As more Balkan siblings join the EU, will they bring with them their compulsive rivalry?by Boyko Vassilev 6 February 2014
In late January Serbia started its journey toward the European Union. This amazing fact was almost unnoticed in the Balkans and in Europe.
It should not be so. Fifteen years ago Serbia fought a war over Kosovo. The war was with NATO, whose members are mostly EU states. At the time, the most important figures of the current Serbian government – President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, and First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic – were ardent West-bashers. Now, they don’t think in black and white. “Compromise is the essence of politics. Absence of compromise means war,” Nikolic told me in an interview.
Bulgarians should also take note. Fifteen years ago most sympathized with the Serbs huddling under NATO bombs. A minority even defended Slobodan Milosevic’s aggressive politics in Bosnia and Kosovo.
In protesting the bombings, some Bulgarians succumbed to the temptation to overlook the crimes that had led to them. Those who hated the West anyway, while fewer in Bulgaria than in other Balkan countries, found inspiration in Milosevic’s resistance. They considered him a proud warrior unafraid to challenge a force much greater; a brave defender of independence, Slavdom, and the Orthodox faith; a spoiler of fake integration and perverse globalization; a pure Eastern soul facing the decadent, consumerist West. Those Bulgarians even chided their own folk for servility and fear, demanding, “We should also stand up and protest. We should not leave the brave Serbs alone.”
Yet now Serbs choose the same path Bulgarians chose 15 years ago. No, it’s not NATO, but even joining the EU would have sounded heretical in the old days. “Does it mean,” I asked Serbian Foreign Minister Ivan Mrkic, “that Serbia chooses the West over the East exactly at the moment when pro-Eastern parties are ruling the country?” He chose his answer carefully: “Serbia has chosen to go to the EU. Inside the EU, there are countries of the West, of the East, of the South, and of the North. We feel a bit southeastern. The EU is a family and we’re very happy that Bulgaria is already in. We count on Bulgarian help on the path toward the union.”
It may sound crude, but many commentators claim that Bulgaria’s firm pro-Western stand during the Kosovo crisis paved its way to the EU. In a 1999 interview, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly told me Bulgaria would be rewarded. I remember also Zoran Djindjic, the late, reformist Serbian president, who explained why Serbs should not criticize Bulgarians for supporting NATO. “You get beaten by Mike Tyson and you get angry at the man in the first row who’s cheering for him? Why on Earth?” he said.
Now, Serbia embarks on the long road to EU integration, counting Bulgaria as a close friend and ally.
“Bulgaria can share experience both of its successes and its errors,” says Bulgarian Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin. He is right. Perhaps the errors have been more numerous, but the acknowledgment that Bulgaria was on the right track and now is in the right place is a good response to Bulgarian pessimists who tend to criticize their own country’s orientation and undermine its achievements.
The past seems to be forgotten; all that matters is the future. Bulgaria and Serbia have not been allies for 100 years, save for a brief period between 1944 and 1948. “Today we have the best possible relations ever,” Mrkic says. “We can talk about everything, openly and freely.”
Every problem seems solvable, whether it be practical, emotional, or historical. The old project of building a highway from Sofia to Nis is under way. Bulgaria and Serbia cooperate in international forums. Belgrade is even ready to talk about the issues of the Bulgarian minority in eastern Serbia.
Two decades ago this comity would have been surprising. Blessed by the relative independence, partial openness, and free travel of communist-era Yugoslavia, Serbs used to look down on Soviet-camp states like Hungary, Romania, and especially Bulgaria, deemed the closest USSR satellite. “Bulgaria was a land for cheap sausage,” a pro-Western Serbian journalist told me in 1999. “Now, we’re shocked to see Bulgaria far ahead of us. This mobilizes contempt for Milosevic’s regime – like, see, even Bulgarians have outrun us.”
Maybe this new era of good feelings is simply down to EU integration, which has some positive side-effects wholly unconnected with pre-accession funds or a common agricultural policy. As I’ve written before, the quest for EU membership stimulates positive competition among candidate states. Who will get closer to Brussels? The question replaces old feuds with new ones in a typical Balkan sense of neighborhood rivalry. If Bulgarians are in, then the sacred Serbian goal is to catch up.
The joke goes that there is a simple geopolitics in the Balkans: a common border means constant problems. Cooperation is always accompanied by competition. If the neighbor is on the West, let’s out-West him.
Bulgaria has nothing to lose from that. Croatia became a member in 2013 – and now Serbia remains the only non-EU country literally between Bulgaria and the EU. Many people on both sides of the border are already benefiting. Bulgarians have discovered the cheap and tasty barbecue near Pirot, while Serbs enjoy Sofia’s many shopping malls. Serbia has launched an effort to restitute property seized in the Yugoslav era, and many Bulgarians who hail from there are getting their documents in order. Bulgarian enterprises enter Serbian tenders and even win them. The countries’ intelligentsia no longer refer to each other as arch-enemies.
Let’s see how we behave once we’re all in the EU together. “We have to rehearse good relations now in order to have common positions later,” Mrkic says.
I’d like to share his optimism. Yet it could turn out otherwise. An accomplished common dream could make us competitors again. If the EU is really a family, there’s no denying the most frequent challenge for love – the successful marriage.