New (ab) normality: Sonja Licht’s interview for “Vreme”
in “Vreme” no. 1450, 18 October 2018
Text Ivana Milanović Hrašovec
Photo copyright Belgrade Security Forum/A.
Translated by Nevena Mančić, BFPE
In the run up to the interview, President
of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, Sonja Licht, has pointed out to
this week’s eight in a row Belgrade Security Forum. Her organization is one of
the organizers of this event. The question what is, in fact the new normal, was
featured in the title of the Forum, “Finding Answers Together to The New Normal”.
“Rhetorically speaking, big and powerful were
always faithful to democracy and open society, but in reality they are not
expressing that, says Sonja Licht for “Vreme”. We are facing the growth of
authoritarian, nationalist and exclusive populisms. Why? Because we have come
to a dangerous situation when people are losing their trust in institutions and
political elites. It is a serious phenomenon that we are facing, that can lead
to authoritarian and non-democratic tendencies. While planning the title for
Belgrade Security Forum 2018, we have decided to look for our, collective
answers to this new normal. We do not like it.”
of the hypothesis for upcoming forum states: Balkans stand at a milestone in
2018. Why is this year considered a milestone?
Sonja Licht: I am always very attentive when it comes to firm
formulations, but if you want to open a debate, then you are more prone to
those (kind of) firm formulations. There are several reasons for calling 2018 a
milestone. First of all, European Commission has adopted the Strategy for a
credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans in February this year;
that was less a strategy, and more a type of a “white paper” that was, of
course, public, and in which the Commission has elaborated strategic ways of
thinking about the enlargement, and how to achieve EU’s greater presence in
Western Balkans. This was, after a long time, the first “paper” that was
dealing with the region in the context of euro-integration, and a lot of
people, including me, welcomed it with a great satisfaction. It contained what Juncker
has previously said about 2025, just this time converted into text.
So, in 2018, 2025 has been mentioned when it comes
to Serbia and Montenegro in European Union. It offered a new European
perspective, or impulse for the whole region, but unfortunately it did not last
On the other side, 2018 is a year in which was
expected that negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina come to a serious
breakthrough and to news when it comes to an overall normalization of
relations. It is also a year when Macedonian referendum was held. Hence, a lot
of important things for the region occurred this year. If it is going to be a
milestone (year), however, it is yet to be seen.
between Belgrade and Pristina are considered as a key problem that holds the
perspective for entire region. Do you agree with that?
Relations between Belgrade and Pristina are very
important, but it is to be seen if they are the most important. The other, very
important topic is the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina as seen from the last
elections. It is good that all leaders from neighboring countries stand for
preserving the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I did not hear anybody
saying no. To which extend is this going to be a strategic priority within BIH,
is however yet to be seen. It is extremely important, for both societies, to resolve
Serb-Kosovar relations in a way that is going to provide prosperity, European
perspective, and perspective for development in order to prevent the best in
our societies from leaving.
the already seen tensions, starting with the visit by one of Serbian officials
to Kosovo, do you think there is a real possibility for even greater conflicts
and some new conflicts?
I strongly believe that such a conflict will not
and cannot occur, and there are plenty of reasons why I believe in that. I
would like to point out that both societies have experienced severe trauma in
the recent past and I think that those who are willing to rock this boat even
more due to various daily-political needs, or possibility of remaining in
power, coming to power, will not be able to gain true support of the society in
which they operate, and which they are leading or have the intention to lead.
I do not believe in immediate danger, but I am
concerned about what we’ve learned for so many times in the 90s; it is enough
to have one madman or a small group of lunatics to do something and cause very
serious consequences. I do not believe that it is possible to start a war now,
among other things, due to presence of KFOR in Kosovo, which basically means
that we have NATO presence. Even if a madman or a small group of lunatics
provokes a conflict, I think it can only be of low intensity.
When you say
“a madman” or “a group of lunatics”, do you think on somebody in particular?
No, I am speaking generally.
you define the development of Belgrade and Pristina relations at this moment?
I would like to refer back to the recent
conversation I moderated between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. On that occasion, Stoltenberg had a firm
need to emphasize that the region has accomplished so much in the last 20
years, since the conflict ended. I think it is important to say that as well.
We tend to minimize everything that has been achieved, because there is much
more to be done.
It is said sometimes that the Brussels agreement is
futile, but that is not true. When you cross that border or administrative
line, among other things, you can see that it (the exchange) works much better.
I know that because I cross the border, unlike those who do not cross, but are
very aware of what is happening.
We know that the economy and trade with Kosovo has
entered legal waters much more than before. When it comes to the Kosovo police
we also know that steps taken are insuficient, but at least there are steps
taken in that direction.
