The Western Balkans: A Region in Transformation

Thirty DGAP members tour Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina using EU enlargement as a point of reference

13/05/2013 - 18/05/2013 | 08:00 - 18:00 | DGAP | Members only

Category: Balkans, Enlargement Process

The Western Balkans have always stood at the crossroads of diverse cultures and ethnicities. The tour’s participants saw vibrant cities and met with many active NGOs but also encountered societies whose war wounds are far from healed. Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina still have work ahead of them – in the fight against corruption, in economic development, and in ethnic reconciliation. As the tour heard again and again, the most significant motor of change is the EU accession process.

Suzana Lange

Starting in Budapest, the thirty tour participants traveled by rail to Croatia, which will become the 28th member state of the European Union on July 1. On the tour’s journey to Zagreb, Theresia Tögelhofer, expert on southeast Europe at the DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center, explained why the countries of the Western Balkans are following separate timetables in terms of joining the EU. In another talk, Roska Vrgova of the Bosnian NGO Zašto Ne? (Why Not?) described the campaign led in Bosnia-Herzegovina by various civil society organizations to strengthen a civic identity in the country. The campaign places special emphasis on the need to fight discrimination against those citizens – officially designated as “the others” in the constitution – who do not belong to one of the three main ethnic groups (Croatian, Serb, and Bosniak) and are therefore at a legal disadvantage in the country.


May 13

The group met early Monday morning with Dejan Jović, chief analyst to the Croatian president and associate professor of international affairs, and proceeded with him to the Croatian presidential seat, situated in the hilly landscape just outside of Zagreb. European Union membership, according to Jović will give Croatia the opportunity to become a “normal” state. For, in addition to the double transformation that all central and eastern European countries experienced in the 1990s, Croatia had to go through a third transition as well: the transition from war to peace. “We are joining the EU because it is a project for peace,” he said. The participants in the discussion found that this was worth underlining to European citizens because of the clear connection to the EU’s founding principles.

Dragan Novosel, a former military prosecutor and Croatia’s current first deputy attorney general, then spoke to the group about progress in fighting corruption in Croatia. Highly optimistic and motivated in 2000, when he first took up his position at the newly founded anti-corruption authority USKOK, Novosel soon realized that he had underestimated the extent of the problem. In the intervening years, the authority has indeed had some success in fighting both small-time corruption and more complex corruption at the highest levels. Now, he said, the most urgent task is to curb the problem at the local level, where citizens and businesses are often most directly affected. Asked by his audience, Novosel confirmed that his work had from the start been guided by policy – and that the EU accession process had greatly increased the sense of urgency.

Providing a rather different picture of the Croatian accession process were Duje Prkut of the NGO GONG and human rights activist Nemanja Reljić, who warned that many of Croatia’s recent reforms are of a rather cosmetic nature, designed simply to “tick off the boxes” on the long list of requirements presented by Brussels. Together with a group of other civil society organizations, these two NGOs have joined together to form “Platform 112,” which prepares “shadow reports” that parallel the European Commission’s formal progress reports. The group has assembled 112 specific demands for improvement, including protections for minorities. In contrast to EU pre-accession monitoring, which is slated to end on July 1, 2013, Platform 112 plans to continue to survey the state of the reform process in the future.

That evening at dinner, participants were able to speak with Caroline Hornstein Tomić of Zagreb’s Ivo Pilar Institute about the current mood among Croatians. EU accession has been viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, she said – as has globalization and modernization in general; indeed, even with EU membership coming so soon, Croatians know very little about the Union. But the opening up of society that will inevitably come with EU membership is going to be important for the country, especially in fighting provincialism, in making citizens more mobile, and in presenting new possibilities to citizens that go beyond the “lijepa naša” (“lovely homeland”). Also present at the dinner was Boris Kardum of the Croatian Board of Trades, who spoke of his hopes for EU membership – above all, that it would bring economic diversification to the country and less dependence on tourism. The “green” branch in particular has excellent potential, he said, but economic upswing is going to require a change in mentality. Croatia, he said, is a country that has a hard time making changes, especially in the absence of such figures as Josip Broz Tito and Franjo Tudjman, with whom the population identified. One change that Kardum has recently observed, however, is a shift in citizens’ attitudes toward corruption – the result of active campaigns such as the “Corruption Isn’t Worth It” slogan and other similar initiatives, which are starting to have an effect.


