25 July 2003, Volume 7, Number 23
THE SERBIAN QUAGMIRE. Several developments indicate that caution was as much in order in assessing the recent Serbian claims of success against crime and corruption as it was in dealing with the euphoria following the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 December 2000, and 28 March and 9 May 2003). The question now is what this state of affairs means for Serbia's medium- and long-term future.
Omer Karabeg, who heads RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, once remarked that the main difference between politics in Croatia and Slovenia on the one hand and Serbia on the other is that serious political warfare in the first two countries takes place behind closed doors whereas the Serbs fight their battles in public.
This observation has certainly seemed true in recent days, when outgoing Serbian National Bank Governor Mladjan Dinkic of the G-17 Plus political party and his fellow party leader Miroljub Labus traded charges of corruption with Nemanja Kolesar, who heads Serbia's bank privatization agency, and Zoran Janjusevic, who is Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic's security adviser (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, 21, and 22 July 2003).
Whatever may eventually be proved or disproved regarding the specific charges on either side, the point seems to be that the political and social cleanup known as Operation Saber that followed the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has not led to the forces of darkness being replaced by those of light. On the contrary, skeptics who suggested that one corrupt and possibly criminal faction had simply been ousted by another may not be far from the truth.
A recently released report on Serbia by the nongovernmental International Crisis Group (ICG) suggests that something is indeed very wrong in the former Yugoslavia's largest and most populous republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2003 for the Serbian government's attempts to harass the ICG).
The report argues that "the reformist zeal displayed by the Serbian government following the [Djindjic] assassination...appears to have dissipated.... Genuine reformers are again being hampered by strong obstructionist forces within the army, police, and security services, and the government itself. Should they challenge these forces too openly, the reformers risk suffering the same fate as Zoran Djindjic."
These are sobering words. But the report has more: "The government has almost completely destroyed the independence of Serbia's already dysfunctional judiciary, is imposing media censorship, and has given the police sweeping powers of extrajudicial detention."
The ICG argues that the government is "unable to pursue reforms energetically, since it remains excessively dependent on a Milosevic-era financial oligarchy and faces strong obstruction from a largely unreformed state security (BIA) and army sector."
The ICG also believes that "the BIA remains a bastion of individuals tainted by war crimes and connected to organized crime. Both it and the financial oligarchy are actively, and largely successfully, obstructing military reform, democratization, the rule of law, institution-building, cooperation with The Hague[-based] war crimes [tribunal], and the fight against organized crime and corruption."
This is not the sort of state that easily lends itself to EU or NATO membership, despite the Serbian leadership's claims that it is indeed ready for both. The ICG calls for a freeze on progress toward Serbia's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program until Belgrade arrests and extradites to The Hague the 16 indicted war criminals whom the tribunal believes are in Serbia. One might add that official Belgrade would also do well to concentrate on its own very serious problems, and admit to itself and the voters that Milosevic definitively lost Kosova, which must now go its own way based primarily on the principles of self-determination and majority rule (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 and 20 June 2003).
The EU will certainly have more questions to ask Serbia and Montenegro in preparation for eventual membership than the 4,000 it recently submitted to Croatia. Calls have been heard from Washington, moreover, for the United States to toughen its policies on Belgrade's recidivist leaders until they become more serious about cooperating with The Hague.
The question arises where matters will indeed go from here. Brussels, Washington -- and most importantly Serbia's neighbors -- have little choice but to try to engage Belgrade, crooks and all. Serbia is too large and too strategically located to be ignored by anyone interested in the security and stability of the Balkans and of Europe as a whole.
But some observers have raised the possibility that Serbia might not be able to qualify for any serious Euro-Atlantic integration, at least not for the foreseeable future. If, moreover, Bosnia remains an exercise in what might be called the politics of artificiality, functioning as an international protectorate with no end to that status in sight, then the possibility arises of Serbia and Bosnia forming a kind of geopolitical black hole in Southeastern Europe (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 and 16 May, and 27 June 2003).
