Sunday, May 18, 2008

Balkan exceptionalism

May 15th 2008
From The Economist print edition

What Serbia's election says about the European Union's enlargement

Illustration by Peter Schrank

A BRITISH tabloid set a high standard for bombast when it once took credit for the re-election of a Tory government with the headline: “It's The Sun Wot Won It”. This week European Union leaders were taking credit for another election upset: the unexpected success of the pro-European coalition led by the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, in the general election on May 11th. The Serbs had “clearly chosen Europe,” said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Jan Marinus Wiersma, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, declared that the election was “a form of referendum in which citizens gave their support for the country's future membership of the EU.”

That may be a little premature. It is true that Mr Tadic's block is called the “Coalition for a European Serbia”. His supporters waved the EU flag of gold stars on blue. But Mr Tadic did not win outright, and it matters enormously which parties end up in a new coalition government. If the wrong parties cobble together a deal, they could yet lead Serbia into deeper isolation.

Yet it would be absurd to deny that the EU played a role in the election. European governments agreed to offer Serbia a couple of timely (if symbolic) concessions just days before the vote. Serbs may feel “humiliated” that 19 EU countries have recognised the independence of Kosovo after the province broke away in February, says a diplomat. But the EU also reminded them that Europe is about good things, such as freedom to travel. If it was not exactly the EU “wot won it”, European governments did at least send a signal that they would rather have Serbia in the club than brooding dangerously outside.

That holds true also for Serbia's neighbours in the western Balkans, who are being jollied along with visa concessions and the like, and assured that they enjoy a “European perspective” (to use the Brussels jargon for eventual membership). It all feels rather pragmatic, even generous. And that is odd, because when it comes to enlargement in general, older members of the club are in a foul temper.

It is not only the future that causes alarm. The mood is sulphurous over Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007. Bulgaria has already seen tens of millions of EU funds frozen amid fears of fraud. The figure of suspended aid could rise to billions when a European Commission monitoring report comes out this summer. The new Italian government is talking menacingly about restricting Romanian migrants. The latest Eurobarometer poll on enlargement found majority support for the admission of only one new country: Croatia, a relatively advanced place whose beaches heave with sizzling Italians and Germans each summer. Croatia is on course to join in 2010 or 2011.

Even more paradoxically, some of the countries keenest on admitting Serbia and others have voters who are the most alarmed by enlargement. Migrant-phobic Italy led the way (together with Greece) in arguing for the EU to be flexible over demands that Serbia co-operate with prosecutors hunting war criminals. Austria has lobbied tirelessly for Balkan bits of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, starting with Croatia. Yet Austrian voters now oppose admitting any Balkan country other than Croatia by large margins (and a whopping 81% are against Turkish membership). Similarly, French ministers may rejoice that Serbia's voters choose Europe, but in 2006 France was pushing the idea that future enlargement should be assessed according to the EU's “absorption capacity”, a dangerously vague term that includes voters' “perceptions”. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is publicly against Turkey's membership.

If enlargement is so unpopular, why do so many EU leaders want the credit for Serbia's vote for Europe? There are two, linked explanations. The first is that holding the door open to Balkan countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and the rest does not imply support for enlargement in general—it is a specific strategy for preventing further instability in Europe's backyard. And the second is that enlargement mostly works like that.

Consolidation, not enlargement

Arguably, enlargement as a general project does not exist. Moves to expand the EU are more often responses to particular crises, and they trigger big squabbles until it becomes clear that no better alternative exists (the 1995 expansion to take in Finland, Sweden and Austria being the exception). Greece was admitted in 1981 to bind it to the West, even though everybody feared it was not ready. It took nine years of argument to get Spain and Portugal in, amid cries of alarm (loudest in France) over cheap Iberian workers and farm produce. In December 1989, as Communist regimes fell across eastern Europe, the French president, Fran├žois Mitterrand, proposed that ex-Warsaw Pact nations should be invited to join a loose “European confederation” (the idea died, not least because Mr Mitterrand invited Russia too). The EU hopes of Bulgaria and Romania only became plausible during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, when their airspace was needed to allow NATO jets to bomb Serbia.

Today's Serbia and the other Balkan applicants for entry may not be easy cases. But their admission does not pose “existential” questions for the EU, notes one diplomat, just a lot of hard work on building up clean, capable governments, in which scary nationalists are marginalised. Croatian negotiators even talk smoothly of “consolidation” rather than “enlargement” nowadays. Larger candidates for the EU, notably Turkey and Ukraine, cannot do that. They pose big questions, such as how to relate to the Muslim world or how to live with Russia.

The Serbian election could have been a lot worse. A thumping win for nasty nationalists would have seriously delayed EU expansion into the western Balkans. But supporters of admitting Turkey, say, should avoid premature congratulation. The western Balkans remains an exceptional case. Enlargement as a broader cause was not the winner this week.

