Serbia is on the right track, experts say


Belgrade is making progress on the country's most significant challenges.

By Bojana Milovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 22/02/13


Serbian soldiers prepare for an honour salute in celebration of the 209th anniversary of the modern Serbian state. [AFP]

As Belgrade marks 209 years of the modern Serbian state, experts said Serbia is successfully tackling its three main challenges: relations with Kosovo, the fight against corruption and improving the economy.

Dejan Vuk Stankovic, a sociology professor at Belgrade University, said the government is leading a pragmatic Kosovo policy based on compromise, with the aim of reaching a lasting solution.

"In the current course of negotiations a very delicate issue is being handled -- the redistribution of authorities between the local Serbs in the north of Kosovo and the central government in Pristina. It has yet to be said clearly and unambiguously what measure of redistribution of authority Serbia is ready to agree to," Stankovic told SETimes.

Stankovic said President Tomislav Nikolic's latest statements that Serbia is ready to participate in creating new institutions in Kosovo's north leads to the assumption that the existing ones will be shut down.

"If negotiations develop in the spirit of that statement, an actual agreement should not be ruled out. If, however, the statement turns out to be only a rhetoric for the international community representatives, then the status quo will remain in place, which automatically means slim chances for getting a date for the beginning of EU accession talks," Stankovic added.

"Solving the issue concerning the Serbian institutions in northern Kosovo is the biggest challenge facing the government," Predrag Simic, professor of political science at Belgrade University, told SETimes.

The second challenge facing the government is the effort to halt corruption. Vladimir Goati, Transparency Serbia director, said the government has also laid the groundwork for progress.

"This is not just a momentary, but rather a long-term operation," Goati told SETimes.

Goati said the government is sending a clear message by attacking the "Bermuda Triangle" of corruption -- political parties, public enterprises and public procurement.

Experts agree the arrests of tycoons and corrupt officials have renewed citizens' trust. But the public is also awaiting a resolution in the high-profile case of businessman Miroslav Miskovic, who was detained in December on suspicion of fraud, as well as ongoing court proceedings concerning questionable privatisations.

Vucic has called for changes to the Law on the Anti-Corruption Agency that will improve legal efficiency and introduces a new criminal offence that makes the failure to accurately report election campaign expenditures illegal.

This year, Serbia enacted a law requiring citizens to report properties valued in excess of 350,000 euros. There is discussion on a companion law to allow the government to seize such properties from owners unless they can show how the properties were acquired.

Serbia is also trying to expand its economic base. Foreign and Interior Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said the EU market should be a priority since it accounts for more than half of Serbia's foreign trade, but Belgrade also seeks to revisit markets it once dominated in Africa and Asia.

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"We are trying to get companies that worked in those countries and have good references there back to those markets. Countries such as Libya and Iraq import nearly 80 percent of their food," Ljajic told SETimes.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have expressed interest in investing, while UAE concluded preliminary contracts in irrigation and agricultural products worth $200 million.

Economists said these efforts provide the basis for optimism that Serbia is on the right track, though analysts believe only systemic measures can take the country out of the recession.

"It is difficult to predict whether GDP will grow this year. Growth will depend on numerous factors -- the volume of crop yield and the possibility of offering our main agricultural products in the regional markets and beyond," Milan Kovacevic, a foreign investment expert and economist, told SETimes.

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