|Grujic and Petrovic both agreed that Serbia’s accession to the EU was inevitable|
Serbia is preparing for knife-edge parliamentary elections on Sunday, which pit a pro-European camp, pointing towards EU membership, against a nationalist group of parties, buoyed by anger over the government’s failure to deal with the breakaway of Kosovo.
Surveys have given the nationalist Radical party about 36 per cent of voter support, compared to 35 per cent in favour of the pro-European camp, headed by the Democratic (DS) party of Boris Tadic, the president.
With Serbia’s electorate apparently split right down the middle, Al Jazeera spoke to Mladen Grujic, a member of parliament for the nationalist New Serbia party, and Nevena Petrovic from The Wave, a pro-EU non-governmental organisation, to find out why.
‘Europe’s bad guy’
Grujic says his party thinks EU integration is fine, “not as an acquisition, but as a merger”.
|Grujic says the EU wants Serbia as its ‘bad guy’|
“At the moment, it’s not even an acquisition. It’s close to an occupation,” said Grujic, whose New Serbia (NS) is allied with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s prime minister.
Both parties have been disapproving of agreements Serbia has signed with the EU.
“We can’t escape Europe, we are in the middle, we are surrounded, we have to surrender,” he said.
“You see, we respect that Europe needs to have a bad guy.
“The travelling costs to Afghanistan and Iraq are high, it’s nice to have a bad guy in the neighbourhood, which has nice restaurants and pretty girls, a nice environment, and a nice city … And so you visit [Serbia] every now and then, you have a good time, and you go back home.”
Petrovic, who called Grujic’s remarks “stupid”, said that “this feeling of xenophobia in Serbia; this feeling of prejudice towards Europe”, was exactly what her NGO and pro-European voters were fighting against.
“[The EU] doesn’t force you to do anything which is against your better future,” she said.
“With accession to the EU, with the money from their funds, structural funds and regional development, you can do something.
“Serbia needs the EU and the EU needs Serbia,” she said.
With the average monthly wage for Serbians at less than 350 euros ($550), and an unemployment rate of more than 18 per cent, Grujic says that Serbia is at a relative economic advantage, drawing in investment because of its cheap labour costs.
|Petrovic says that joining the EU can
improve Serbia’s economy
For Petrovic, however, low wages simply mean low productivity and a negative effect on future investment that joining the EU can rectify.
“If you don’t have productivity, you don’t have investment. If you have low wages, you try to have higher wages.
“Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania – they were poor, but now their economies are improving. So they are proof.
“The EU is not perfect, but there is some evidence of improvement,” she said.
Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, no party, bar the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has formally announced that they recognise Kosovo.
Despite differences of opinion over accession to the EU, Petrovic and Grujic both said that international support for the breakaway of Kosovo, including from the EU, was unfair.
“You can’t have someone taking something away from you without asking, negotiating, paying you for it, or giving you back what he tried to take,” Grujic said.
“Serious money has been invested there. For the last nine years, Serbia has been paying all the international loans for Kosovo. If nothing else, somebody has to take that money into consideration.
“All of that has been abolished by the European Union, who said, ‘no, [Kosovo] is an independent state; everything that’s there, belongs to them’.”
Petrovic said: “I think we have lost [Kosovo]. I am not happy. The way the EU treated us, it looks like theft if somebody takes part of your country from you.
“The only thing they can do now is split [Kosovo] up … If you want to give the people there a normal life, the only way to do that is to reconnect [Kosovan Serbs] to Serbia,” she said.
“I think the EU has made a mistake,” Grujic said. “It is going to cost them money and much effort with Kosovo – an unruleable [sic] territory that does not respect anything that the EU stands for.”
The EU’s “mistake” has certainly had a resonance with Serbian society, which is dissatisfied with a governing coalition that it feels has failed to look after its heartland.
As a reaction, many Serbs are now putting greater support behind nationalist parties that may further isolate Serbia from the EU.
A right-wing, nationalist governing coalition is a worst-case scenario for Petrovic. “It is quite frightening actually … because I don’t know what they plan to do,” she said.
“But if they suggest some good proposals, who knows, maybe even I will vote for them.”