serbia. It is the position of the LDP that they should not deal with other states’ internal issues that they cannot change and focus on Serbia’s own problems. I then asked if felt any differently about Serbia’s responsibility for the Serbs living in Kosovo. He said that if the LDP and the government of Serbia could do something to help Serbs in Kosovo, they would and should. At the same time, if the country did nothing to help these people for 20 years prior, they certainly cannot do it now. While on one hand he believes Serbia has a special responsibility to assist Kosovo Serbs, on the other he believes the larger problem is political positioning regarding the status of the territory and its history.
Asking why Kosovo should be independent, he said that it must because of all that happened there, referring of course to the territory’s recent troubled history, particularly 1999. Albanians living there are also people and it would be a national catastrophe to demand that they leave Kosovo to make space for Serbs. In fairness, I have not heard a single person in Serbia advocate this position. His larger point was that Albanians who were born in Kosovo and have lived there their entire lives are entitled to believe that it is their country. There may never be a single definition of good politics for Serbs vis-a-vis Kosovo, but now they have only a single option to help the people living there: diplomatic recognition.
The final portion of our conversation focused on questions of partition, political decentralization, and consequences of Kosovo independence for other potentially secessionist areas of Serbia. He believes that there should be no partition of Kosovo. Borders, he argued, are already set and such talk of territorial specificity only distracts from the more important issues of people and quality of life. With regard to Vojvodina, he brushed aside concerns that the autonomous province would seek independence. While some small minorities are talking about it, Serbs remain the overwhelming majority and secession is highly unlikely. Following this logic, I asked what impact Kosovo independence would have on the Albanian majority areas of southeast Serbia or on the Serbian Muslim (Bosniac according to some) area of Novi Pazar and the Sandzak. He could not give me a clear answer but offered to discuss it with Čeda and get back to me. Indeed, these are very difficult questions in difficult times.
Following this very productive meeting, I walked over to the offices of Nova Srbija (New Serbia) for an interview I had scheduled earlier in the day. Unfortunately my contact there was unavailable because she was meeting with President Tadic. Nova Serbija is one of the biggest opponents of a new information law, which some are saying could topple the current government. I am having a great deal of difficulty finding specific information on the law, but it appears that the bill would impose greater government control over media content. Clearly, this meeting was much more important than an interview with me. I will stop by their offices again today to see if I can get a bit more lucky. Tadic is now out of the country on an official state visit to Armenia, so perhaps she will have time for me.
My next meeting of the day was an unexpected one. One of my journalist friends from my time in Kosovo, who lives part time in Belgrade, gave me a call to meet him for a drink. Joining us would be a notable journalist from Politika, the oldest daily newspaper in the Balkans. Their offices are housed in a rather imposing 1960s skyscraper (pictured above) while the courtyard is home to at least three different cafanas. Journalists here love to drink and my friends are no exception. While enjoying several shots of rakija, we discussed the consequences of EU visa liberalization for the status of Kosovo, the government’s seeming moves toward “soft” recognition of Kosovo, and government influence over domestic media content.
At the outset of our conversation, the Politika journalist said he believed that it would be better for Serbia to recognize Kosovo independence than seek partition. His argument made quite a lot of sense: if Serbia seeks partition than the majority of Serbs in the province would remain in Serbia but the many remaining churches, historical monuments, and small enclaves would likely be obliterated. Once Serbia gave up title to these places, they could no longer have a say in their treatment, maintenance, or security. The situation is problematic enough when these places are supposedly under international protection. By contrast, if Serbia recognized Kosovo independence and, in the process, was given a role of guarantor as they have under Dayton in Bosnia, these sites and people would have much more reliable security guarantees.
This bled into a discussion about how the new visa regime will affect Serb residents of Kosovo. According to my new contact, Kosovo Serbs would have access to new passports from an office in Kosovska Mitrovica issued by the coordination office with EULEX rather than the Ministry of State which would handle this process for everywhere outside of Kosovo. While EU members, he believes, will recognize that latter passports, they will not accept ones issued in Kosovo. In effect, moves like this are helping create two classes of Serb citizens, those that live in the rest of Serbia on the top, and Serbs living in Kosovo on the underprivileged bottom. Pointing to other developments including the return of ambassadors from states recognizing Kosovo independence, to pressure on the media to keep Kosovo out of the headlines, he believes that the Tadic government is preparing the public for eventual recognition.
Noting that the three top advertising companies in Serbia are run by close friends of the president, and that media bosses who disagree with the government are quickly fired, as was the case both at Politika and RTS following the 2008 elections, it is clear that the government has a strong grip on media content. While he does not believe this control is as harsh as during the Milosevic years, it has certainly been significant enough to keep unpopular news out of the press. This, however, has not kept people from talking and expressing more publicly their discontent with the country’s political, social, and economic situation. For example, he believes that recent widespread labor strikes, which have led to some limited violence, are a clear demonstration that people are forcing these issues into the open. When people cannot see their dissatisfaction and anger expressed in media, he argued, they turn that energy to less productive and more destabilizing activities. With so much frustration in Serbia, he is afraid that unrest over any one of these issues will explode in the near future.
In the end, our conversation came full circle to a discussion of why Kosovo is so important for Serbia. He pointed out to me that no only has Kosovo always been a historic part of Serbia, but that it was seen as the heartland even hundreds of years ago. With regard to the Battle of 1389, he said that the Turks had already conquered large portions of Serbia with little organized resistance by the Serbian feudal lords’ armies. Yet when they came to Kosovo, it was here that Prince Lazar attempted to rally Serbs and face the invaders. Ever since this historic defeat, Serbs have repeated these stories in folk poetry and popular national narratives. Even the famous Serbian inventor and electrical engineer, Nikola Telsa, had strong feelings about the territory. In his memoirs, he apparently recounts how his mother, whose own ancestors had left Kosovo centuries before to what is now Croatia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would repeat these stories to him.
After some heady conversation and a fair amount to drink, I went back to Manga to snatch a quick nap. In the early evening, I met friends for dinner at an amazing fish restaurant in Zemun. Over an amazing dish of stuffed trout and live traditional Serbian music, we chatted about my trip, domestic politics, legal theory, and the Belgrade nightlife. It was really a wonderful evening. Returning to Manga around 10:15, I joined the staff for many many rounds of homemade rakija in a nice send-off party they organized for me on my second to last night in the city. Our conversations were fairly nice and light until about 1 am. Then, somehow, we slipped into very very serious conversations about life under Milosevic and the staff’s experiences living through the 1999 NATO bombings. I will not go into any detail here, but as always, I was left with a lot of food for thought.
Finally getting to bed at about 3:30, I got up at around 9. Thankfully I do not have a hangover, but I am still exceptionally tired. Two cups of Turkish coffee are keeping me awake but jittery. After my two hours staring at the computer screen, it has still taken me another two to finish this post. Now, with still a good part of the day ahead of me, I am going to return to the offices of Nova Srbija to try to secure an interview. In the evening, I am going to Rabbi Asiel’s flat to meet his family that have recently returned from abroad. And tomorrow morning, I am heading back to Chicago. It has been quite a trip. As always, thanks for reading.