"So long, Europe, don't wait for us!"
Thus went the chorus of a song by the famous Serbian singer Djordje Balasevic, popular in early 1990s when the drums of war were drowning out virtually everything else in the former Yugoslavia. It was partly a frank -- and under the circumstances, brave -- self-indictment. The title of the song was It's Our Fault -- in other words, we the Serbs who stayed silent are to blame for allowing Slobodan Milosevic and his nationalist thugs to take over the country and wage bloody wars in neighboring states.
But there was a wistful message, as well. The chorus suggested that a beautiful dream was slipping away, the idea that the former Yugoslavia was an integral part of Europe and should be a part of the European Union but that the European train was leaving the station without "us." Europe was about integration and the rule of law -- and what was swirling around Balasevic at the time was separation, nationalism, lawlessness, and corruption at home, and the reality of a brutal war (1991-95). This was "our" bleak present, and forward-looking Europe, with its values of tolerance, civility, and its carefree prosperity, should leave us behind.
During a short trip to Brussels in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, Balasevic's song suddenly came back to me.
To begin with, it was difficult deciphering EU acronyms, navigating its levels of government, the various rival bodies, and the labyrinth of offices -- enough to make anyone feel disoriented and perhaps a little alienated. However, listening for two days to the various arguments for and (mainly) against EU enlargement, I came to the conclusion that Balasevic is still right. The EU is once again an increasingly distant dream for the Western Balkan countries. Yet this time around there's no war standing in the way of countries in the region joining the EU, but rather mutual mistrust, changing geopolitics, and the siren song emanating from Moscow -- the growing assertiveness of Putin's Russia and its global struggle against the West.
WATCH: Balasevic sings It's Our Fault
Concerned with its own security, its current economic problems, the internal divisions between new and old members, the EU appears weary and profoundly unenthusiastic toward enlargement. With the future of the EU at stake, or facing the risk of the train becoming uncoupled, little heed is being paid to those still waiting to board. At the same time, the EU appears a less attractive goal for many Serbs, a measure of the extent to which Russian propaganda has managed to demonize Euro-Atlantic integration. Moscow's approach is blunt and quite orthodox, despite its reliance on the proliferation of new media, and yet very effective.
A friend of mine who was offered a job by Russia's Sputnik radio in Belgrade was told that he would enjoy complete freedom in story selection and reporting, as long as he adhered to one cardinal rule: Praise Putin and criticize the EU at every turn, and you will be fine. Simple and straightforward -- and it works.
According to the most recent poll conducted in Belgrade, only 11 percent of Serbs believe it is good for their country to join the EU and NATO. According to the same poll, 55 percent of respondents said that Serbia should stick closer to Russia.
In a further boost to Euroskeptics, Serbia's bumpy road to the EU is now being blocked by Croatia, its neighbor and wartime antagonist. Croatia has objected to the start of the next stage of talks between the EU and Serbia, on the chapter dealing with the judiciary and basic rights, unless Serbia stops acting as a "regional policeman." Zagreb wants the government in Belgrade to change its laws on prosecuting crimes committed during the war outside the territory of Serbia.
"Serbia is shocked [at] Croatia's decision not to support Serbia's EU path," Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said in an e-mailed statement. "Serbia has taken note of Croatia's stance, but will not allow anyone, in Europe or the world, including the Republic of Croatia, to blackmail, humiliate, or denigrate Serbia."
It is just a fresh reminder of the fragile stability in the Balkans.
The EU formally opened accession talks with Serbia in January 2014, although since then discussions have not begun on any of the 35 chapters, or areas in which Serbia must meet the bloc's norms.
Meanwhile, Croatia -- along with Slovenia one of only two of the former Yugoslav republics to have become an EU member state -- is doing its best to distance itself from the rest of the Balkans. The Croatian minister of foreign and European affairs, Miro Kovac, recently suggested that the term "region" (regija) hitherto used as a collective noun for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, should be replaced with the term "neighbors" (susjedi).
"We should emancipate ourselves. Our worldview is not a view from 'the region' -- it is from Croatia," said Kovac, albeit promising that his country would strengthen ties with its "neighbors." Although Croatia's current insistence that Europe ends at its borders, and that what lies on the other side -- the "region," "neighborhood," or simply the Balkans -- is somehow "other" is not a very neighborly attitude, its opposition may well make the EU more attractive to Serbs.
That may be a slim hope, however, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine filling the vacuum left by a tired and anxious Europe, absorbed in its own existential crisis, it's not easy to predict where the European train is headed, or whether Serbia, or the Western Balkan countries, will board it anytime soon.
* The article originally appeared on the RFE/RL English site's Balkans Without Borders blog