New (ab) normality: Sonja Licht’s interview for “Vreme”

Sonja Licht

25. October 2018

New (ab) normality: Sonja Licht’s interview for “Vreme”

Published in “Vreme” no. 1450, 18 October 2018

Text Ivana Milanović Hrašovec

Photo copyright Belgrade Security Forum/A. Anđić

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.”

“Vreme”: One 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 for long.

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.

Relations 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.

Considering 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.

How would 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 tensions.

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 conclusions.

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.

In the 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 own problems.

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.

In his 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.

If the 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.

The 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 serious noise.

Is the 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.

What are 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 distant.

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 cannot accept.

Vučić has 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 Roma issue.

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 Fund.

What other topics Alexander Soros discussed with Vučić, I really do not know, I was not even present and nobody shared that with me.

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.