Saturday, 12 May 2012 18:30

Homemade Rakija, Homemade Problems

Written by Bernhard Clemm

Already amazed by the hospitality of people all across Europe, Serbia yet exceeded the idea we had of hospitality and helpfulness. A few minutes after checking in at our hostel in Belgrade, a round of homemade Rakija stood in front of us. "It's on the house!", the hostel owner welcomed us. During the following night with some more Rakija and a glance at the Belgrade nightlife, we nearly forgot that we had stumbled into Serbia in the midst of an election campaign. We were reminded the next morning when some Danes, part of an NGO monitoring the upcoming elections, claimed their reservations and made us get out of bed earlier than intended. On the 6th of May, the elections affirmed the mandate of the present pro-EU government; in two weeks' time, there will be a run-off between two pro-European presidential candidates. Is Serbia inevitably heading towards the EU? (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Our perception of things gets somewhat clearer in the course of the day. Dušan, a student of law in Belgrade, takes us to the citadel atop of the city centre where we wander past stones dating back to Roman civilisation. While we enjoy the view onto the slow and mighty Danube river, Dušan gives us an insight into Serbian culture and history. It is a rich history, and Serbs are rightly proud of it: in its golden age in the 14th century, for example, Serbia established one of the first all-encompassing constitutions in the history of mankind. Many legends surround the arrival of the Ottomans, when Serbia long perceived itself as the defender of Christendom - and eventually lost. The collective memory is still marked by the 500-year Ottoman occupation thereafter. Another point of reference is the communist regime of Tito, when Yugoslavians lived relatively unbothered (when obedient) and were economically well-off - an idea of strength that today's Serbia struggles to live up to.

"Many people do not stop lamenting over those glorious pasts," Dušan complains, "I am certainly not one of them." Neither are mainstream politics of the last years when it comes to European affairs, it seems. Since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the country has continuously been turning westwards. Liberal Pro-European Boris Tadić was elected president in 2004. In 2009, Serbia applied for EU membership and since early 2012, it has been an official candidate. After the elections on Sunday, nearly all the parties now represented in parliament are in favour of membership. Even the nationalist party and their leader Tomislav Nikolić, competitor to Tadić in the upcoming presidential run-off, has become an ardent promoter of the EU. The great paradox: none of the leading parties recognise Kosovo's independence. By contrast, 22 out of 27 European countries have recognised it, and some even make it the conditio sine qua non for the EU membership of Serbia. The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast that they will make sure Serbia joins the EU as well as keeping Kosovo.

The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast with it.

After our visit to the citadel, we meet Andrej Ivanij, a Serbian journalist and correspondent for Austrian and German newspapers. What is the Euro-enthusiasm of Serbian politics all about? "Politicians present the EU as a promised land. It is a story that is easily told: accede to the EU – and get money." As for ideological differences, there is no longer a right-left distinction, Ivanij assures us. The only remaining dispute is the question whether to be in favour or against EU membership. Serbian politics has flattened out: crucial issues like the 27% unemployed are not addressed, but simply put aside by the prospect of EU membership. Quite an easy way out for politicians. Many Serbians buy the story: the prospect of European funds is just too alluring.

The elections held on Sunday have just rewarded the political establishment for their pro-EU ideology. Of the young people we talk to, many find the idea of being in the EU attractive – indeed, the argument of financial aid for the morbid economy is often mentioned. However, the enthusiasm is more limited than the elections suggest. The turnout last Sunday was only 60%, and in a discussion with some Serbian students we understand why. Many are influenced by the too simplistic "Europe and Kosovo." Of those who realise that Serbia will only have the EU or Kosovo, quite a few would go for the latter, as Milan tells us. National feelings are still strong in Serbia. With regard to the Kosovo issue, Serbs feel that they have been gradually deprived of their traditional heartland (most ancient monasteries, historical battles) by Muslim and Albanian immigration. As Milan points out, they are also alienated by the way Europe treats Serbia on the issue: "Leave us alone and respect the territorial integrity of Serbia!"

Young Serbs understand themselves as uncompromisingly European, whether they want the EU or not, independent of lasting national pride.

The day before, Dušan had explained us why he opposes the accession plans. More pragmatic, less nationalistic: "Serbia is not ready to join the EU yet. Before that, it has to sort out its homemade problems, among them the Kosovo issue." Through the tour he gave us, we learnt something else, of equal importance to the membership question: young Serbs understand themselves as uncompromisingly European, whether they want the EU or not, independent of lasting national pride. This feeling is not only based on the collective memory of having been the doorstep of Ottoman invasions in Europe for centuries and on the many historical sites of Christian orthodoxy. It is the vivid cultural landscape of Belgrade that reminds us that Eastern Europe has always been there, yet dormant until two or three decades ago. Rambling through the cafés and clubs of Belgrade, as Germans we feel as if we were in another East Berlin (but more untouched than Prenzlauer Berg).

Over a coffee in the KC Grad, art space, conference hall and club at the same time, the owner Dejan argues: "The cultural identity of Europe exists in diversity. Even if we cannot find political agreements, we should not stop exchanging culturally. And I do not want boring EU programmes to interfere with that exchange." Europe in its cultural aspects rather than in its political dimension: it is something we continue to hear from young Europeans.

Last modified on Saturday, 12 May 2012 21:16

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