A Conversation with Branislav Radeljić, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of East London.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Whose responsibility was it for Boris Tadić’s loss: the weakness of his team or did the election results reflect the current populist attitudes in Serbia?
BRANISLAV RADELJIĆ: Tadić and his people have failed to convince the public that they deserved to stay where they were. Let’s not forget that during the electoral campaign Tadić openly said that he was sorry for not having done more (for example, with regard to the fight against corruption and business tycoons), possibly believing that self-criticism was going to secure him another chance. The delayed but still existing cooperation with the Hague tribunal and consequent Serbia’s EU candidacy, although both of great importance for Serbia’s international reputation, are minor aspects when compared to the worsening living standard in Serbia, growing unemployment, daily corruption and crime. This means that Tadić was more successful outside and for the outward appearance of Serbia, than addressing huge problems at home and this is the main reason why he lost in the elections. Many people who voted for Tomislav Nikolić did not do so because of his program, but they actually wanted to vote against Tadić. With this in mind, we are talking about a very serious defeat: the people of Serbia (who often ignore the difference in responsibilities between the President and the Prime Minister) voted for a former Radical (Nikolić left Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party in 2008) hoping that he is the one who is capable of developing and implementing policies that will improve their everyday life, regardless of the president’s political background.
What does Nikolić’s victory (though Tadić supposedly will maintain more power as prime minister) and his his anti-austerity position mean for the future of Serbia?
The president-prime minister power relation is an interesting one in Serbia. For example, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić was more present (and relevant) than then-President Vojislav Koštunica. When Tadić became the president in 2004 and Koštunica the new prime minister - again the prime minister seemed more powerful. However, when Tadić was re-elected in 2008 and Mirko Cvetković became the new prime minister, the things changed to the extent that the figure of the prime minister seemed non-existent in Serbian politics. Thus, it is difficult to predict who is likely to be the dominant figure, Nikolić or the new prime minister (possibly Tadić, who initially clearly stated that he would not play this role, but soon after completely changed his opinion).
With regard to Nikolić’s approach to economic issues, at his inauguration, he used polite words to assess the extremely worrying situation in Serbia, which, if put differently, indicate that Tadić’s team did nothing to improve Serbia’s economic performance. Although Nikolić himself would like to expand social protections, this will not be possible. In order to regulate the country’s deficit and obtain aid from the International Monetary Fund, the new government will have to implement fiscal reform, freeze pensions and salaries in the public sector, reduce subsidies for state-run agencies and companies, etc.
Now, the question of whether and how this will be possible is an open one, given that the new government has not been formed yet and, most importantly, which parties will form it. Often, this process implies accommodation as well as preservation of numerous contrasting interests. However, Nikolić has had some very good experts around him and this is why the Serbian Progressive Party should be one of the parties forming the government.
Do you agree with Slavenka Drakulić when she stated that Serbia’s biggest problem under Nikolić would be the Kosovo issue (The Guardian, 6 June 2012)?
Very much, indeed, and this mainly because of the pressing need to put a full stop on the Kosovo issue. As a politician, Nikolić has had enough time to understand that it will be extremely difficult or even impossible for Serbia to join the EU and keep the province of Kosovo. Still, as the new president, he deserves credit when saying that he will insist on clear-cut answers from Brussels with regard to Serbia’s EU membership and whether the overall progress will be conditioned by Serbia’s readiness to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.
How much will Kosovo be an issue in the near future?
Kosovo will be an issue for generations, given that it is a Serbian, regional and European problem. As a Serbian problem, although the Belgrade authorities have tended to support the Kosovo Serbs to remain in Kosovo, many of whom are fully dependent on Serbia, they have failed to encourage them to work towards greater inclusion and representation in the post-2008, independent, Kosovo. Long-term speaking, this can only generate new problems and, hopefully, Nikolić will offer a clearer position with regard to this aspect.
When seeing Kosovo as a regional problem, there are various aspects to consider starting with Kosovo’s frustration due to primarily Serbia’s and some EU member states’ rejection to recognize it as independent. At the moment, with more than ninety formal recognitions, the province is still neither here nor there. Kosovo’s frustration finds approval and support among Albanians inhabiting former Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as neighbouring Albania, that could use their position to destabilize the whole region.
When thinking about Kosovo as a European problem and, more importantly, its European future, Kosovo will face numerous obstacles. Even when negotiating the Kosovo status, Brussels insisted on the policy of “standards before status”, but once it had become obvious that standards were not going to be fulfilled any time soon, the policy was abandoned. In addition, Kosovo is formally recognized by 22 out of 27 Member States of the European Union. The remaining five states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) do not intend to recognize Kosovo’s independence, as their decision to do so could generate various problems at home. Finally, some members of the Kosovo Albanian elite have been involved in illicit trafficking in human organs from 1999 onwards, as proved by Dick Marty’s 2011 report. Thus, how is the EU supposed to treat this and is it ever going to be in a position to grant membership to such a state?
Nikolić made it clear that he was not as EU-focused as he represented himself in his campaign when he chose to visit Moscow over Berlin.
This is a bit of an overstatement. Nikolić and the people around him, like any other political party, understand the relevance of both the EU and Russia for Serbia. For example, the EU is Serbia’s biggest trade partner, accounting for 56 per cent of domestic exports. Young people and professionals seek to go to the EU to gain additional education and training, rather than to Russia. However, what is more likely to be behind Nikolić’s decision to choose Moscow (an informal visit) over Berlin is his ambition to try to secure assistance from both the East and the West. Still, Nikolić’s first official visit will be to Brussels.
Nikolić and Putin have been in talks about potential future partnerships such as the unlocking of the South Stream project which is supposed to happen later this year. Additionally, Putin gave Serbia a credit of 200 million dollars in 2010 to be followed up by another 800 million. How will this benefit Russia economically? And secondly, is this partnership more political than economical?
Nikolić’s informal talks with Putin in Moscow should not be interpreted as his ambition to give Russia priority over the EU. Given the worrying economic situation at home, Nikolić has to explore opportunities that will eventually improve the living standard of the citizens of Serbia. In fact, this should be the key objective of his presidency. The South Stream project is seen as a great opportunity: by having the pipeline passing through its territory, Serbia will get cheaper gas and Russia will secure access to a bigger European market and confirm its relevance in European (Union) politics as the 21st century is very much the century of energy politics. Thus, the Serbian-Russian economic partnership could also mean the beginning of a strong political partnership, an upgrade that is surely facilitated by Nikolić’s clear announcement in Moscow that Serbia will not be joining the NATO.
Branislav Radeljić is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of East London. His main research interests focus on the study of European Union politics and Eastern Europe.
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