By welcoming Syrian refugees, Serbs hope to salvage their reputation

Refugees collect water as they wait to be registered at a centre in Presevo, Serbia. EPA/Djordje Savic

Serbia’s reputation has suddenly been dramatically rehabilitated, taking it from being seen as the worst nation in Europe to being among the most open and tolerant. While Hungary is busy fencing itself in and authorising the use of rubber bullets against refugees and migrants, Serbia has been keeping its borders open and promising to be a good host.

As Andrew MacDowell asked in Politico: “Wait, the Serbs are now the good guys?

It’s certainly a sea change. Back in the summer, Bosnian Muslims attacked Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić at a Srebrenica massacre commemoration. They were angry at the presence of the former ultra-Serbian nationalist Vučić, whose official condemnation of “this horrible crime” did not go as far as recognising the killings as genocide.

Foreign coverage, taking its cue from the very ugly 1990s, assumed the Serbian authorities would treat refugees harshly. That changed in September, when BBC journalist Manveen Rana’s photograph of a Serbian policeman cradling a Syrian child propelled a different view of Serbia.

Adding resonance to the picture, it was subsequently discovered that the policeman was ethnically Albanian, which Serbia invoked to show it integrated members of ethnic minorities into its police.

More importantly than the images, the country’s humanitarian responses to the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants arriving at its borders this year has won it international praise.

The Serbian government has taken the official position that the refugees do not want asylum in Serbia, but that while they travel through the country, they will be treated humanely and cared for. And as Vučić himself has noted, Serbia has not seen the sort of protests against and attacks on refugees and migrants that have been witnessed elsewhere.

Lead the way

While Serbia shares many of its neighbours’ problems – a crumbling national infrastructure and welfare system, industrial decline, poverty and unemployment – compared to some of its neighbours in nations such as Hungary, many of its citizens have a far more open attitude to the refugees.

Crucially, ordinary Serbs are not scared of the refugees and migrants and do not automatically think of them as illegal or criminal. They have generally sympathised with the arrivals as people escaping war, just as their own families and friends did in the 1990s. That empathy only increased this summer with the 20th anniversary of Operation Storm, when more than 100,000 Krajina Serbs fled Croatian forces in August 1995.

Serbia is also not a EU member and is therefore not under the same pressure to simultaneously uphold EU frontiers and accept EU-imposed quotas on refugees. Serbia has more scope to develop its own national policies – so the situation accordingly feels less out of control to the Serbs than it does to their EU neighbours.

The Serbian-Hungarian border at Horgo. Author provided

At the same time, Serbian nationalist politics was discredited in the 1990s even among many Serbian nationalists themselves, who accused the government of abandoning Serbs in Krajina and Kosovo. As a result, Serbs are cynical about any exclusionary nationalist answer to their questions about the future. Instead, they want to come out of international isolation.

Rather than attacking the refugees as a threat, Serbs have greeted the refugees as an opportunity to retrieve their international reputation. Solidarity with the Syrians and other arrivals makes perfect sense in a Serbia nostalgic for the international standing and ties that Socialist Yugoslavia enjoyed through its membership of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was jointly founded by its then-leader, Josip Broz Tito.

Not there yet

Serb citizens have been energised by the chance to offer humanitarian support to the refugees, building on the volunteerism that followed the 2014 floods in the region – the worst for 100 years.

Many Serbs hope their activities will foster progressive political change in the country and thereby improve its international standing. Already the signs are good; Vučić has just returned from a successful visit to Washington with senior US government officials, and this year’s Gay Pride took place without the violent disruptions of past years in Belgrade, albeit under tight police security. Businesses exploiting refugees have been named and shamed on social media

But there’s a long way to go, and it would be wrong to say there’s no limit to this openness and liberalisation. The Serbian government has built the national consensus on refugees on the presumption that refugees won’t stay, and not having to provide permanent asylum for thousands of people. There have also been reports that the Serbian police have sometimes been far from accommodating, and even violent.

So while Serbia has become one of the preferred safe migration routes from Turkey and Greece to Europe, the proportion of the refugees in Serbia who are actually seeking asylum there has gone down this year The government has failed to outline long-term plans for hosting the refugees, a position that looks more like short-term PR management than principled humanitarianism.

The delicacy of that approach is evident in the rising tensions with neighbouring states, including a trade war with Croatia.

Simultaneously, the Serbian government has yet to answer its own citizens’ search for a more meaningful politics, and to offer an alternative future for its citizens and for the refugees – many of whom will need to stay and find shelter from the colder European political climate ahead.

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