Serbian Army, Military Academy, NGO & the Lake

Sorry I’ve been MIA for the past few days…nothing super big has happened so I figured I’d wait and cram it into one post.

So on Thursday, we visited the Serbian Army first and we met with a missile defense brigade. They were very kind and I enjoyed meeting with them, but they talked primarily about the NATO bombings of 1999 – which isn’t surprising I guess. I was just more interested in finding out information related to the Bosnian War – how many soldiers were sent to fight there? How many arms did Serbia supply to Bosnian Serbs? Things of that nature. I didn’t dare ask for fear of being disrespectful. Overall, it was an informative meeting but I have very little interest in the military so there’s not much to say about it.

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We then met with the Military Academy, which has study programs beginning in high school and continuing through Ph.D. The Colonel that we met with was also really nice, and a different Lieutenant Colonel from the Navy showed us around afterwards. The complex is extremely large and pretty depressing – what I would call very communist/socialist looking. Definitely needs some updating…

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Yesterday, we met with an NGO called Serbia on the Move – which was very interesting and I really enjoyed it. The guy we met with talked about different campaigns that they’ve done in Serbia – including launching a website that is something like rateMD, which was shut down by the government within two weeks. The shutdown created a lot of backlash, and they’re still trying to find legal loopholes to relaunch the site without any risk of it being taken down again. It a different type of meeting than others we’ve had because he talked more about the public health issues within the country as well as related corruption. Overall, great meeting – the guy definitely seemed like he had a wealth of knowledge and we could have learned a lot from him.

Finally, today, Indy & I went to Ada Ciganlija again to get our tan on – it definitely worked! The only issue is that now my arms are darker than my legs…but I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. We were there for about 4.5 hours and it was very entertaining – so many cute little kids trying to learn to swim and running around, as well as quite an interesting array of adults. I really like that here, people don’t care what they look like – they could be 250+ pounds and still wear a bikini because they want to…not that it’s very pleasant to look at, but I love that they’re confident and self-assured enough to do so.

 

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US Embassy & Tito/Yugoslavia Museum

Today we took a trip to the US Embassy, and it was one of my favorite meetings thus far – we even got to meet the current US Ambassador to Serbia, Michael Kirby. The meeting started off with Drew, a public diplomacy/public affairs officer. He went into some of the details of that “cone” of the state department and told us some of his tasks, which include primarily cultural dialogues. He works to bring over American talent, in public engagement, and English language programs. That department seems pretty interesting to work in, and the Foreign Service is definitely something I will consider as a career path (again, since I’ve considered it throughout my college career after my first visit to the Embassy in Armenia).

We then met with Judith, a political affairs/human rights officer who focuses on Vojvodina (the Northern region of Serbia, and also wealthier and more multicultural). She primarily focuses on the Roma minority in Serbia, but she also mentioned that 85% of the population believe that LGBT people are sick and can/should be cured. Many civilians have very little hope of getting out of the poor economic conditions that exist here. We’ve heard countless times today that the Serbian economy is discouraging and that there is endless bureaucratic red tape that needs to be greatly reduced in order to encourage foreign investment. Which leads into our next speaker, Matt, an economics officer. The goal of the department is to increase economic stability through reducing corruption and increasing investments, both foreign and domestic. He told us that they’ve recently held meetings with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Cisco about moving some aspects of production to Serbia in order to strengthen the economic situation. All things considered, Serbia is well-positioned: citizens are well-educated, speak excellent English, and had various trade agreements with Russia and Turkey. In fact, there’s been rising investments from the UAE, but red tape remains a concern of US investors. Serbia has thus far been focused on bringing in a “whale” rather than “fish” – they’ve been working to bring investment from big companies, but the US is trying to encourage them to work towards bringing in several smaller companies to reassure the large ones. Economics is definitely interesting, and a field I’d love to go into (for Grad School), if only there weren’t so much math/numbers involved!

