09/16/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Center Holds (Too Much) in Serbia

When people praise or criticize the centralized planning of the Communist era in East-Central Europe, they focus most of their attention on the "planning" side. The chief vice -- or virtue -- of this system was its claim to replace the market with a state that could determine prices, dictate supply and demand, own much of the economy, and employ most of the citizens.

The state, it turned out, had a lot of difficulties replacing the market, and all the states in the region have curbed their ambitions. They are now content to regulate, rather than replace, the market.

But that other ambition remains strong among many of the states in the region, namely the "centralized" part of the equation. In contrast to the famous Yeats poem, the center indeed holds in the region, and perhaps holds too much. Budapest, for instance, dominates Hungary. It is home to 20 percent of the Hungarian population, attracts the lion's share of foreign direct investment, and serves as the center of a transportation system in which all roads lead to the capital. The Czech Republic is similarly centralized around Prague, which overshadows its nearest urban competitor, Brno. The capitals of the region -- Sofia, Bucharest, Bratislava --- all attract the best and the brightest. And those best and brightest then occupy positions in an elite that monopolizes the political, economic, and cultural life of the country.

Hungary and the Czech Republic are, of course, members of the European Union, and the EU has made decentralization a key component of the accession process. As such, compared to countries further to the east or the Balkans further to the south, the EU members in the region rank rather high on a decentralization index measured according to such factors as civic involvement in local politics, a legal framework that ensures what Europeans like to call subsidiarity (matters should be handled at the least centralized level capable of doing so), and fiscal responsibility.

Serbia is not yet a member of the EU, so it has yet to comply with the decentralization criteria for accession. Moreover, the issue of decentralization is complicated by the two regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina, the former having declared independence and the latter pushing for greater autonomy. But even if you bracket these two issues, Serbia remains a highly centralized state where the capital of Belgrade overshadows everything else.

The most vivid illustration of this dominance, which Mladen Jovanovic told me over a lunch of delicious grilled meats at a traditional kafana in the southern city of Nis, is this: Out of every 30 minutes of news on the national TV station, approximately 18 seconds is devoted to news from outside of Belgrade. In other words, if you blink, you could miss what was happening in Nis or Kragujevac or Pirot.

Mladen Jovanovic is the president of the National Coalition for Decentralization (NKD), an organization devoted to increasing civic participation in local politics.

"When we started to work on the issue of decentralization in 2006, nobody was talking about it," he explained. "Today this is one of the most important political topics, including all the political parties. You can even hear today Progressive Party representatives talking in favor of this. It is amazing! They were the ones who attacked us in 2006 and 2007, telling people that we are trying to break up the country with the idea of decentralization. This is a huge step forward. But everything that is decided in Belgrade actually brings more centralization, whether in the government or in the headquarters of the political parties, so in reality decentralization isn't happening."

The EU should be pushing on the decentralization front, but Mladen Jovanovic pointed out that Brussels has been more focused on the economy. "There are a lot of signs from the EU, but the pressure doesn't exist anymore on this issue," he said. "I really feel that the European interest in democratic changes in Serbia has declined, as if they are becoming less interested because monetary issues are so much more important right now. But can you have a good economy if you don't have the rule of law? Can you have any sort of transitional or post-traditional economy if the political parties are just sharing the wealth of the former Communist Party? You can't separate these two aspects, and the EU pretends that it can."

In the meantime, people continue to stream out of the countryside toward Belgrade (and sometimes out of Serbia altogether). "If this trend continues," he concluded, "20 out of 175 municipalities will disappear by 2020."

We talked about a range of issues in Serbia, not just decentralization: the shortcomings of NGOs, the pernicious influence of organized crime, and the problem of functional illiteracy.

The Interview

The European Union has encouraged decentralization as part of its accession agreements, for instance, with Turkey. To what extent have EU policies on decentralization helped or hindered your work here.

The EU did influence political parties to start speaking about decentralization. So EU pressure actually was one of the key elements of decentralization entering the programs for this pre-election campaign. On the other hand, the progress reports usually say that centralization is still high. The Venice Commission opinion on the election system also pointed out that it's so centralized that it will only create further centralization of Serbia and centralization of decision-making processes. As a result, the state did slightly change the law on elections, but that only created a worse situation. So, there are a lot of signs from the EU, but the pressure doesn't exist anymore on this issue. I really feel that the European interest in democratic changes in Serbia has declined, as if they are becoming less interested because monetary issues are so much more important right now. But can you have a good economy if you don't have the rule of law? Can you have any sort of transitional or post-traditional economy if the political parties are just sharing the wealth of the former Communist Party? You can't separate these two aspects, and the EU pretends that it can.

