In 2015, more than 600,000 refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa entered Serbia on their way to Western Europe, bringing back memories of the wartime turmoil within former Yugoslavia.
Branislava Djonin, a volunteer for Infopark, a Belgrade citizens organisation, has heard many sad stories from the refugees she has helped. “Some speak, some are silent about their tragedies. The worst are the stories of lives lost along the refugee route. Recently, we had a young couple from Afghanistan who lost both their five-month-old babies in Bulgaria. The babies died from hunger after their parents got lost in a wood without food or water,” Djonic told bne IntelliNews.
“But, this is something we are all silent about. Those people are passing through horrible torments and all of us should be aware that we all have to raise our voices to help them survive.”
Djonic believes citizens of Serbia should sympathise as they faced similar problems 25 years ago, and many know what it means to lose everything. “Many citizens are helping, but there are still people who stay blind and deaf on this issue,” she said.
Dealing with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants has been a joint effort by the government, NGOs and the international community. Serbia’s experience in dealing with its own refugees and internally displaced persons over the last 25 years has helped it respond effectively.
Danica Ciric from Belgrade based Group 484, an organisation working on refugee inclusion, gives the example of knowing how to build temporary divisions in a refugee centre to give families some privacy. One abandoned hall in a former tobacco factory in Presevo on the Macedonian border had a hall which already had dividing walls from an earlier crisis, she says.
A quarter of a century after the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia still has one of the largest numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons living in camps in Europe. Across the region, an estimated 2mn people fled their homes for other states on the territory of former federation.
While 92% of those who escaped to Serbia from Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia found new homes with friends or relatives, some had to go to refugee camps in sports halls, schools and abandoned factories across Serbia and Montenegro. Some left their homes “with all their lives and memories packed in a small plastic bag (but better that than their own bones),” as was often said at the time.
As of June 1, there were nine collective centres in Serbia with only 151 refugees and 196 internally displaced persons, Commissariat for Refuguees (KIRS) data show. “The majority of refugees in Serbia have received Serbian citizenship thanks to the very liberal laws in Serbia,” Ivan Miskovic, spokesperson at KIRS told bne Intellinews.
Some 20-25 years since most of the refugees moved to Serbia from other parts of ex-Yugoslavia, they now share the same issues as the local population. “Refugees have dissolved into the local population and those who obtained Serbian citizenship are now dealing with the same problems as other citizens. Their problem is unemployment, which is a problem faced by numerous citizens of Serbia,” Ciric tells bne IntelliNews.
This is one of the major changes that has happened in Serbia in the last 25 years, along with the transformation of the country into a multiparty democracy. Back in 1991, Serbia’s autocratic leader Slobodan Milosevic had already embarked upon the ultra-nationalist policies that would lead the country into wars in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, and to the edge of bankruptcy and international isolation.
Those days are now gone - Milosevic died in the Hague in March 2016 while awaiting trial for war crimes.
However, in other respects there are still some similarities to the political scene back in the early 1990s - including some of the same faces. Milosevic’s Youth president Ivica Dacic now serves as foreign affairs minister, and together with many other former Milosevic allies, is one of the main players on the political scene. Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the ultra-nationalistic Serbian Radical Party (SRS), formed in 1991, is again the loudest opposition figure. He joined Milosevic’s government in 1998.
The largest party in the parliament is the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which was formed in 2008 when Aleksandar Vucic and Tomislav Nikolic - Serbia’s prime minister and president - split from Seselj’s SRS. Unlike the SRS, the SNS is a staunch advocate of Serbia’s entry to the EU.
The country’s international status has also changed a lot since the 1990s when Serbia and its population were viewed through the lens of Milosevic’s repression and war crimes. Some of the figures from Milosevic’s regime are now seen as guarantors of regional peace and stability by the international community.
Serbia is progressing rapidly towards EU accession, and Belgrade opened its first two EU accession negotiation chapters in December 2015.
However, Serbia still needs to normalise relations with Pristina if it is to achieve this goal. During his decade in power, Milosevic used the Kosovo issue to gain more supporters. It remains one of the most emotive and contentious topics in Serbia today, and recognition is still not an option, but collaboration with the newborn Kosovo state is required for Serbia to gain EU membership.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 - two years after Montenegro voted for independence - was the most shocking development in Serbia’s recent history. The Kosovo issue continues to divide Serbia from most EU countries (23 of the 28 have recognised Kosovo) and push it closer to Russia.
Russia has used its veto within the UN Security Council to block Kosovo’s UN membership. This gives additional room to Russia to spread its influence over Serbia and affects its relationships with the US and the EU. Close ties with Russia are viewed positively by most Serbs, which also affects Serbia’s relationship with Nato, an important factor for regional stability.
Serbia has declared itself militarily neutral, and is seeking to balance the two sides, but Russia is pushing against Serbia’s closer cooperation with the alliance. In addition, the Russian media negatively influences citizens’ view of the EU, contributing to the rising number of votes for the far right SRS and DSS-Dveri coalition in the April 24 election.
The election again highlighted the split between old and new Serbia, as the victory for the pro-EU SNS was offset by the return of the two far right parties to the parliament. While Serbia has now become a modern European state, it still has some legacies of the past to resolve.
This article is part of a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.