Serbian progress towards the European Union. Interview with Milan Pajević

30.12.2016 | By Milan Pajević and Jordan Szołdra

Q: First of all please tell us about yourself, who you are, what do you do?

M.Pajević: I am currently working with a think tank called ISAC Fund. It is a small think tank dealing with European and Euro-Atlantic integration. We are especially active in the field of the common foreign and security policy. Since Serbia started accession process to the EU,  we have decided to relate our expertise with the current situation between Serbia and the EU. As you know, there are chapters for negotiations, and the common foreign and security policy belongs to Chapter 31, so ISAC Fund is mostly involved in those things. We are also involved in educational and informational activities, as well as in a policy recommendations, organizing various conferences, seminars and so on.
Now a bit more about myself – previously I was a director of European Integration Office in the Serbian government for a year, and after we removed Milosevic regime I was in the federal and then republican government, working as an advisor for foreign policy and European integration to the deputy prime minister, who was in charge of European integration and economic reforms. During the 90’s I was active in the civil sector and in a publishing activities, because I did not want to work for Milosevic’s diplomacy – although I graduated from International Relations and  wanted to work in diplomacy, I simply did not share his values… In fact he did not have values, only destructive ambitions towards Serbia and the rest of ex-Yugoslavia.

Q: So how do you find the current state of Serbia’s integration into the EU? When can we expect, from your point of view, Serbia to finally complete all the chapters and accessing the EU?

M.Pajević: First of all we have just started it. Formally the negotiations were opened at the beginning of the year 2014. Our accession process will be definitely much more complicated and much deeper than the accession process of the countries who joined the EU in 2004, simply because acquis has grown in the meantime, and secondly the situation in Serbia is different , just as in all the other countries in the Balkans  and the atmosphere is completely different from the one 15-20 years ago in Central Europe. Of course I do not like mentioning the date of entry or any other dates, because usually politicians play with dates, and when you play with dates you forget that the real transformation is in the process of accession. Basically, we all should be much more concentrated on those “bread and butter issues”, as I like to call them, then on „big” political issues or  dates. European Union pays utmost attention to the transformation of the Justice and the Home Affairs sector in the Balkans, so the accession process will require much more time than in some previous cases.

Q: Are you worried that some states that already are in the EU will try to block your accession? There were tensions with Croatian government in that field.


M.Pajević: You are right. There was a kind of an unpleasant episode with Croatia blocking the opening of two chapters this spring, but I do hope that with the new Croatian government there will be an improvement of  bilateral relations. Of course we could expect – not only from Croatia, but also from the other countries in the region – that there will be some issues which they would  try to solve through the process of European integration. Everybody is saying that it is not good to solve problems in bilateral relations this way however, the recent history tells us that unfortunately there were many cases of that kind over the last 15 or 20 years. So if we would like to be very realistic, then we have to think about it and not to sit and wait – but simply do things proactively in solving potential  or already open problems, trying to prevent them to grow.


Q: A meetings similar to this congress should be quite helpful then. How do you find the congress itself and the topics discussed here?


M.Pajević: I think it is very valuable, I mean discussion within Central and Eastern Europe –I especially positively evaluate the interest of the Jagiellonian Club and Polish Foreign Ministry in showing renewed interest in the Western Balkans as well. I really think that there are many fields, in which we could significantly improve our relations on a bilateral basis, but also on an organisation basis – in the sense, that I see very many good examples of how V4 countries are functioning. Those examples and models could be used in the renewed relations – badly needed cohesion of the Balkan countries. I have been the reatest fan of copying, at least partially, and even improving models that were adapted over time in the V4. I really think that Poland in particular should pay more attention to the Balkans, to Serbia – at least that has been my wish for years (laughter). I also think that all the countries in the Western Balkans could really learn a lot from the positive and also negative experiences of Poland on its way to the EU. I remember Poland from 1992 – that was the time when I came here for the first time – and I am the witness of a tremendous improvements that were done in your country. First of all, because the country itself decided for a total transformation, and then because the country was able to properly use the European sources – in modernizing and improving itself. I really think that Polish examples would serve as a fantastic model for all Balkan countries that are interested in joining the EU. .

