David and Goliath: What is behind the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia?

- Kosovo is once more in Serbian history the alleged determining factor of the future path that the country is going to take.

On the 29th of April, Serbian President Boris Tadić put his signature on the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union (EU). The SAA is a major step on quite a long road towards reaching a full EU membership. The decision of the EU ministers, and more notably the Belgian and Dutch ones to offer this agreement to Serbia, was by many hailed as one of the important and long-wanted incentives given to Serbian people to finally “realize” that their future lies in the “family of the European states” and not in the “backwardness of the past.”

            As it came right before the May 11th parliamentary elections in Serbia that are largely considered to be the crucial one for Serbia’s future, the news of the Agreement signing caused a lengthy discussion and division among already politically divided people of Serbia. On the one hand are the “pro-European” and “pro-western” political formations grouped around President Tadić and his Democratic party (DS) that stand in defense of the SSA claiming it has nothing to do with the Kosovo issue and that it only benefits Serbia’s bargaining position in a “new” round of negotiations about the status of the separatist region. On the other hand, sympathizers of the politics of the nationalist-labeled Serbian Prime Minister in Resignation, the leader of Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the former coalition partner of President Tadić Dr. Vojislav Koštunica see the signing act as a treachery of Serbian interests and as legitimizing the attack on Serbian sovereignty and autonomy by recognizing the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence.

            The strongest individual political group, the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) under the ideological guidance of Vojislav Šešelj who is presently on trial in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has a somewhat harsher rhetoric against the SAA than Koštunica’s supporters. Signing the SAA for them is the ultimate act of President Tadić’s hypocrisy and a lack of patriotism as the Agreement legitimizes the decision of 18 EU states to recognize the unilateralism of Kosovo’s Albanians and the United States.

             The supporters of President Tadić’s decision claim that, because of the strict requirements, the SAA opens new possibilities for Serbian development. For them, it is a major step towards liberation of the strict visa regime for travel to EU countries, it ensures higher security and quality of products as well as higher supply of higher variety of goods, it strengthens the political position of Serbia in the Balkans and Europe, and finally, it sends a clear signal to the foreign investors that Serbia is a serious and reliable area for investment.  

            However, for Dr. Vojislav Koštunica and SRS vice-president Tomislav Nikolić, signing the SAA resembles the first step towards Serbian recognition of the “new reality in the Balkans” and the independence of Kosovo as a sovereign state. It is due to the Article 135 in the agreement that somewhat ambiguously states that the “present” status of the Kosovo province will not be questioned. The reason for the ambiguity lies in the fact that, on the 17th of November last year, at the time when the draft of the agreement was decided upon, the status of Kosovo was still under negotiation. Hence this “present” status can either mean that the common EU policy towards Kosovo is based on the UN Resolution 1244 that places it under Serbian jurisdiction, or that EU is taking a new course, and recognizing the unilateral move of Kosovo’s Albanians and of some influential international factors. Both Koštunica’s DSS and SRS view the agreement as illegitimate since 18 members of the EU violated the Article 135 and the UN Resolution 1244 by recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

            After years of sanctions, wars, unjust privatizations, low standard of living and isolation, the Serbian people thought that the consequences of previous politics and world’s negative view on Serbia have finally come to an end. The unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo that is by now recognized by some 40 members of the UN is what once again brought greater instability and anxiousness about the future among the Serbians. Will the election of the 11th of May finally bring Serbia out on an “illuminated” path of European integration and towards a gradual accession to the EU? Or will it bring Serbia to the state of the dark and turbulent ‘90s?

            Maybe the EU “democrats” should ask themselves these questions. If the high representatives of the EU such as Javier Solana or Oli Rehn continue interfering in the internal matters of a sovereign state suggesting the best possible outcomes of the Serbian elections and rising tensions by warning against “self-isolation” and revival of extreme nationalism, we might witness more instability in the region and Serbia might once again come up on the top of the world’s news reports.

            The Serbian electorate is so greatly divided between the “pro-Europeans” and “nationalists” that the likeliness of turmoil is at high odds. What makes Serbians mistrust EU’s intentions with the SAA even more is the fact that same politicians who contributed to the weakening of Serbia’s power are still present in the EU institutions. Solana is one of the EU officials from the times of the ’99 NATO-led attack on Serbia, and he already made an (in)significant contribution to the “improvement” of Serbia’s economic and political stability. He was one of the “firm believers” in NATO’s “Merciful Angel” air strikes (led to 6, 000 civilian deaths and the destruction of one-third of Serbia’s infrastructure in 78 days) and he was one of the “firm believers” in the Kumanovo Peace accords between the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević that had established the UN Resolution 1244 on the basis of which Kosovo remains an autonomous region within Serbia (Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on the 18th of February and Solana was the first EU official to go to Kosovo and congratulate the act). Finally, he was also a “firm believer” in the federation of Serbia and Montenegro which ended in Montenegrin secession after a referendum in 2006. By chance or not, every mission in the Balkans that was carried out by Javier Solana has ended up weakening Serbia and sending a wrong message to the people about the true EU’s intentions towards this Balkan state.

