Monday, December 6, 2010

Takeaways from Belgrade: US Embassy & Minister Djelic

I’d never been inside nor really recognized the presence of US Embassies before visiting the one in Serbia. This being said my first interaction with their staff was being told that no pictures were allowed of the outside of the building by a large, domineering man who appeared out of thin air. He showed no mercy after we identified ourselves as Americans and claimed to have a scheduled appointment with some chief officers within the office. Still once we got through the heavy-handed security who forced us to drink some of our water to prove it wasn’t poisonous, we had a wonderful few hours talking to smiling, eager to please faces of the staff of this Embassy post.

Basically the objective of the Embassy, as they told us, is one of classic diplomacy: to help Serbia understand the United States and forge a positive relationship. Every twenty minutes a new staff-member came into the conference room and told us more about his or her responsibilities and we wound up hearing from five sectors through the press attaché, deputy chief of missions, consular chief, political officer, and culture department. Naturally we learned a great deal and all these interesting, intelligent people sparked an interest for all of us in Foreign Service. Here’s some of what I took from our conversations:

Serbia has three primary international tasks at hand: EU integration, defending territorial integrity with Kosovo, and regional cooperation.

When thinking about the European Union the main gap lies in the Balkans. A mission of the US Embassy in Serbia is to prepare Serbia to be able to be integrated into foreign affairs and the Euro-Atlantic institutions: the EU and NATO. NATO would also welcome Serbia but Serbia is not so willing as just eleven years ago NATO bombed Serbia. However ascension into the EU is much more likely. The Embassy informed us that Serbs are polled as socially conservative with 60% wanting to join EU, but less than 50% trusting the institution. They say this doubt stems from the general pessimistic mentality of ‘if they didn’t want us then we don’t want them’. Minister Djelic -- Minister of Science and Technological Development -- echoed this saying that he admits that Serbs have a stubborn expectation that “only the gold medal will do.” On October 25th Serbia received great news from the EU that their application is moving forward because of the 11th hour decision President Tadic made in August to agree to begin negotiations with Kosovo. This was against the advice by his senior advisors and “not a typically Serbian act” (according to the chief deputy of missions) but the US strongly supported this and this progression was the main reason for Hilary Clinton’s visit in October. The Embassy also told us that this was virtually the first thing that President Tadic has done with the EU since he ran in 2008 with succession to the EU and preserving Serbian history and relations with Kosovo as his platform. And even though the EU application has now been forwarded to the commission this fall, Kosovo is still outstanding which leads me to the second task.

Right as Serbia agreed to negotiations the president of Kosovo resigned, suspicious? Many people at the conference thought so and most people we talked to in Belgrade as well. But one fundamental paradox with the relationship with Kosovo is that President (of Serbia) Tadic can make strategic missions with Kosovo but it is political suicide to formally recognize Kosovo. With this position it’s no wonder why more isn’t done with this fragile matter. In the EU, 22 out of 27 countries recognize Kosovo and three have declared that they will not recognize it even if Serbia chooses to. That struck me as quite a high percentage so I looked into it a bit further and found that only 72 of the 192 member states of the UN formally recognize Kosovo which makes Serbia seem like less of a variance although its association to Kosovo is closer than all others. Another factor which makes you question why Kosovo is not being more cooperative with the negotiations is that Kosovo is not self-sustainable. I learned from the conference that it spends $5 billion more than it earns each year with major trades of human and drug trafficking. This conflict is playing out as most seem to where the only change will be seen when both parties are ready to forgive past wrongs and move forward to compromise.

Regional cooperation is key to pacify the lingering tensions between neighboring countries since the 1990s. Macedonia and Montenegro recognized Kosovo in 2008 which was a slap in Serbia’s face at the time because it was right after Serbia sent them an unrequited request to hear what they thought about Kosovo’s independence. Slovenia and Hungary are both members of the EU who formally recognize Kosovo. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a very complex governmental structure with a two level state of the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with sub-regional, local, and national governments. In 2006 Serbia signed a “special ties agreement” with the Republic of Srpska to promote cooperation and support territorial integrity between the two nations but this convoluted compound seems awfully unstable to me. And hostility with Croatia, the most futile relationship, has been unresolved due to the disputed border on the Danuv and the Serbian refugees unlawfully kicked out of Croatia. These relationships are in no way effortless but they are necessary to generate complete Balkan integrity.

So what is holding Serbia back? According to the Embassy, the government needs to make their stance reflect the will of Serbia, shape the public opinion to build support, and move proactively to sensitize the public. Serbs do not favor the current government like they’d need to for the government to have the ability to change their opinions because the economic standard of living -- the people’s direct and daily glimpse of the government’s work -- is not improving. Additionally Serbia has much baggage from the Yugoslav wars, Serbia doesn’t want to open up their market and compete, and Russia doesn’t want to see the western Balkans in NATO and the EU. Serbia needs to recognize human rights, fight the organized crime, bring war criminals to justice, and bring prosperity and welfare to the people, all matters that would make Serbia more like the western world.

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