Serbia keen to turn a page on violent history


AMID A sea of flags and election bunting, and bathed in blazing early summer sunshine, thousands of Serbian liberals gathered at the weekend to chant their support for renewal and for accelerating the progress of their country towards European Union membership.

“Preokret, preokret,” – renewal, renewal – they shouted, many holding up posters with the word pobeda – win – on them as about 8,000 people filled one side of Belgrade’s Republic Square on Saturday.

United under the renewal theme, they came from across Serbia to rally on the penultimate weekend before polling in Serbia’s triple election – local, national and presidential – on May 6th.

There was a lot of post-Obama-style “Yes we can!” in the air, especially among the young, many of whom support a group known as Istina [true] that is part of a wider social democratic and liberal coalition fighting at the election.

“We support true Serbia,” says Dragon, a young man from the south. “It means true – here in Serbia and true also with our neighbours. We are Serbian people and we care for our Serbian people in Kosovo but not the territory.”

The “time to move on” theme is reflected by Vuk Draskovic, leader of SPO, the Serbian Renewal Movement that heads the campaigning coalition, who says he wants to help write a new history for Serbia.

“We are putting an end to Milosevic’s Kosovo policy,” he says of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose ultra-nationalist policies lay behind the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

These policies would be replaced by “a patriotic Kosovo policy without a formal recognition of Kosovo’s independence”.

This U-turn, he adds, is “a U-turn in political hate, because the Serb and Albanian peoples need to reconcile”.

Since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, recognised by the US and many individual states, but not the EU formally, Serbians have agonised over their emotional attachment to the region and the difficulties faced there by the Serbian minority in the ethnic Albanian-dominated new state.

The economy, Kosovo, EU membership and the inter-connectedness of all three are dominating the elections.

The triple polls see an incumbent Democratic Party-dominated national coalition and presidency, that is centrist and western-leaning in its outlook, pitted against, mainly, the right-leaning and populist Serbian Progressive Party, that, although espousing EU membership, is more nationalist in its outlook and also wants closer relations with Serbia’s ally of old, Russia.

Seventeen parties are competing at national level. Final opinion polls, whose accuracy is questioned by many, gave the Democratic Party (DS) 24 per cent support and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) 27 per cent. Whoever wins, another coalition government will emerge.

“Jobs,” says Radoslav Marjanovic, president of the central Belgrade youth section of the SNS. “We need jobs and investment from outside Serbia. We have 25 per cent with no work and 50 per cent of youth with no work.”

Marjanovic is 23 and an economist but has no job, like half his generation. He believes corruption is rife in Serbia and is preventing job-creating investment.

“Our party will change this,” he maintains. “[Outgoing president and DS leader Boris] Tadic has good political marketing and controls the media, especially here in Belgrade. His team are the richest guys in Serbia; from 2008 to now, Serbia borrowed €5.7 billion but all that money went to the public sector and only a little into infrastructure.” In a workforce of just under two million, Serbia cannot support a public sector of some 700,000, he says.

Deputy prime minister Bozidar Delic knows the DS and the government face a tough task. “Elections for any incumbent are a challenge all over Europe right now,” he says in an interview, but, “more than ever now, Serbia needs predictability, stability and peace.”

He instances the Irish peace process as inspiration for how Serbia should handle Kosovo.

“We have taken a page from the Irish book on this one . . . We want to have inspiration from the Good Friday agreement and the prosperity it has brought.” He expresses appreciation also for Ireland’s support, at EU level, for Serbia’s recent progress to candidate state for membership.

“We want now to get a date set, in our first year after re-election if that happens, to start negotiations to membership.”

The results of an opinion poll, carried out by the EU Integration office in Belgrade and Ipsos and published last Thursday, show support for EU membership holding across the country. Some 54 per cent of people say they back joining the EU while 84 per cent say they support the implementation of related reforms, even if they are being implemented without linkage to membership.

To the people rallying in Belgrade on Saturday – “they could be our future allies, we wish them well”, says Delic, noting the policy change on Kosovo. EU membership, and what they hope it will bring, in terms of turning a page for even on their recent history and longed-for economic growth, cannot come quickly enough.