One of the participants at the conference Serbia: The Strategy for Survival, jointly organized by Geopolitika magazine and The Lord Byron Foundation in Belgrade on November 5, was the LBF Chairman, James Bissett. On his return to Ottawa he presented his impressions in an interview to CKCU FM’s Monday’s Encounter radio program.
ON THE SURFACE, if you are in the middle of Belgrade, on Knez Mihajlova Street, people seem to be busy or enjoying themselves in the coffee houses. They are quite well dressed and you would get the impression that everything is fine. But after you’ve been there for or a while – and I’ve spoken to a number of people who are in a position to know what is going on – you realize that this is not so. There is high unemployment; there is a lot of corruption, the mafia still running things. There is lot of uncertainty and instability. People are struggling just to make ends meet. But the spirit, on surface, is that of the old Belgrade I know. They live in uncertain times, and they realize it. Some polls seem to suggest that a majority of people in Belgrade support the Tadić government and feel if they join the EU that all of their troubles will be over. They put lot of trust in the notion that by joining the EU they would be considered part of ‘Europe’ and the past would be forgotten. Joining the EU is looked upon as the panacea for all their past and current problems.
Does Serbia need the EU?
I do not think it does. Germany and other countries will still invest in Serbia whether it is part of the EU or not. If you are a businessman and if you can make money by investing you'll do it. The EU and Brussels would like to dominate every aspect of life in Serbia, and they will do so if Serbia joins the EU. If Serbia stays out, then private businessmen from Western Europe, from Asia and other places, will invest in Serbia -- and do so without the entire encumbrance of layers of bureaucracy and regulation that will be imposed upon them if Serbia becomes a member of the Union. EU membership also means inspections to be done from Brussels. Businesses will be closed if they do not meet the exact regulatory procedures and machinery will have to be replaced. Serbia will be expected to join NATO, and the first thing they will be required to do is to buy American made military equipment to meet American military standards.
Are the people of Serbia aware of what the membership would bring to the country?
I do not think they are. That is not surprising since the mainstream media in Belgrade is controlled by the government. Many of the intellectuals and others that I spoke to complain bitterly that there was more freedom of the press and the media under Milošević than there is under Tadić’s regime. So the major media pushes the line that once in the EU all of Serbia’s problems will be solved. That sort of wishful thinking is certainly having effect. You have to wonder how many times you have to be kicked in the face to know who your enemy is. The German ambassador in Belgrade recently said that the Serbs should teach their children that the NATO bombing was justified. In normal times any ambassador who dared to say that would be immediately asked to leave as persona non grata. But the Germans can get away with it.
It seems the present government is prepared to accept any humiliation and meet any demand, however insulting, in order to join the EU. The recent apologies for what happened in Srebrenica and Vukovar are some examples. There is nothing wrong about acknowledging that atrocities took place during the wars of the early nineties, but where is the reciprocity? Were the Serbs the only ones guilty of crimes? Look at Croatia: It is sailing into the EU without ever once acknowledging the true genocide – against the Serbs – that took place in Croatia in the Second World War. Did the Muslims in Bosnia never commit crimes against the Serbs? This is the double standard and duplicity that has characterized the EU’s treatment of Serbia. It has never looked upon Serbia as an equal partner and has imposed conditions and standards to be met that other countries have not been required to meet.
There are other alternatives for Serbia and other choices to be made. Serbia could stay outside of the EU and NATO and could enjoy friendly relations with all countries. It could be non-aligned and perform the strategic role it had played during the Cold War as a bridge between East and West. There is a price to be paid for EU membership.
Russia has been Serbia’s historic ally and was one of the few great powers that resisted Kosovo independence. Serbia enjoys now a very favourable trade agreement with Russia. By becoming a member of the EU Serbia would be turning its back on Russia and it would lose many economic and political advantages it might have by maintaining solid relations with this emerging economic and political powerhouse. Serbia’s strategic geographic position has made it the key country in the Western Balkans. It should use this geopolitical reality to forward its national interest, and not be in such a rush to lock itself into an uncertain future in an uncertain and unstable EU.
What is the opposition to Tadić in the political arena?
There are small splinter groups that are in opposition to the present government, but they do not have any financing, are not organized, and do not have the means of using the media to gain support. At our media conference on Strategy for Serbia held in Belgrade on November 5, one of the members of the audience said that there was not a problem with Serbia – the problem was with Belgrade. In Serbia's heartland, in small cities, villages and the rural areas the people are very much concerned about giving up on Kosovo and skeptical about joining the EU. But it is Belgrade that is calling the shots. The citizens of Belgrade seem to be infatuated with the idea of being considered ‘European.’ They follow the western media, the TV programs, movies, and accept the idea that their only future lies with ‘Europe.’
What were the conclusions of the conference? Is there a survival strategy for Serbia?
There were many suggestions about what Serbia could do and should do. The essential message was that Serbia should put its own house in order: stamp out corruption, improve its economy, get rid of the criminal mafia, become self-sufficient as it once was, and maintain good relations with Russia and with the EU. There was concern that the government’s obsession with the EU was misdirected ,and that by putting all of Serbia’s eggs in one basket other viable solutions were being ignored. There was also the reality that early membership was highly unlikely, and therefore domestic priorities were not being addressed.
Complete reliance on the EU and the USA at the expense of other alternatives would be a serious error. The EU is in serious trouble, economically and financially. The American empire is in decline and when empires are in decline they becomes extremely dangerous. This is not the time for Serbia to be totally preoccupied with seeking favours from a Europe and an America that have never accepted Serbia as an equal partner and that a few short years ago willingly and illegally waged a ruthless bombing campaign against the Serbian people