Thursday, December 24, 2009

“An uneasy and treacherous road” – Serbian integration into EU

By: Stevan V. Nikolic

Belgrade, Dec. 25 2009 (Serbia Today) - In recent weeks we have witnessed three major events: on Dec. 19th EU visa liberalization for Serbian citizens; this past Tuesday official application for EU membership in Stockholm; on Monday adoption of a strict budget by Parliament, a major pre-condition for continued lMF support. From these remarkable events one might conclude that positive things are finally happening for Serbia. Yet is it everything so rosy?

The Serbian coalition government is certainly doing everything it can to satisfy the formalities required by the EU for integration. However, it is equally certain that little is being done to realize substantively the required changes.

Necessary laws are being adopted by the Parliament, but nothing is being done to enforce their implementation or to secure the independence of the courts. Recent reevaluation and reelection of the judges at different levels cast a deep shadow on the independence of the justice system from the political system.

The Anti-Corruption Agency has been established. But somehow its power fades out whenever the suspect in a corruption case is a member of one of the ruling political parties or is one of the so called “untouchable” Serbian business tycoons.

Sale of the state owned companies to the private investors is in process, but it is not going as expected. For one thing the amount of money collected by the Government from the sales is not what was hoped for. For another the restructuring of many of the privatized businesses by their new private owners has resulted in massive layoffs or delayed paychecks.

Bringing the last two remaining war criminals to the Hague Tribunal seems to be a no-win battle for the Government. If they don’t deliver Gen. Mladic to the Hague, they may lose their credibility with the EU. If they do, they may unleash the worst kind of nationalistic rage still existing among many Serbs.

The new budget was written in accordance with IMF requirements laid out as a condition for the continuation of its financial support. One of those conditions was the reduction of the public sector workforce. Despite promises and commitments by Government officials at all levels little is actually being done. Moreover, it appears that the only cuts in the public sector which will actually happen will be cuts in the socially sensitive areas of health and education. It seems easier to fire a nurse or a teacher than to fire a government clerk who is affiliated with a political party.

Similarly the budget freezes pensions at the level of last year. Considering that almost one third of the adult population of Serbia are retirees, this measure will certainly be unpopular. Should there be early general elections, the present ruling coalition may well be defeated, as was the case recently in the local election for the Municipality of Vozdovac, where the opposition Progressive party won.

This is not to say that Serbian Government is not doing a good job at all. Results from the efforts to make Serbia a modern, western democracy are evident everywhere. However, in the transition from a dysfunctional socialist system to a functioning free market system the necessary changes must be substantive, not mere formalities.

As it is now, Serbs can finally travel to EU countries, but can not afford to do so. Companies are private, but workers are not being paid and their rights are not being protected. Corruption is being prosecuted, but the major sources of corruption remain untouched. Children are being taught in larger classes by fewer teachers. Retirees are standing in line longer for medical care. For many standing in line at the soup kitchen has become a necessity for the first time since immediately after the Second World War. Social differences among very rich and very poor are more visible now than ever before.

So everything is not so rosy. In their effort to be elected and stay in power politicians often neglect to mention that the road to integration into the EU may be “uneasy and treacherous.”

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