Serbia’s Surprising Turn Westward

10 11 2008

12 November 2008

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by World Politics Review]

Over the past eight months, the Serbian government and population have defied conventional wisdom in a number of interesting ways, and together these trends could point to a formula for successful nation building, pioneered by sheer accident and talented improvisation.

In 1999, NATO launched a 10-week bombing campaign in Serbia to end what the West viewed as President Slobodan Milošević’s attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its 90% ethnic Albanian (Muslim) population.  Belgrade soon capitulated to NATO’s demands, withdrew Serb forces from Kosovo and agreed to negotiate a permanent solution with the leaders of its southern province. (Most Serbs want Kosovo to become an autonomous region within Serbia, while most Kosovars have demanded full independence).

In the last nine years, as these sporadic negotiations have fallen apart, Serbs have felt increasingly bitter and humiliated by the pariah-status adorned upon them by the international community for Milosevic’s behavior.  Not only were Serbs compelled to negotiate over land they felt was rightfully theirs, but they watched as their Western mediators became advocates of Kosovo’s self-determination, eventually urging and recognizing Kosovo’s declaration of independence this past February.

The initial reaction among Serbs was fairly predictable: amidst a crowd of 100,000 peaceful protesters (more than 1% of the population), several hundred “extremists” attacked and ignited a number of embassies of Kosovo-friendly governments, doting particular scorn on the Americans, Kosovo’s strongest ally.  Yet for a population that feels chronically misunderstood and humiliated, Serbians seem remarkably passive these days, only eight months later.

Typically, when a hardened and resentful population feels threatened, they close ranks and lean to the right, lifting leaders to power who echo the most confrontational voices of their constituents.  In fact, it was this same tendency that brought Milošević to power in 1989, when Serbs felt that Kosovar Albanians were becoming alarmingly resistant to Serbian sovereignty.  In a preview of Milošević’s scapegoating tactics in Bosnia and Kosovo, he promised that never again would Muslims enslave the Serbian nation.  Unfortunately, most Serbs found his hyper-nationalism comforting and reassuring.

But in May of this year—only three months after officially losing its crown jewel in Kosovo to American and European whims—the Serbian public went the other way and gave the Democratic Party (DS) and President Boris Tadić an even stronger pro-EU coalition.  Remarkably, not only does Tadić avoid the kind of polarizing nationalism to which humiliated populations are so susceptible, but he even explicitly denounces any use of force to retake Kosovo.

So what made a humiliated population so humble and amenable to peace?  Where did all that February anger go?

To start, the defining characteristic of the ruling coalition in Serbia today is its explicit aspirations to join the European Union.  The obvious monetary benefits would do wonders for the Serbian economy, which is still hurting from the calamitous financial decisions made by President Milošević before his ouster in October 2000.  But money alone is an insufficient explanation of Serbia’s humility.

Rather, at the core of the debate is Serbia’s new sense of self-worth.  It usually takes many years for a nation to recover psychologically from being seen as a pariah, especially the nationalist variety.  Identities frequently coalesce and even come to depend on feelings of isolation, which can give rise to a new and even more dangerous breed of nationalism—like Germany between the two World Wars.

But with the rest of the Balkans on track to join the EU and other western institutions, Serbia has been caught in a geopolitical tug of war between the West and Russia—much to Belgrade’s delight, as nothing restores a nation’s ego like playing two super-powers off of each other.  And without a doubt, there was no one better suited to this task than former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica, leader of the centrist Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).

Until May, Koštunica had spent four years dangling the Russian card in front of Washington and Brussels in order to bargain hard over Kosovo and Serbia’s long-term political and energy alliances.  Leading a small but vital contingent in the ruling coalition, Koštunica had tremendous influence over Serbia’s trajectory, especially this past year.

Granted, it was and still is clear to everyone that ultimately Serbia would be better off charting its course towards the EU, but as is often the case, a nation’s pride and principles can supersede its political and economic interests.  For instance, both before and after Kosovo declared independence, more than 70% of Serbs have said that if they were only permitted to enter the EU once they recognized Kosovo, then they would refuse the offer and go it alone.

Fortunately, whether Koštunica was actually indecisive or merely keeping his options open, his apparent opportunism served as a perfect transition for Serbians to become more comfortable joining the club that essentially nurtured their local separatists and bombed them in 1999.  (Of the 27 countries in the EU, 22 are also in NATO).  Without Koštunica’s hard bargaining over the last four years, Serbs today would likely feel that they were being dragged into the EU by President Tadić, rather than freely choosing the EU as the best of several good options.  In other words, the fact that the planet’s most important clubs courted Belgrade for its allegiance endowed Serbs with a sense of self-confidence that brought them in from the cold.