May 14

On the train from Zagreb to Belgrade, Heiko Flottau, former Belgrade correspondent for the Süddetusche Zeitung provided historical context on the disintegration of Yugoslavia. When he lived in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, there were already some signs of a looming crisis, not just in the scarcity of food and energy but also in the treatment of dissidents like the writer and statesman Milovan Djilas. Government officials assured everyone that “even after Tito there will be Tito” – in other words, that the system would prevail – but the slogan “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo“ (brotherhood and unity) was in fact something imposed from above rather than a genuine merging of diverse national groups. A major factor preventing true unity was the failure to address the region’s difficult history. For the people of Yugoslavia, reminders of the failure of the first Yugoslavia – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes founded in 1918 – as well as the atrocities committed during World War II by the Croatian fascist Ustasha and the Serbian royalist Chetniks, were all too present. It was impossible to address these shattering experiences during Tito’s reign, however. Finally, with the economic crisis of the 1980s, the unsolved conflicts flared up, leading to separatist movements and the outbreak of violence.

After this, Vedran Džihić of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) discussed the EU’s ongoing role in resolving the conflict in Kosovo. According to Džihić’s assessment, compromise will be possible now that a new conservative-nationalist government has come to power in Serbia. The administration has publicly declared that Serbia will not be able to join the EU and simultaneously hold on to Kosovo – and that it intends to choose the pragmatic rather than the ideological path. The question now is how consistent the EU will prove to be. While it is repeatedly discussed in Serbia, the alternative to EU membership – forging closer relations with Russia – is not genuinely up for debate.

Arriving in the Serbian capital on Tuesday evening, the group toured vibrant central Belgrade with Vesna Vučinić and other architects from the group 360ºBEOGRAD before being joined by German ambassador to Serbia Heinz Wilhelm. Serbia’s image in Germany is unfairly negative, he said. In 2012, with the advent of a conservative-nationalist government, one feared that these former supporters of Slobodan Milošević would bring setbacks in the EU integration process, but in fact the opposite has occurred. It is precisely the new government’s national-conservative leanings that put it in a better position to negotiate thorny national questions such as Kosovo’s independence. The agreement hammered out this April between Pristina and Belgrade was a success, and now it is time to see how it will be implemented. As Ambassador Wilhelm pointed out, it is the Serbs of North Kosovo and not the Serbs of Belgrade who see the agreement as problematic. Serbia today is already further ahead than Romania or Bulgaria in many other areas. The important thing is to stay on course. It would be an enormous step backward, for example, if visas were once again imposed for all of Serbia due to abuse of the system by a small number of individuals.

May 15

Vladimir Ateljević, representing Suzana Grubješić (the deputy prime minister and EU integration commissioner), spoke to the group about the EU accession process and the expectations involved. Serbia views Croatia’s entry in a decidedly positive light. With it, the EU shows that it is indeed taking seriously its promises to expand the union. Moreover, with Croatia’s entry, one sees the presence in the EU of a country that resembles Serbia in many ways, and this offers opportunities to learn a great deal. Ateljević granted that in recent years enthusiasm for the EU among Serbia’s population had waned. At the same time, Serbs know more about what membership will mean for them, that the EU stands for democracy, the rule of law, and social welfare, and that Serbia must do its homework if it wants to belong. The European debt crisis, however, also made it clear to Serbia’s citizens that the EU is not a cash machine. The prospect of membership has been important in making possible such difficult compromises as the recent Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. Far more important than how quickly accession takes place are the milestones reached along the way, for example, the start of entry negotiations, the opening and closing of negotiation chapters, and noticeable support by the EU.

At the Aero Club, the group met Boris Tadić, president of Serbia from 2004 and 2012, who told them that he had once been naïve enough to think that a stable democracy could be built up within just a few years. It is now clear, however, that the process required more than just the thirteen years that have elapsed since Milošević’s downfall. The murder of Zoran Đinđić ten years ago, Tadić noted, was a significant setback for the democratization process in Serbia. Tadić also acknowledged that the population’s expectations had been too high. Not enough was done by his government to create a new political culture and implement legal reforms. At the same time, Serbia has moved closer toward genuine democracy, a fact that the West, clouded by old stereotypes, has often failed to notice. Even the current government is involved in following the goal of democratization and solving territorial conflicts. For Kosovo, Tadić considers the protection of identity and cultural objects to be essential. If this protection cannot be provided, frustration and further conflict among neighbors will result. In the search for flexible and pragmatic solutions, the German-German model could indeed be an illuminating example.