We then spoke with the Head of the Democracy and Government department of USAID in Serbia, Peter. He told us how they’ve been here since before Milosevic and through his reign, and at that time they were focusing more on democratization but now it has shifted to development. He also stated that NGOs now have very few issues with receiving US funding, which is greatly changed from several years ago. USAID also has branding loopholes – they can forgo their logo if their goals would be hindered due to it. The last guy who spoke to us was Simon, a Security Officer (diplomatic security). He briefly told us that his job is to protect the embassy, work with local authorities to investigate security threats, manage the local guard force, brief programs, and run counterintelligence investigations.

Finally, Ambassador Kirby came in and further discussed the economic problems and emphasized that the Embassy is working to create conditions that will allow the economy to flourish. He also noted that in the past there was serious issues with hyperinflation, thus the idea of inflation scares many Serbians. He also said that corruption and lack of rule of law are seriously holding Serbia back from EU integration – you can’t have a functional economy if there are instances when people don’t feel that they need to pay for services. He believes that the goal of the EU will make a huge impact since the EU will force them to implement/enforce laws, but it still won’t be a cure-all. He ended the discussion by emphasizing that a situation where people can support themselves is necessary; people need to be able to sustain their families – previous economic sanctions criminalized the population by forcing people to develop a black market.

After the Embassy, we went to Tito’s museum. It was very pretty and extensive – I suppose I should have expected that for the eternal ruler of Yugoslavia. We first saw some items that Tito was gifted by other heads of state/government and foreign dignitaries. Then, we saw his grave/eternal tomb/massive marble block, which was cool. Afterwards, I did some souvenir shopping, ate McDonald’s, and finished a pretty good book – Black Soul, which is about the Bosnian conflict. All in all, it was quite a good day!

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Serbian Progressive Party & Former Ambassadors

Yesterday was a day full of meetings! First, we met with a member of the Serbian Progressive Party at the Parliament building who talked a bit about corruption, EU accession, and Serbian political parties. He told us that they have a rather large issue with corruption in Serbia, but they are actively tackling the issue and confident that they will be able to deter officials from accepting/requesting bribes. He is also confident that Serbia will enter the EU at some point, and accession talks are to begin in January 2014. One issue that I found is that citizens are still divided about joining the EU. Previous governments repeatedly promised that EU accession would be easy and they would enter as a way to get re-elected, thus people are skeptical about the process and whether it will be worth it or not. The parliamentarian stated that they hope to be a full EU Member State within 4 to 5 years, which I personally feel is a bit of a reach, but I guess you never know. If the government is truly motivated to get their laws in check with EU standards and to combat the issues that they have, then it may be possible.

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Our second meeting was with the Former Serbian Ambassador to France, and we met at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (which I know about from writing my senior capstone). He was a very passionate man and seemed like a genuinely nice person; however, he was quite clearly biased in many of his opinions. He began by giving us a historical overview of the history of Kosovo but it appeared as though he was pretty against the Albanian view. He stated how Albanians were complaining of Serbian aggression in the region, yet quickly countered this with accounts of Albanian aggression against Serbs. He also stated that Serbs were the only peoples in the region who wanted to maintain a Yugoslavia – however he failed to mention that due to Serb aggression, this continued “Yugoslavia” would have more realistically been a Greater Serbia with little recognition of minorities. An interesting question that he raised was related to the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was an Albanian army that really failed to include any other minorities or ethnic groups. He asked: why can’t Serbs in Bosnia or Croatia secede if Albanians in Kosovo can? I definitely thought that this was an interesting point to raise and something I’d like to look more into.

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Our final meeting of the day was with the Former Serbian Ambassador to the US. He told us about the baggage that had to be dealt with in order to improve Serbia-US relations, including the Kosovo issue, frozen funds, and trading relations. He also stated that the US has a kind of ownership or special relationship regarding Kosovo due to the NATO bombings, which I hadn’t really thought of but found interesting to consider. He believes that it is better to make war than impose sanctions, and I must say I agree. Sanctions do very little to actually hinder the government that they are meant to punish – innocent civilians suffer, it sucks the blood out of a nation, legitimizes politicians, and criminalizes the population when a black market arises. Sanctions serve very little other purpose than to pacify the US and the more broad international community into feeling as though they have taken action against injustice.