Q: You are quite enthusiastic about Visegrad Group. Would you opt for expanding V4 to something like a V10, to strengthen the cooperation between Central Eastern European countries? And if yes, then would you not be scared that Poland leadership would turn into something unpleasant for other members of such an expanded group like the actual German leadership in the EU?


M.Pajević: I am not afraid (laughing).


Q: (laughing too) Ok then, but you would be eager to expand Visegrad cooperation and the Group itself?


M.Pajević: Definitely. There are many potential links that should be exploited. First of all business. Then culture. Then of course similar languages. Then a similar history of  the past communist era . Also the fact that V4 countries could understand Balkans much better than the so called old members of the EU, and that they could somehow pay more attention to the real needs in specificities of the Balkans, than some “remote” old members of the EU. Basically the recent history of 10-15 years, the recent history of V4 is showing it. Somehow I see much more devotion from some countries of V4 Group towards Balkans, devotion in business and investments – not only economic investments, but investments in time and care – than from the Western countries. There are, as I said, many unexploited fields and I would strongly recommend – if not V10 in a year or two from now, then definitely improving our relations. One concrete positive result of what I am saying, was that finally Balkan countries decided to copy a model of a Visegrad Fund. There is an International Visegrad Fund – Balkan NGOs, medias, local communities were applying to the Visegrad Fund, but now Balkan countries decided to create their own fund, called Western Balkans Fund, and they were using the metrics of a Visegrad Fund. Now the newly created head office of the Western Balkans Fund is in Tirana. There are many other models, especially on the regular exchanges of the top officials of the V4 countries before EU meetings, councils etc. Although Balkan countries are not all part of the EU, still a kind of a more regular, very regular communication between prime ministers, foreign ministers and others has been badly needed over the course of the last years.

Q: But even within the V4 there are some splits. We have the similar stance towards immigration crisis, but for example there is no unity in dealing with Russia. Furthering cooperation is a noble idea, but would it not be mostly facades and empty talk?


M.Pajević: Divisions and different positions on certain issues are quite normal. Every country has its own way of thinking, own interests, positions, history – that is quite normal. The most important thing is, that there is a forum for discussing all the issues, including divisions. There is an intention and maturity  of those four countries in trying to overcome splits to unite within the European Union, which is a big organization with 27 countries today. It is exactly the thing I would like to see more present in Balkans; and then, one day – I do not know, 10 years from now, 15 years from now – then we could talk about some kind of a merger of Balkans and Visegrad. Or maybe V4 countries would simply decide to have new members on 1 to 1 basis, not collectively. All options are open, but the most important thing the a readiness for mutual cooperation.


Q: Going back to the subject of the congress: it might be kind of a mischievous question, but do you not think, that such congresses are of course nice and all – exchanging ideas, etc. , but in the end there are just empty talk, with no particular, unified agenda to follow?

M.Pajević: I see it as just the beginning of a certain process…
Q: To make it more precise – how do you see cooperation between journalists from CEE after the congress, how do you envision the future after this meeting, will something change?


M.Pajević: Follow ups are always most important. So if there will be follow ups and improvements in the meantime, and if there will be a creative, concrete thinking about concrete activities, then I would not have problems with this start, because I see this event as the beginning. It really depends on the initiator, The Jagiellonian Club, but also on participants whether that initiative will bear some concrete fruits. Of course, I belong to those who like concrete things, not talking. You could see it today, because I was not talking (laughing). I like concrete actions and even the fact, that such a subject was selected for the project and its beginning, seems very promising. Of course, after five or six events of this kind I would be in a better position to judge and to tell you very openly, whether I see it as fruitful activity or just a “conference tourism”. Since today’s EU is suffering terribly from an inadequate communication strategy and good public relations, I think that the journalists are the best profession to deal with it and badly needed in improving that situation…


Q: So do you have any concrete ideas to present on the congress today?


M.Pajević: On the subject that we discussed today, on the Russian propaganda: my main point has always been to focus less on Russian activities, and everybody was talking about counteracting the effects of Russian propaganda, doing something with it – we have covered that fully. But what interests me even more, is what Europe should do to advertise itself much better to its own citizens. I concluded long time ago, much before that new Russian initiatives, call it propaganda, PR or whatever, that the EU has a great problem with its own image and PR within itself – and Russians should not be blamed for it. EU is terribly lacking comprehensive Public Relations strategy. When I say Public Relations strategy, I mean an almost scientific approach to PR. As we all know, PR and communication are the most important contemporary disciplines and it should not be a job for bureaucrats in Brussels or diplomats and EU experts,  but for real high quality PR professionals, who are able to articulate adequate communication strategies. Basically, what Brussels would need, is to find the best of the best of the PR experts, creative minds, excellent PR agencies, and to give them a serious task of articulating communication strategies for the future. Secondly, on the political level, it would be really necessary for anti-Brussels populistic campaign from the member countries  to stop. We all know that it is the easiest thing – to blame Brussels for everything. There are many things, that Brussels and European institutions should be blamed for, but at the same time local leaders of the member states should really be more responsible and more mature in observing their own language. Certain things should be criticized, because definitely the EU is not what it was 15-20 years ago, but on the other hand national politicians should try not to overcriticize – or only criticize Brussels and its institutions. More responsibility lies in the capitals as well. Of course, it is connected to the first thing – EU institutions are in need of modernization, less careeristic bureaucracy, less complicated procedures. I know it is easy to say, but even with the most fantastic PR and communication campaigns you still have to have a solid product to advertise to the citizens. We all see that the citizens of all Europe are not only fed up with the idea of enlargement, but somehow fed up with the EU itself. The EU has made some mistakes, obviously, but the EU also neglected advertising its positive sides and positive achievements enough. Everybody is saying that Russia learned from the West how to make  good propaganda, so now they are applying their own, I would say great propaganda – since everybody is afraid of it.  Thirdly, the West should  learn, again from Russia, how to do an active, heavily financed propaganda – of course it is not the best word here, I mean communication activities that are massively financed, that would present positive achievements of Europe. We still have so many positive things in the EU that we are forgetting on a regular basis. And those positive things can be found in  speeches of people from Brussels, but it is for the small target, small “elites” – researchers, politicians. Those positive examples and experiences, those concrete things should also be presented to the ordinary people. Adequate PR strategies should be articulated for that purpose.
Q: Regarding what you have just said about politicians…


M.Pajević: I meant that we need constructive criticism, not populistic one, saying that “nothing is good” in Brussels. “Too much bureaucracy, they are doing completely nothing” and so on. Well, it is partially true. But if you say that something is wrong, you should also present some alternative – what is the concrete proposal. This is the constructive criticism and that is what we need to prevail in Europe among member states and in Brussels.


Q: But in a democracy you cannot stop populists from spewing their slogans. If the EU takes more initiative on an active PR, then it might be even another argument for populists – “look, now EU wastes money on propaganda”.

M.Pajević. Yes. If we have more populism in the coming years, then we will have more people against the EU inside the EU. Foreign propaganda will find fertile ground much easier, so either national and European politicians really create a different model of a behaviour and then articulate much better communication strategies, improve the overall atmosphere in the European Union – or the future of the Union will be more uncertain than it is today.


Q: Well, I think that last sentence would serve as a nice wrap up for our interview, but just a last question, connected with the place of our meeting – how do you like Cracow?


M.Pajević: Well of course I like Cracow very much, but I do not like the weather these days. I like all of the great Polish history, especially of the city that was a capital for so many centuries. History is visible, but also improvements are visible – I was here for the first time in 1992…

Q: So is this your second visit?

M.Pajević: No, but I have been coming to Warsaw mostly, pretty regularly participating in the various conferences – by the way- after this congress I am staying privately in Warsaw and waiting for the Warsaw Security Forum, so I will be there as well. I really like places with such a rich  history, and the Cracow is one of the best examples of it – plus it has a nice geographical position, surrounded so nicely by the  river. I think it is beautiful and I am really happy to be here again.

Central – Eastern European Journalists Congress, 21.10.2016, Cracow

Interviewer: Jordan Szołdra, Jagiellonian Club, Poland
Interviewee: Milan Pajević, ISAC Fund, Serbia