< SWITCH ME >

What would the Germans say if the Turks in Berlin declared themselves independent – and how much would it help if someone told them then: come on, you’ll both be part of the European Union, where borders aren’t important anymore?

The question may sound odd with regards to Germany or most other EU member countries, but for Serbians it is quite an urgent and emotional one. And a matter of utmost actuality: The country struggles to become an integration candidate of the EU, the club that 18 years ago organised the bombing on its country. 15 years after the end of the Croatian and Bosnian wars, wounds still seem fresh, sensitive topics are tabooed or brainwashed, and mutual aggression is only covered by a slight layer of young peace. This is the portrait of young Serbians ready to change their country – a panopticon of hopes and visions from Belgrade, Serbia.

The local politician

Srdjan Pešić Peša – slightly unkempt shoulder-length hair, a hulking, goatee-bearded jack-of-all-trades in his mid-fourties – does not look like a politician. But he is local counselor in Pančevo, an industry town half an hour from Belgrade, and an ambitious one: "If I have Coca Cola and orange juice, I should ask you what you want. But as a matter of fact the government doesn’t ask the local governments what they want. The best is beer anyway."

Serbia is one of the most centralized countries in Europe, a legacy of the Milošević era. If Pešić wants to build a sport hall in Pančevo, it is still the capital Belgrade that owns the property, and therefore has to be asked for any modification in its usage. Decentralization costs money, money that especially Belgrade is very unwilling to go without. And the communities lack decades of experience, e.g. in tax collecting. Even the funds following an eventual EU membership might exacerbate the situation, until the will to decentralize has become more than the ideal of the minority made of the same stuff as Pešić.

The public servant in a new city council

20 kilometers further is the mayoralty of Novi Belgrade, the once communist, now business district of the capital - a booming new downtown planned on the drawing-board. The mayor's assistant says "I want to do something that I really can do, change, build parks, whatever. So that the people trust us, and then we can say to them, now as you trust us, just also trust us when we say the EU is a good thing, we'd have no borders, no custom etc."

'The EU, the guys that bombed us': The memories that are evoked by the EU for Serbians...


Dealing with the past

Among the Serbian population, rather than evoking radiant perspectives on a blossoming future, the EU topic reopens old sores. The EU, the guys that bombed us. The EU, the ones that took Kosovo away. Young politicians especially struggle hard to overcome the burdens of the past. "We also work together with Croats, we had a war with them, but it doesn't matter, it's the past, the circumstances led to that, but now we have to look into the future. I never want to have hatred, war etc. again in my country, I very much dislike that." Nevertheless: "Serbs do care for Kosovo, for their pride as a small people, but they don't care for the future. Also for me, if I see something from Kosovo and know that it is no more there, it touches my heart", he says.

"We don't want to have Kosovo back, because we never gave it away."

Most politicians in Serbia aren't as pragmatic in dealing with the past. Although a lot of them are very optimistic towards the possibility of an EU membership, the Kosovo issue seems to be beyond negotiation for most of them. At the foreign ministry, at the conservative parties, again and again you can hear sentences like: "We don't want to have Kosovo back, because we never gave it away." Or: "Our aim is not reunification, because Kosovo is Serbia and always has been." The orthodox church also seems to be more interested in the protection of the Serbian monasteries in Kosovo rather than providing a hand to be reached out to by the former war adversaries.

The young Serbs

But there are other young people who think differently. They try to change their country not from top to bottom, by political efforts, but in small steps, through the activities of a variety of NGOs.

Aleksandar M. Ribać is one of those young people. A ponderous guy in a rosé Kent shirt, active at the Young European Federalists Serbia. "We know that Germany before the World Wars was much bigger than today. How do the Germans cope with that?" Or can't that be compared at all? In any case, even in Germany dealing with the past took time. And in some countries it never took place. "Belgian history books mention the genocide in Congo with one sentence only as well!"

But the European perspective could indeed be an argument to convince Serbians and Kosovarians that a working co-operation between the different ethnic regions on the Balkan will prove more fruitful than the symbolic splitting hairs for national property. "The Young European Federalists Serbia meet up twice a year with the Young European Federalists Kosovo. We talk a lot with them, we have a good understanding with them, we agree that we disagree. It is never too early for bringing people together."

Anita going to Kosovo

Bringing people together – that's also what Anita Mitic does. The twenty year old blonde leads the Serbian branch of the Helsinki Commitee, a self-appointed network to monitor the implementation of human rights agreed on in Helsinki in 1975. She is one of the most unconditional critics of the Serbian situation. And the most pro-active ones: while most Serbs claiming Kosovo to be Serbian have never been there in their live, Anita regularly travels to Prishtina just so. Talks and drinks with young Kosovo-Albanians. Makes them wonder: "are you really Serbian?!" or saying: "you are the nicest Serb I have ever seen!"

"Even if Kosovo was ours, we wouldn't know what to do with it."

But she also got hundreds of upset comments on her Facebook-page from her Serbian friends for that, some saying she should never come back home. She risked her academic career daring statements like: "Kosovo is independent; if people say it's not, it's part of Serbia, it's simply not, de facto. Even if Kosovo was ours, we wouldn't know what to do with it." She had to explain to her own father, even though he is pro-European, that Srebrenica did happen. And she did.

Images from the past and future: 'In Serbia, the past and future live very close together...'


Nenad lets enemies reflect about each other

Nenad Porobic, 33, also brings people together. But not just any people. Nenad brings the enemies together, the victims to the war and to the hatred still smouldering between the different young countries in the region. Leads people into exchange and empathy which each other, of which the one celebrates a day of the dead of the war, when the other one parties at a victory holiday. A tall, seriously-looking Serbocroat, co-operating with a Bosnian partner in the NGO Center for Nonviolent Action. His father still wishes back Milošević. The son organises professional peace building training.

Nenad tells the participants "Hey, participant Serb, write down on that sheet what you think your colleague participant, the Croat, thinks about you. Then write down what you think he thinks you think about him. Then think over. Rethink. And start to understand!" – Making individuals subjected to collective nationalist brainwashing reflect on how the other ethnic group perceives their own is not an easy job. Nenad has been doing it for years.

Serbia, Nenad says, is at a point where words like "genocide" still sound extremely annoying to people. And although the UN has clearly stated that Srebrenica was a genocide, its resolution has used the word only implicitly. But also in Germany, which was under occupation, it took some time until the term "Holocaust" was shaped for what had happened. And the televised discussion on the said UN session, lasting for nine hours, has been transmitted on Serbian TV, even pausing a soccer game of Manchester United. A sign that things are moving.

But are they? There are politicians today who were around when Milošević was still in power. An accused at the Den Hague tribunal was acquitted due to her admittance to everything and confessions of remorse. Immediately after her release she declared in Serbian media that she had barefacedly lied in order to take the piss out of the Europeans. The peace builder's voice is slightly shaking: "I hope never to see her, because that could make me loose my temper. She moved in not far from my flat with her bodyguards." In Serbia, the past and future live very close together.

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