Back in 2000, when Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was toppled, I believed that the riots of October 5 were the end of Serbia’s problems.
After a decade of wars and poverty, I imagined that just a few short years later, Serbia would be transformed into a functioning, moderately meritocratic, moderately wealthy European state, a bit like Slovenia now.
I hoped that we would get along with our former compatriots, after recognising how horrifically stupid and tragic the wars were, and avoid bickering over things like chocolates or garishly decorated trains.
Most of all, I believed that just like a fairy tale, the EU and our western partners would be like fairy godmothers or Cinderella’s helpful critters who would brush us up, regale us with donations and fashion the tatters of our state into something infinitely nicer and more presentable.
We would have to do little but plod along a blue-and-yellow brick road that led to the pearly gates of the EU and our happy ever after.
Looking back, I blush to think I was this naive, but two things make me less ashamed.
Firstly, it was not just me believing it. Weary from the uncertainties and drabness of the Milosevic years, many people happily lapped up this optimistic story as it was served by our politicians and the EU representatives.
My other excuse is that I was twelve.
Now that I am past thirty, the promises of better times following each summit between the EU and Western Balkan ring hollow and it is not only because it is increasingly apparent that the Western Balkans countries will not join the EU in the foreseeable future.
It is because it is becoming increasingly obvious that whether (and whenever) we join the EU or not, joining will not by itself bring the changes Serbians fought for in 2000.
This is not to say that increased funds from EU development funds are not needed nor that joining the EU is not a good thing for Serbia.
Given sluggish economic growth and flirting with nationalism at home and in the neighbourhood, it is crucial for the whole region to become part of a wider, richer, community like the EU.
Purely pragmatically it would be better to have a seat at the EU table, as due to our size, whether we join or not, our internal policies would to a large extent be driven by our mighty neighbour and largest trading partner.
However, it is apparent that joining the EU will not change the root causes of instability in Serbia and countries in the region, which lies in the lack of rule of law and pluralist political systems.
This can be gleaned from the experiences of both recent joiners like Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, where unresolved corruption scandals are still the norm, to the more established EU countries, like Greece and Italy, whose bureaucratic, judicial and economic systems are creaking.
The idea of economic and institutional convergence in Europe by following ideas from Brussels seems increasingly like a myth, and it is becoming clear that there is no autopilot that solves deep institutional issues.
The reason for this is that, despite all the talk, deep institutional change in other countries does not fall within the competencies or actual aims of the EU.
It is difficult to see how any number of foreign politicians and diplomats without significant popular support in Serbia would be able to embed a system of transparency here.
It is even less clear why their constituents at home would think spending their tax money on this is worthwhile, with pressing issues like widening inequality at home.
Unfortunately, this misplaced belief that the EU will solve everything has potentially made things worse in Serbia, as it allowed our politicians to rush through many key debates and reforms without systemic change in the country or democratic debate.
Nineteen years ago, Serbia was a post-socialist, post-conflict country in need of thorough institutional change and a re-evaluation of priorities.
Rather than instigating meaningful internal debates on key topics from the treatment of minorities to our economic future, we reduced these key state-building issues to a matter of simple bureaucratic compliance with EU expectations.
Instead of generating wider public discussion on what post-Milosevic Serbia should look like, our governments explained away their policies in terms of what the EU or ‘the West’ wanted from us, without making sure we understand the consequences and support these changes.
The problem with this top-down ‘Europeanisation’ project was not that it made us make wrong decisions, but that it failed to transform the Serbian political system from the centralised party-led cronyism that has plagued Serbia since the beginning, towards a real deliberative democracy.
Discussions of key values in society, such as coming to terms with the past and protecting the rights of all its citizens were reduced to technicalities. The very painful and often value-destroying privatisations were rushed through with explanations that it was the only way for the EU to accept us.
Our politicians happily washed their hands of any responsibility for their own decisions by shifting the blame for unpopular policies, and especially austerity, on the EU.
This great simplification of the debate about the reforms that Serbia needs to undergo allowed many centres of power to remain unchanged and ultimately made it possible that somebody with a chequered past like President Aleksandar Vucic, who went from a nationalist eurosceptic to a chief EU cheerleader in a decade, could mobilise old structures to increase his powers.
In many ways the EU supported this development, both by turning a blind eye to the erosion of press freedoms and rule of law in the assessments of Serbia’s progress and by supporting Vucic’s efforts, as was the case when he met Angela Merkel during this year’s presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, this single-minded focus on EU accession and box-ticking expanded to the wider civil society where, due to a lack of funds, many organisations were incentivised to prioritise tackling issues in a way that would ensure their continued support from donors, often the EU, rather than building popular understanding or support for their causes.
This led to many in the civil sector being perceived as elitist and divorced from the concerns of the average person, much weakening their reach and transformational potential.
Paradoxically, this autopilot approach to EU accession increasingly threatens to derail it.
There is constant weakening of popular support for joining the EU in Serbia, which now for years hovers around 50 per cent.
This disenchantment with the EU path has also led to increased flirtation with other potential foreign policy partners, especially Russia and China.
The EU’s distant approach to communication is also not helping the cause. Announcing new demands and strategies at countless congresses and summits is increasingly exasperating after seventeen years during which many Serbs think too little has changed.
Although the Trieste summit repeated the same old platitudes about commitment to enlargement and focus on regional cooperation, and promised more money, it would be good if the approach to the ‘Europeanisation’ of Serbia shifted from top-down to grassroots.
In Serbia, those who believe in ‘European values’ and want to see fundamental shifts, should try harder to make their points popular and relevant for the majority, rather than rely on foreign officials to give our government a slap on the wrist.
With or without EU support, it is difficult to see how Serbia could have free speech and a transparent judiciary if the majority of Serbs are unwilling to fight for it.
If our western allies are willing to give support, it should go to initiatives that seek to find solutions that are sustainable for Serbia, rather than pushing the one-size fits all approach.
Making Serbia a functioning democracy that can take care of its people should take precedence over short-term box ticking and horse-trading on the path to the EU.
To sustainably change itself, Serbia needs to stop pretending that the blue-and-yellow brick road leads to a happy ever after and start thinking about what it would like its story to be.
This article was published in BIRN’s portal Balkan Insight and bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight.