Like other countries in the region, Serbia is in transition, although its path reflects a specific tension between East (Russia) and West (the European Union and other Western powers). Its political activities and alliances during the wars of the 1990s led many Western media outlets to portray Serbia as the sole aggressor of the Balkan wars. The NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 angers many Serbs to this day and Russia’s defense of Serbia has burnished Moscow’s image. As a result, NATO membership is a political nonstarter due to lack of public support, leaving the door open for Russia—with its powerful UN Security Council veto that it wields in defense of Belgrade—to build up its military cooperation with Serbia.
Serbian leaders were complicit in—and convicted of—some of the most heinous crimes and incitements during the war in Kosovo, as well as in BiH due to its relations with Republika Srpska. However, atrocities were committed on all sides and many Serbian civilians were themselves victims in a political game that was outside of their control. Today, the repercussions of the violence are still felt. One Serbian interviewee says that prior to the war, well-known Western entertainers and officials constantly passed through Belgrade, providing the city and country with alternative perspectives and connections to the West. The perception has been that the number of those visits has dropped since then. If that is indeed the case, that could contribute to increased isolation.
Serbia’s historical legacy as the economic engine of the region has given this country a boost when it comes to economic development and foreign direct investment. For example, international companies such as Microsoft and General Electric have chosen Belgrade for their regional headquarters. However, Serbia has not escaped the quagmire of corruption and bureaucratic entrenchment that afflict other countries in the region and slow the country’s progress. The privatization of the media, driven by EU reforms, has ceded a relatively open press to one that is increasingly narrow in focus. The Vučić administration has been hostile toward investigative media. Reporters from the local and independent Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN)—which is partially funded by foreign grants—have been accused of being spies and traitors.[i]
Serbia would like to join the European Union. However, Kosovo and Serbia are codependent in the EU accession process, which will require Serbia to recognize Kosovo before becoming a member. With the EU in disarray and Brussels giving Belgrade an ever-distant timeline for accession, politicians lack incentives to publicly advocate for recognizing Kosovo. This leaves the rationale for reforms toothless.
One of Serbia’s most ambitious development projects has been met with significant resistance. Over 10,000 people turned out to protest the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project in June 2016.[ii] This massive real-estate development plan was created without public participation, classified as a project of national significance—which allowed it to be fast-tracked—and lacked an open bidding process. Refugees camping at the site were forcibly resettled in the night without advance warning. Activists have kept up the cry throughout the fall of 2016 that the project is trampling the rights of the people and enabling corruption.
“The situation can deteriorate in terms of democracy and human rights,” says one activist. The current situation is that stability is very fragile. It is easy for the government to escape from real concerns like the economy and instead focus on security issues. This happened in the 1990s.”
[i] Independent media attacked in Serbia; A Difficult Profession. (2015, September 22). Retrieved February 07, 2017, from https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/07/15/difficult-profession/media-freedom-under-attack-western-balkans
[ii] Protests in Belgrade against the Waterfront project; Ne davimo beograd. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.danubeogradu.rs/tagovi/ne-davimo-beograd/