EWB interview: Borko Stefanovic MP, Head of Democratic Party Parliamentary Group in National Assembly of Republic of Serbia

EWB starts series of interviews with representatives of the opposition parties in the parliaments of the Western Balkans. Borislav Borko Stefanović (@BorkoStef) is Vice President of Democratic Party and Head of the Group of the Democratic Party in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia. He was born in Novi Sad where he graduated from the Faculty of Law at University of Novi Sad. From 2001 he is a career diplomat, Stefanović became Chief of Staff of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Political Director of the Ministry in 2007. In 2011 he was appointed Head of the Negotiation Team for the dialogue with Priština.

European Western Balkans: Dear Mr. Stefanović, we will start with the question that has left a mark on your career – we are interested in your opinion on the negotiating process between Belgrade and Priština. Is this process transparent and to what extent are the citizens familiar with the outcome of the negotiation rounds?

Bokro Stefanović: I think that is obvious to everyone that the public does not know any details of the Brussels talks. We do not know what has specifically been agreed on in energy sector, telecommunications or country code. We know only the details of the Brussels agreement which we supported and which should be implemented fully.

The citizens of Serbia face new surprises around these nagotiations every day. The dynamics of the implementation of the Brussels agreement is unknown. Also, the issue of civil protection in northern Kosovo is uncertain because it is unknown when and how it will be resolved, and the same stands for the case of Community of Serbian Municipalities. Also, we see that an agreement on judiciary was reached and that agreement was introduced to the citizens in a very obscure way.

Therefore, the combination of two things – the complete control of the media by the regime on the one hand, and as result of jumbled and insufficient responses, avoiding details and avoiding confrontation with the National Assembly on the nagotiations on the other hand, the citizens are totally uninterested in the negotiation process. All people are rightly committed to their extremely vulnerable living standards and complete collapse of the Serbian economy and social structure.

I was personally blamed that I conducted secret negotiations with Priština in 2011, which of coruse is not true. All my nagotiations were presented both to the National Assembly and to the public at press conferences. All of them were adopted by the Government and the National Assembly. Even then, they thought it was simpler to show that we, who were involved in the negotiations of 2011, hid something. Moreover, later Vučić’s majority adopted all my agreements. I still do not see that anyone has any intention to present anything what is negotiated to the National Assembly. Whereas, I say in advance, that the Democratic Party will not in any way impede the Brussels dialogue. On the contrary, we will support it because we believe that it is the only true path to solving problems of the citizens in a peaceful way.

EWB: What is the position of the parliamentary group of the Democratic Party and the opposition in the National Assembly when it comes to adopting laws to harmonize domestic legislation with the EU acquis?

BS: Democratic Party always supports all the laws that are part of the European agenda. We support the European path of Serbia and we want Serbia to become a member state of the European Union, although we are aware of all defects, problems, bureaucracy and even corruption that exists in the European Union. However, we understand that this is the best alternative for our country, which is not the only alternative, but it is the best and we will always support the government in its European efforts. On the other hand, we criticize the government’s tardiness, inefficiency, and their unfulfilled promises about opening of the Aqui chapters.

EWB: What is your opinion on the possible establishment of a Serbian “shadow government”? Will you participate in such a government?

BS: Personally I am not against the “shadow government”. I support this idea and I think it is not, in any way, a set back but it can help to sharpen the political opposition blade. I believe that activities of the opposition must be much more visible and that activism needs to be increased and to include more people, not only from the parties, but also influential individuals, intellectuals, academics, unions, NGOs etc. For something like that I think it is much more important to gather people around a clear program, clear policies, clear alternatives, which are contrary to the Vučić’s policy and of course, fighting against him as someone who not only has been destroying the economy, the future of this country, the future prospects for young people, kills the middle class of Serbia, in every way, but also implemented an autocratic regime – not allowing freedom of the media, persecuting political opponents and everything else that is going on in Serbia. Therefore, this combination should be the backbone of the future joint work on political demission of Vučić’s regime.

EWB: Do you think that the public reacted appropriately on the events regarding enabling the undisturbed work of the Ombudsman and on the attacks that were directed at him?

BS: There are several reasons for the weak reaction of the public. A huge number of the citizens is in the state of disillusionment, apathy and people simply do not want to get involved in politics, nor are they interested. I got the impression that most people do not watch the news and do not read newspapers. The condition of the society reflects the regime completely. This can be expressed with a typical phrase “Everyone is the same”. This sentence essentially means – we want this situation to continue, we want Vučić to govern Serbia forever in the same way he already has.