It does not take much imagination to guess what effect such a situation could have on neighboring countries, particularly where crime, smuggling, and human trafficking are concerned. Terrorism also flourishes in failed states. The question remains as to what, if anything, the international community is prepared and able to do to prevent such a situation from arising. (Patrick Moore)
MACEDONIAN PRIME MINISTER TALKS TO RFE/RL. In one of his rare interviews, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) spoke on 20 July with RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters about his first eight months in office. The interview focused on the main fields of interest for the Macedonian public -- the overall situation in the country, the security situation, interethnic relations, economic problems, and widespread corruption.
Right at the beginning, Crvenkovski used a phrase that was picked up by most Macedonian dailies as a headline for their reports about the interview: "We could have done more and better."
He might have added, however, that many people's expectations regarding the new government were exaggerated. After all, the SDSM and its junior coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), had to ensure a stable security situation as a basis for further political and economic developments.
In this vein, the prime minister argued that "if today...some 74 percent of the respondents [to a survey] say that the most important problems in the country are the economic and social hardships, and if nine months ago a similar or even higher percentage said it was a question of war and peace, that means...that we are gradually becoming a state in which social and economic questions have become dominant -- like in every normal and stable European state" (for one such in-depth analysis, see the United Nations Development Program's Early-Warning Report No. 1, 2003 at http://www.undp.org.mk/crisis/ewr1.pdf).
He also expressed the hope that the country will be able to look after its own security after the end of the mandate of the EU's Concordia military mission on 15 December.
However, a recent series of mine explosions, bomb blasts, and gangland-style shootouts have raised doubts among the Macedonian public whether the security forces are able to deal with such incidents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2002 and 18 February, 5 March, 18 and 24 June, and 10 July 2003). Commenting on these incidents, the premier said: "One must neither underestimate nor overestimate them."
Calling for measures to prevent such violence, Crvenkovski added that a change for the better has already taken place since 2001 in that ethnic Albanians no longer tend to side automatically with Albanian criminals against the police.
For Crvenkovski, improving the security situation is closely linked to improving interethnic relations. He stressed that the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace accord must continue "because this is a precondition for entering the second phase, which will presumably take us much more time, and that is the restoration of [mutual] interethnic trust.... After all, it is much easier to pass a law in the parliament than to restore trust among ordinary citizens, among Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Vlachs, Roma, and [Bosnian Muslims]."
But apart from these positive developments, the premier also admitted that the country's economic problems will not be resolved easily. The government's main task during the past eight months, he said, was to overcome the legacy of the previous administration and put financial matters on a sound footing. It was therefore necessary to normalize relations with international financial institutions -- the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- in order to get access to the money promised at an international donors conference in March 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 13 March 2002 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003).
Crvenkovski expects that his government's economic policy will bear its first fruit in 2004, but he cautioned that the necessary reforms will also have their price. He did not elaborate.
He admitted, moreover, that the fight against deeply rooted corruption proved to be more difficult than people had expected. While he praised the Interior Ministry's achievements in that field, he also criticized the judiciary as ineffective.
Delays in anticorruption trials will frustrate hopes for an efficient fight against graft and organized crime, which "at the end of the day will result in a sharp decline in public confidence in the judiciary." Crvenkovski stressed, however, that his criticism should not be perceived as interfering with the independence of the judiciary, at the same time adding that "insisting on the efficiency of the judiciary is legitimate and necessary." (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, firstname.lastname@example.org)
SQUATTERS' DILEMMAS IN LJUBLJANA. It has been a year since a small group of squatters squared off against Slovenian Railways in a dispute over the right to occupy one of the company's empty buildings just north of Ljubljana's railway station. The loose-knit group of alternative-culture activists had moved into the plain, concrete-walled structure and dubbed it the "Autonomous Molotov Zone."
As temperatures and tempers rose in mid July last year, Slovenian Railways barricaded 15 squatters inside the building, cut off from food and water, allowing them to leave but not reenter. The siege was called off after a week, with the intervention of human rights ombudsman Matjaz Hanzek and pressure from sympathizers camped out at the site.
Although Slovenian Railways wanted the building vacated quickly, it was not until 11 July 2003 that the squatters moved out, in line with a negotiated agreement. The site is now being cleaned up and the building is scheduled for demolition. Meanwhile, the squatters have settled into another vacant building, this time in Ljubljana's Prule district, about 1 kilometer south of the city's castle, "Delo" reported on 17 July.
