Serbia faces major change before it can join the EU. Significant reforms are not in sight, however, although influential Serbian politicians urge rapid accession.
A few years ago, anti-EU Serbs came up with a rather drastic image on the Internet: instead of forming a circle on the blue EU flag, the small yellow stars formed a swastika. Patriotic parties and organizations are still convinced that a "true Serb" can't be pro-EU but must be close to Russia.
At the other end of the political spectrum, numerous NGOs and politicians see no alternative to EU membership. Opinion polls show that the Serb people don't necessarily feel close to the West, but see integration in the EU as a way to end their country's economic plight.
The ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in the year 2000 is regarded as a turning point in Serb history. It spelled the end to a violent decade that started with the Yugoslav Wars and continued with NATO's air strikes in the Kosovo conflict. Milosevic's election defeat put an end to international isolation and painful sanctions. The new democratic government promised a bright European future, and promised EU membership in 2007. The prognosis was far too optimistic - so far, Serbia has merely been granted candidate status.
The path to membership has turned into a marathon, and that's a legacy of the 1990s, says Marko Vujacic of the Belgrade-based NGO European Movement in Serbia.
He argues that, in the Balkans, a generation traumatized by war moved not towards post-nationalist integration, but in the opposite direction. That made it difficult to push through necessary economic and administrative reforms. "One man who tried paid with his life," Vujacic points out, referring to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003 by members of a former Milosevic special unit.
Common sense victorious
The current Serbia leader, Aleksandar Vucic, backs Djindjic's reform plans. Just a few years ago, Vucic was regarded as a loud-mouthed nationalist who ranted against Croats and Albanians and advocated protecting Serb war criminals. But since 2008, Vucic has turned into a pragmatist.
When his Radical Party broke apart due to differences on EU integration, he chose the European course. "That simply showed that nationalism no longer is an issue here," says Sonja Licht, a Belgrade-based political scientist. Europe, on the other hand, continued to be relevant.
Last month Vucic, whose party holds an absolute majority in parliament, met with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to discuss European policies. Afterwards, he wrote in an editorial that you don't have to love Europe to want to join it.
The Serbians appear to agree. According to recent opinion polls, more than 50 percent of them would vote in favor of EU membership, and merely 25 percent against. While support is significantly lower than it was ten years ago, it is significantly higher than just two years ago. According to Vujacic, that means that common sense is winning the battle against emotions that side with Russia.
Opinion polls also show that the perception that the West is always setting conditions is the biggest obstacle on the path to Europe. The "orders from Brussels" are a "sadistic game of cat and mouse", according to Serb historian Cedomir Antic. Take Kosovo: Serbia's former southern province unilaterally declared independence in 2008 - and is meanwhile recognized by more than 100 states worldwide, including 23 EU member states. While Belgrade has never officially accepted Kosovo's sovereignty, the government has been forced to sign several accords with Pristina to achieve EU candidate status. At this point, Serbia can only accede as a "subject state," Antic told DW. "Is Serbian breakup the price the country has to pay for EU membership?" he wonders.
Reforms, not wishes
Serbians see the European Union as a cash machine, a guarantor of reforms and an instrument for the solution of various problems, says Jovan Teokarevic, a political science professor at Belgrade University. But while Serbia will "never be as progressive as Germany," he urges the country to at least reach the level of the Baltic States: "They look totally different today than they did during the Soviet occupation."
Serbia's GDP is about $6,000 (4,366 euros) per person, while Latvia's is twice that and Estonia's three times. In order to reach such levels, the new government in Belgrade must introduce painful measures to improve the climate for investment, strengthen the economy and, most of all, curtail the power of political parties.
To this very day, the parties distribute jobs in the public sector among themselves - 800,000 of 7.1 million citizens are state employees. And none of the parties has shown an interest in changing the system. "Many Serb politicians see the integration process as a wish list - without much of an effort, they want to feel reformed and somehow European," Vujacic points out.
"The illusions have been shattered," says Teokarevic, disappointed by the slow pace of the reform process. "Although the process continues, it will still be a long time before we can join the EU." How long? Politicians avoid predictions, but observers expect another seven, maybe even ten years of negotiations.