This time European Western Balkans spoke to Aida Ćorović, human rights activist and MP at the National Assembly of Serbia
EWB: What does the European Union represent to you?
Aida Ćorović: When we are talking about the European Union, I have to admit that I often feel ambivalent. I’m not one of those that say that everything is perfect in the Union, making it a promised land, a certain type of Shangri La in which we will lead a perfect life after having joined it. I perceive the EU as a system of values and believe that adopting these values, both Serbia and the surrounding countries, should be our main task. I think that we need to strive towards these values and not purely towards becoming a part of the EU formally. As someone who observes things critical manner, I find the EU to have serious flaws. For example, currently I’m being very critical of the EU for the way in which it is dealing with the migrant crisis and how it is treating refugees from Syria mad Iraq. This is something that we have to face with. The democratic EU does not always portray democratic values and that sometimes it faces problems related to xenophobia. This is a problem that the EU has to start solving within its internal boundaries, especially if we take into consideration that in the upcoming period there will be a dramatic rise in surge of migrants comings from Africa and Asia from war-torn countries and extreme poverty. In my view a part of the problem with the xenophobic treatment of the migrants escaping Syria and Iraq, but also from Afghanistan and Pakistan, actually lies in the relation towards Muslims, i.e. the root comes from islamophobia, making it a paradox because these people are running away from radical Islam. Even if there are, among the refugees, infiltrated terrorists, most of them really only want to escape the hell of war and islamisation that will additionally set back their countries. Because of this autistic attitude of the EU towards this, at the very least, dramatic happening, I feel certain anger and think that the EU is in the essence not performing the values which it formally declares as its own. As fir us, we have to be aware that the EU should not be our goal on its own, but the values upon which it rests. Values such as developed and functional institutions, attitude towards labor, but also towards private and public property, tolerance, democracy and respect of the individual and collective human rights, which we need to create in our surroundings. The moment when each Serbian citizen starts to work for his or her own wellbeing but also for the well-being of the society as a whole, the moment in which we honestly express desire and intention to change our bad habits and anarchic habits and actions, we will, de facto, become a part od the EU, even if we would not be its formal members. I find the EU to be the relation towards oneself and the society, not only geographic or political belonging.
EWB: when we talk about refugees, how do you perceive the reaction of Serbia and of its citizens in regards to this issue?
Aida Ćorović: I have to admit that I am, at the very least, pleasantly surprised. Together with the professor Dušan Milisavljević, with whom I am realizing the plan to visit local municipalities without MPs but with significant happenings, only a day after the shelter in Preševo was opened, there to visit. The scenes from the center have left a strong and troubling impression on me. A strong impression that is also emotional, in the sense that the state has managed to transform an old abandoned factory into a decent center for several hundred refugees, in less than two weeks. What I heard from the Red Cross but also the UNHCR and the refugees themselves, is that the state took most of the burden upon itself. However, the biggest and nicest surprises for me are the citizens who have greeted the people with warmth and caring attention. Refugee crises has been lasting for several months and we haven’t had a single excess. Furthermore, we have people that volunteer every day and help in many ways. Also, it seems to me that what the people from the area have experienced not long ago, contributed in developing empathy, shown also last year during the floods. I can say that after a longer period, I am very proud of all of us here. I believe that Serbia has shown the EU how well it handles the crises with limited recourses and left to its own. I think that Serbia can serve as an example to all.
EWB: Many are emphasizing Chapters 23 and 24 as the most important ones. What do they mean to you and which sections do you find the most significant? Also, we are witnessing a different EU policy approach on these issues towards Serbia in comparison to Bulgaria and Romania.
