A slight majority of young Serbs thinks their country should not join to the EU – a new development that is difficult to explain. But, disappointment and growing nationalism seem to play a role in the anti-EU posture.
Stereotypes are difficult to overcome, even when they are called into question by hard facts. Usually, older people are said to be more reactionary, more conservative and more nationalist than the young – all the more so in Serbia, where today’s middle-aged people and pensioners were actively involved in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, or at least hailing those conflicts. That’s exactly why a recent poll came as a shock: not the “usual suspects” are opposed to the EU – the younger generation is.
A slim majority (51 percent) of the 18- to 29-year-olds wants their country, an accession candidate, to terminate its integration into the EU. By contrast, two thirds of the older respondents support integration. Other results of the poll, conducted by the Belgrade-based NGO Institute for European Affairs, are less surprising: 80 percent of the total population are against recognizing the independence of the former southern province of Kosovo, 82 percent are against a possible accession to NATO. Likewise, the orthodox “Mother Russia” is considered the best friend, whereas, traditionally, Croatia is the worst enemy.
What’s behind it? Are Serbian youths more susceptible to nationalist ideas? Or is it just a case of unfulfilled promises of a bright EU future, which most severely disappoint the young? After the turnaround in 2000, when former president, Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted in the wake of a public uprising, all Serbian governments pushed for EU accession, at least formally. Yet they achieved very little: Belgrade finds itself merely at the beginning of complicated accession negotiations, and the country is still rife with corruption and nepotism.
The young generation is particularly affected by this plight: 43 percent are out of work – according to official statistics, deemed sugarcoated by many critics. The EU, however, which until recently seemed like a paradise compared with Serbia, has shown many deficiencies during the last couple of years. Serbia, too, sees rumors about a “collapse of the EU” being spread, with the public discussing it.
My backyard, your backyard
Denis Olujic has completely different reasons for his skepticism: “We don’t need anyone from outside telling us what to do in our country.” The 23-year-old student likes it plain and simple – everyone should be able to call the shots in their own backyard. And the West, as a neighbor, sets too many ultimatums for a future within the EU, he continues: “I believe that recognition of Kosovo as an independent state will ultimately be the condition for EU accession. Therefore we need powerful allies, like Russia and China. Otherwise, we won’t have a chance.”
He was still a baby when his parents joined the tide of refugees who were fleeing Croatia. The operation “Storm” liberated Croatia at the end of the war, but it partially turned into a retaliation campaign against civilians. This has left its mark – everything associated with “the West” – recognition of Kosovo, EU, or even NATO accession – is out of the question for Olujic.
But not all of those who view Brussels with skepticism are “patriotic” or even well disposed towards Russia. Rather, the youth of today grew up with promises made by various political elites, which suggested that there was no alternative to the EU and that, once that Serbia became a member, that would be the start of a golden era. “However, the integration process has so far turned out to be long-winded and inefficient,” says 25 year-old Suncica Milanovic.
Like many of her contemporaries, the actress doesn’t have a regular job and no longer believes in a windfall courtesy of European financial pots. “There are many malfunctioning countries in the EU. If Serbia implemented the necessary reforms on its own, we wouldn’t need the EU at all.”
Better explanation required
Political scientist Tibor Moldvai is an employee at the institution which conducted the survey. The fact that youths are turning their backs on the EU has shocked him, too. Talking to DW, however, he tried to come up with a number of explanations: “The younger generation has three primary sources of information – family, media and schools. And all of those three sources have fallen short in recent years.”
But to him, the internet is the main culprit. Wheras the parent generation has become known as the most persistent TV audience worldwide, young people are running around with their smartphones, like everywhere else. “Some of their peers have right-wing attitudes. They share those people’s texts without a deeper analysis of what they’ve just read. The educational system, in turn, does not support a critical way of thinking,” says Moldvai.
Learning by heart is still in great demand in Serbia – for example from history books which celebrate the Serbs as a nation of heroes and conceal Serbian war crimes.
The political scientist, however, does not want to blame the “evil” internet alone. No, the political elite obviously hasn’t done enough to highlight the positive aspects of the EU. “We must make more of an effort, because the longer the integration process takes, the more people will be skeptical.”
But how is that supposed to work? Is there still “no alternative” to the EU, as its advocates in Serbia usually point out? Or has it ceased to be attractive, now that people know that Brussels is not necessarily equivalent to milk and honey, and that it asks for considerable commitment to reform and political concessions?
Of course, the EU is the best direction to take, Moldvai thinks. “We just have to explain that more succinctly, instead of pedantically discussing whether the EU is currently forcing us to buy cucumbers, or banning homemade Slivovitz.”