Overall, yesterday was a VERY full day, but it consisted of really interesting people and conversations that have really made me want to further study up on Kosovo and the problems that it faces – both politically, socially, and economically.

 

Orthodox Bishop Meeting & Lake Ciganlija

Today we had an interesting meeting with a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the building that is the administrative seat of the Church (pictured below). The bishop seemed really relaxed, genuine, and candid – all in all, I like the discussion. It did lack a bit of structure, but this didn’t bother me that much. One thing that did bother me was when he stated that the massacre that occurred at Srebrenica shouldn’t necessarily be considered a “genocide.” He compared it to the mass murder of 12,000 Poles in the Katyn forest in Russia under Stalin. He stated that if that isn’t considered a genocide then Srebrenica shouldn’t be considered one either. Supposedly the Bishop stated that 12,000 soldiers were killed in the forest – however I didn’t personally hear that – and upon further investigating that would be inaccurate since there were far fewer military personnel killed than 12,000, yet almost double the amount of people killed in total…

Anyway, I would say that it should be the opposite from what the Bishop said – if Srebrenica is considered a genocide, which it absolutely should be, then so should the Katyn Forest massacre.

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Later in the day, after a failed attempt to find a laundry place, Indy and I ventured to Lake Ciganlija to relax for a bit. It was a beautiful (but hot!) day out, so we laid by the water on the rock beach for a bit before moving into the shade. Other than that, it was a light day – tomorrow, however, we have three meetings from 9-5.

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2-Day CANVAS Training

Over the past two days, we’ve had a training by CANVAS. CANVAS developed out of what was formerly Otpor! – the movement that played a major role in peacefully removing Milosevic from power in the 2000 elections. We were trained by Milan in the steps to creating a successful nonviolent movement – and I personally think he did a great job in teaching us the absolute basics. He crammed a 5 day training into 2 days, so it was definitely a lot of information being thrown at us, but it was broken down into easily digestible projects.

We worked within our squads/teams/groups and we chose an issue to work on. My group chose to advocate for government transparency within the state government of Bosnia – which proved to be quite a challenge. Over the two days, we developed dilemma actions and dissected some of the essentials of our campaign all to end up with a plan on how to execute one of our chosen actions. All in all, it was an interesting training and a great thing to learn – I definitely believe I’ll be able to use many aspects of it in the future!

 

A Walking Tour of Belgrade

So yesterday was our first full day in Belgrade! We went on a walking tour, led by our TA Mladen, so here are some photos from that. Other than the tour, we didn’t do much yesterday. I mainly relaxed around the hotel because I was so exhausted and it was very hot outside. Indy and I discovered a delicious bakery where we got some things for dinner, and I bought lunch at again today. I also had McDonald’s yesterday – I know, shame on me – but it was absolutely worth it.

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Serbian Orthodox Church

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Damage from the NATO bombing of late 1990s

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More NATO damage

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Government Building (Ministry of Foreign Affairs?)

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Old Fortress

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City view from the Fortress

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City view from the Fortress

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Garbage can at McDonald’s – Hvala = thank you in Serbian

 

Onto Serbia!

Today we left Banja Luka and Bosnia altogether for the second half of our trip to Serbia. On our way to Belgrade, we stopped in Brcko for a meeting with the mayor. Brcko is the only district in Bosnia that is not in either entity – it is essentially the bridge between the two, and lies on the Croatian border. Both entities wanted claim to the district for different reasons so it was deemed independent. The meeting with the mayor was interesting. He discussed how Brcko has been demilitarized, thus has no army present, and state armies are only allowed to pass through with various permissions. He also told us how there is the veto option for vital issues within the Brcko government, but miraculously this hasn’t been used yet. There are also 2 out of 31 parliament seats reserved for national minoirties, 3 reserved for each constituent nation, and the rest are free to be filled by anyone. Furthermore, he said that schools in the district were previously segregated but they’ve made great efforts to integrate them – they even have students coming form within the two entities and from Croatia to attend their schools.I think that Brcko could possibly be used as a model for Bosnia as a whole as it seems they are making good progress in a positive direction.