The ability of the "Molotovci" to relocate from one empty building to another highlights a problem common in many former communist states: urban decay. Whether cash-strapped owners are simply unable to amass the necessary funds for renovation or have actually abandoned their property, decaying facades, broken windows, and falling plaster are endemic to many urban areas. (This also includes properties whose ownership is still being disputed in the courts.)
Several factors contribute to owners' willingness to allow property to stand unused. These include the high costs of renovation, inability to secure loans, lack of tax pressure to renovate, and problems of joint ownership.
Unlike the usual wood-frame construction of American dwellings, the typical Slovenian home is built with highly insulating perforated bricks in a steel and concrete frame, with a stuccoed exterior and plastered interior, topped by a ceramic tile roof. Not only are these materials more expensive than their American two-by-four, drywall, and asphalt shingle counterparts, but they also demand considerable labor to install.
Building owners try to adopt cost-saving measures. It is not unusual to admire a renovated building such as that housing the upscale Figovec cafe on Ljubljana's Gosposvetska Street, freshly repainted on the side facing the street, only to see the scarred, sooty plaster sloughing off the back. One commonly sees beautifully restored downtown buildings, in shades of yellow, green, and rose with gold accents, shoulder-to-shoulder with their decrepit, gray counterparts.
Builders of new homes also take shortcuts, putting off the stuccoing until an unspecified later date. In some settlements on both sides of the border throughout the region -- such as the village of Jablanovec just northwest of Zagreb, populated largely by ethnic Croats recently resettled from Bosnia -- nearly every house has an unfinished rough brick exterior.
Slovenian banks approve loans hesitantly, and often only to an amount equaling the liquid assets a borrower has on hand (including money temporarily borrowed from relatives and friends). The absence of a property tax (due to change soon) means that it costs owners nothing to let a building remain vacant for years.
Finally, many houses -- even two-story homes considered small by American standards -- have multiple owners, meaning that it can be difficult to reach a consensus on when and how to make repairs to exterior elements such as roofs, walls, and steps.
According to one of the squatters in Prule, although Ljubljana seems to have many abandoned buildings, very few are vacant, "Delo" reported on 18 July. Nearly every such property has someone inside, be it vagrants, drug addicts, or other squatters.
The "Molotovci" have been patching up their house, a nondescript brownish structure on a corner lot. The overgrown yard has been cleared, and they have started making repairs with building materials they have purchased or received as donations. The only thing distinguishing the property is a poem on a banner over the door: "Ljudje brez his/Hise brez ljudi/Se ti to pravicno zdi?" ("People without houses/Houses without people/Does this seem right to you?")
However, the squatters look set to become the focus of attention again. The 18 July article in "Delo" reported that two nights earlier, a group of 10 youths, armed with clubs, broke down part of the fence around the house. Warning them that Prule is their territory, they threatened to burn the house down with the squatters inside. Police arrived quickly and patrolled the neighborhood that night.
Legal challenges also await the squatters. The building has five owners, and three have made their views on the matter known. Although two have said that they have no objection to the squatters' presence, a third is taking legal action to force their eviction. The owner says that the building is not abandoned, even though no one has lived there since 1995 and he himself has not been inside the building since 1994, "Delo" reported on 18 July. (Donald F. Reindl, email@example.com)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "[Europe can be] strong only together with the United States and not as its rival." -- German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, quoted by the "International Herald Tribune" in Washington on 18 July.
"A strategic partnership between the European pole and the Russian pole [does not exclude] dialogue with the other poles, the American pole, of course, and China." -- Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe, who is a close ally of President Jacques Chirac, quoted in ibid. Juppe made the remarks in Moscow recently. The idea of a "Europe" run as a French-German-Russian condominium -- in which lesser fry know their place -- was developed in Egon Bahr's "Deutsche Interessen" ("German Interests") (Munich: Karl Blessing, 1998).
"I resign because I do not want to be part of your governing falseness and hypocrisy. I consider your actions as part of your struggle to put the government under your absolute personal control." -- Resignation statement by Albanian Foreign Minster Ilir Meta to his fellow Socialist, Prime Minister Fatos Nano. Quoted by Reuters on 19 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003).