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Why a public debate on Serbia’s NATO membership is needed

Jelena Milić, CEAS Director, foreword for the fourth issue of the CEAS electronic quarterly The New Century

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„Critics of the current Government will not bring Serbia down.“
Aleksandar Vučić, the show „Teška Teč“, TV Pink, 29.9.2013.

L'État, c'est moi – the principle based on which ever more openly the Progressive Party leader, the First Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia and the Coordinator of all security services, Aleksandar Vučić, is attempting to reign over Serbia, is not complementary with the notion of a modern, stable, democratic country in the 21st century, with a clear separation of powers, rule of law and respect for human rights.

Thirteen years since the start of its political and economic transition, Serbia is still on the verge of slipping into a “captured state” model of politico-economic relations. The authoritarian trend based on which Vučić is imposing himself, and based on which he was imposed upon us, additionally slows down the process of consolidation. Meanwhile, transitional justice mechanisms failed to provide the desired results, for which Serbia is not the only one to blame. The Western international community has previously given up on their essence, refusing to convey to Serbia, loudly and clearly, the reasons for which it was bombed, if the protection of civilians and the prevention of excessive use of force were the actual reason, and bring these circumstances more clearly in relation with Kosovo’s independence. By doing so, in a country with a difficult legacy of committed war crimes, the West, consciously or not, contributed to stopping the process of personnel vetting in the security system - which the mechanisms of transitional justice legitimately enable - much sooner than it was supposed to.

This is why it is dangerous to have someone with such a large baggage of bad political stances and decisions, like Vučić, states in two TV shows – O.K. I have sinned, I realize that, I have changed – and self-lustrates himself in this way, while society and the Western international community approve. Such a rinsed-out Vučić then imposes himself as the most influential man in the country and society, although based on state of affairs in the security system in general as well as the fact that a new Security-Information Agency (BIA) Director has not yet been named, such a portrayal of him is quite questionable. The trend is in the point at which recently Vučić quite openly equated criticism of his Government with bringing down the state, supported by the obvious silence of the Western community.

Hence the open question of how much leeway there will remain for the possibility of correcting the consequences of these trends by January 2014 when the formal start of accession negotiations with the EU is expected, if the state of Serbia continues disintegrating like this, but also whether the process itself is comprehensive enough for this. Disintegration, of course, is not caused by the action of us, critics of the current regime, as Vučić presents it, but comes due to the inability or lack of will of the state to secure constitutionally guaranteed rights for all of its citizens and maintain its monopoly over the organized use of force.

How else to explain the fact that the state is incapable of securing even the walk within the Pride Week, announced a year earlier, the route of which – around the block consisting of mainly public administration buildings - is already a great enough compromise of the organizers in order to make it easier for the state to respond to as many security risks as possible. Neither the thesis that the state was defeated by external elements – hooligans and violent right-wingers; nor that it did not succumb to the pressure of these so-called hooligans by prohibiting the walk, holds water. The walk was prohibited either due to the consciousness of the „national security council in its wider composition“, whatever that means, that there is no single chain of command in the security system which developments during the walk would show; or because the state leadership does not actually want to lead Serbia towards the EU, but dares not to publicly say so. Hence it uses instead its mercenaries to threaten violence. And then they use this threat as an excuse for prohibiting the walk and promotion of conservatism which often goes further, entering the field of hate speech. Both scenarios are equally bad for Serbian citizens, as they intensify the processes of putinization which increasingly distance it from democratic consolidation and Europeanization.

Organization of the Pride Week, a manifestation which makes Belgrade part of the world, the Western, humane and more inclusive than the rest of the planet, also contributes, each and every time to our ability to review not only the relationship of the state and the public towards the protection of human rights and freedoms, but also the state of affairs in the security system. It should not be forgotten that the news that there is about two thousand persons on secret illegal payroll lists of the Ministry of Interior, published only a week before the Pride Week, passed completely without any kind of denial from the police or the Government.

