Balkans: The three musketeers of new Serbia
6 March 2012
Forget the Milošević years and strike a course for the EU. In Belgrade, this is the plan embodied by three ambitious young politicians — Vuk Jeremić, Božidar Đelić and Borislav Stefanović — all of whom trained in the west.
With its war criminals behind bars, peaceful relations with its neighbours, and an easing of the tension with Pristina, Serbia has scored several points in the international arena. Today the country which was considered to be a pariah only ten years ago has become an official candidate for member ship of the EU. “This long-awaited recognition is one of the achievements of a new generation of politicians intent on finally turning the page on the Milosevic era who have taken charge of the country’s diplomacy”, explains one western observer. Three of them – Vuk Jeremić, Božidar Đelić and Borislav Stefanović – are also on the point of succeeding in an initiative which for many years was thought to be impossible: opening the EU’s doors to Serbia while making virtually no concessions on Kosovo.
Is it possible to be Foreign Minister at just 31 years of age? It is in Serbia. However, Vuk Jeremić (b. 1975) is a pure product of the Anglo-Saxon education system, and a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, America’s nursery for future politicians. It is a background that has stood him in good stead, especially in his defence of Serbian intransigence on Kosovo, which he has fought to maintain with American efficiency.
A pro-western nationalist, he has a technical mastery of the complicated score that Serbian diplomats have had to play since the announcement of the independence of his country’s former province in 2008. At the same time, he has also demonstrated certain limits: on occasion being deemed too intransigent or even arrogant. In 2010, Jeremić was “repositioned” in a new diplomatic niche which proved to be even more effective: the bid to convince non-aligned countries not to recognise Kosovo. To this end, he traveled from Calcutta to Teheran, and from Lesotho to Mexico, successfully reactivating all of the former Yugoslavia’s networks, much to the annoyance of his American friends.
“Linking Kosovo and EU, a gift for extremists”
Ten years separate Božidar Đelić, Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister responsible for European integration, from his young colleague Vuk, but both men share a history of academic over-achievement. “Boza” cut his teeth in France, a country where he arrived at the tender age of ten without a command of the language. Nonetheless, the young Yugoslav soon built up an impressive array of qualifications from France’s most prestigious schools: Louis-le-Grand upper-secondary school, Sciences Po, HEC etc. As a recognised economist with a yuppy’s gift of the gab, the Franco-Serb found success both in the private sector and as a political advisor.
Since 2007, he has worked alongside President Tadić with a single objective in mind: Europe. More subtle than Jeremic, he has succeeded in convincing Europe that “linking Kosovo and the EU, would be a gift for extremists in Serbia”. He is also guided by pet obsession: the desire to obliterate the memory of Slobodan Milosevic. And to this end, the politician who is described as “adorable” by his close associates, can at times be very blunt. “Your problem is that you continue to see Serbia through the prism of the past. You even speak to me as though I was Milosevic”, he angrily remarked while pointing at me only a few months ago.
Ambitious, cosmopolitan and self-assured: these new Serbian leaders have a lot of personality traits in common. They also share an unfailing loyalty to their mentor and political guru, Presdent Boris Tadić, who has made optimal use of their qualities and failings in his drive to bring about a rapprochement with Europe.
Weakness of their opponents
In the summer of 2011, when the German Chancellor made it clear that Serbian access to the EU would be “via Pristina”, President Tadić pulled out yet another trump card in the shape of Borislav Stefanović, 37 ans, who was delegated to define the terms for “technical cooperation” with the Albanians. Last week, he was the one to push through the cooperation agreement with Pristina which is generally believed to have opened the way for Serbia’s inclusion in the EU.
These Serbian diplomatic successes are also to some extent due to the weakness of their opponents, who do not have an elite worthy of the name – an “asymmetry” embodied by Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, who has been accused by the Council of Europe of benefiting from an organ smuggling operation during the war in 1999. “They’re not the same people”, admits one European negotiator. “All the same, it was the hardest day of my life”, says Borislav Stefanović when describing the marathon talks with Pristina.
For its part, the Serbian media has noted how the former Washington diplomat, affectionately nicknamed "Borko", appears to have aged since he took on his current post. Only a few years ago, he was still the bass player in a punk band Generacija bez budućnosti, which means “Generation without a future” – a name that certainly related to the experience of many young Serbs. But that was before “Borko”, “Boza” and Vuk stepped on to another stage in the arena of the new Serbia.
Translated from the French by Mark McGovern