On the other hand, although support for true democratic changes comes from the State Department and the U.S. embassy, they are so focused on a single sentence: "Serbia needs to accept Kosovo's independence." This attitude is fully legitimate. But on our recent visit to Washington, we didn't hear one U.S. representative saying why. Explain your attitude. Try to show your true position on this, not just by stating it. Our politicians are better than yours in this regard because they say, "Kosovo is a part of Serbia because..." Their reasons are stupid, but at least they give some reasons and they try to gain some support for these reasons.

No Serbian people believe that young people working in the police department or in the army should become targets in Kosovo. Nobody wants to sacrifice Serbian lives in Kosovo. If we insist on this policy of Kosovo as part of Serbia, the Albanian community will just have a good reason for being extreme. And the pressures on ordinary Serbian people living in Kosovo are absolutely horrible. Then again, if the State Department said, "Kosovo should be independent because look at what you Serbs did to Albanians in the period before Kosovo declared independence," it would also put in very clear words that the same thing shouldn't happen to Serbian people right now. On the other hand, a lot of people feel that ordinary Serbs in Kosovo profit from Serbian policy. They do not. They suffer because of it. The profit goes to those grey zone business-people and to populist politicians. Nobody else. Ordinary people are sacrificed there. This Serbian policy, but also U.S. and EU policies, will actually make Serbs disappear from Kosovo.

I can tell you what the U.S. policy is. Maybe you've heard this story before, when Carla del Ponte went to see George Tenet, the director of the CIA at the time. She wanted the CIA's advice and support on getting Ratko Mladić. At their first meeting, Tenet said, "We will do everything. This is our number one priority." This was before 9/11. Nothing happened. So del Ponte went back after 9/11, and she said, "You guys didn't do anything." And Tenet looked at her and said, "I don't give a shit what you think." That's the U.S. policy:"The U.S. government wants you to recognize Kosovo because....we don't give a shit what you think." Unfortunately, that's the case. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, we're not interested in consensus.

You have the power.

That's right, we have the power. And at some point we won't have the power and then we'll have to make arguments, we'll have to use diplomacy. But until that point, we will use that power.

Some people here say that Kosovo should be part of Serbia because all our monasteries were there and that's where originally our state came into existence. But that's not exactly true. The Serbian state actually started in Montenegro, so we should probably take Montenegro first.

But wait, I thought Serbs came originally from up north.

Wait till we get back Montenegro and Kosovo, and then we will think about Poland and Northern Germany! [laughing] The issue about the monasteries is really beside the point. I mean, should Israel become a Christian state because of the churches there? Should we liberate Jerusalem?

Don't forget that Serbia was rebuilt as an independent state only in the late 19th century. Before building up the values of civil society, it needed to go through this period of national pride that never finished because of the start of the Second World War and then the Communists came to power and forbade any kind of nationalist feelings. But you cannot forbid that. It's natural to some extent. So I just think that we need time. The problem is that we are losing generations in between, wasting human life, wasting resources.

I really like what Roosevelt said about unemployment: "Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order." This is something we don't understand. We say, "Our economy is bad thanks to the world powers and the new world order," and we are constantly coming up with conspiracy theories. We don't have the concept of accountability here. The responsibility goes usually to somebody more powerful. We have this victim syndrome -- probably you already talked about this with everybody. It's very nice to be a victim because you're not responsible for anything.

What's happening in Nis, and in many other cities, is a huge increase in criminal activity and a huge decrease in public safety. In the last two years, the number of criminal acts that went fully unpunished increased by an enormous percentage. The number of violent acts on the street increased by an enormous percentage. This violence is not nationalist oriented. This is simply aggression increasing because of poverty and weaknesses of state. There was a recent killing of the owner of one of the most important local meat production companies that had started to do national work. We will probably witness more things like that. Some businessmen have tried to do an honest job but couldn't because there is so much criminal business. Right now the number of kafanas in Nis owned by non-criminals is decreasing, because criminals threaten them and buy them off. And these criminal operations don't pay anything to their suppliers, simply because they can do that. Unless something dramatic happens, we'll see a very uncertain security situation in cities like Nis in the next five to 10 years.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've read that criminal elements were very powerful up until the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. Djindic attempted to crackdown on at least some of the criminal networks, but his death motivated the subsequent government to actually made good on his threats.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.