Serbia and NATO

By Tesa Tesanovic for the Visegrad Post

Teša Tešanović is one of the most famous vloggers in Serbia and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. On the occasion of a trip to Budapest, he gave an interview to the Hungarian media Magyar Jelen. The Visegrád Post offers you here the English version of this interview.

Magyar Jelen: Teša, you’re one of Serbia’s most famous vloggers, and you can be described as someone with patriotic and nationalist views, but you’re not very well-known outside Serbia and former Yugoslavia countries. Can you briefly describe yourself for the Hungarian audience?

Teša Tešanović: I’m a journalist and podcaster, and I was one of those who started the most popular podcast in the former Yugoslavia, called Balkan Info. But now I have split from Balkan Info and created a podcast of my own.

The idea that has guided us has basically been to create a media outlet to give people an alternative source of information because, as your audience knows, the mainstream media is highly censored when it comes to many controversial subjects such as the migrant crisis, LGBT issues, or the recent COVID crisis. These are things that people want to hear about on the Internet. So, in 2015 we saw that there was a need for alternative media, and we started our own video production, given our humble means. We then became one of the most popular podcasts in the Balkans. I believe that at this point the mainstream media is so poisoned that it’s very important to fight back against them by offering accurate information.

Our audience might be interested to know that your family background is partly Hungarian.

Yes. My grandmother from my mother’s side is Hungarian, and I’m very proud of my partial Hungarian roots. I heard the Hungarian language a lot in my house when I was a kid. I have only a passing knowledge of Hungarian at present, but I am planning to improve it in the future.

I deeply admire the achievements of Hungarians as a nation. They have provided great inventors, composers, and writers with a specific melancholic mentality that is intertwined with the nature of the Pannonian plains. So I’m always happy when I come to Hungary, and I think that Hungary is a great country.

In the 2000s there was a lot of tension in Vojvodina, but nowadays the inter-ethnic relations seem much more peaceful. Based on what you see and hear, how are the lives of Serbia’s ethnic communities?

Personally, I believe that all chauvinism is wrong. In the light of the current migrant crisis and demographic problems, all of the European nations need to stop hating each other and find common solutions to our historical problems.

When it comes to the situation in Serbia, yes, there were problems in the past, but thanks to the work of the Hungarian and Serbian governments and the bilateral cooperation between the two countries, the situation has improved a lot. The Hungarian minority party is part of the Serbian government. I’m not seeing the Hungarian representatives in the north of Serbia saying that there are currently any significant problems concerning the implementation of the Serbian minority laws: the Hungarian language schools, the Hungarian minority councils, the cultural programs, and similar things.

In spite of my opinion of the current Hungarian and Serbian political leadership, I must admit that Mr. Orbán has worked a lot on improving relations with Serbia as well as the status of the Hungarian minority.

Of course there are problems, but they are not directly related to the actions of the Serbian state. Hungarians are leaving Serbia due to the poor living standards. Ever since the Hungarians of Vojvodina received their citizenship, a lot of them have left for Western Europe or Hungary. But it’s unfortunately a process that is also occurring among the Serbs in Serbia. Like the Balkan countries and Bulgaria in the past, Serbia is now increasingly depopulating, so in a lot of the Hungarian villages along the border, the demographic situation is very bad, especially among the young.

You mentioned the fact that from the moment the Hungarians in Serbia got their Hungarian passports, they also got a European Union passport, which opened up the gates of the EU’s labour market to them. You as a Serbian citizen can nowadays enter the Schengen Zone without a visa, but you cannot work; this still involves a long process. And I heard a while ago that one of the most widely-taught languages in Belgrade is Hungarian, because anyone who has roots in the Vojvodina region is now interested in learning Hungarian so he can get an EU passport. Is this true?

Yes, but I must mention that the problems with easily getting a Hungarian passport are kind of a thing of the past. There was a period when Serbs who didn’t speak Hungarian found a way to get Hungarian citizenship. But this changed when the current Hungarian citizenship law came into force, not because of Serbs getting citizenship but because of the problem of Ukrainians getting it. Now, the language test is a little bit more rigorous. I must also add that besides the Serbs, there are people who have someone in their family line who was actually Hungarian, and if they learn Hungarian, then by Hungarian law they can apply for citizenship. So I don’t see much of a problem with that particular issue.

In recent months there have been small but potentially dangerous tensions in Kosovo. A few weeks ago Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić declared in parliament that he is basically being blackmailed by Brussels and Washington to recognize Kosovo one way or another, and also to enact sanctions on Russia, and that he has to make a choice between either being a traitor to Serbian interests or facing sanctions that would destroy the already poor Serbian economy. In your opinion, is this what is really going on or is it just theatre?

I believe there is pressure. Vučić may be exaggerating a bit in order to justify some of his moves that are considered treacherous by part of the Serbian public. But I believe that this pressure came after the crisis in Ukraine, because when this erupted the West saw how unsolved territorial issues and frozen ethnic conflicts can create big problems in the future. They therefore want to resolve the issue of Kosovo quickly.

