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Building Democracy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – Public Diplomacy Strategies

Article by Event Report

September 15, 2006

On Thursday October 19th The Foreign Policy Centre convened and hosted a fascinating off-record discussion seminar on ways in which the West in general, and Britain in particular, could assist the recently emerged Serbian democracy, build up its institutions and preserve its new and hard-won freedoms. Professor Mary Kaldor of the LSE and Charles Crawford of the FCO chaired a panel of academic, civil society and diplomatic experts on Balkan Affairs.

The background

The speakers unanimously hailed what had been an inspiring and legitimate “people’s revolution” but were quick to warn that the hard work in Yugoslavia was only just beginning. In a sense, relief overpowered happiness as the dominant emotion. An end had come at last to ten years of debilitating and belligerent dictatorship, a decade that had left Yugoslavia isolated, brutalised and impoverished. Serbia had stood on the brink of civil war; only the ultimate reluctance of the security forces to open fire on Serb civilians had prevented bloodshed.

Speakers agreed that the current situation was far from straightforward. Slobodan Milosevic and his power apparatus remains a malevolent presence in the background while Kostunica finds himself President of a Yugoslavia which will only continue to exist as long as Montenegro and Kosovo are included in the country. It is striking that there was little evidence of euphoria at Milosevic’s downfall in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia or elsewhere. Clearly much will depend on the Serbian elections in December, and on how the new president handles the nationalist dialectic in which he may find himself entangled: pulled by those impatient for revolutionary change on the one hand and those who quickly hark bark to former days when things go wrong on the other, all under the shadow of Chetnik symbolism.

Principles for progress

The panel agreed that four broad principles should inform short and medium term strategies. The first was an integrated regional approach to the Balkans: it would be wrong to be seen to be rewarding Serbia for Milosevic’s misdemeanours. Meanwhile, other Balkan nations who had used the Serbian menace to obfuscate on internal progress now had no excuse but to press on with reform. There exist large opportunities for Serbia and for the whole region, notably in the form of a post-Kosovo regional stability pact, which had been previously blocked by Milosevic’s regime. Serbia has to be integrated into the mechanisms of regional co-operation. Its relations with the United Nations, Western Europe and its Balkan neighbours must be rapidly normalised.

The second revolves around slowly changing and improving the internal set-up in Yugoslavia. The current narrow mindsets need to be broken, thinking needs to be opened up and a healing process started. Milosevic may be gone, but the oversized and dangerous ranks of army, secret service, police force and diplomatic service in Serbia remain replete with scores of his placemen. Over a million Serbs still voted for their former dictator. Such elements of continuity will need careful and subtle treatment. Downsizing, the gradual weeding-out of Milosevic’s supporters, and a change of emphasis, for example from repressive to community policing, will all be necessary.

Thirdly, an end is needed to imperialist and didactic attitudes from the West. The post-Milosevic era needs to be approached with humility and sensitivity, not triumphalism. The insensitive arrogance displayed towards Eastern Europe after 1989 must not be repeated: we should listen to Serbs’ worries and demands, not preach at them. It is important to remember that the Serbs overthrew Milosevic themselves; it was not Allied bombs which finally forced him out. There remains a strong anti-Western suspicion in Yugoslavia and many Serbs feel their revolution was in spite of the West, its bombs and sanctions, not because of it.

Fourthly, accountability and transparency in aid provision is crucial. Services on a local and municipal level have also to be a major priority. The sort of changes on that level are the ones that people really see, and the creation of trust in functioning accountable participatory local government is vital. The indictment of Milosevic on war crimes charges also assisted the process of change in Yugoslavia, but now help is needed to enable the Serbs to try and convict the malefactors of recent years in their own courts of justice. At present, legal frameworks in Yugoslavia are almost non-existent. In addition, oil prices are now higher than ever, sugar and heating for homes are still in scarce supply, and the list of hardships goes on. People can get very cynical about change very quickly, and this can push them into more extreme positions on either side of Kostunica. Some material assistance is therefore clearly necessary, although the way it is apportioned must be carefully monitored to guard against making already endemic corruption any worse.

Concrete assistance

Several elements at work in precipitating and assisting the recent changes were singled out, and Britain can feel particularly proud of its role. The Local Radio Network was very helpful and the support given to the Youth Networks was also extremely important. Civil society groundwork and awareness raising, much of it online, also played a role. The breadth and scope of such work needs to be amplified and entrenched in order to build up the institutions and mindsets that will preserve the nascent Serb democracy and enable it to flourish. The BBC World Service is now increasing FM broadcasts in Serbia, and opening a Media training centre like that already operational in Bosnia. Serbia needs a free Media, and to develop the norm that debate and criticism are forces that strengthen democracy, not which threaten a ruling elite. The Norwegian scheme of awarding stipends to promising Yugoslav students is another useful assistance scheme.

Lessons from Bosnia-Herzegovina

Lessons to be learned from the Bosnian reconstruction experience were also frequently drawn, although the situation on the ground is different. It is clear that job creation has to be an absolute priority in the new Yugoslavia if a return to the sort of conditions that precipitate violence is to be avoided.

The International Community has economic means at its disposal, but wishes to achieve political ends. In Bosnia it is now becoming clear that the achievements of post-conflict reconstruction are still vague. The West wants change quickly, but real progress may well come extremely slowly. Successful economic reforms will always be sui generis: different actors’ needs and demands can be and often are contradictory. At the moment, the potential of human capital in Serbia exceeds its production capacity. Serbia’s skilled/educated people must be used carefully. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, society and economy are still sluggish even after five years. Bosnia also indicates the vital lesson that aid to Yugoslavia must be apportioned with the utmost care in order to avoid entrenched and expanding networks of organised crime and corruption.

Another crucial question emerging from Bosnia, and arguably the biggest failure there, was on the question of identity. States simply are not capable of democracy and stability without some form of identity, and no tangible progress is possible without it. Having effectively imposed borders on the region, extreme tolerance of the Greater Serbia question, and of how the Serbs handle the issue of their identity, was recommended: for example over the display of Chetnik symbols. Coherent political communities have to be invented and made viable across the region, including in Kosovo. Only then can really workable settlements on how to run things emerge, otherwise one can fall prey to zealots and tyrants: the local people have to be worked with first.

Looking forwards

The recent changes also effectively mean that Britain, and the West, no longer has a real plan for Kosovo, or really for Bosnia-Herzegovina either. Current tactics of working through sovereign actors has increased corruption and dependency, and led to increasingly bitter rivalries. A stance of ‘constructive ambiguity’ over borders, and Kosovo in particular, has much to recommend it, but solutions cannot be delayed indefinitely, and the recent Kosovo Commission Report recommending conditional independence clearly changes the parameters of the debate.

The lack of trust and respect in Serbia at the moment, as well as the danger of being too patronising, are real problems. People there have many very good ideas and must be listened to, but there are also far too many people there who have no role at all in moving things forward. The need for a new attitude of humility and inclusiveness from the West is therefore imperative. Work must happen within and involving all elements of Serb society, not just be imposed on top of it. The Foreign Policy Centre will seek to continue to convene such events with the ongoing aim of discussing and assisting the development of democracy and legitimacy in the new Yugoslavia, and across the battle-weary and scarred Balkan region.

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