The existence of these formations confirms that even thirteen years since the October changes, the state of Serbia has not given up the services of the main pillars of Milošević's criminal regime. These are the „individuals“ and „self-organized“ paramilitary groups who carried out false ethnic incidents in Bosnia and Croatia in the nineties, followed by the nineties wars whose flames they ignited, and implemented their arbitrary terror and crimes ordered by the Government which regular units should not commit, although they terribly slipped into it. These are the same „spontaneous disappointed citizens“ who burn embassies precisely of those countries who were among the first to support Kosovo's declaration of independence, the same „spontaneously organized homophobes“ with radios and knowledge of movement of Ministry of Interior official units who attacked peaceful citizens and state property during the walk within the 2010 Pride, the same „campers who the Russians send humanitarian aid“ who imposed order at the barricades in Jarinje and Brnjak in 2011. The state of Serbia has clearly not given these up, and what remains to be determined is only whether this is because their relationship with parts of the security system is stronger than the alleged desire of state authorities to lead Serbia into the EU, or because the entire process of European integrations is supported by the new born Europeans only because of EU financial support and the coming into power which enabled the Progressive and Socialist Party control over main financial flows, without a genuine intention to move to towards real reforms through EU integration. Thus the process of putinization of Serbia continues through rendering system institutions useless, creating personality cults, attempts at establishing party instead of democratic control over the security system, political deals brokered with criminal structures as well as paramilitary actions which the state hires for carrying out the dirty work.

There was enough circumstantial evidence of the poor state in Serbia even from before, but unfortunately not even the „public debate“ initiated by two factions within the Serbian Government, the daily newspapers Kurir and Informer, on the state of the Ministry of Interior, and which the prohibition of the walk only laid bare, will contribute to the Government, the opposition in Serbia, or the Western international community to finally put into focus the need for a more comprehensive approach to assessing the state in the security system, the necessary reform steps , and define these as a priority. In the best case scenario, instead of a couple of words we will get a couple of scattered paragraphs dealing with these issues in the next EU Commission Progress Report on Serbia, which is expected in the following days. That there is no consideration of the security system in Serbia is also confirmed by the fact that the increasingly detailed suggestion containing fourteen measures to at least improve the field of supervision of electronic communications of citizens, which the Commissioner for Access to Information and Personal Data Protection, Rodoljub Šabić, and the Ombudsman, Saša Janković, presented already two years ago, apparently neither the Government, nor the opposition, nor the Western international community considered, not to mention thinking about it in detail. Instead, there were announcements regarding the intention of state leadership to alter the architecture of the security-intelligence system, without public and expert debate, obviously in order to facilitate non-transparent removal of arbitrarily unwanted personnel and their replacement with own party soldiers. A new architecture could, would have to contribute to better governance in the security system too could be debated even without adopting a new Constitution, but not without strategic documents such as the National Strategy for Foreign Policy which Serbia lacks, and with National Security and Defense Strategies, which do not comply with the EU Lisbon Treaty, or the Brussels Agreement.

The intergovernmental meeting, or the infamous specific date of the start of Serbia's negotiations with the EU will apparently take place in January 2014, regardless of the aforementioned, under the condition, of course, that the November local elections in Kosovo take place without any serious incidents. Cancellation of the walk, even despite the harsh rhetoric condemnation, will not be overviewed with all its causes and consequences, but will be treated by the Western international community as a populist and two-faced rhetoric of the Progressive and Socialist Party leadership in light of the increasingly certain parliamentary elections.

Germany and Great Britain are trying to further ensure that relations with official Prishtina stay in focus, this time through the circulation of a new non-paper, advocating for as many open questions surrounding Kosovo to be closed as soon as possible. Having in mind that the previous governments justified their shortcomings of nearly all necessary reform steps with the notion that it is impossible to carry these out while we are being robbed of Kosovo, and that the situation internally changed little under Vučić and Dačić as the current mantra of – we are fighting for a better position of Serbs in Kosovo, and you are asking for democratization – such an approach by Germany and Great Britain is a needed condition for Serbia's Europeanization, but is insufficient.