Therefore, the biggest opponent of the opposition in Serbia is not Vučić and his politics, but apathy and disillusionment and the need to present a new program and new people to the citizens. Everything else is an attempt which will not be successful because people will not vote twice or three times for proven unsuccessful models and failed policy. The solution can be found in the opposite approach of what Vučić has presented and some completely different politics, a different program, definitely not the program that is the same as his but the one that can be implemented faster and more efficiently. The politics of lesser evil must finally be erased from the Serbian reality.

EWB: It has been observed that the situation is very similar in the neighbouring countries, so do you think that there is a pattern that is transferred from one country to another?

BS: I have spoken about that publicly on several occasions. Serbia for the first time has the so-called, supermajority . We can find political twins in the entire neighbourhood, such as Orban, Gruevski, Erdogan, and at the end Putin. These are people who want supermajority, partial or full cooperation on foreign policy, finding new allies, and the carte blanche to do whatever they want in their countries. This is why it might seem that Europe supports Vučić solely because they want a positive outcome of the Brussels negotiations, and that everything else does not concern them. It is a general impression among the citizens and it is the easiest way for the people to explain the fact that the criticism of Vučić’s autocratic behavior in Serbia is very lukewarm or that there is even no criticism. This keeps discouraging the pro-European forces in Serbia because they are accustomed to always have at least declarative and moral support from abroad in the past when we have fought against authoritarian regimes. Now we do not have it because it is thought  that it is of the utmost importance to continue the Brussels negotiations and finally end them. That is why we all need to stop hibernating, to wake from our slumber and realise that there is not only one way to follow. We need to look to Europe and realize as soon as possible that our freedom, human rights and economic prosperity will only be brought to us by ourselves and that we have to fight for them.

EWB: The public speculates on the new program of Democratic Party. Do you think that DS should take the steps of reformed social democracy or to become some kind of a “new left”?

BS: I am someone who is on the left wing of the social democracy and the left wing of the Democratic Party. I have always advocated the ideas of the left and this is nothing new. I have never copied others nor have believed that what is good for the Greek people is automatically good for our people, for our citizens. I advocate that we need to make significant changes in our program and offers to the citizens, and even to change the ideological direction of the party. Without that, I think that we are moving toward the center, and therefore the margin of political events. The PASOK is the best example. Because, when the center parties, no matter if they are center left or center right, step down from the position of executive power in some country they are rapidly losing support because the citizens see that the only change is the changing of the political elites in power, but nothing changes significantly in crucial issues. So, we will all do the same, we are all for austerity policies, we are for neoliberal concept… The only question is who is in power? Is it center left or center right? It is not a crisis of the Democratic Party, it is a crisis of social democracy in Europe. Social democracy has no answer to the needs of citizens at the moment because modern political parties do not see that they only copy each other. The liberals and the centrist right are copies of social democracy and vice versa. All parties have intertwined programs, and because of that citizens are choosing on the basis of whether they like some person or not. This is the wrong way. That is why I think that my suggestion for the Program of the Democratic Party, which I will offer to the party organs, should be considered in an open political debate. I am ready for any outcome. I am not trying to divide the Party, I do not fight for a change of leadership in the Democratic Party, I fight for a new political discourse with full awareness that it is not popular in all circles of the Democratic Party, but I see that it is very popular among the citizens. Perhaps this will make some people gain a sense of reality.

EWB: Is there cooperation of the left, primarily of social democrats, in the Western Balkans?

BS: Social democrats in Macedonia have been in opposition for eight years, so their position is more difficult. They have undergone changes in leadership, internal frictions and now they are experiencing incredible persecution by the authorities. It is always the same. What is happening now is the culmination of something that lasts for years. That is exactly what will happen to the Democratic Party in Serbia if we do not change something in our program and in our staffing structure.

I think the social democrats in the region should turn to the needs of citizens, to finally rescue the citizens from the hands of big business and their subordinate role in relation to the capital. The capital must be at the service of citizens. We do not need to be ashamed of state interventionism in economy, we need to raise the minimum wage, to act together on our road to Brussels through my idea for which I hope will be supported in the future, if not at this moment.