What they need from us is for Serbia to offer a way for Kosovo to get into NATO. They know that Kosovo can’t get into the United Nations because Russia and China would veto it in the UN Security Council, since they don’t have any reason at this point to approve it. But getting Kosovo into NATO would actually close down the Balkans’ security architecture, and it would create a better situation for the Americans.

One of the obstacles there is that five nations of the European Union haven’t recognized Kosovo, including Spain, which is a difficult obstacle, so they need for Serbia to somehow agree so that they can show Spain, “You see, Serbia doesn’t object to Kosovo joining NATO, which means you can allow it to go ahead without jeopardizing your position on separatism.” I think that will be the way forward for the West, and when it comes to Vučić, I think he’s currently buying time, and that’s why I think we will probably have elections in Serbia so that he can postpone some of the inevitable moves.

From the moment he became President, Vučić has been ruling Serbia with a strong hand, but he recently said that this is his last term. He will not be a candidate for the presidency again. He likewise said that if he is forced to sign anything due to international pressure that he doesn’t like, he has the option to resign, and at the same time he also just created a new political movement. From an outside perspective, it’s therefore very difficult to understand what he’s doing – whether he will quit politics, or stay, or perhaps remain active another way, or as you say maybe he’s buying time in the hope that in six months perhaps the situation will be different…

Maybe. We don’t really have a clear picture at this point. Even the political analysts in Serbia who are very deeply into it don’t know what will come next, but I think there is a possibility that he’s buying time at this particular moment.

You said at one point that the EU has decided that unresolved territorial conflicts cannot be allowed to remain. I know for many Serbs this would still be unacceptable, but why has there not been an agreement where the Serbs in the north of Kosovo could go back to Serbia while the Serbian villages and churches all over Kosovo are placed under special protection, and the rest becomes fully independent of Serbia? Why do you think this agreement has not been reached?

The main obstacle there is the Albanian side, because they feel that the United States, NATO, and the EU are on their side, and they’re absolutely not ready to give any sort of concessions. And because the EU and the West have allowed the Albanians to pursue this policy, this is why that sort of a compromise which would be painful for both sides is impossible in this case. They have a maximalist stance, and the United States is supporting it. Even Serbian officials, including Vučić, have tried to bring about the solution that you mentioned. It was basically Vučić’s idea. He tried it a bit during the Trump administration. Some officials from the Trump administration were even open to the idea, but it never really went further.

This kind of situation is perfect for the empires, I see for example the Caucasus. This is not to judge the Americans or the Russians; it’s merely a typical imperialist strategy: If you keep a conflict going a little bit, it allows you to keep your hand in. If you solve it, then you can only go home. So it was left unsolved – maybe on purpose – for 30 years, and maybe offering a solution would have made it impossible for the Americans to keep a strong hand in the Balkans. Isn’t this the case?

Yes, it’s divide and conquer, as it was in Roman times and it’s still true today. It’s one of the reasons why the borders of the ex-Soviet countries are like this. They were created this way so that none of the Soviet republics could break away without causing civil war.

It was the same in Yugoslavia.

Yes. That’s basically how it works.

Serbia has implemented very few sanctions against the Russian Federation during the War in Ukraine, unlike the Western world. One of the concrete examples is that there are still flights between Belgrade and Moscow, and other Russian cities. But it’s also true that Russians who are looking to escape their country because they are hostile to President Putin’s policies sometimes go to Belgrade. How is it going with them in a country that is known for being pro-Russian?

I must add one very important thing: The Russians who came to Belgrade can be divided into two groups. First, you have the so-called political immigration – people who have left for political reasons. The other group of people doesn’t really care about Russian politics – basically, the IT professionals doing business with the European Union, and because the wire transfers, banking, and so forth have stopped, they need to relocate to a third country so that they can continue their business. So not all Russians who come are anti-Putin.

But when it comes to anti-Putin Russians in Belgrade, yes, every 10 or 15 days they organize some pro-Ukraine demonstrations. The Russian liberals who came have organized their own movement in Belgrade, and they are organizing their pro-Ukraine marches with the Serbian Greens. The reason they came to Serbia is basically because Serbia was the only country that allowed them to come, because we have a visa-free agreement with Russia, so they didn’t have much of a choice.

Yes, Serbia or some former Soviet republics.

Yes. There currently isn’t much of a problem with them; they live their own lives in their own communities, secluded from Serbs. They aren’t really mixing with the general population. But there are some concerns regarding the rising apartment prices in Belgrade and other big cities caused by the massive influx of Russians. People aren’t complaining much even about that. But prices have risen quite significantly.

What is the Serbian public’s opinion of this war? Do they see this as something that is far away, or do they support Russia, or do they support Ukraine?

To be honest, the Serbian public is about 80% very, very pro-Russia to the point that when Russians talk with Serbs, they say, “What’s the problem with you guys? You’re more Russian than we are!” In a similar fashion, the Baltic countries are more pro-Ukrainian than the Ukrainians themselves. It’s really extreme in both cases.

