Interview with Bojan Elek
Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP)
A couple of days ago I had a very interesting interview with Bojan Elek, researcher at the BCSP (Belgrade Centre for Security Policy), at their office near the Terazije, the Serbian capital’s historic downtown area. Our talk covered a variety of topics, from Serbia’s role in the EU, in the Balkans and in the global framework to future challenges.
Mr. Elek, the European Union at present is facing a finance crisis, an unsolved refugee crisis, international conflicts and terrorism. Why would the Serbian people still want to become an EU member?
Bojan Elek: Support for the EU among citizens is currently below 50%. Last June it was 49%, according to a Public Opinion Survey. This dwindling support is a general trend, and it’s mainly a response to the refugee crisis.
And the Serbian government?
Bojan Elek: The government of Aleksandar Vučić and the opposition are strongly in favor of a future EU membership. Their reasons are strategic, but they also see an opportunity for implementing reforms and receiving funds. It’s interesting that Prime Minister Vučić’s position has changed over the years. In the 1990s he was still a fervent nationalist.
What are the major obstacles to overcome for Serbia?
Bojan Elek: The core issue remains the Kosovo. This is what the government and the EU primarily focus on while they neglect all other important issues that should be tackled. Negotiation chapters 32 and 35 will thus be opened this month.
Would Serbia as an EU member accept to host war refugees?
Bojan Elek: Serbia has been praised by the EU for its role in the Syrian refugee crisis. But it’s primarily a transit country. 50 persons received asylum in the past few years. This year, we received about 500 requests. That’s nothing compared to thousands in Germany. There’s no functioning asylum system in Serbia because the government didn’t have the capacities to build up operative institutions.
Kalemegdan Fortress at Danube and Sava rivers in Belgrade
Do you think nationalism is good for an EU member state?
Bojan Elek: I think nationalism in general is bad for the European idea. And it’s growing in France, Hungary and Denmark. The Serbian government follows no such ideological direction as its only interest is to stay in power. The EU, on the other hand, works on normalization with Kosovo, but turns a blind eye to the declining freedom of press.
In what way?
Bojan Elek: Voices critical of the government are being muted. On TV commercials and certain programs get canceled. There’s big censorship on reports. But there’s no reaction from the EU to this censorship in Serbia. Politicians like Johannes Hahn (Austrian EU-Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations) don’t lose a word on all that.
I guess this is a general trend even in Western Europe.
Who can guarantee that Serbia as a new EU member won’t end up in a finance crisis like Greece?
Bojan Elek: Serbia has had deficits for many years. I think the current debt level is about 70% of the GDP, and there aren’t many signs of improvement. But we don’t have any access to funds, which Greece had for many, many years.
Has the economic situation for Serbia deteriorated after it split from Montenegro in 2006?
Bojan Elek: I don’t think that this had much effect. Serbia and Montenegro still have strong trading relations. Even though Montenegro is by the sea, I assume that the impact on tourism is also small.
Why does Serbia continue to be a key player in the Western Balkans?
Bojan Elek: Because of our history Serbia’s considered as having a trouble-making potential. But Serbia’s military forces are much weaker now. There’s strong political and financial support it provides, for instance, to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia. Then, it’s also the most populous country in the Balkans. And it has close ties with Russia. It can be also a key player in responding to the refugee crisis.
How has the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo improved?
Bojan Elek: The relationship has never been good, but it has improved. After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a number of agreements have been signed. For example, in 2013 the Brussels Agreement with the aim of integrating Serbian local police forces into the Kosovo police and the local government system. There are also infrastructural reforms. However, Kosovo itself is facing internal political issues. Only recently, their police had to use teargas against protesters who often oppose certain agreements.
Who in the international community supports Kosovo?
Bojan Elek: The international community isn’t supporting these protests. Of course, the EU and the US support Kosovo. There’s a huge American military base in Kosovo. The EU’s main interest is a stable relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.
Is the situation different with Bosnia?
Bojan Elek: Bosnia is very difficult because it’s not functional. The country is too federalist. For example there’s one police force in Republika Srpska, but 16 different administrative forces in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Dayton Agreement would need to be reformed.
Ethnic Tensions seem to have eased since Prime Minister Vucic´s last visit in Bosnia last summer where he was welcomed with stones…
Bojan Elek: The people in Srebrenica certainly remembered Vučić’s nationalist speech a couple of years ago, so they just wouldn’t take his apology seriously. There’s a strong need for reconciliation but I think Vučić instrumentalized this stone attack back in Serbia for his own political agenda.
Would Serbia object if Albania or Bosnia became EU members before Serbia?
Bojan Elek: No, because the whole region would benefit from EU memberships. Bosnia is facing a stand-still, so there’s no way it would become an EU member sooner. Albania has only recently received a candidate status.
Parliament Palace in Belgrade
What makes Serbs different from their neighbors?
