BELGRADE (Reuters) - The dream of travelling around Europe without a visa, and hopes for a good job that can pay for such adventures, are the top two reasons most Serbs want their country to join the European Union.
Official polls show more than 70 percent of Serbs support EU membership. But most know little about the 27-member bloc, and are not prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of accession.
“The data is encouraging but not convincing,” said Miljenko Dereta of the non-governmental organisation Citizens Initiative.
“If there is such a high level of support, then it’s very shallow because people don’t want anything to change in Serbia”.
Its role in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and years of sanctions have left Serbia poor and unstable, and people complain little has changed in real terms since the late nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000.
Average salaries are around 350 euros a month and unemployment stands at 30 percent. Only one in nine Serbs have passports.
For Marko Stojanovic, vice president of the Students’ Union, the EU means “better salaries, more jobs, capital inflows”.
“The main reason I want Serbia to join is to be able to travel without humiliating queues in front of embassies to get a visa for a simple trip abroad,” he said. “Also, it will bring culture and a new code of conduct in Serbian politics.”
Maja Bobic of the European Movement think-tank said this lack of freedom of movement was also an emotional issue.
“People feel they’re not accepted as part of Europe,” she said.
The initialling of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU on Wednesday should offer some comfort.
But Brussels won’t sign the accord — the first step to membership — until Belgrade fulfils its obligations to the United Nations war crimes court and arrests Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general indicted for genocide in the Bosnia war.
Hardline nationalists revere Mladic as a hero and oppose his arrest. Activists say it is up to Serb politicians to send a clear massage on what “European values” really means.
“Politicians must openly say that Ratko Mladic has to answer to the Hague tribunal because of the charges against him, not that Serbia has to extradite Mladic because that is a condition (set) by the EU,” said Tanja Matic from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation.
Since the wars of the 1990s, Serbs have been struggling with a reputation for hardline nationalism, brutality and defiance.
The country’s image has improved in recent years, however, and it has also become known for its sporting heroes, riotous folk festivals and thriving music scene.
But Serbia’s ambivalence towards the West remains. Few Serbs have forgiven NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign to expel their forces from the breakaway province of Kosovo and halt the killing of civilians in a counterinsurgency war.
Even for liberal Serbs, Western support for Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is seen as a betrayal. For hardliners, it is proof that Serbia’s future lies elsewhere.
“Joining the EU is neo-colonialism,” said Misa Vacic from the small but active “1389” nationalist group, named for the date of the Battle of Kosovo, when Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans and lost their medieval kingdom.
“The EU is suited for big countries like Germany or Britain. We are Orthodox, and Slavs, and looking towards the East.”
Not only fringe groups feel that way. The biggest party, the ultranationalist Radicals, advocate closer ties with Russia, Serbia’s main ally in negotiations over Kosovo’s future.
The war crimes trial of Vojislav Seselj, who remains leader of the Radical party, began in The Hague on Wednesday.
The United States explicitly supports the Kosovo Albanians’ demand for independence, while the EU has been more diplomatic. Brussels has never linked Serb EU membership to Kosovo, but has indicated that a frozen conflict will not help its case.
For some, Serbia’s growing economy and people’s appetite for jobs and consumer goods means there’s no turning back.
Mitar Jovic, head of the biggest confectioner, Soko Stark, thinks Serbia “will inevitably join the EU in five to 15 years.”
“It will mean more competition,” said Jovic, whose firm is already trying to implement EU standards. “Only the best have a chance in the European market, everybody should know that”.
Writing by Ellie Tzortzi