How is Serbia’s economy and demographics nowadays?

When it comes to the economy, Serbia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Of course, the salaries have risen – sort of. We have a lower unemployment rate, but this is more thanks to the fact that a lot of people have left and because the demographics have changed. A lot of old people have become pensioners, and there are fewer younger people who are going after the jobs that they have left. So naturally, with the scaling down of Serbia’s size, the economy is fulfilling the population’s needs. The big problem was that COVID and the measures that were enacted really affected the economy. So Serbia is basically going nowhere. If you compare it to some Third World countries, we are living really well, but if you compare it to our neighbors such as Croatia, Hungary, or Romania, we have a worse standard of living.

When it comes to demographics, they are very bad. The number of children born per woman is around 1.5, if I remember correctly. It’s better than Italy or other places that are suffering a total demographic catastrophe, but it’s still far below replacement level, and unfortunately, unlike Hungary, the state isn’t doing much to improve it.

If I remember correctly, after the Second World War the most demographically dynamic population in Europe was the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. I think they reached African levels of 8-10 children per woman, which did a lot to hasten their ethnic domination of Kosovo. But since Kosovo became independent, there has been a lot of emigration, and in fact the illegal immigration wave began in Hungary not in 2015, but in the autumn of 2014, when there was a wave of Kosovar Albanians. And then the mafia was checking how it was possible to cross the border. So how are the living standards today in the Albanian part of Kosovo? What has been the economic outcome of independent Kosovo for the typical Albanian Kosovar?

Before I answer your question, you mentioned something that is very critical. There is a small detail that has been forgotten in discussions of the migrant crisis, namely that it began with the Albanian Kosovars. I remember seeing in the news at that time that there were masses of Albanians crossing the border illegally into Hungary. And I remember a journalist who went to the buses with them who said, “These people aren’t going to Europe. Why? They haven’t brought their things. They haven’t packed their bags. They have only brought enough stuff as if they are going on a picnic.” This means that they were organized for some particular reason to test something. And I have reached the same conclusion that you have: that the Soros networks which are behind the migration crisis were basically conducting a test run to see how it would work with the migrants afterwards.

So back to the Kosovo question. The demographics in Kosovo are now very bad because things have changed. Albanian society in Kosovo at the time when they had a lot of children was a different society. It was a society that wasn’t Westernized. It was a society that wasn’t penetrated by feminism, social media, and the destruction of religion and traditional norms. The problem is that when the army of Yugoslavia left Kosovo in 1999 and the foreign troops came, the Albanians viewed the United States as liberators. They therefore wanted to accept all of the things that the current American culture is offering. American culture has its good and bad elements, but they have only accepted its worst parts: hip-hop culture, a certain behaviour of women on social networks, and so on. That change in mindset has caused their demographics to nosedive.

And also, while the West has provided Kosovo with a sort of semi-independent state, they haven’t provided them with the economic means to sustain that state. And since the living standards are very bad, a lot of them have left. Currently there is strong emigration from Kosovo, and there aren’t any positive trends in relation to childbirth. But they’re still growing in numbers a little bit because unlike Serbia, and in fact unlike all of the Balkan countries, they had a demographic boom in the 1980s and ‘90s, so they still have a fairly young population. And when you have a young population, even if your birthrates are below replacement levels, you will still grow for a few decades. But the long-term outlook for them is very grim.

Do you think it is realistic that Serbia might join the EU in the current decade? How do you see relations between Serbia and the West in the next ten years? Do you want to get closer to Europe and the EU, or do you want to have better connections with Russia and China – where you have been living, yes?

Yes, I have been living in China.

Or Iran, Turkey, or whatever. What can we expect in Serbian international relations?

I’m a Euroskeptic. In fact, I’m not even a Euroskeptic; I’m against the existence of the EU because I believe it is a bureaucratic, globalist body that doesn’t serve the interests of the European nations. I do believe in some sort of cooperation between the various European countries and the creation of super-national bodies to allow that cooperation, but I want it in a less bureaucratic manner than the current EU – more of a kind of Europe of nations.

Currently, Serbia is on a road to nowhere because the EU doesn’t even want Serbia to join, since at this point it doesn’t even know what it wants. And there are strong divisions within the EU itself about its future. Some are pushing for a more decentralized approach. Others, such as Macron, are dreaming of Eurofederalism. And even Macron has said that they won’t be accepting any new countries for the foreseeable future until they decide on the form that the EU will transform into in the future.

I also think that the world is changing. New forces are developing, especially in Asia, and especially China. So I believe in the development of good relations with the BRICS countries, with the Middle East, with Africa. Of course, traditional Serbian foreign policy was always to have good relations with both the East and the West. That is also where I stand, but I also believe in having good relations with Germany and France in the lines of our national interest. There are simply some red lines that I cannot cross in order to be friends with Germany or the United States.

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