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After the meeting, we got back on the road and finally arrived in Belgrade around 6:15 p.m. My initial reactions to the city are that it seems a bit gray, drabby, and stuck in the 1980s-1990s, but it’s definitely a big city that will be exciting to explore. Plus, it looks much more beautiful at night!

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Meetings All Day in Banja Luka

Yesterday was our only full day in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. We had a day pretty much full of meetings. First, in the morning, we met with the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, who just so happens to be the first female PM in the country (or republic…?). The meeting with her was brief as she had a full schedule, but she pointed out that there has been no ethnic violence since the war, which is something to be proud of. She also believes that Bosnia as a whole is making progress, and Republika Srpska in particular still has room for improvement. She also believes that it is important for the entities to remain autonomous, and that BiH should join the EU. Interestingly, she cited Belgium and Spain as examples of successful EU member states with semi-autonomous regions – both of which have quite active secessionist movements…foreshadowing?

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Government Building in Banja Luka

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View from Top of Government Building

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View Again

Our second meeting was with a professor from the University of Banja Luka. He led an interesting discussion on the role of Turkey within Bosnia and introduced us to the idea of neo-Ottomanism. Neo-Ottomanism is essentially the renewal of the concept of Turkish imperialism. Unfortunately, he read a lot from one of his papers, making it hard to focus.

Our final meeting was with the Center for International Relations, which is an NGO in Republika Srpska. We didn’t really learn much about what exactly they do, but the man gave us another overview of the history and government system of Bosnia. He seemed very kind, but I wish he would have discussed more specifically his NGO and its role within BiH.

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Serbian Orthodox Church in Banja Luka

 

Zbogom Mostar, Zdravo Banja Luka!

This morning after a quick group picture with the Old Bridge in the background, we departed Mostar for Banja Luka. We took a one hour break in Jajce, where Tito and the Partisans developed the idea for a new socialist Yugoslavia. It was very pretty and a nice place to stop along the way.

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When we finally arrived in Banja Luka, which is the capital of Republika Srpska (the Serbian enclave in Bosnia), Indy and I went to see the old fortress and then headed back to relax after an exhausting day of travel. Tomorrow is a full day of meetings, which sound pretty interesting and I’m looking forward to.

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Meetings with NDC & HDZ + a full day in Mostar

Yesterday was our one and only full day in Mostar. In the morning, Alanna and I went to get our tan on by the river, and we were able to see the man jump off the bridge – I took a video, but it’s not the greatest. It sounded extremely painful.

In the afternoon, we first had a meeting with the Nansen Dialogue Center of Mostar. They are an NGO with branches throughout the former Yugoslavia and they work to promote interethnic dialogue. He told us a lot about the divided educational system here in Bosnia and how much of an issue it is. He, like some other people we’ve spoken with, believes that if violence were to erupt again, it would be primarily due to the youth. They are so separated from each other that they have very little interaction throughout their lifetimes, thus the organization is working to fix that. They believe in an integrated school model, and there are a couple of schools in the country that work well as examples; however, it is quite a complicated issue to tackle.

Our second meeting was with a senior member of the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, which is the primarily Croatian political party both in the Republic of Croatia and in amongst Bosnian Croats. He talked about the structure of the government and Croatia’s role within that structure. They don’t have as much of a say because they are a minority within Bosnia, but he didn’t seem to think that was significant. He then talked about the role of the youth. A previous speaker had told us that the youth and civil society feel disenfranchised and uninvolved in government and politics; however, the HDZ man told us that youth are very active and it’s civil society as a whole who is largely uninvolved. He also said that the main reason for this is that they don’t know how to get involved – they don’t fully understand the government structures, who to speak with, and how to go about getting their ideas implemented.

Overall, yesterday was pretty interesting and a good way to spend our only full day in Mostar!

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