Who would have said that the European Union might overshadow national elections in a country that is known for its long-lasting extreme nationalism? Serbia now surprises all the sceptics and those who could hardly believe that the country is willing to sacrifice some of its nationalistic stances. Let's have a look at a pivotal issue in the national elections that will take place on May 6.
After Serbia's EU bid was postponed on 9 December 2011, the international community (not only the EU but also the United States as represented by Hillary Clinton) has focused its attention on the improvement of
laid down on 9 December. Although
extremists , who intend to participate in the elections in May, made it clear they supported the European integration process and are taking part in the negotiation talks with Brussels, the international community still perceives their actions as a possible threat to the overall stability of the region. Keeping in mind such potential obstacles to further progress in Serbia, international actors were left with no other alternative but to make every possible effort to bring Serbia back on the European track.
The turning point: candidate status
After a long and difficult journey on the rocky road to European integration, Serbia finally obtained its hard-won EU candidate status on the 1st of March. Serbia was greeted by all its major partners in the European process, ranging from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle, who declared that the granting of the candidate status is without a doubt excellent news not only for Serbia, but also for the whole region. By contrast, Serbian leaders were less inclined to express unmitigated satisfaction as they stressed that, with its candidate status, Serbia now assumes greater responsibilities and obligations. For some political leaders though, this represents the success of a process initiated by the Serbian politician Zoran Đinđić, assassinated in 2003 : the modernization of Serbia.
So why is the granting of candidate status such a key element for the current pro-European government ? One could claim that European integration is rather a long-term issue and that today’s dreadfully high unemployment rates, as one out of four citizens of Belgrade is jobless, would call for political leaders to concentrate on domestic issues instead. However, the current government bet that only would a successful diplomatic move such as progress on the EU front prevent nationalists from coming to power in May. As a result, successes on the international stage would simply eclipse domestic matters.
However, this is still a very risky political manoeuvre that could be followed by a dangerous backlash. Two main reasons can be given.
First of all, after reaching several agreements on trade, freedom of movement, cadastral registry, mutual recognition of university diplomas and, most importantly, on the international representation of Kosovo (under the United Nations Resolution 1244), the status of the north of Kosovo still remains an unresolved issue.
A good illustration of this issue is the barricades that have been deployed in the region since the summer of 2011. They were erected in July when the Albanian government sought to take control of crossing points at Jarinje and Brnjak to implement a trade blockade against Serbia. The embargo was imposed in response to Belgrade’s ban on imports from Kosovo. The barricades were dismantled on the day of the semi-official visit by German minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle in Belgrade. What a coincidence, one might say, as this visit was conveniently placed in the middle of heated debates at the EU Council of Ministers. The Serbian media did not cast much light on this movement, but one of the obstacles to gaining candidate status was however eliminated.
The other fundamental step forward taken by both Priština and Belgrade was the agreement reached on the international representation of Kosovo. According to the “Agreement on regional representation of Kosovo”, "This label [ie "Kosovo"] does not prejudge the status of Kosovo and is in accordance with Resolution 1244 and the opinion of the ICJ [International Court of Justice] on Kosovo's declaration of independence." The international community did indeed praise this deal and affirmed that Serbia had now removed a second obstacle on its way to gain candidate status.
Let us ask ourselves what impact these two issues might have on a long-term political agenda and on the results of the national elections in spring. If one carefully reflects on this subject, it is not very difficult to understand that neither the dismantling of the barricades in the North of Kosovo, nor the agreement upon the footnote on the name of the new country solve the existing problems. On the contrary, this might become a serious cause for concern.
The dismantling of the barricades did not lead to the normalization of relations between local Albanians and Serbs in Northern Kosovo. Officials in Belgrade as well as Serbian representatives in Priština declared that Resolution 1244 was legally binding and prohibited any further Serbian interference in the North of Kosovo. In addition, Belgrade did not support a movement initiated by a referendum in Northern Kosovo which led local Serbs to express their intention to resist Albanian rule. It is however very likely that such a stance could lead to an increase in votes for the nationalists, who might still play the North of Kosovo card in the nearest future.
The agreement reached on the regional representation of Kosovo, but more precisely on its name, is quite ambiguous as well. Serbian representatives described it as a great victory for Serbian diplomacy, while the delegation sent by Priština stressed that what was most important in the negotiations was not the name, but ensuring the representation of Kosovo in international fora as well as its right to sign international agreements on its own. What did not catch the attention of the Serbian officials was the fact that, according to the “Agreement on regional representation of Kosovo", contractual relations as well as trade agreements between Kosovo and the European Union can be established.
Under such international circumstances and keeping in mind the overall decrease in support for European integration in the past years in Serbia, these new developments on the European front might really affect the results of the next elections. The question whether the long-term prosperity promised by the EU is enough for people to forget the question of Northern Kosovo is far from being answered.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. Brussels, 12 October 2011, COM (2011) 668 final. Commission Opinion on Serbia’s application for membership of the European Union
Communication de la Commission au Parlement Européen et au Conseil. Bruxelles, le 12 Octobre 2011, COM (2011) 666 final. Stratégie d’élargissement et principaux défis 2011-2012.
Accordance with international law of the unilateral declaration of independence in respect of Kosovo, Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, 22 July 2010
Council conclusion on enlargement and stabilization and association process, 3132nd General Affairs Council meeting, Brussels, 5 December 2011
Lukas MACEK, L’élargissement met-il en péril le projet européen ?, La Documentation Française, Paris, 2011
On the internet
Source picture : EU&Serbia, by European Parliament, on flickr
From left to right : Commissioner Štefan Füle, rapporteur Jelko Kacin and Council Member Enikő Győri.