After this, Siniša Šikman of the NGO Canvas described the non-violent campaigns of the Otpor! movement (Resistance!), which helped bring about Milošević’s fall from power. Instead of leaving Serbia in the late 1990s, Šikman and other activists pushed for change in their country – without violence and without money. The group began with small, humorous street demonstrations, “because people are less afraid when they laugh, and when you annoy the system, it makes more mistakes.” For example, Otpor! set up a New Year’s celebration, attracting a huge crowd with rumors that celebrities and stars would be present. At midnight, instead of the concert that had been announced, the names of victims of the war started by Serbia were read aloud. The message: Serbia should feel shame for its actions and had nothing to celebrate. When Otpor! was unable to establish itself as a political party, Šikman turned his attentions away from politics, but he is still very active as a coach in the techniques of non-violent resistance.

Over afternoon coffee, the tour met with Tito’s former interpreter Ivan Ivanji, who recounted how Tito always said that the idea of “brotherhood and unity” had to be cherished like life itself. Tito may well have harbored secret worries about the ability of Yugoslavia’s peoples to live together peacefully, but most members of his circle took Yugoslav cohesion for granted. Ivanji himself was completely taken aback by the country’s disintegration. Although he was of course aware of the fate of dissidents like Djilas, he had not perceived any tensions nor experienced any difficulties in everyday life. “They say that telling political jokes could put you in prison, but I always told political jokes and never landed in jail.” The fact that Lake Ohrid (in Macedonia), the Triglav Lakes Valley (in Slovenia), and the Adriatic coast (in Croatia) no longer belong to his country feels, he said, like an amputation.


May 16

While travelling by rail to Sarajevo, the tour participants were addressed by Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen, NATO ambassador between 1993 and 1998, about the international community’s interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo. The massacre of eight thousand civilians at Srebrenica in 1995 left the international community terribly shaken. Military intervention followed, and finally the Dayton meetings, during which extensive negotiations were held behind closed doors until an agreement was hammered out. The Dayton Agreement still binds the international community as well as the entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina and will remain in place until a new settlement is reached by all relevant parties – though it does not look like this will happen in the near future. As for the NATO military deployment against Serbia in 1999 – the Kosovo war – von Richthofen noted that the West acted without a resolution by the UN Security Council, “and from a moral point of view, I continue to stand behind this today,” he affirmed. Milošević continually failed to uphold his concessions. He was, as von Richthofen put it, impervious to reason and peaceful argument.

After this, Andreas Ernst, Western Balkans correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, spoke to the group about the “Yugo-sphere” that is gradually beginning to develop in the zone of the former Yugoslavia. Some examples of these are cross-border investments, music festivals like Novi Sad, a common basketball league – and the Slovenian party tourists who flock to Belgrade. In certain areas, the social groups of the former Yugoslavia are slowly starting to knit themselves back together after being torn apart by war. “The driving force here may well be the older citizens of the former Yugoslavia rather than the youth – who indeed never experienced the poly-national space of Yugoslavia. “It is not always the case that the older generations are the obstinate nationalists, while the youth are open-minded. In fact, partly the reverse is true.” According to Ernst, this process is less about “Yugo-nostalgia” and more about a social and economic rapprochements taking place beneath the official level. But it is a “tender flower” that could quickly wilt if it is not cultivated. It also needs the protection offered by EU integration. Ernst believes that the speed of EU accession is not decisive, but it must continue. The journalist compared it to a bicycle: it will fall over if it comes to rest.

May 17

Reis ul-ulema Husein Kavazović, the Bosnian Grand Mufti, received the group at the imperial mosque and spoke about political and religious cohabitation within the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He described current relations between Islam, the Catholic Church, and Bosnia’s Jewish community as excellent. Relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, however, are still being built up, he said. Half-hearted apologies and dubious readings of history on the part of Serbian Orthodox community in Belgrade have been anything but helpful. His own role, Kavazović said, was to promote constant dialogue and peaceful coexistence. This includes setting limits on outside Islamic influences when these are incompatible with tolerance. “We are not shy about saying what is unacceptable to us.” In fact, Kavazović considers the influence of Islamic positions from countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran to be quite limited. Bosnia’s main difficulty is that its many problems are being solved only partially. Above all, the political system provided for in the Dayton Agreement keeps the state from getting back on its feet by itself. Bosnia-Herzegovina was left high and dry, he said, and the international community needs to increase its involvement. Germany’s experiences – such as repairing and rebuilding Franco-German relations and coming to terms with both World Wars – are particularly relevant  to the region.

