As the polished conversation between the guests in the dining room of the official government residence begins to falter, a man makes a sign to the musicians, grabs the microphone, and launches into a few songs from a repertoire of Gypsy folklore. The singer is none other than the Prime Minister, Mr Ivica Dačić. It’s a show he has been putting on regularly since last year, when he demonstrated his vocal talents accompanied by the orchestra of filmmaker Emir Kusturica at a Brussels forum to promote foreign investment in Serbia.

Ivica Dačić is still singing, because the delegations to Serbia, which in January opens negotiations for its accession to the European Union, are arriving one after the other. It’s an obstacle course: under the new rules, any new enlargement may be submitted to a referendum in countries that are already members of the EU. And this may well not be a mere formality for a country with an image as disastrous as that of Serbia. Fifteen years after the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia, the country remains associated with war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo and with the arrogance of the regime of Slobodan Milošević.

A difficult agreement

Getting back to business, the heirs of "Slobo" know that they must turn the page. The head of the government, Mr Dačić, 47 years old, was the spokesman of Milošević’s party in the late 1990s. He is the man, though, who made the gesture of going to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is also the one who – the first to do so in Serbia – shook hands with the former Kosovo guerrilla Hashim Thaçi, his counterpart at the head of a Kosovo that Serbia does not recognise but with which it has agreed to talk, to make it easier to find the path to the European Union. In April the two men signed an agreement on normalising relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The most painful part of that agreement refers to the abandonment of the parallel structures financially supported by Belgrade, which holds together the Serbian minority in Kosovo, in exchange for a community of Serbian municipalities, a kind of autonomy that holds itself apart from the institutions of Kosovo.

The EU acknowledges that Belgrade has begun to play along

This is what led the Serbs, encouraged for the first time ever by Belgrade, to take part in the municipal elections throughout Kosovo on [November 3]. Despite the incidents at polling stations in the north of the divided city of Mitrovica, where voting had to be broken off, the EU acknowledges that Belgrade has begun to play along. "It is crystal clear that Belgrade has made every effort to ensure that these elections were well organised and that turn-out would be strong," said the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt.

In Serbia, the desire for Europe has gone hand in hand with the need for Europe, winning over even the hearts of former nationalists such as Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, current President of SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), aged 43, who was also once a member of the government in the Milošević era. "About 70 per cent of our activists are now pro-European", he notes, even though by his own admission this figure was only 50 per cent when his party was propelled to the head of the government, in coalition with the Dačić’s socialists in June 2012.

Change of mind

It remains to be seen if this change of mind has been accompanied by a change of heart

It remains to be seen if this change of mind has been accompanied by a change of heart. The banning of a Gay Pride march last month under the pretext that it could be attacked by extremists shows the limits of the mellowing. “Nothing has been settled; it’s all just frozen. Serbia is like a country that gets its dose of tranquilizers every evening", Radomir Diklic, one of the founders of the independent news agency Beta, notes bitterly.

Serbia today wants to show that it has something to offer Europe. And that something is not cheap labour, as offered by Bulgaria or Romania, but educated people formed by universities rated relatively highly on the Shanghai list. It is no coincidence that Microsoft has opened a research centre in the Serbian capital that employs 150 young researchers, all winners of awards of excellence in mathematics, or engineers, or holders of doctorates in computer science. The American firm Ball Packaging, with a young Serbian engineer at the head of its Serbian operation, is also about to open an automated plant to produce beverage cans, hoping to ship millions of drinks to Russia, which has concluded free-trade agreements with Serbia.

Finally, Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications firm, has also chosen to invest massively in Belgrade because of "its highly skilled workforce". "The government would have us believe that the Serbia has become a modern country," says Radomir Diklic. "But Belgrade is not Serbia. The rest of the economy has been devastated. When a factory closes, the engineers that leave are followed by teachers. And the schools lose in quality."