Aida Ćorović: It’s a fact that they are very broad and demanding chapters and also among the first ones to be opened. This is the key proof of how important respect of human rights is for the EU. My interest in regards to these chapters are points about human rights, particularly minority rights, rights of Roma people as well as of other ethnic groups, because these issues have been in the focus of my work during previous years. These are key topics, but also the values, which we have already mentioned today, that make the foundation of the EU. Human rights, minority rights in particular have to be treated differently from what we here are accustomed to. When we’re talking about Bulgaria and Romania, those that follow international relations know that they both were the object of political trade in relations with Russia and that they entered the EU through the back door, while not really ready for it and we see that clearly today. If we are talking about human rights, my belief is that Romania and Bulgaria are not showing sufficient accomplishments in this field, and the fact that they have to make significant improvements in order the achieve the desired level, remains. Here I’m primarily talking about minority rights, with special accent on Balkan relations with those who are in essence very much like us, but whom we often hate the most and share a history of painful and tragic events. Precisely because of it, these chapters should not be conditioned by the EU, but by our needs and aspiration for their fulfillment. Until we reach social consensus about individual and collective minority rights, Serbia will be a poor country, at the end of civilization development. Treatment of others and different, to those less in numbers or less dominant social groups, as well as those that are vulnerable and endangered individuals and groups will always and without exception be an indicator of the state of the Serbian society. Unfortunately, it seems to me that despite Serbia’s work on fulfilling European conditions, everything is happening too fast and it is more about formalities whereas the essence remains out of focus of political elites and the public in Serbia. It is clear that the government in Belgrade wants to open these chapters as soon as possible and that there is good will, but I’m just afraid not to miss some important things, which could obstruct our personal development and genuine transition into a democratic society.
EWB: You said that the issue of minorities is very important to you. How do you see the current status of minorities in Serbia?
Aida Ćorović: Position of minorities is today noticeably better than it was in the previous decades. If we compare it to the times of Milošević, the situation is actually basically incomparable. Of course, there are still things to be improved. Firstly, the state has to modify the legislation urgently, because in this moment, it is not satisfactory. I will allow myself one thing, maybe a bit of a rough formulation, and say that minorities in Serbia live in a type of schizophrenia, because Serbia has the Law on National Councils of national minorities, that determines the functioning of the National councils as mechanisms of minority governance, but we do not have the basic law that determines the status, position and everything else related to minorities. It is interesting that if you ask any politician, including the minority representatives, about the condition of minority rights, you will hear only all the best. However, if you ask the citizens, members of the minority groups, you will hear the opposite. As a matter of fact, there is gap between what papers and laws are and what the reality is. Also, there is a gap between what is written down as legislation and what is actually implemented, and thus, sometimes we have rights that are insufficiently or inconsistently implemented, for example education in mother tongue. As an activist dealing with minority rights for many years, I have a problem with the way in which we have treated minority rights and their fulfillment in reality. The practice so far, even the National Council, have done more towards ghettoization of minorities, then to their integration into Serbian society. Minorities are usually caught in a struggle for their rights, without contact with other minority groups, which portrays to a type of egocentrism and competition towards others. Another characteristic, which is immanent to efforts for minority rights fulfillment is total and astonishing lack of interaction with the ethnic majority group of citizens. This is why we have generations of young people from national minorities that do not see Serbia as their homeland, neither knows other young Serbs, nor understands them. The same goes vice-versa, young Serbs know nothing about their Bosnian, Albanian, Hungarian, Romanian neighbors, there is a high level of social distance among young people. Unfortunately, numerous researches also show that social distance among youth is still surprisingly high. This all goes to show that politics of minority integration, minority governance and minority rights overall, keep on failing. Hence, we have an anachronous educational system, responsible for old patterns filled with hate speech and nationalistic phrases that still pull through numerous influences on young people. Besides education, I see also huge responsibility of the media for not good enough of a relationship towards minorities, also due to the years of constant talking about interethnic tensions, conflicts and problems, but lack of topics of positive and inspiring examples, which are certainly present in the everyday life. Of course, other numerous areas of the public life have to be re-defined and re-created, in order for us to talk about complete fulfillment of minority rights, but we have to be aware that this is a long-term process that takes time and continuous dialogue on the topic.
EWB: Serbia finished action plans for chapters 23 and 24. Do you recognize certain quality in these documents that deals with minority rights? What exactly is implied here, even though we know these action plans are not final versions?
