Dissension and distrust in Serbia runs the risk of re-awakening old tensions in the western Balkans
Less than a month ago two of my friends, coming from Germany and Switzerland respectively, were visiting the Western Balkans as tourists. Being genuine civic activists, they decided to begin their visit to Belgrade at the improvised “camp” refugees have created in the center of the city, close to the main railway and bus station. Next to the Serbian Red Cross and volunteers from local and international NGOs, they saw a car with the International Red Cross logo. However, the people in the vehicle did not look a bit like officials of this organization. They suspected something is wrong, and decided to visit the ICRC office in Belgrade just to find out that this organisation is not involved in managing the current crisis in any way. Their next stop was the police headquarters in Belgrade. The person in charge of the human trafficking division received them immediately. In a few minutes he informed them that the car they spotted was stolen and that a special police unit was on its way to catch the smugglers. They were pleasantly surprised with such a swift response, coming from a force with somewhat different reputation.
This little story proves that there is a substantial shift that took place in Serbia since the infamous “Balkan route” became one of the major ways for the refugees and migrants to reach Europe. During recent years the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia had been growing steadily but still did not reach more than a few thousand people a year. When the authorities started planning for a new temporary center for asylum seekers, the response of the local population living in the immediate neighborhood was very negative. However, this summer, as the mass exodus from Syria (and other countries) started, and images of human suffering were widely broadcasted, the behaviour of the people changed.
The most important role in this change is to be attributed to the government of Serbia and to tireless efforts of numerous local NGOs, including the Serbian Red Cross. The memories of the very recent past, when hundreds of thousands refugees and IDPs from various parts of former Yugoslavia came to Serbia, most certainly played a role as well. The government and especially the prime minister took a positive stance towards the desperate people on the move and sent a very clear message that Serbia will treat them with understanding and hospitality. Such narrative and political messages changed (or eased) the atmosphere and various institutions started coping with the crisis more or less efficiently. Of course, there are individuals trying to gain profit from this situation, there are smugglers active along the whole route, but there was no major incident so far that would involve violence or something even worse.
The number of refugees that went through Serbia already exceeds 170,000, and it is growing by a rate of few thousand each day. Being the only country on this new “Balkan route” that never closed its borders; one, which established a relatively swift administrative procedure, provided the necessary health care to the sick, food and other essentials to the most vulnerable - Serbia received much praise on the European stage. Among the refugees and migrants there have been 5,000 unaccompanied minors, many pregnant women, physically exhausted and sick people. The local and international NGOs are providing all kinds of support secured though private and corporate donations, while both state and private health clinics got involved in providing medical help. Of course, all this is far from enough, but bearing in mind that Serbia is a relatively poor country the response to this crisis caught everybody, including the EU officials by surprise: a positive one, this time around.
This does not, however, mean that there were no problems. With the fence erected at the border, tension with Hungary grew, and the traffic on one of Europe’s most important road and rail corridors had to be closed several times. Disturbing scenes of tear gas being used, and refugees being pelted by the Hungarian police received great exposure in the media and caused considerable outrage. However, both Serbian and Hungarian officials tried to calm the situation: the two ministers of foreign affairs met several times during a very short period, visited together main border crossing, and Serbia started redirecting the refugee flow toward Croatia.
At that point serious tension broke out: the Croatian authorities responded with great anger, closed all the border crossings and introduced a complete traffic ban, including on all trucks coming from Serbia. Serbia responded by banning commercial traffic from Croatia to Serbia. In parallel very harsh political rhetoric was used by both sides. From the Croatian side the prime minister was using very undiplomatic language, to say the least, from the Serbian side some media responded in a way that put one in mind of language used at the time of the wars of the 1990s.
The visit of the EU Commissioner Hahn to Belgrade as well as interventions from leading European politicians helped calm the situation down yet proved, once again, that a comprehensive European approach to the refugee crisis is absolutely essential. As the Belgrade Security Forum’s Appeal for European Solution of Refugee and Migration Crisis of 1 October stated “in defining a comprehensive policy toward migrations, the Balkan countries that have earned their right to be part of the problem-solving community must be treated as partners. Finally, the Balkan countries should develop a regional approach and become part of a joint regional and European response.”
Building fences and iron gates at the border crossings, interrupting free flow of goods and even people everywhere, and especially in south east Europe is worrisome and, for many, terrifying. It reminds them of the recent past and disrupt the still very complex web of bilateral and regional relations. And it also sends a discouraging message about the future of Europe. It encourages those in all of these countries who believe that we must remain ever suspicious of each other, it encourages nationalists and provides them with arguments and there is no European future for the Western Balkans. This kind of tensions add additional fuel to geopolitical challenges the entire region is facing.
Sonja Licht is an ECFR Council Member and President of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.