The idea is to create a loose Balkans confederation which would be a conference of states or entities who will not lose their sovereignty by participating in a confederation. It would consist of a common and inexpensive body that would solely be responsible for the joint development of projects for Brussels, for a common migration policy and which would negotiate and try to have a moratorium on the repayment and a significant reprogram of external debt for the whole region, because that money needs to be used to raise the gross domestic product. All the people in the west and in Brussels see us as a region, and since each of us can be more or less successful in meeting the criteria of the European agenda, it will not change the fact that if one country in the Western Balkans falls behind, all others will be less or more in a big trouble. No one can convince me that our performance in the European integration is so significant that there is no influence as to what happens to Bosnia and Herzegovina for example. It is simply an illusion. We must give the Balkan back to Balkans, to speak in one voice, the voice of solidarity, equality and social justice, the voice of the Balkans to the EU, but also to the east, and the voice that will enable us to achieve our rights as a club of countries, because others see us as such. In any case we will wait until we join the European Union for another ten years at least. In this sense, while we are in the waiting room, let’s renovate our building, to fix it, to finally stop talking about our disagreements in the past, to turn to the future, to solve social and economic problems, growing poverty and misery with the images of Albanians who are leaving Kosovo in large numbers and at the same time with the awareness that such things are happening everywhere, that Kosovo is no exception. Poverty has lingered in this region for too long and this region will be an easy target for the various irredentist and imperialist moves by Ankara and Moscow. Therefore, it has always been better and we have been stronger when we acted together. Those who do not see that essentially think and live under the illusion that alone, through small corrupt oligarchies which respond to banks, can continue with this inhumane, elitist way of governing and exploiting people who then become part of  the advertisement: Balkans – region of cheap labor. I have fought that with all my strength and I shall continue fighting against it.

EWB: In the end, can we talk a little more about the left. The ideas of the left are solidarity and unity, do you think that the unity of the left is necessary on the Western Balkans? Protests are common in other countries, but in Serbia there is no similar reaction, why?

BS: I think the point is clear. People are becoming aware of what is happening and are increasingly dissatisfied not only in Serbia but also in other places in the Western Balkans. But the protests are only occasional. We have an additional problem, that the left in the Balkans has been a pseudo-left, the war left, isolationist, nationalist left, which is nonsense by default. We have a left-wing party in Serbia which vote for austerity measures, whose members say they are leftists, then send greeting cards to Tsipras but  they don’t understand that in fact they do the opposite of what Tsipras and SYRIZA do in Greece. I think everyone can see that this is a comedy, and tragicomedy.

We also have another problem – people who are declared leftists, but are still concerned primarily with national issues. Their nationalism conceals the struggle for equality, social justice, the welfare state, a state in which capital will be returned to some of its natural framework in which banks will be affected by the regulation. You have an example of Albin Kurti, who is becoming increasingly popular in Kosovo, who has declared himself as a leftist and who often likes to talk about that. He is a young man who claims to be fighting for equality and justice, but who is completely preoccupied with national issues, dreams of Great Albania, anti-Serb hysteria and similar things. And he, just like myself, often refers to Dimitrije Tucović. You see, there is a difference – when I refer to Tucović, I really want to implement it, but when Albin Kurti makes a reference to Tucović, he thinks through the prism of national thoughts of Great Albania. Until these ghost are safely returned inside the bottle there will be no stability in the Balkans. I am glad that the trends are going in that direction. So, Mr. Kurti and people like him, will have to adapt to what I call, symbolically, “the second fall of the Berlin Wall,” which includes Europe and actually represents a return of Europe to its original principles – equality, justice and the fight against the creation of the groups of states divided by wealth. Our Prime Minister did not notice the first fall of the Berlin Wall, I can see he has not noticed the second one as well, because he keeps insisting on the “neoliberal-banking-save” model.

I hope that the others, who are now in opposition in the Balkans, see what has been happening and that it is necessary to get together, but not in a classic way, like on conferences where we sit for a few hours and everyone reads their reports and goes home. This is not what I suggest. I suggest political creation that will have the strength to fight against the real problems of the Balkans, such as unemployment, social inequality, that predatory capitalism and disempowerment of banking oligarchies that exist here. If we do not see it, and if we continue to deal with our nationalisms and our battles from the past, then all of us, except people from the elites, are really on the road to become cheap labor in a foreign company where the boss will be able to pay as much as he wants and what suits his future profits, and not as much as it is needed for spendings and normal human life, which is what I strive for.

EWB: Mr. Stefanović, thank you for your time. We wish you much success in your work and your political struggle.

Authors: Nemanja Todorović Štiplija and Nikola S. Ristić