09/06/2013 07:52 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Making the Jump Together

In April, Serbia and Kosovo signed a landmark normalization treaty. The deal, in what might seem a paradoxical quid pro quo, gives Kosovo authority over the Serbian pocket in the north and greater autonomy to the Serbs living in that region. Despite protests from some Serbs in that area as well as their supporters in Serbia, the parliament in Belgrade approved the agreement. In June, the parliament in Kosovo also voted in favor of the arrangement, with equally vehement protestors in the streets outside denouncing the deal.

The two sides have exchanged liaison offices and are working out the various details regarding borders and trade. But this is not a Serbian recognition of Kosovo independence. Nor does it mean that Serbia automatically joins the European Union. Moreover, sporadic violence still erupts between the two sides.

But the agreement marks the necessary first step toward eventual reconciliation. Kosovo's has received a bump up in status, with Egypt becoming the 100th country to recognize its independence at the end of June. And Serbia will begin negotiations over EU accession next January.

"Of course Serbia will have to recognize Kosovo one day," Ivan Vejvoda told me in an interview in November last year. "But if I had to make a guess it would be at the doorstep of Europe. That would mean everyone holding hands at the same time and making the jump. I don't think that anyone on the Serbian side has any illusion about that. But no one will ever say that. That's how politics works. I often use the Northern Irish example. This takes time. This is a European issue involving essentially European historical identity. It's a cultural issue, a linguistic issue. So please bear with us as we move slowly through it. Don't try to ram this down our throats, especially after we've said we'll resolve this peacefully."

Ivan Vejvoda is vice president for programs at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. He is a philosopher and was a long-time civil society activist in Serbia.

For Vejvoda, the soft power of the EU is gradually having an impact in the region. "Maybe this is the only region where it works, but the magnet is still very strong," he said. "The results we get now on the question, "Are you for the European Union?" is around the 50%, plus or minus 5% depending on the day. I would call this very healthy because people realize the problems."

But, he stressed, the Kosovo issue is not the priority for most Serbs. "What we've seen over the years is that open opinion polls show that Kosovo is somewhere between the sixth or seventh issue in the hierarchy of importance after jobs, obviously, and everything that relates to standard of living and the future of the family," he pointed out. The Serbian government recently announced that its main economic goal is to reduce unemployment - to below 20 percent. Currently the unemployment rate hovers around 22 percent.

We talked about the long detour Serbia took during the Milosevic era, how the war served as an X-ray machine that revealed the previously hidden sentiments of people in the region, what's going on with Vojvodina, and the generational shift in the country.

The Interview

Today there is a lot of conversation about the centralization of the Serbian state. Obviously there are discussions around Kosovo but also around Vojvodina. Some people have talked to me about the recapitulation of history: some of the same discussions that took place on the Yugoslav level are happening now on the Serbian level. There's a frustration among some that the lessons weren't learned about democracy plus decentralization. I'm curious what your reaction is to this.

You look at the discussions around Catalonia and Scotland, and this is déjà vu all over again. This is something that won't go away. This is something eternal in relations within states between richer and poorer regions, especially in difficult economic times. The Catalans have been making the same arguments that the Slovenes were making in the late 1980s: why should we pay for the poor brethren in the south?

What I found really interesting on Vojvodina is one of the latest statements by President Nikolic that "Vojvodina is there to stay and let's not go overboard." I think there are a lot of exaggerations in both camps, the one for centralization and the one for full autonomy of Vojvodina. And I think what drives a lot of this is exactly what happened in the 1990s. Many Serbian nationalists are of the view that, following the famous conspiracy theories, "after Kosovo, Vojvodina is next, and then they'll take away Sandzak."

I don't see it that way. I think Kosovo has been the way it's been at least since I came of age in 1968, when at the first demonstrations that I witnessed they were asking for a republic. They got a republic in all but the name in 1974. When I served my military service in 1972 in Slovenia on the Italian border, every unit of the Yugoslav army was a mini-Yugoslavia. We had people from everywhere. The Kosovar Albanians in our unit kind of kept to themselves. I shared a bunk with a shepherd from the mountains who barely spoke any Serbo-Croatian. He was a wonderful guy. We got along very well, because shepherds are heavenly people. But there were a lot of soldiers that kept to themselves. We interacted, but you could see that there was an issue there. That came to a head in 1981 and then later in 1989.