Unfortunately, the Brussels agreement was not
entirely respected and implemented, and the main problem is community of
Serbian municipalities. That’s almost the half of the points in Brussels
agreement which haven’t moved from the deadlock. That is a serious problem
because it sends an extremely vague political message that increases the
We’ ve heard
the news about the break off relations between United States and Minister of
Security of Kosovo and his deputy. What is the importance of this, and do you
agree with Ivica Dačić, who claims that the United States have changed their
course towards Kosovo?
I’ve seen both things (reported in the media), and
I must say that I do not dare to comment. I do not know exactly what is
happening relating to high representatives of security structures in Kosovo and
the US administration. I am not sure I would dare to make such general
First of all, the Minister of Foreign Affairs knows
much more than me, and second, politicians are here to make generalizations
before those who are not politicians, and who will, as in my case, have to wait
a bit. The fact is that due to geopolitical relations in the world, the Balkans
are getting more attention than couple of years ago.
beginning of September, President Vučić stated that we should agree on how we
want to live in the future on our own, and not to fulfill the desires of the
great powers. Is that kind of the agreement possible?
Again, I refer to all our experiences, from the end
of 80s until today, and I think it would certainly be very desirable. I am a
big supporter of regional cooperation; no matter if it is bilateral or
multilateral. I deeply believe that these societies first have to show
themselves, and then to the others, that they are mature enough to solve their
On the other hand, we know that in the world full
of multiple interests that intertwine and which are often in conflict, one
small region has a hard time. I will quote Dimitar Bechev and his “Periphery of
the Periphery” on how difficult it is to gain the position to solve your own
open problems. Especially when geography has again become an important factor
in politics, and when our geography attracts variety of world’s interests. It
is definitely not easy to handle all this, and in the situation of conflicting
interests over our heads it is very desirable for us to solve our own problems,
but again, it is impossible without intensive cooperation.
At this moment, we have greater economic
cooperation in the region, greater than political, and in terms of Kosovo,
economic cooperation is extremely important.
latter statement, Vučić said that his plan regarding Kosovo has failed. Do you
by any chance know what kind of plan it is, whether it was about demarcation,
and why has this plan failed?
I really don’t have information about this, and
what “demarcation” means exactly. I think that it was a trial balloon in a way,
for both Vučić and Thaci. I think it is no accident that we do not have
details, my feeling is that no one really talked about the details, and that it
was simply just about testing the field.
I find it very difficult to say that something has
failed when we do not know what it refers to. In fact, I think that President
Vučić wanted to say something else. When you analyze the whole context in which
he speaks, I think his idea was to announce that in fact there are many of
those who want to keep the “frozen conflict”. Thaci obviously has the similar
problem. What he was consistent about in his statements is that we want to
unfreeze conflicts, which will enable both sides to move on. That is why I
think that part of his claim that this has failed, in fact, is the result of an
internal dialogue, which, after all, he called.
second part of Vučić’s claim that the demarcation plan is a failed result of
desires of great powers, like Germany, does it mean then, that they support the
state of frozen conflict?
I think that situation is much more complicated. I
would not be surprised if all or most of the actors from the side, as it
usually goes in politics, take into account their own internal political
situation in order to express themselves about others.
On the other hand, there is a fear that “Pandora’s box”
will open. Many would say that Pandora’s box has been opened a long time ago.
You opened Pandora’s Box when you easily accepted the disintegration of
Yugoslavia. You continued opening Pandora’s box by failing to comply with the proposal of Badinter
Commission; I recall, the proposal was to recognize Slovenia and Macedonia. No,
Slovenia and Croatia were recognized at the same time. I wouldn’t like to go
into the whole story now, but it shows to what extend the great powers didn’t
understand or didn’t want to understand what a disintegration of this country
means. I am not going to blame them, of course we were primarily responsible
for allowing this country to fall apart instead of reforming, instead of
becoming a democratic federation, a confederation, whatever. Of course, that in
2008 Pandora’s box reopened when it was said that Kosovo would be sui generis.
For this type of recognition, the independence of individual parts of the
country is impossible to claim that it is sui generis. This is what Spaniards
are referring to now; therefore a number of countries in EU will not recognize
the independence of Kosovo because of the fear of their own situation, not
because they are principled about the Pandora’s box.
The question remains: What is that, which is
estimated to be able to help the true normalization of these two societies? The
attitudes are different-some are absolutely against the demarcation, some
consider that if the two sides agree, it can be one of the possible solutions.
All I have to say about this is: it is very important for both societies to
participate in the debate about the future of these two societies and their
mutual relationship. This has not been achieved yet; here it has been tried
with an internal dialogue that is far from general dialogue or debate, and in
Kosovo it has not even been tried. I am deeply convinced that both societies
must take part in this together, and therefore my organization, along with a
number of organizations from Serbia and Kosovo is trying to encourage the
conversation and inspire a common approach.
unpredictability that has become the “new normality” in international
relations is also one of the topics in the upcoming forum.
