Boris Vukobrat – by himself

Twelve years ago, when he founded the Peace and Crisis Management Foundation with the people who shared his beliefs that it was possible to end the war in the former Yugoslavia and then restore trust and cooperation among nations through economic cooperation, Boris Vukobrat has become accustomed to being an idealist, dreamer, utopian. Now that his ideas have, at least declaratively, become what all politicians in this region are in favour of, this businessman of Serbian descent sees no satisfaction in that.

- A lot has changed since 1992 until today. Those who were most vocal in the criticism of us as dreamers, utopians, people far from reality, did not admit that they were wrong, neither in Belgrade nor in Zagreb; and their policy should now be what we advocated as civilization values. Everybody today swears by the necessity of communication, propagating, at least declaratively, that you can hate each other, but that there is no common life without communication: economic, cultural and all others. Formally, everyone agrees, but the question is what they really do to make those commitments real. This is no satisfaction for us, because, unfortunately, we have not been able to stop the war, we have not saved unnecessarily lost lives, we have not stopped the columns of scattered refugees nor stopped the departure of the young, educated world from the countries from this region to the world. We always said what we were convinced of and had the same views in 1992, 1993, as we had in 2002, 2003, as we have even today. We represented civilization values, around which many distinguished scientists, politicians, public workers, writers, journalists gathered, back in 1992 and we will continue to represent them, explains Boris Vukobrat.

Bread and circuses

Many people justify themselves by the fact that today in Serbia there is no electorate ready to support reforms?

The electorate should not be blamed. Here, the media manipulate citizens. If you put the emphasis on the story of "bread and circuses", if you distract it from essential problems, from work, then why are you surprised when they talk about the willingness to de facto give up a good part of freedom if someone else guarantees them safety. Here, the citizens continue to lean too much towards the line of least resistance, and thus they are idle, provided the state provides them with basic security, the living minimum, and, if possible, a little more. In this way, the one who intends to manipulate freely gets the opportunity to do so. And this is exactly what is happening in these areas.

Listening to the voices of reason from the very beginning of the Foundation's work, you were a few steps ahead of others, which is why your projects probably did not run into too much understanding. This was especially noticeable with the first project "Proposals for a New Community of the Former Republics of the Former Yugoslavia" made in spring of 1992?

One can only complain, but unfortunately, cannot correct anything. It was not by chance that we put the word peace at the beginning of the name of our Foundation. It was logical to call it the Peace and Crisis Management Foundation, because peace is the finality of the crisis resolution action. We thought that by putting the word peace at the forefront, we were showing the best that we wanted the crisis, which was evident, to be resolved through peaceful means, not by war. It turned out we were right, but is that a pleasure for us? Certainly not. We would have been pleased if this had been understood before the disappearance of 200,000 people, before millions of people were displaced, before our youth left us and went to do inadequate jobs compared to what they were educated for.

Many tend to shift the focus of their criticism to that period solely on the search for the "biggest culprit". Do you have a different approach here?

During 1992, 1993 and 1994, at the round tables held twice in Belgrade and then in Ohrid, Subotica and Cetinje, we offered to the public in the territory of the former Yugoslavia to find a way out of the situation in which the SFRY found itself in the principles of regionalization and integration, that is, on the principles of democracy, the rule of law, protection of ethnic groups, prohibition of all forms of discrimination, decentralization, personal freedoms, inviolability of borders, integrations into Europe, market economy. That never had a significant impact. Therefore, one cannot just say that the problem arose with Slobodan Milošević. He just inherited and deepened it and, instead of solving the situation, he went in the opposite direction and created a criminal state. The deepening of this crisis has caused the basic criteria and values to change. The material damage took its toll. Looking for the biggest culprit is therefore too oversimplified view of the fact that there was no willingness to seek a peaceful, rational solution to the difficult issues that pressed the peoples of Yugoslavia.

Already in 1995, the idea of rebuilding the community of the former republics of the former Yugoslavia gave way to the primacy of economic themes. You offered the project "The Economic Future of the Balkans and Southeast Europe". Where did such a turnaround come from?