Aida Ćorović: I think that all action and strategic plans, like the ones we had in the immediate past, most of the time, just wishful thinking. In this moment, certainly goodwill exists, especially taking into account that work groups working on creating Action plans for Chapters 23 & 24 consist of renowned and competent experts from the civil sector. In my opinion the key challenge is how to grasp the current, objective situation i.e. create awareness about the reality of our capacities to implement wishful thinking. There is a network of NGOs ‘Network for interculture’ whose members, including myself, are involved in creating minority action plan and I’m certain that the proposals we’re working on will be really good. It is necessary to find a balance between what are desires and what is the reality, that is create actions that are meaningful and right for a certain moment. In addition, one has to keep in mind that many activities demand money and also human capacities, which are lacking in our society in many forms. What is currently bringing me down is the fact that no government since the 2000 up until today has known or wanted to solve the minority issues in an inclusive way, but it always had to be a type of political bargain with the minorities and usually during the pre-election periods. Minorities have chronically been treated as election votes, not as real people, with real needs and demands. In such a situation, it is difficult to look for reciprocity from minority communities and to insist on their responsibility when it comes to the overall progress of our country.
EWB: We recently witnessed the establishment of the Association of Albanian Municipalities. What is your take on this?
Aida Ćorović: It is another link the chain of news I like to call a system of communicating vessels. Everything that happens in the region does not happen without cause or reason. I have been anticipating for this to happen for a while now. I also would not be surprised if Bosniac National Council would initiate same initiative. Although my personal opinion goes against it, if we take a look at political reality, we see that it has grounds or justification. All national minorities will look at what Serbia is doing on Kosovo and demand equal treatment. Here I see similarities with the situation about rehabilitating a chetnic leader, general Dragoljub Mihailović, that caused a reciprocal reaction from Novi Pazar and demands for rehabilitating Aćif Efendija Bljuta, who also was a Nazi collaborator and associate. Our approach and attitude in dealing with pilled problems in Serbia remain predominantly nationalistic, and we all tend to criticize other peoples’ nationalisms while having it difficult to renounce our own. I am afraid that we, as a society at whole, are not capable to distance ourselves from the nineties, the same way we could not distance ourselves from the Second World War period. Furthermore, the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia has shown us that we have not detached ourselves from the times of partisans, chetnics, ustašas and that we will continue to react the same in the future. Obviously these issues we are not capable of solving in a constructive manner, but out of spite continue to compete in who is the biggest victim. One thing remains for certain, and that is that anyone who would like to lead a decent life, both in Serbia and the whole region, will have to find new paradigms and way to reconcile with the past. At this moment our political elites are not showing even the slightest hint of searching for these paradigms and creating space for a new type of dialogue. I do not believe this process to be easy or linear, but if there is a sense about common good for the whole region, this dialogue must begin. Unfortunately, I fear that we will have to wait for a long time for the political elites to be ready for it.
EWB: A working body for political system reform has been formed in Serbia. Do you think that special emphasize should be placed on reforming the electoral system law for electing national minority National Councils?
Aida Ćorović: I find the electoral system reform in Serbia urgent and necessary. The current system enables for those getting elected or appointed to lead the country or create laws, actually do not represent citizens and their voice, but are solely responsible to their political party or its leader. Accordingly, it is no surprise how alienated political elites are from the citizens, great distrust of citizens in the elites leading the country, but first and foremost that is where the great discrepancy, between those who are party pawns without attitude and desire for change and those who are not, comes from. At this moment there are numerous initiatives to change the political system and I sincerely hope that the expert and competent public will take part in the upcoming debates.
As far as minorities go, related to National Councils of National Minorities (?), there have been changes and even more are needed. The same thing I said when it comes to political elites at the state level goes for the national leaders, because the current image is not the reality of the minorities. Majority of the citizens, minority community members, does not know anything about their NCs and does not perceive them as its property, i.e. the lack of NCs representative function is noticeable. I honestly think that it is unnecessary to introduce special measures when it comes to national minorities and their institutional bodies, but I do find it crucial to reform the political system at all levels because it is the concern of all citizens, whether part of majority or minority. Universality of this process is, in my opinion undividable and has to function for the good of all of us.
EWB: How do you see cooperation in the region at the moment? Do you have suggestions for improving it?