Unpredictability has become a kind of uncertainty.
It has become quite a serious constant of international relations, large
integration, including the EU which is the most important integration for us.
Although I am convinced that there will not be a breakdown of the Union because
it is too important for its own citizens, the fact is that it is causing a very
unpredictability of our politics, for example, the fact that President Vučić
suddenly leaves to meet Putin, just before Stoltenberg’s arrival to Serbia? Is
it unpredictable that we are turning to the EU, and we are arming ourselves
from Russia? Can we say that we know what our foreign policy is?
When it comes to armament, we also buy helicopters
from the West. I would say that Serbia’s foreign policy at the moment, reminds
many people of the period of non-alignment. Of course, that time is long gone,
and today we live in a multipolar world. Regardless of what I think of certain
moves, when I’m thinking in a wider context I come to the conclusion that in a
truly multipolar world, for a small country like ours, which is still far from
the EU membership, it is very difficult to keep only one direction. Personally,
it is very important to me that we have concluded that the absolute priority of
our foreign policy is euro-integration. I would like it to be even more
intensified, through all chapters. On the other hand, I call EU members to
express greater readiness for thinking about concrete policies towards us when
it comes to European integration.
they not expressing?
Above all, they are not expressing enough interest.
I am not thinking just about economy, I mean public opinion as well. I read,
like the others why Germany or Merkel are against the demarcation that much.
Some interpretations coming from Germany itself are that she fears that another
country is going to apply for EU membership. In other words, the fear of
enlargement at this moment is greater than thinking about how to integrate this
entire region into the EU. This fear, that a small region can impose additional
problems, dates from the problems that Union has faced with the arrival of
members that are no longer new, and have been a part of EU for 14 years so far.
This region is the source of instability for the Union much more when it is out
then within the Union. We are, in fact, an island surrounded by NATO and EU
members, and it seems that, from time to time, this island is left to believe
that it is somewhere far away. The only time when statesman from this region
were invited to sit at the same table with the rest from the EU, was in 2015
when there was necessity to discuss the migration crisis, the Balkan route, not
before or after that. I would say there is something that is lack of a clear
strategy for both sides; clear enough at least for us who are trying to
understand what is happening.
When it comes to meetings with Vladimir Putin, they
come indeed more often than meetings with leading European politicians, but
they all meet him too. So, I would not particularly single Serbia out. We are
all much more interdependent than it seems at the first glance. Internal and
foreign policy were always very intertwined, but when you cross a certain
normal border in that, then it becomes dangerous and serious. That is why
European integrations are of great importance for us; only within EU we can
keep this border under control.
When we look
at EU reports on progress made in open chapters, the membership seems even more
I have to say that we’ve done a lot in regional
cooperation. Of course, we have not done much in all of those things that
ensure the institutional strengthening of society and the state. Institutions
are weak here; the judiciary is faced with enormous problems; we have huge
problems in media sphere, therefore, in all which are basic components
significant for democratic order. We have a serious backlog. That is what the EU
met a Soros’s son a several times so far. Considering your long-standing
cooperation with Soros, do you know what they were talking about? Except the
I am familiar with what I attended. An enormous
number of people did not believe that they talked about it and they doubt that
the future and position of Roma community might interest Alexander Soros and
Aleksandar Vučić. I was on this occasion with President Vučić as a board member
of Roma Open Society Fund program, not our Serbian, but global. There were many
others present there. We talked for a whole hour about the situation of Roma in
Serbia and what could be done to improve their position. I am personally
engaged with this subject for 40 years, and I was incredibly honored when I was
elected to a board on a global level 10 years after I left the Open Society
What other topics Alexander Soros discussed with
Vučić, I really do not know, I was not even present and nobody shared that with
Is it today
unusual for you when you hear that they met?
Why would it be unusual? The Soros Foundation, i.e.,
the Open Society Fund has been in this country since 1991. Serious funds are
spent, serious projects are supported. The other thing that I can confirm is,
because I see it from everything that is happening that Alexander Soros, who
will most likely inherit the foundation from his father, really cares about the
future of the Western Balkans. He doesn’t come only to Serbia, he’s been to
Macedonia several times, Pristina, Tirana, and many other places, and I am
really glad that someone who is most likely to take over one large global
organization, is interested in our region to that extend.
It is a bit
confusing that only yesterday the main targets of Vučić’s statements were in
fact, how he called them, “Soros’s mercenaries and traitors”.
Yes, and if someone experienced that, then it was
me during the 90s, more than anyone else. And I can say that I am glad that,
apparently, Aleksandar Vučić, along with some other actors, has changed his
mind. I find that the whole thing can be considered as very useful, as the
development of a new phase for people’s interest in this region, people like
Soros, who remained in this region even when everybody else have left.