This is proof that we did not change our preferences, and we saw the first form of communication in the economic field, because for the past 50 years we have had a common state, a common economic system, a common currency and a common setback in development. It was logical for us to cooperate with each other. And we need to continue to do so more and more. Our commitment to institutional changes, privatization, stable legal system, free market and liberalization has found a favorable resonance among the representatives of Europe who participated in the round table in Paris, who then stressed that the only realistic and reasonable alternative that would overcome the backwardness and instability caused by non-economic factors in the region would be the accession of all countries from the former Yugoslavia to Europe, and that is a precondition for that very insistence on what we have pointed out in the project.

Politics is the hardest job

Domestic economists do not hide that they are not happy to accept positions in the executive branch because they do not see how to put into practice what they stand for as experts. How do you estimate the suggestions you make about how further reforms will really come to life?

Politics is the hardest job in the world, when done in a responsible manner. And I notice that a huge number of people in our country have an irresponsible approach to that job. You need to put people in areas where they have the most to give, regardless of party affiliation. It is difficult for me to say what the approach will be to what we offer. Probably, as in everything we have been offering so far.

How is cooperation in the region today?

Although the same imperatives remained, although it turned out that we all depend on each other, this is far from what should be done. Even if all the problems of theoretical, administrative, monetary and tax character that exist in, let’s say, Serbia's economy were solved today, the question is what this country could export. At the heart of this problem, in my opinion, is reluctance, and no one dares to tell citizens that it is high time to start to work. Instead, people are constantly swayed by the false belief that it is up to the state to solve all of its problems, social, health and other ones. As long as those who make decisions in these areas do not realize that absolute priority is in economic laws that stimulate labor and production, no cooperation with those countries can exist. In 2001, I met in Belgrade with those who promised their people that they would take care of their prosperity. I felt that I could be useful with my experience in economics. I only asked them to give absolute priority to economic projects in their political activities, to put the vote on reform laws that would start production and the economy in the first place, and on the second place, all other political problems, system problems, which could be solved along the way. Everyone listened to me, but only few responded.

How do you assess the situation on the Serbian political scene today?

In short, everything that is currently happening is not good. The fact that the president is elected several times without being present even today, speaks for itself. The fact that it takes two months to form a government is also wrong. There is constant talk of some loans, borrowings, donations, assistance. It is unlikely that Milošević 's party can agree that cooperation with The Hague tribunal is necessary for the simple reason that the head of that party is in The Hague and does not recognize the legitimacy of the court which judges him. How, then, will his party agree with what The Hague is asking? There are some who claim that it is a completely different party than the one from Milošević's time, but it is very unlikely that it is possible. And that will be seen very soon when we address the question of cooperation with The Hague to the new government.

Talking about regional integration raised the issue of internal regionalization and decentralization of the Balkan states. Every story about regionalization, however, is unpopular in Serbia, as it is usually associated with separatism. Your view is completely different. Is regionalization the future of Serbia when will this be understood?

At this point, the chances are very slim. The regionalization we were talking about is the regionalization of reason, both in terms of economy and interest. In the Foundation's basic project, regions were conceived as basic state units forming a new community. Following the model of a modern, democratic self-government, it was suggested that the regions be the framework and the area of realization of all interests and needs of the people, which they can, on their own initiative and means, satisfy, and transfer, on the principle of subsidiarity, to multi-state instances, the right to decide on issues that are common to the entire state union or those which the region does not have sufficient power to resolve itself. It was very important that we suggested that each region be created on the basis of consensus of the citizens who live in it, and that each region has its own constitution that would regulate the internal organization and jurisdiction of individual bodies, its government, parliament, and judiciary. Tax policy would be in the hands of the region, with only a portion going to state-level funding.