Aida Ćorović: What I see as a problem in our regional relations is the state of permanent pre-election campaign. Unfortunately, as I have previously mentioned, we have a need to remain close to the rhetoric of the nineties. This is understandable because the majority of the politicians that came to power back then, are still in power. The fact that they do not want to change neither their rhetoric nor their actions has a very simple explanation, which lies precisely in the gain from that rhetoric. Most of the politicians that are ‘ruling’ these areas today (I’m referring to the whole region) have entered politics as outsiders, below average income and today are multimillionaires and untouchable. It is up to us – the citizens, to change this. I will quote one timeless and always modern Orwell’s thought saying that citizens that choose manipulative, corrupt and lying politicians for their representatives are not victims. Our political, and religious elites are exactly like this because we who chose them allow it. The situation will worsen during election time, and then we will be able to hear all types of rhetoric, such as the one we have heard from Zagreb recently. Naturally, coming from Belgrade, a reply to this rhetoric will be equally distasteful, vulgar and nationalistic. Political leaders will blame each other and the media will explode in the most gruesome and primitive competition of trashing ‘the other’. This is the key obstacle in the region. There will be neither progress, nor foreign investment as long as we continue transmitting message that has labeled the nineties.
On the other hand, it is completely normal to expect the relationships in the region to be turbulent, dynamic and different depending on the situation. For me, for example, the relation between Serbia and Albania is very interesting. Although Prime ministers Vučić and Rama have been very open about their negative stances, it appears that there is a need for things to change and that the situation on the ground is improving. I know that the soccer game between Albania and Serbia will be played mid-October in Tirana and that currently, the Ministry of Education of Serbia is inviting about 80 young people that will attend as guests of both prime ministers, and will also have a change to meet young Albanians. I believe this to be very good. Personally I would like to see more of examples such as this, with culture and education as focus, and although there is no illusion that this one encounter will change the situation between these two countries, it can be a good way and example for future initiatives. If we cannot decently talk about the problems of the past, let’s talk about topics close to all of us, such as youth, education, economics… We need to look for a minimum of common interests instead of maximum of misunderstanding and pain that we have brought upon each other.
EWB: You mentioned relations between Serbia and Albania as interesting. The fact is that they are the most complex ones. In what way are you, as an MP, working along with you colleagues on improving them?
Aida Ćorović: We are not working so much on direct relations with Albania, but we are working on establishing dialogue with MPs from Kosovo with the help of our colleagues from the United States. It seems to me that currently this is the most important dialogue we have to establish. Relations with Albania are complex, but they are not nearly as complex as the ones we have carried during the dissolution and wars in former Yugoslavia. In the case of Albania the situation is such that we have not had any relations for decades. Now, they exist and are mostly concerned with Kosovo, with more and more talk on the economic cooperation. If the problem of Kosovo were not so directly connected to Albania, we would have no problems with Albania itself. Although our positions on Kosovo are diametrically opposite, it seems that the Albanian and Serbian prime minister have been trying to find that minimal amount of common interest I have been talking about.
My personal belief is that relations with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the most important for the region. Regardless what nationalists from both sides are saying and us now being two separate states, it is still our common space in which we live in. We share people, families, but also geography, history and, I deeply believe this, common future. What remains important is to solve the issues without hypocrisy, as well as for political elites to stop flirting with the worst of nationalistic tendencies, and their personal gain, but finally start taking care of us.
EWB: What are you thoughts on this years’ Pride Parade?
Aida Ćorović: I believe that organizing Pride is a very important thing for our society that is not prone to differences. First and foremost, it is important for LGBT community. I just came from an international conference held at the National Assembly of Serbia with a topic on political participation, as well as influence of LGBT community on decision-makers in Southeast Balkans. It’s significant that the story about LGBT peoples’ rights and needs are now a part of the parliamentary processes and that this opens the doors to one of the most important institutions of any state, including ours. A long process of winning the rights of LGBT persons awaits all of us. It is clear that some processes are at the point of no return and Serbia will continue changing, whether someone likes it or not, but overall in a too slow of a manner. For my friends from the LGBT community, but also for the society as a whole, it is important that the fight for LGBT rights does not include only the Pride Parade, but also informal and formal education on all levels. Prejudice and ignorance are our biggest enemies and experience tells us that struggles with them are the hardest as well as the longest. Still, it is valuable that first steps have been made and there is no going back to old values and attitudes. As always, efforts to create a better, more democratic country with a rule of law include the work of all of us, regardless of us being a part of the minority group or the majority that usually is not prone to changes.
EWB: Ms Ćorović, thank you very much for your time. We wish you all the best in your future work.
Author: Nikola S. Ristić