Joining the participants for lunch was the former High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who expressed his own pessimism about the current situation in the Western Balkans. He is worried by the fact that Germany has been reorienting itself toward other parts of the globe. Bosnia’s problems remain largely unsolved; most of the promises made have been broken. He called for maintaining an international presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even if the Office of the High Representative (OHR) has been marginalized for years (especially by the international community). Schwarz-Schilling also expressed skepticism about the Brussels Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s EU accession process and the importance of regional cooperation were the subject of a discussion with Amer Kapetanović at the foreign ministry. Kapetanović is hoping that 2014 will bring about a paradigm shift in the way the nation works with its neighbors. Now, after twenty years of encouraging separation and division – whether by establishing borders or politicizing the use of language – it is time to cultivate the ties that bind. Private business is the single most important motor for this new type of rapprochement. Only when Croatia joins the EU will Bosnia-Herzegovina finally realize what it means to share a one-thousand-kilometer border with the European Union. Gradually, readiness and willingness to adopt European standards will increase – “not because of the EU but rather for the benefit of our own citizens.” They have not yet realized that the true goal of EU membership has less to do with the speed of joining the Union than with introducing reforms. The country’s younger citizens need opportunities to cross borders and get to know their neighbors and the EU in the process.

After this, the political scientists Sead Turčalo and Muhamed Jugo gave participants a tour of political and religious Sarajevo, during which numerous buildings were pointed out that house the political institutions of the extremely complex Dayton system. The trouble, as Turčalo pointed out, is that few important decisions are actually made within these buildings and are instead taking place in extra-institutional settings, behind closed-doors and away from the public eye.

That evening DGAP members met with retired General Jovan Divjak, who gave a striking account of what life was like during the notorious siege of Sarajevo. Divjak, himself a Bosnian Serb, recounted how he was put on the spot with a choice to “defend multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina.” He joined the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking a leading role in fighting off Bosnian Serb attacks. His side was at a distinct military disadvantage; at times in the fighting, only one in three volunteers had a weapon (weapons that sometimes dated back to the 1920s). After the lecture, Divjak took the group to see some of the sites of Serbian-led massacres, including the Markale market square, where deadly shelling killed numerous civilians. Divjak is widely considered to be a hero of Sarajevo for his work during the siege, and his evening walk through the city was interrupted several times by pats on the back and enthusiastic handshaking. He is now active in a project devoted to helping the city’s disadvantaged children.

May 18

The former Bosnian diplomat Slobodan Šoja accompanied the group on its excursion to the eastern town of Višegrad. The professor vividly described how, in the 1980s, nationalist politicians deliberately stoked fears and tensions among different ethnic groups – and how this increase in nationalism set the collapse of Yugoslavia into motion. The mere presence of the flags flying over Višegrad makes palpable the current division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two entities. At first glance, the red, blue, and white flag of the Republika Srpska is barely distinguishable from that of its eastern neighbor, Serbia. It is only on closer inspection that one sees the coat of arms is missing.

A central point of interest for the touring DGAP members was the historic “bridge on the Drina,” subject of the celebrated 1945 novel by the Yugoslav statesman and Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić. During his brief tenure as Yugoslavian envoy to Berlin (1938–41), Andrić presided over the very same Berlin building on Rauchstrasse in which the DGAP now has its headquarters. In honor of this special connection, Paul Freiherr von Maltzahn, the DGAP’s executive vice president, held a reading on the bridge.

The final night of the tour gave participants one more opportunity to talk to specialists. The Sarejevo-based activist Darko Brkan described the efforts of two NGOs – Zašto Ne? (Why Not?) and Dosta! (Enough!) – to promote transparency in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Among other things, the groups scrutinize the huge number of campaign promises made by the reigning coalition “so that there will finally be price tags attached to the mistakes made in this country.” Among those mistakes – according to Jan Masak, head of VW Sarajevo – are non-compliance with the duty-free economic zone and the scarcity of highly skilled workers, both of them grounds for VW’s starkly reduced activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Whereas over 1,200 workers were active there before the war, there are barely more than three hundred working in the country today. That the EU continues to pour money into the country – despite the fact that reforms still have to be made – enables Bosnian politicians to continue in their old ways. Tija Memišević, director of the European Research Center Sarajevo, urgently called on the international community to stop tolerating this kind of misconduct. The West cannot shirk its responsibilities by transferring them entirely to the country’s elected officials, who often profit from the economic dependence of their citizens. No money should be made available without first attaching clear conditions to it, Memišević said; anything else merely encourages clientelism – and ultimately hurts citizens.

The tour “Bezugspunkt EU” (Point of reference EU) was organized and carried out by DGAP Consulting GmbH.

Responsible Persons

  • Stefan Dauwe

    Stefan Dauwe

    Managing Director DGAP Consulting GmbH
    Tel.: +49 (0)30 26 30 20 65
    Fax: +49 (0)30 28 50 65 13

DGAP Länderreise 2013 - bezugspunkt:EU

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