Of course, Milosevic chose all the wrong tools to deal with it. And the Albanians didn't want to participate in the Serbian elections in December 1990. History would have been different if they had decided differently. Again, these are counterfactuals and big ifs. But we are where we are, and that's a roundabout way of saying that when you mention greater degrees of autonomy for Vojvodina, people on the centralist side get worried. And in Vojvodina, when they hear people saying that there is a limit to levels of autonomy, they get the sense that Serbia wants to centralize. Given that the Democratic Party is running Vojvodina and Bojan Pajtic is a very reasonable man and now the deputy head of the Democratic Party as of Sunday, I think there will be a way forward. That doesn't meant this will be settled tomorrow. It's an ongoing issue.

The difference of course with Kosovo is enormous. Vojvodina is a richer region. Second, there's a majority of Serbs. The Hungarian minority of course is important, but the size of the non-Serb population isn't what it is in Kosovo. What is similar to the other historical cases that we mentioned is, of course, that Vojvodina is the richer, more developed part. There's a question of redistribution. Dragan Djilas, in his acceptance speech as the head of the Democratic Party, said on Sunday that Belgrade is 40% of the Serbian budget. It's not a question of diminishing Belgrade's or Vojvodina's budget. Rather, it's how do we lift the south of Serbia. But that's easier said than done.

Several recent polls indicated that the Serbian population would give up the EU option if it meant giving up Kosovo. What do you think it will take for the Serbian political class or the majority of the Serbian population to accept an autonomous, independent, or sovereign Kosovo?

At the moment, the great majority of Serbs accept an autonomous Kosovo. To add "independent and sovereign," that's a bridge too far. I think the polls you're mentioning are particularly unhelpful. If you were to do a qualitative public opinion poll, you would get a completely different result. What we've seen over the years is that open opinion polls show that Kosovo is somewhere between the sixth or seventh issue in the hierarchy of importance after jobs, obviously, and everything that relates to standard of living and the future of the family. I think that people have realized that Serbia is not de facto sovereign in Kosovo. President Nikolic has said as much, that he is not the president of Pristina. You can't be clearer than that. Tadic previously had many versions of that saying: "We don't have a minister of agriculture that deals with Kosovo" and things like that. There's a realism reflected in the majority of public opinion polls.

The previous government took it to this level and, thanks to that, this government will take it further, all the way up to the level of recognition. As we all know, nobody is asking for recognition at this point in time. The judicious way is to normalize relations. Given what happened in the 1990s, nobody in substance or in declaration wants to go back to that. We have all suffered enormously, and some have suffered more than others.

People forget in these times of European crisis that soft power does work in this region. Maybe this is the only region where it works, but the magnet is still very strong. The results we get now on the question, "Are you for the European Union?" is around the 50%, plus or minus 5% depending on the day. I would call this very healthy because people realize the problems. There are many people living in these countries who have, since the 1960s and the opening of the borders by Tito and the gastarbeiter phenomenon, traveled for 50 years to Sweden, Germany, and other west European countries. They know what Europe looks like, they know the complexity of the European Union, they know its problems. But they also know that it's better to be inside, as part of half a billion people, than to stay outside as a seven and a half million people. Because there's a little more certainty, a little more prosperity, and a little more predictability on the inside.

I wouldn't call this a minimalist view. I would call it a common sense view. You want to join a union that has accomplished so much even though it has big family problems at the moment.

It's in that context that one should view the Kosovo issue. In a taxi driver conversation I had seven or eight years ago, the taxi driver just matter-of-factly said, "Sometimes you have to sell your family belongings, what your grandfathers owned, because if you're hungry and can't eat, you have to sell that property. Maybe you'll buy it back someday. But there are tough decisions to be made on difficult days." That's I think a summary of how people feel.

It's not easy. There's this whole issue of the Orthodox Church, and the Serbs that have remained in Kosovo. The successive governments in Belgrade have rightly focused on the status of people living there in the Serbian enclaves. How to defend their rights and their livelihoods and then also solve the issues of property? Many Kosovo Albanians will recognize also that the issue of the autonomy of the north is something to be negotiated, because these were municipalities added on by Tito in the late 1950s to make more of an ethnic mix in Kosovo. They know that historical reality. So, it's about sitting down and finding a solution, and I think that's happening now.

Kosovo and this question of decentralization aside, what do you think the biggest challenge is for Serbia in terms of accession to the EU? A lot of people say that the door is not exactly closing, but the space has narrowed certainly in terms of the enthusiasm for expansion among the European population and perhaps the Brussels bureaucracy as well.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.