Zagreb professor Dejan Jović says EU membership – or the prospect of joining – has paradoxically strengthened the hand of nationalists in the Balkans.
Nationalism remains a powerful force in the Western Balkans, especially between those countries that were involved in armed conflicts in the 1990s. The 20th anniversaries of Croatia’s military operation “Oluja” [“Storm”], and of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia have both inflamed national tensions across Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Zagreb University professor Dejan Jović told BIRN that nationalism in both the former Yugoslavia and in the whole of Europe has also to be seen as a reaction towards both successes and failures on the part of the EU. “The more integration we have, the more opposition towards integration we have,” he said. “The idea that integration will destroy nationalism is an illusion. The more globalization we have, the more nationalism we have. One causes the other, in sense of action and reaction,” he added. Another factor is the rise of nationalism outside Europe, which then becomes an alternative magnet to countries outside the EU. Nationalism in Russia and Turkey has emerged “as a role model” to states that are not in the EU and have little chance of rapid entry.“In the majority of these states, an idea has emerged that one strong party should rule and that its main purpose should be destroying any serious opposition. This is present in Macedonia with [Prime Minister Nikola] Gruevski and in the case of [Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vučić in Serbia, where there is no effective opposition,” he said.
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Western Balkans states now in the EU, like Croatia and Slovenia, have meanwhile decided to reassert their sovereignty, which was nominal until their entrance to the EU. In Croatia, he said, “important decisions on key and controversial issues that could divide the public were left to others, such as the UN… or The Hague Tribunal or Brussels,” he explained. Because of this, tough decisions could be taken to fulfill the requirements for joining the EU. Nationalists in Croatia advocated Croatia’s EU membership, well aware that things would then change once Croatia joined the EU and turned “from an object to a subject in the policy-making process. “This is a motive for Vučić in Serbia as well: ‘We’ll enter the EU and then we’ll see what will do,” Jović said. Politicians like Vučić have “concrete examples of the efficacy of such actions”, proving that nationalist policies can be pursued within the EU, he added.
“Greece successfully uses its veto in relation towards Macedonia [joining the EU and NATO] just because it is an EU member,” he continued. “If it wasn’t a member, it wouldn’t be able to do this.”Croatia, meanwhile, is doing the same, tying to “enter Balkans from Brussels” and “using the EU to reach its bilateral goals with neighbouring countries”. This instrumentalization of the EU can be seen in some of the declarations passed in the European Parliament last year, he maintained. “It is for these reasons that all nationalists in these countries are pro-EU.” According to Jović, therefore, both getting closer to the EU creates nationalism, as does a country failing to achieve the goal. Jović also says the EU is meanwhile wrong to give these would-be members “new conditions all the time in a situation in which it’s harder and harder to fulfill them”. “This thus pushes them in a sort of schizophrenic situation of internal instability between the elite which is pro-European and the public which is not,” he added. “It’s a situation in which both sides can easily become nationalistic,” he opined.
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Jović adds that the conflict that started in Ukraine in 2014 presents a warning to the EU that further enlargement towards the east and Russia is risky or impossible. Germany’s recent positive statements towards the Balkan states have to be seen in that context as “an attempt to consolidate the European territory. “The focus has moved a little. Before the Ukrainian crisis, it was less likely that the EU would again become interested in the Balkans. Now, no other options are left,” he said. Jović recalled that further enlargement depends on the will of each of 28 member states and their bilateral issues with potential candidate states and their internal political situations as well. The potentially long wait before Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina can join the EU also leaves Croatia as the only EU state in the Western Balkans. As the EU wants a strong border, Croatia will see its role in the EU as the EU’s external guardian. “In Croatia, people on the nationalist right look forward to this [idea of a]a stronger wall around Croatia, especially in relation towards Bosnia and Serbia,” he explained, adding that these political options do not welcome the level of communication that currently exists between these states.
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Regarding the troubled relations between Croatia and Serbia, Jović says that Croatia can be expected to slow Serbia’s EU path, especially if the opposition centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, wins the upcoming elections later this year. A HDZ-led government may insist on resolution of certain issues left over from the wars of the 1990s and thus stall Serbia’s EU accession. These topics will surely emerge in the upcoming election campaign, he predicts, since the right sees Croatia as “solely a victim and the victor of the war of the 1990s”. On the other hand, the Croatian left “has decided to play on its opponent’s field”, rarely questioning Croatia’s nationalistic myths. “By not offering an alternative discourse, they actually prevent freedom in Croatia because freedom is a choice between two or more options,“ he said. “We have an alternative discourse but only outside the political field,” he continued, especially present in relation towards Serbia. Regarding the refugee crisis that has hit Macedonia and Serbia, he said that Serbia is now meanwhile “presenting itself as a victim that is sacrificing itself for others and for the EU. “Serbia is using the migrant crisis to change its image, which has been a very big problem for Serbia… in the last 25 years. Serbia is intentionally showing that it has understanding for foreigners, for people of another faith, forpeople that suffer,” he said, adding that Serbia is trying to identify with them partly to relativize the legacy from the 1990s. “Image is very important in politics,” he concluded.