by Rhodri C. Williams
For several years now, I have provided periodic technical advice to a European Union funded program to aid refugees and displaced persons in Serbia. Although the deck has been stacked pretty heavily against the program’s clients and the rest of the world’s attention long since wandered from their plight, it means a lot to me to be able to continue participating in picking up the pieces from the conflicts that shocked me into political consciousness back in the distant 1990s.
My most recent trip came last week, for a training in Belgrade. Much on the way to Serbia was bracingly familiar, beginning with the blithe surliness of the nicotine-raspy JAT stewardesses who make you eight again and dealing with the cafeteria ladies as they slap a canned sandwich down on your bobbling tray. Belgrade itself was indecently unchanged, with its steady throng of cheerful and careworn pedestrians wandering amidst canyons of faded glory. Of all the Eastern European places I return to, Belgrade seems to change the least, not resisting so much as ignoring the tsunami of Benetton gentrification that rages all around it.
This is not to say that the politics haven’t changed. In many respects, its been a banner year for the West Balkans. As Besar Likmeta recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the accession of Croatia to the EU on July 1 capped a sequence of breakthroughs ranging from the belated election of a true reform candidate in Albania to the political galvanization of Bosnia and most notably, the power-sharing agreement arrived at between Belgrade and Pristina. At first glance, the only parties that seem bitterly divided or incapable of applying the rule of law at all these days are within the Tribunal that was meant to fix all that (on which, see Eric Gordy’s latest ruthlessness here).
However, an atmosphere of palpable unease remains over issues like the delicate détente over Kosovo. The lawyers I met with last week exemplify the paradoxical nature of post-Yugoslav normalization. On one hand, there they are, Serb lawyers representing Serb clients in Serbian, working the Kosovo courts every day. The first time I went to Kosovo in early 2000, the idea was unimaginable (‘suicidal’ would not be out of place) and its realization gives some hope for a viable multi-ethnic future.
On the other hand, the lawyers had a laundry list of shenanigans, underhand, bureaucratic and worse. In many senses, the uprooted and impoverished clients they represent are the most easily dispensable part of a veritable mountain of irregularities and grievances accumulated during a decade of international administration. Property claims remain a significant issue, but must be viewed alongside unresolved disappearances, highly contested privatizations, potentially massive liability to the former employees of state firms and other pending calamities.
That said, the lack of trust remains striking. After dinner one evening, the conversation revolved around plots. Is this a blocking maneuver meant to distract us from that or wedge us out of there? There was some ironic laughter but an undertone of real worry. For Serbs living and working in Kosovo, a sort of elemental uncertainty that long since evaporated from more settled former war zones like Bosnia still clings.