The Balkans' bakers keep on rolling

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Kosovo

Almost all the bakers of the old Yugoslavia were Albanians, from one small corner of Kosovo. They have lived through war and upheaval but the toughest test for some came in February this year when Kosovo broke away from Serbia.

he first poppies of summer are blood scarlet on the shores of the White Drim river as we drive out of Prizren, up onto the slopes of Mount Pashtrik.

The lunchtime bread in the largest village, Djonaj, is white and so fresh it melts like chocolate in your mouth.

Dine Rexhbecaj is 50 and home for a short break to see his family. He has eight children, six girls and two boys. They live here while he works in distant Zagreb, in Croatia, seven or eight months of the year.

"I like my work," he said. "But I would hope for something better for my children. Now that Kosovo is independent, I hope they can find work here and not travel abroad."

'Bread money'

The village streets bustle with women and children on their way home from school. Four little girls, each dressed in a different shade of pink, giggle by.

In a graveyard beside the road, children play ball, and brown cows graze among red and black Albanian flags.

Houses are being repaired with money sent from abroad, "bread money" one might call it. It goes towards new bathrooms in the traditional extended-family compounds, and to repair the tall outside walls and daunting gateways.

This is a male-dominated society but the men are gone, scattered to the four corners of the Balkans, to Serbia and Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.


Working a baker's dozen of hours each day, they roll out the much sought after burek - spinach or cheese, potato or meat-filled pies - round breads and crescent-moon-shaped rolls, star-scattered with sesame seeds.

And when they finish their long shifts, the fathers can only dream of the children growing up without them.

"I started work as a baker in Montenegro when I was 13," Alush Maloku tells me in Planeja, a village at the end of a mountain road, hunched against the Albanian border.

"Then I came home and worked as a shepherd for 12 years."

Then he went back into baking, this time in western Serbia. All these places were part of one country, then Yugoslavia.

In 1979 when his father died, he came home to run the village shop. As the eldest son, he had to care for his family.

Trade map

We are sitting barefoot, cross-legged on a rug on his porch, looking across the valley at the ruins of his old house.

We knew we were in trouble when the Serbs stopped delivering our flour
Azem Collaku, retired baker

American B52 bombers blasted the Serbs into submission here in 1999 after the Albanian villagers had been driven out. The Serbian army, living in quarters nearby, sustained some of its heaviest losses in the air raids.

Unexploded bombs still lie buried deep in the earth. Alush said he knows of five people from a neighbouring village who have lost limbs as they stumbled across war litter.

"We paid a high price for liberation," he says.

"Why do all the men here become bakers?" I ask 79-year-old Azem Collaku from the village of Zym.

He rolls out a mental map of Kosovo, divided by traditional trades.

Father and son bakers Azem Collaku, on the right, and Afrim
Keeping it in the family: Azem Collaku, right, with his son Afrim

The bakers from the Harsi i Thata - the dry hearth - so called because of its paucity of water. The builders from a certain valley. The farmers from the flat, fertile lands between Prizren and Djakova.

Azem worked for 40 years in the family bakery in northern Kosovo, in the ethnically-mixed town of Mitrovica. In 1999, when the Nato bombing started, the hostility of the local Serbs to the Albanians increased.

Like all the Albanians here, he tells the history of the Balkans in bakers' terms.

"We knew we were in trouble when the Serbs stopped delivering our flour," said Azem.

So they had to stop baking.

"The strange thing was, the day we fled the city, the flour we had paid for weeks before actually arrived. But by then it was too dangerous to stay," he added.

Radical youths

His son Afrim worked in the Serbian capital Belgrade until January this year. Then Serb refugees from Kosovo smashed the windows of the bakery in a spate of anger, on the eve of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia.

"They didn't like the idea that we could come to work in their country, while they couldn't return to Kosovo," said Afrim, almost sympathetically.

Bakery in Pristina, Kosovo
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008

But he is hopeful the bakery will soon re-open after the defeat of Serb nationalists in last weekend's elections.

Only a month ago, radical youths in Sombor, in northern Serbia, handed out free bread outside an Albanian-run bakery to try to drive it out of business.

And like-minded youths posted a film clip of themselves on the video sharing website YouTube setting fire to another Albanian bakery. (You can see the video below)

In the Kosovan capital Pristina, Ramadan and Lerim from the village of Djonaj load logs into their wood-burning ovens, and mix flour and water and great cakes of yeast from Serbia into a stainless-steel drum.

"There is no better job than this," Ramadan explains. "You can sleep soundly knowing that the money you spend you earned with your own sweat."

He blows out the candles, by the light of which he kneaded the new loaves. Only the early morning sunshine breaks through the windows here.