Milica Delevic – Europeanising Serbia

“The more you see that the accession process is alive, the more incentives you have to build EU-style institutions.”


Milica Delevic’s final teenage years in the late 1980s coincided with the end of her country, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Born 1969 in Belgrade from Montenegrin parents, Milica was raised in New Belgrade, a neighbourhood of the Yugoslav capital built during socialism and inhabited by new urbanites.

“One thing I remember well from my childhood was the fountains and illuminations in front of the Federation Palace, the building from where Yugoslavia was run. They were beautiful and people would go to walk there to see them. Now though, symbolically perhaps, they are in poor shape.

We would often walk by them, going to the river or after we had been to the Hotel Jugoslavija for chocolate pancakes. We would also go to the Hotel Moskva or the Madera Restaurant to eat. Life was easy. You didn’t feel deprived of anything.”

By the end of the 1980s, however, the worry-free years of the Yugoslav middle-class were coming to a halt.

“When I began studying at Belgrade University, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia started to dissolve. In the beginning many of us didn’t believe that this was happening. When it really started, at the beginning you have this understanding that very soon there will be a remedy and then after a while you realise that – well – you’ve been living most of your life during some sort of crisis period, be in the 1990s or after 2000.”

The 1990s were the decade of Milosevic, the decade of wars, destruction and isolation. The prospect of a European future for Serbia had become very distant.

Milica began studying economics in 1988. In the early 1990s she joined Radio B92, the bastion of anti-Milosevic resistance. It was at B92 that Milica met Dragan Djilas, the station’s news editor and a leader of the 1992 student protests. The two were later married. (They divorced in 2008. Djilas is currently the mayor of Belgrade.) Milica recalls:

“There was a real feeling of energy, that things might change and that we could affect the situation. I wanted to feel like I was doing something socially responsible. I signed a petition against Milosevic and his policies.”

After she signed the petition, Milica was refused a university job that she had already been offered. Instead, she enrolled in the European Studies department at the Central European University in Prague. When she returned to Belgrade, Vojin Dimitrijevic, an opposition figure and Serbia’s eminence grise in the area of international law and human rights, offered her a job as teaching assistant at the Belgrade Law School. Milica later worked at Dimitrijevic’s Belgrade Centre for Human Rights. After a crackdown on the university system, Milica left to do a PhD in Canterbury. Four days after she arrived in the UK, NATO forces began shelling Belgrade.

A year later, Milosevic’s decade-long reign finally came to a close. After an electoral defeat that the Serbian president refused to acknowledge, Serbs took to the streets. The death knell for Milosevic sounded on 5 October 2000, when the army and police refused his orders. A broad coalition of 18 parties (and the association of free and independent trade unions) took power to lead Serbia out of its isolation.

“Suddenly, after 5 October all of your friends, the people you know from the opposition, were being called upon to join the government,” Milica recalls. She was seven months pregnant with her second daughter and had a PhD to finish. Eventually she took up an offer to become the deputy director of the diplomatic academy, formerly the diplomatic school of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The challenges of fighting a regime like the Milosevic regime might have been ideologically more inspiring, but the challenges of working and making things happen on a day to day basis after 2000 were no less challenging… I think that the period afterwards is probably even more challenging, because you are in a position to deliver. And then you have a lot of responsibility, because you see on the basis of what you do if people support continuation or not.”

In September 2003 Milica was appointed head of the EU integration office for Serbia and Montenegro. She resigned in August 2004, “realising that there was no future for a joint state of Serbia and Montenegro.” (Indeed, Montenegro declared independence on 3 June 2006.) Over the next few years Milica helped co-ordinate Serbia’s EU strategy and worked as a university lecturer. From June 2007 to October 2008 she was assistant foreign minister in charge of European integration, eventually moving on to become head of Serbia’s European Integration office.

“I think that we have still a lot of challenges coming from ‘high politics’, but increasingly we face challenges in delivering what people expect from the European integration process on a day-to-day level. They have been fed the diet of high political issues for a while and now they are actually becoming much more interested in what EU integration brings us in concrete terms. ‘We don’t want to hear more promises, we want to see things happening,’ they say. This actually puts pressure on all of us to deliver tangible benefits.”

Serbia’s path towards EU membership has been slow and tricky. The Milosevic regime had held up any serious engagement with the EU for more than a decade. In November 2000, immediately after Milosevic’s ouster, the EU offered an agreement for the provision of assistance to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003, the reform process slowed down. Insufficient co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague acts as a constant break on relations with the EU. Negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) were finally launched in October 2005. They were suspended on 3 May 2006 due to lacking co-operation with the ICTY.

After Montenegro seceded in late spring 2006, Serbia became an independent state. It resumed the SAA negotiations on 13 June 2007. The SAA was finally signed on 29 April 2008 in Luxembourg. However, its ratification by the 27 EU member states and the implementation of the Interim Agreement on Trade were suspended until co-operation with the ICTY was deemed satisfactory. The Interim Agreement entered into force on 1 February 2010, but SAA ratification is still on hold.

Although democratisation has been under way for nearly a decade in Serbia, the country is still stuck in the pre-natal phase of the EU accession process. The greatest challenges remain ahead. Has the process led to any significant changes so far?

“This exercise in transformative power [by the EU], you can actually see it work. You can see independent institutions being built, you can see administrative capacity being beefed up, you can see institutions being transformed …

I think that the closer you get to EU [membership] and the more you see that the accession process is alive, the more incentives you have to build EU-style institutions. So, you can see this transformative process at work, but probably you would feel that it would be a livelier process if the enlargement process were livelier too.”

One of the most tangible benefits of the accession process is the decision to grant visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Serbian citizens (along with Macedonians and Montenegrins). It followed hard work to meet the EU’s demanding criteria (see ESI’s Schengen white list project).

“The visa liberalisation process is a strong signal of political acceptance, because whenever you have been hearing about the European perspective of Serbia, that there was a perspective, it would be difficult for citizens of Serbia to understand, because they would perceive visas as rejection. Now this has changed, so even if you have no money or no passport to travel, you feel accepted and you feel that your dignity is taken into account.

And then of course there is a more functional aspect of visa liberalisation. If you are not allowed to travel, how on Earth are you supposed to support the European integration process?”

The visa liberalisation process also increased the dynamic of the integration process.

“For instance, due to the signature of the European common aviation area agreement, you see that low cost companies are now becoming interested in flying to and from Serbia. You can fly to Vienna for 29 EUR with Fly Niki – and if you combine this with visa free travel to the Schengen states you see that you cannot look at only one aspect of the EU integration process. Once you start doing it, you feel the need to do more and actually you cannot separate one thing from the other.”

Membership negotiations require dramatic changes in governmental institutions, in the legal framework and in key policy areas. Once they actually start, the reform process will accelerate further – one reason why Milica looks forward to the challenges her job will deliver in the future.

“Having matured during this crisis period, you have this feeling that you want to contribute to making things happen in Serbia. And you still feel that whether you are involved in the process or not makes a difference at various levels. As long as there is this feeling, there is a strong challenge for you to be involved. I am quite sure that things will not remain like this forever and ever more you see that this process in Serbia is becoming irreversible. But still there is this feeling that it is important to be somehow involved. There will probably be time for easier jobs later on.”

26 February 2010