This regionalization discussed today is nothing more than an expression of dissatisfaction. Take a look at what's going on in Vojvodina. It is constantly usurped, depending on someone’s interests, and every one of its inhabitants should declare for it. The citizens of Vojvodina should be offered a clear plan from which they will be able to see what they get by regionalization. Surely we are talking about the citizens who know what their priorities are. What is happening in Europe only shows that we have well defined the meaning of the region. Unfortunately, instead of unification, we have a dismemberment of the country, as, for example, Tudjman did in fifty or so counties, to ensure that none of the units could do anything on its own, but was always redirected to the centre. And this led to the depletion of the economic potential of each region, and then the centre decided on priorities, which were more political than economic or social. Our approach to regionalization was the complete opposite. Regionalization makes sense when approached rationally, but now everything is approached nationally, emotionally, through political calculations, manipulatively. Therefore, talking about regionalization of the type we have proposed today is absurd, because the climate is not suitable.

How about creating a new ministry for the diaspora and giving voting rights to the diaspora?

The real question is why those who form the government have insisted on it. Secondly, when they talk about the diaspora, what diaspora are they referring to? There are at least four diasporas - the one that was formed between the two world wars, the second one that was typically political, stemming from the civil war of 1941 - 1945, the third one is an economic one consisting of those who, after the economic reform in 1965, couldn't find a job and finally, the last wave of the diaspora, young people who left these spaces. In terms of quality, these four diasporas have nothing in common except that all of them, but the latest one, have been out of the country for at least 30, if not twice the age. So, they are separated from the problems of their own country and cannot think of them the same way as those who have remained in the country. How will I, who am 30 years out of the country, know better than you what are the priorities at the moment and how can I vote on your priorities without paying taxes here, meaning that my money in the country is not being used by anyone. What would be the logic behind the fact that my vote has the same weight as someone’s who pays taxes here and spends on health, education?

So far, you say, you have anticipated, suggested, helped, and proposed. From now on you will be criticizing others and pointing the way for decision makers. Is the project “Reforme – kako dalje?” (How to proceed with reforms?) a proof that you have changed tactics?

Exactly. Since the establishment of the Foundation until now, not only have the views we advocated on the inevitability of joint participation, collaboration and cooperation been confirmed, but at the same time our commitment has been brought to an end on both the macro and microeconomic level, and the practice has confirmed the validity of these positions on a daily basis. Regardless of the differences in approach, everyone still agrees with the main directions of reform proposed by Vladimir Gligorov in his study. It turned out you could use a milder or harsher term, but the economic facts are very stubborn. It is only necessary to be objective, and in order to be objective, you have to be informed, keep track of things, analyze them, which is what we do all the time. Unfortunately, a person in such conditions is simply not smart enough, does not know what to say except that he should finally start working, but it is so unfair that nobody needs you if you have such an idea. Fortunately, we are not people who offer ourselves, we are people who offer solutions, so we don't care if we will be popular or not. No one votes for us and that is our great advantage.

According to you, what are the perspectives of Serbia?

It cannot happen that one nation has no perspective. Everyone goes through more or less difficult periods. This is one of the very difficult moments for all of us. Unfortunately, I'm afraid we haven't touched the bottom yet. Until someone openly, with a lot of courage, tells the citizens what the situation is, and I am afraid that very few people are aware of the real situation both in economy, in society and in politics, I am afraid that it will be difficult to get out of this situation. I am convinced that people would be ready to tighten another hole in the belt, if those who promise solutions would be sanctioned if those promises were not fulfilled. Serbia needs political courage, and it lacks it, as every new election is manipulated every time. This means that whoever expects to get the votes will continue to court the electorate. And here we are in a vicious circle, in which it is certainly illusory to expect foreigners to invest in the country.

The “How to get to changes”, “Partnership for Democratic Changes”, and “Change of Strategy” projects are your contributions to what led to the change of government on October 5, 2000. At that time, you saw as your partners some opposition parties and the "Nezavisnost" (“Independence”) TUC. Do you have your political favourites in Serbia today?

We have no political favourites. We didn't have them even before 2000. We have our civilization values that we believe in and all parties representing those values are our favourites. We have no reason to be more or less for someone. We are in the function of what they do, and we the advantage: we can tell the truth because we don’t seek to become more popular as they do.

DANAS – March 24, 2004
By: Tanja Stevanović