            The relationship between Serbia and the EU has always been complex and asymmetric. While most of the EU officials’ rhetoric openly welcomes and embraces Serbia as a future EU member, their acts show a different attitude towards the whole process. Their decision to offer the SAA to Serbia before the general parliamentary elections of the 11th of May was justified on the basis of support for the pro-European political fractions competing in the election. However, the fact that the SAA was offered right before the elections could potentially cause quite the opposite; it could strengthen the Euro-skeptic political subjects that have most support among the radical segments of the electorate. I have grown immensely disappointed at the levels of political immaturity that is shown by the leaders of Serbia’s political parties in this crucial moment for the Serbian people. The decision to sign the SAA came at the time when the temporary government is having the “Russian deals” on the table. Tadić decided to postpone signing the energy and roads agreements with the Russian Federation that is worth $4.5 billion for after the May 11th election, but decided to sign the SAA before the election date. It seems to me that this was a wrong move that will discourage voters from giving their support to his pro-European option, and will restructure into the nationalistic electorate body.  

            The reason why I take the offered version of the SAA that was signed by President Tadić with a dose of concern differs in essence from the reasons provided by Dr. Koštunica or the SRS Vice-President Tomislav Nikolić. I would have to agree with President Tadić in his remarks that isolated, economically weak and internationally demonized Serbia will not be able to influence the situation in Kosovo. Only Serbia with a restored international reputation, economy recovered from the brutal transition and Serbia as a full and equal member of the EU will be able to persuade other countries to reassess their decision to recognize Kosovo’s Albanians unilateralism. The version of the SAA that was signed last Tuesday, however, does not have clear benefits for the people as it has for the competing political elites. All the visa liberalization, access to 460-million-people market and trade liberalization “benefits” will have to wait until the Agreement is ratified in the parliaments of all 27 members of the EU. The inability to intervene during the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 by the Dutch and Belgian members of the UN peace-keeping corps who were based in this eastern Bosnian town will still continue to dictate the Dutch and Belgian politics towards Serbia. The parliaments of these two countries and likely, a number of others in the EU will not ratify the SAA until Serbia establishes full cooperation with the ICTY in Hague. With Serbia’s inability to arrest two Bosnian Serbs accused of war crimes Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, there will be no more significant steps and incentives for a full Serbian accession to the EU. Therefore why sign an agreement that practically has no legal or binding weight on the signing members until the Hague requirements are entirely fulfilled?

            Having all that in mind, a “clear” benefit of signing the SAA for the Serbian people is anything but clear. Instead of all the heavenly promises about the increase in the living standards and foreign investments, freedom of movement, and goods and information exchange that comes with signing the SAA, Serbian people are most likely going to have to wait longer for more “reforms” and even more concrete moves by their political leadership towards fulfilling the EU’s growing desires. Many are unaware of the hardships that people in the Balkans are having nowadays because of the leverage exercised by the EU. Instead of punishing the dominant political subjects with the blackmailing policies and conditions, the EU is collectivizing the inability of the government to cooperate with the ICTY in Hague and punishing the Serbian people by making it almost impossible to travel abroad and enjoy the rights that are granted to every other citizen of the vast majority of the European states. The benefit of the SAA is only clear to the political groups on both sides who are collecting the points from ever-more confused Serbian electorate. If nothing, the May elections will definitely be remembered as the most pressurizing ones and the ones where the “choice-between-life-or-death” phrase has been the most excessively used.

            The EU needs to work on restoring its damaged reputation among many in the Balkans by finally realizing that the only way to deal with the region’s problems is through engaging in a conversation with the Balkan states on the basis of equality and mutual respect. These are also the pillars of the EU and the bases of the Copenhagen Criteria and the Acquis Communautaire. The only thing that is missing in the EU-Serbia relations is precisely this right on parity and partnership. If the EU is truly a partner of Serbia, than why is it imposing its excessive blackmailing leverage upon the people while interpreting it as something that is undeniable and a law? That goes in entire against the alleged European values and the Serbian people will remain Euro-skeptic in large numbers until they start being treated like all other partners with whom the EU is negotiating. In this moment, the Serbian political scene is falling into a deadlock with no clear prospects of reaching a government of national unity. The EU will continue to dominate Serbian politics and dictate all the policies which, if not carefully established, could reverse the progress that Serbia has made towards meeting the EU requirements. As for the people, they can still keep hoping that David will in the end manage to beat Goliath.