Monday, March 27, 2006

Serbia's Identity Crisis

William Montgomery/B92

Zoran Djindjic frequently emphasized to me that the Serbian people were equally divided into three camps: those naturally belonging to Western European democratic society; those hard-line nationalists firmed rooted in the past; and those in the middle, feeling emotionally tied to the nationalist wing, but wanting the benefits of closer ties to the European Union. His strategy was to focus on convincing the middle group that the benefits were great enough to leave their nationalistic sympathies behind. His complaint was that we in the West were not providing enough incentives to support his government's efforts to improve the life of the average Serb and therefore win over this critical middle group.

The death of Slobodan Milosevic and the subsequent internal turmoil over his funeral are a reminder of these deep divisions in Serbian society, as well as one more blow to the Serbian people as a whole. There is an identity crisis in Serbia, but it is far from limited to that country alone. No one who lived in the former Yugoslavia over the past twenty years has escaped the cycle of violence, nationalism, fear, and hatred, which swept over the region. We who live here now are still reminded of it every day. But there are significant differences from country to country, from one ethnic group to another.

Slovenia, which had traditionally discouraged immigration of other ethnic groups, has successfully entered the EU and is not looking backward (other than to successfully reestablish business ties with the other countries of the former Yugoslavia). Croatia has lingering wartime antagonisms with its ethnic Serbian population, but it has a clear vision of its future, secure borders, and is well on its way to full Euro-Atlantic integration. Montenegro's referendum in May is essentially a battle between those who see Montenegro as an integral part of Serbia/Montenegro and those who want Montenegro to establish its own national identity. If the referendum is successful, that process will be speeded up. If it fails, the fundamental conflict will continue for the foreseeable future. Macedonia wrestles with the question of whether a successful multi-ethnic society can be created/preserved between those who consider themselves Macedonian and ethnic Albanians. The reality is that significant voluntary ethnic cleansing is going on in that country now and how it all turns out will ultimately depend at least in part on whether Kosovar Albanian extremists will be permitted to incite violence outside of their own borders. Bosnia essentially has no identity and is prevented from establishing one by the Constitution imposed on them at Dayton and the radically different visions the three ethnic groups in that country continue to maintain.

Of all these situations, however, the one, which is the most complex and the most significant for the overall stability of the region, is that of Serbia. The reality is that the Serbian people have been buffeted by so many sharp blows to their psyche that they no longer are sure of who they are, where they want to go, and how they will get there.

The first major blow to Serbia was the shock that their whole concept of "nation" - that is the former Yugoslavia - was in the end, an illusion. The dissolution of Yugoslavia, welcomed with joyous celebration in Croatia and Slovenia, turned their world upside down and left them with a sense of bitterness and betrayal that haunts them to this day. Virtually no Serb that I have ever talked with has claimed to have accurately perceived the depth of antagonism/nationalism/desire for independence, which existed in Croatia or Slovenia. The world that they thought they knew and were a key part of turned out to not exist. It is sort of like thinking that you are happily married, only to come home one day to find your belongings out on the street and your spouse saying that she never really loved you in the first place.

Secondly, the Serbs were also surprised by the degree and speed with which the world turned against them. Through two World Wars, the Serbs were consistently on the side of the Western Alliance. During the Tito years, Serbs, as part of Yugoslavia, were welcome anywhere. Suddenly, this traditionally friendly approach radically changed. Sanctions were put in place, visa regimes instituted, and ultimately, Serbia was bombed by NATO. The image of Serbia in the West could not have gone lower. The strength of the Milosevic-era media and public relations propaganda, however, combined with their own fears and concerns about the downfall of Yugoslavia and the welfare of Serbs in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia made them incapable of fully understanding what was happening in their name and why the World was seemingly all aligned against them. Serbs now have an overwhelming view that the world is prejudiced against them and that they are alone. The Serbs in no way feel that they are out of step with the world. They feel that the world does not care to understand them. Five years after the fall of Milosevic, it is harder now to get visas to neighboring countries (with the exception of Croatia) than it was before. The reality is that many of Serbia's bordering countries are working hard to join the EU or are already in it and their orientation has shifted from the region to the EU, leaving Serbia increasingly isolated.

Thirdly, for fifty years under Communism, the private sector was essentially banned and treated as something, which was basically immoral. Milosevic compounded the problem in his rule by granting to selected cronies sweetheart "privatization"deals, which enriched them personally at great cost to the State. As a result, Serbs remain highly suspicious of the whole free market economy, foreign investment, and the private sector. So while the Djindjic government and certain parts of the current government are pushing the private sector and foreign investment as a key way to speed up economic growth, many average workers and various low and mid-level officials are strongly resisting the process and putting up bureaucratic obstructions. The result is that substantial visible and invisible barriers remain to private business. Serbs are divided as to whether to welcome the new economic dynamic or hold out for a continuation of the socialized system, which has long been in place.

Fourthly, the 600,000 refugees and displaced persons living in Serbia today have in most cases not been assimilated into the society and live much as Palestinian refugees do, with memories of their past lives overwhelming the present. They are stuck in a time warp nursing grievances, which will never be adequately addressed.

Finally, the unresolved questions of Kosovo and Montenegro make the overall borders of Serbia and the nature of its state still unknown. Serbia cannot possibly be stabile until its citizens know its true size and borders. Furthermore, the reality of the loss of Kosovo is a major blow to the Serbian people that is hard for outsiders to fully comprehend. It takes away a cornerstone of their culture and history.

In sum, Serbia reminds me of a boxer in the last rounds of a grueling match. It has absorbed blow after blow with no end in sight. This has left the Serbian people uncertain and confused about their future. The political parties are too busy attacking each other for short-term gain to work together to build any sort of consensus. If Serbia were an individual, it would be obvious that he/she were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and would need serious assistance to begin the process of recovery. The International Community had the spirit and goodwill to provide much of this assistance in the immediate aftermath of the downfall of Milosevic. But that honeymoon was based on the flawed assumption that the new government absent Milosevic was willing and able to move rapidly to full democratic and economic transformation. When it became clear that deep divisions existed in Serbia over its future - and its past - and that the popular support was simply not present for the dramatic change everyone expected, the sympathy of the West sharply decreased. The immediate future looks increasingly discouraging, with the upcoming deadline on the transfer of Mladic to The Hague or a suspension of talks on the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU; the Referendum on Montenegrin Independence; and the decision on Kosovo's future status. The outlook, therefore, is for this profound identity crisis to continue for some time to come.

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