Bojan Elek: I think there are more similarities than differences. Except for Albanians, we share similar languages and similar institutions. Religion doesn’t play a major role. The biggest difference is our historic experience, the war atrocities in the 1990s. So there’s still some sort of mistrust, especially coming from the governments. They should make clear signals. On the other hand, there’s growing trust. For instance a student exchange program has been started with Albania after the Berlin Process was initiated last year. Even if few are still using it, it’s a good start!
Could protests topple the Serbian government as they occurred in May in Macedonia?
Bojan Elek: No, I don’t see this happening in the near future. Protests are taking place in Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo, but none of their governments has fallen. Why should that happen? Our government controls the police and the media. Vučić cooperates with the EU with regards to the Kosovo question so they also wouldn’t oppose him.
Many unknown Syrians are passing through the Balkans. Is there a terrorist threat for Serbia?
Bojan Elek: I don’t think so. Serbia doesn’t send troops to Syria. We only support UN Missions in Lebanon and Cyprus. Terrorism is more likely to become a threat in Bosnia where some jihadist mountain villages exist where Sharia law is practiced. A far bigger threat than terrorism is that people will turn against refugees.
So there are no terrorists among the refugees?
Bojan Elek: Even if there may be some, not all thousands of refugees are terrorists.
How can you tell who is a terrorist and who is a refugee?
Bojan Elek: There should be a screening at the borders. A need for a picture, name and an exchange of ID information. If that is available. Police have to make sure nobody carries guns and weapons.
Usually, an EU membership entails a NATO membership. Would Serbia want to become a NATO member?
Bojan Elek: That’s a general scenario but there are exceptions. Austria, for instance, isn’t a NATO member yet it’s in the EU.
But that was longer ago…
Bojan Elek: Serbia was bombed by NATO, so support for a NATO membership is low. There’s an IPAP Agreement anyway which allows NATO troops to cross Serbian territory.
What impact does Russia have on Serbia?
Bojan Elek: Historically, Serbia has maintained close ties with Russia. The problem is that Russia is somehow using Serbia as an instrument. For example Serbia sold its national oil company under the actual price after Russia had promised to include it in the South Stream Pipeline project. We’re somehow dependent on Russian oil and gas, and dependence is never optimal. There’s a free trade agreement with Moscow and a close relationship between Vučić and Putin, who met at the war commemoration event but didn’t sign any agreements.
Whom would you consider Serbia’s closest ally?
Bojan Elek: I guess the EU has high potential to be our ally, but only if it shifts its focus away from the central Kosovo issue. There’s also to say that there aren’t only benefits to the EU as one may be exposed to economic pressures.
And Serbia’s greatest enemy?
Bojan Elek: Enemy? There aren’t enemies in international relations, mainly interests. I’d only say that there’ve been difficulties with Kosovo, which the Albanians perceived as a severe problem. So that relationship wasn’t so intense.
What’s going wrong in the EU and in international politics?
Bojan Elek: That sounds as if all was going wrong.
Then what should be improved?
Bojan Elek: Huge internal issues need to be solved, particularly with regards to responding to the refugee crisis. One main problem is that the ideals the EU proclaims contradict their actions. First of all, bombing Libya and Syria created security vacuums. It was irresponsible behavior. No matter what you think of Gadaffi, a stable government should have priority to everything else. Now the EU is fighting a new “war on terror”, but we know how ineffective the old US war on terror has been. The consequences are the danger of rising right-wing forces and walls.
Would you say that the EU is moving away from a peace power to a war power?
Bojan Elek: I wouldn’t call it a war power because the military forces aren’t that strong. I’d call the EU a failed soft power.
How could Serbia contribute to a peaceful, stable Europe?
Bojan Elek: I think Serbia better stay out of NATO on an international scale. Then, it has to make progress with internal reforms to contribute to development and stability by having dialogue with everybody.
Serbia’s Titoist heritage: Rundown apartment blocks in Belgrade’s suburbs
Former Soviet Russian President Gorbachev often warns of a Third World War. How likely is this scenario?
Bojan Elek: Not very likely, I think. Of course, the situation in some countries has become highly unstable. There’s a strong potential for violent protests and right-wing movements. And the way the EU responds to them is an issue. But there are so many regional global initiatives that even in the Balkans new civil wars are unlikely.
Where do you see Serbia and the EU in the next ten years?
Bojan Elek: Hopefully, Serbia and Montenegro will be EU member states. I don’t see this happening before 2021 though. I think the EU has to deepen its integration in terms of fiscal and security policies, not only expand horizontally. I don’t think the UK will leave the EU nor do I believe in a Grexit. The benefits of being an EU member outweigh the disadvantages.
Is Turkey further away from becoming an EU member than Serbia?
Bojan Elek: At present it isn’t likely Turkey will join the EU so soon because the Turkish population has lost interest. Turkey has a long way to go with regards to European values like freedom of speech, debates on the death penalty and ensuring secularity. President Erdogan is another big issue, even though Serbia has no official stance to Turkey and its current escalations with Russia.
Thank you for the interview.
© Interview by Stefan Haderer, Belgrade, 30 November 2015