With this much wrangling about „technical“ EU criteria for starting negotiations on the chapters for the sake of political incentives on Kosovo, and without additional ways to have other burning issues such as the necessity of structural and personnel reform of the security system put in focus, Serbia and the EU cannot even hope for an outcome similar to which the EU agreed to with Bulgaria and Romania. These two states, despite all their internal weaknesses and Russian swoops, have the Black Sea coast and are NATO Member States. Earlier start of Serbia-EU negotiations on Chapter 31, Foreign, security and defense policy, whose legislation is not binding in all fields as it is for others policies, would be a useful measure primarily for harmonization and standardization of control over defense industry exports, but not for other reforms steps in the security system which must be implemented.

This is why, until the Minister of Natural Resources, Mining and Spatial Planning, Milan Bačević, decides to dig a channel to the Black Sea too, the Serbia wanting to enter the EU, and the EU itself, are left to encourage, as soon as possible, a debate on the need for Serbia's NATO membership in Serbia. Not because there is an unwritten condition for EU membership as it is often presented, but because the reforms necessary for NATO membership would, finally, also encourage a comprehensive reform of the security system, and the debate would contribute to better understanding of the quality of states and societies of the Euro-Atlantic world in relation to all other alternatives, without which there is clearly no Europeanization or EU integration of Serbia. The debate would also have to contribute to better understanding of events in the nineties, approximation of views in the wider public on the causes and consequences of armed conflicts, which would lessen the frustration which is at the moment simply being swept under the rug. One important element of the public debate on Serbia’s NATO membership should also be the challenges of the international community – UN, other international and supranational organizations – in the prevention of mass crimes. This could then also contribute to reviewing current strategic documents in light of the Brussels Agreement and their harmonization with EU policies, for a start. This is an important step as the current set of documents is Kosovo-centric and fails to represent the threats, risks and challenges which Serbia faces in a realistic order. Furthermore, the debate would contribute to better understanding of the circumstances within the framework of the proclaimed neutrality, primarily its reach and potential responses to threats and risks, and the possible alternatives for short-term and long-term security and defense cooperation.

A debate on Serbia’s NATO membership would also give a clearer picture of current political actors, which the sudden democratization followed by ungrounded positive reactions of the Western international community, blurred completely. Considering Serbia’s NATO membership would contribute to better understanding of who is genuinely committed to EU integration in Serbia, and who hopes and, publicly or secretly, works, on further putinization of Serbia.

The thesis that it would be beneficial for Serbia to see the debate on NATO membership started as soon as possible seems unfounded only at a first glance. In Serbia there is a stable core of voters who want to see Serbia in the political West, although a political campaign which would publicly point this as a priority, or NATO membership, which boils down to the same thing, was never led. With an objective and convincing campaign their number would surely increase. Serbian citizens deserve braver political leadership. They best demonstrated this, not only by remaining calm and not rioting after the conclusion of the Brussels Agreement, but by seeing the rating of those realizing the Agreement increased. One absurdity of contemporary Serbia is that, if you add the percentage of the electorate held by the parties whose members express pro-NATO orientation at receptions within the state and abroad, and remain silent in the Serbian public, the Democratic Part and United Regions of Serbia, with those whose leadership occasionally speaks of this topic more openly, such as the League of Social-Democrats of Vojvodina, Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians and Liberal-Democratic Party, you arrive at a quite solid number which would , if it were any other topic in question, be frantically employed by everyone.

Unfortunately, open advocacy for Serbia's membership in NATO is not a point of common action in the recently announced agreement between DS and LDP. Which is a pity because Serbia needs a Total Makeover, and not a Pimp my Ride approach.