I have spent most of the week in Belgrade media training officials from assorted ministries and regional authorities. Of course, slick communications skills are no substitute for sound policies. But if ever there was a European country in need of better PR it is Serbia.
Tell anyone you’re going to this land-locked state and they will warn you to ‘be careful’ – as if it was still at war. In most people’s minds the former Yugoslav republic conjures up images of Balkan mayhem, riotous music and former dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted 10 years ago this month. One ministry official told me that on a recent visit to the United States a woman asked her what country she was from. When she said ‘Serbia’ the American replied: “I’m so sorry.”
Some of Serbia’s lousy PR is self-inflicted. It did cause havoc in the Balkans in the 1990s. It could have done more to bring alleged war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to justice. And its refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence – supported by an overwhelming majority of Kosovars – is seen by many as a refusal to accept reality.
Sunday’s bloody scuffles between neo-fascist thugs and police on the margins of Belgrade’s first gay pride parade in almost a decade will have reinforced many people’s beliefs that this volatile corner of south-east Europe is simply not ready for EU membership. The cancellation of a football match between Italy and Serbia Tuesday due to loutish behaviour by Serb hooligans has also not helped matters. “This is the Balkans, not Europe,” explained my taxi driver apologetically after talking at length about the incidents.
Well, yes and no. Serbia certainly is a Balkan country – and very proud of it. A T-shirt for sale on the Kneza Mihailova drag – Belgrade’s Ramblas – proclaims: “Fuck Coke, Fuck Pizza, We drink Slivovice.” On a street nicknamed ‘silicon valley’ peroxide women with too much make-up and too little clothes parade themselves in front of guys with bulging wallets and biceps. Turbo folk blasts out of the riverside barge clubs and mournful gypsy music from the tourist traps on Skadarska Street. Everywhere there is the same sweet smell of sweat, soot and sausages you find across this corner of Europe. Horns are beeped, arms are waved and decisions are delayed. “We still have a Turkish mentality,” says one woman, referring to the centuries of Ottoman occupation.
Serbia’s recent past has also cemented the idea that this country will be forever revolting, splintering, invading, sulking and scheming. “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume,” said Winston Churchill. In the last 20 years Serbia alone has witnessed conflicts with three of its neighbours, a civil war pitting Serb against Kosovar, NATO bombings – the effects of which are still very visible in downtown Belgrade – international isolation, hyper-inflation, the communist dictatorship of Milosevic, a quiet revolution to oust him, the assassination of its first prime minister and the break-away of Kosovo and Montenegro. “I survived two wars by my mid-twenties, so of course we’re happy to be at peace” my interpreter tells me.
So Serbia is very much part of the Balkans. But it is also a distinctly European country. Belgrade has a very central European feel to it with its grand boulevards, Habsburg buildings, Austro-Hungarian cuisine and pot-pourri mix of peoples. The people look European and act European, spilling out of cafes and clubs, smoking and drinking coffee, heading for trams and metros while arguing about the past. I certainly felt more at home in Belgrade than in Bucharest or Sofia – two existing EU capitals.
As Serbia busies itself for future EU membership – its application was tabled in December and candidate status is expected within a year – it deserves to be embraced by the international community. Hilary Clinton did just that during a visit to Belgrade this week. “The U.S. appreciates Serbia. Not only because of its outstanding history but, what’s more important because of its enormous potential,” said the Secretary of State. “We are absolutely convinced, not only that Serbia can become a member of the EU but also a leader in Europe.”
Of course there are potential roadblocks over the future status of Kosovo and the capture of Mladic. But these should not be insurmountable obstacles and they are much more likely to be solved by a Serbia on route to EU membership than by a country with its back turned to Europe.