It was a fascinating, deeply emotional event: a commemoration gathering in Belgrade, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 5th of October, the day Serbian citizens took their country back from Slobodan Milosevic exactly 10 years ago. The most poignant moment came at the very end, when a visibly moved Greek prime minister, George Papandreou (who had come in from Brussels on the way to Athens), told his audience about a promise he had made, after Zoran Djindic, Serbia’s prime minister, was killed in 2003, in his eulogy at Djindic’s funeral:
“There and then I made a pledge, to Zoran, but also to the Serbian people. It will continue to ensure that Serbia arrives in her natural home, the European Union. The EU is not complete without the Balkans. Anyone who argues against the Balkans joining the EU is arguing against geography, against economy, against history. Do not believe those who talk about enlargement fatigue. The EU is a long-term historical project and you have to be part of it.”
Papandreou recalled the first time he met Sonja Licht, the spiritus movens behind the whole anniversary event, at the time of the creation of the Helsiniki Citizens Assembly in Prague twenty years ago in 1990, and how much has changed since then. Sonja, sitting next to him, recalled that their’s was a friendship at first sight, “because, despite everything, we both realised that we were proud to be from the Balkans.” He then took her hand, and for a moment both seemed to be glowing, like two teenagers who had just jointly discovered a great romantic poem, as he added: “we are still proud to be from the Balkans. And the European future is the way to find unity amongst our diversity. This is what makes Europe special for the Balkans”
This vision, so often evoked in other settings, can seem banal, boring, mundane at times; the sort of thing EU and Balkan politicians evoke because it is the polite thing to say. But here, presented against the background of memories of another, darker Europe in the 1990s, recalling a velvet revolution that marks one of the happiest days in the tragic recent past of the region, recalling leaders who paid for it with their lives, not long ago, but recently, the vision of a European Serbia in a European Balkan seemed to recapture all its sparkle.
Papandreou managed to express, with a few, heartfelt words, the sense that our generation of leaders and activists are privileged, not only to watch, and also to try to contribute, to the writing of the next chapter in a book that might well be called in a hundred years the “book of European miracles”: that after the miracle on the Rhine (Franco-German reconciliation), the miracle on the Vistula (Germano-Polish reconciliation), the miracle on the Bosporus (the ongoing Europeanisation of Turkey) we are now in the middle of the miracle on the Sava and the Drina. And then the ghosts of that past, the Balkans of the 1990s, will be banished to their graves, never to return to haunt us.
(I could not help thinking of the day when, in the very same hotel this meeting took place, the mafia-paramilitary leader Arkan was shot in the lobby. The former Intercontinental has its own ghosts hanging around its corners).
But there was a more that made this event fascinating, and inspiring. It is also a reality that the transformation that received such a boost in 2000 is still incomplete. There are still enormous problems to be solved. The story of the past decade is one of many false starts, delays, failures to accept the new realities; of clashing visions, also and particularly in Serbia, as Goran Svilanovic recalled: of false priorities, and of denying realities when it came to ICTY, Serbia- Montenegro, and Serbian-Kosovo relations.
On the other hand, there is today real change in the air. Compared to previous meetings I attended in Belgrade, just slightly more than a year ago, the fact that the president himself could speak for 30 minutes without once mentioning the word “Kosovo”, talking about Serbia and the lessons from the past decade, reflects a new ordering of priorities. The fact that the foreign minister only mentions Kosovo in passing, as one of many challenges, without elaborating, is no less striking. There was also a remarkable intervention by the foreign minister of Slovakia, Dzurinda, calling on Serbia to embrace the “tough choices” lying ahead, and lauding the day the EU and Serbia had passed the joint UN resolution a few days back as the day Serbia’s leaders embraced reality and a European future. This obviously remains mined territory, and the fact that Serbia’s leaders are moving carefully, and not – as so often in recent years – recklessly does not mean that the problems are solved. Nor, and this was the key message of my presentation here, are all European leaders as clear about their vision of a European Balkans as Papandreou or Dzurinda are. It would indeed be tragic if shortsightedness leads some governments now to delay what used to be a mere bureaucratic step in the past, forwarding the Serbian membership application to the Commission to write its opinion. What is worse, most European and Serbian diplomats here seem to expect just this to happen, and whoever works on EU integration in Belgrade is not only exhausted but permanently on the verge of giving up …
But those practical concerns are for tomorrow, when we must descend from the mountain peak that offers a wider view of the distant lands that we try to reach, back to the planes where it is so easy to get lost. It is still good to rejoice, just for one instance: the past decade, for all its false starts, has led us to a moment where the vision of a European Balkans remains more alive than ever. As inspiring. And as vital.