Perhaps the least acknowledged factor in this transition, however, is the effectiveness of aggressive anti-Western rhetoric by all Serbian leaders, no matter their political leanings.  If Koštunica was opportunistic in word and in action, then Tadić has been exceedingly bipolar—eager to convince the EU of Serbia’s credentials, while also taking every opportunity to excoriate Washington, Brussels and other European capitals for their attempts to “blackmail” Serbia into recognizing Kosovo.

And to Tadić’s credit, his performance has been Oscar-worthy.  Typical of his strategic, bipolar candor, one of Tadić’s recent remarks builds like a diatribe from Rambo but ends with the patience of Mother Teresa: “If any country recognizes Kosovo and, thus, contributes to the division of my country and insults the dignity of my people and calls into question my nation’s identity…I will fight for reconciliation.”

Similarly, Tadić’s coalition has been pushing very hard and successfully for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on whether Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was legal.  By appealing to the ICJ, Belgrade hopes that a ruling against Kosovo’s declaration will prevent other countries and institutions from recognizing Kosovo, thus forcing Kosovo’s government in Prishtina back to the negotiating table with Belgrade.

Equally important, however, is that this effort gives Serbs a healthy and confrontational outlet for voicing their continued outrage over losing a core piece of their identity.  To that end, Tadić even instructed his army to keep away from the February rioting in Belgrade, wisely assessing that Serbs desperately needed to vent.  And even with Koštunica’s vital role as a lubricant for EU membership, Serbs need tremendous reassurance that their leadership will never forget their betrayal by Washington and Brussels, and Tadić is fulfilling that need with his vitriol.

Nevertheless, no matter the ICJ outcome, it is hard to ignore the fact that Belgrade is being unruly in a very ‘ruly’ way—akin to civil disobedience on an international scale.  In addition to the ICJ effort, Serbs are civilly protesting the incoming European peacekeeping force (EULEX) on the grounds that it is illegal and unsanctioned by the UN Security Council.  Likewise, nearly every Serbian parliament member has been lambasting The Hague for not holding Albanian militants equally accountable for their role in atrocities against ethnic Serbs during the NATO war.

Thus, by playing by Western democratic norms, Serbs make it very difficult for the EU to justify making the recognition of Kosovo a condition for EU membership.   After years of little or no cooperation from Koštunica, European capitals are still getting accustomed to Tadić’s talented balance of dedicated reform and constructive nationalism.

In contrast, when Koštunica was holding the coalition’s seams together, it would have been a foolish negotiating tactic for European officials to omit the Kosovo clause entirely, as Koštunica would have exploited it.  But now that Koštunica is in the opposition and the entire coalition supports full integration with Europe, Belgrade is moving forward, with or without Kosovo, and Brussels is in a position to listen.

And listen they did, when only weeks after Tadić’s new coalition was formed, Serbia’s internal security services turned over Radovan Karadžić, former leader of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, to The Hague in the Netherlands on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Both implicitly and explicitly, Tadić’s move on Karadžić made a mockery of Koštunica’s claim to ignorance about the fugitive’s location.  But more importantly, this move also demonstrated to the EU that Belgrade was willing, able and eager to make the sacrifices that matter most (especially to the Dutch)—namely, arresting and extraditing war crimes fugitives.

As a result, the EU has been wise to move the goal posts and merely say that the EU “hopes” (not demands) that Serbia will recognize Kosovo.   With that distinction in mind, European officials have allowed the conversation to return to the two remaining Serb fugitives, Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, rather than demand of Serbia a symbolic and humiliating gesture that serves little reconciliatory purpose.

What’s more, Belgrade is unilaterally implementing the reforms necessary for EU membership without the cheap loans from the EU that usually accompany these early stages.  And beneath the cover of hard-nosed negotiations, Tadić has very quietly agreed not to hinder EULEX when it arrives in December, though it will officially protest its “illegal” mandate.

The final factor that has defanged any sustained campaign of violence in Serbia is the opposition’s utter failure to present a coherent alternative.  With Vojislav Šešelj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), at The Hague on trial for war crimes, he reminds most Serbs of their recent past, with all its isolation and precariousness.

Having consistently painted Russia as the most promising long-term ally for Serbia, Šešelj recently lost the support of his popular deputy, Tomislav Nikolić, especially after Russia recognized the independence of Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in late August.  In so doing, Russia proved that its pro-Serb rhetoric about “territorial integrity” was completely insincere.  Only days after Moscow abandoned Serbia, Nikolić resigned from SRS and formed a moderate alternative party that seeks EU membership—beginning with the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), which lays out the specific integration requirements.

The one constant throughout the past nine years in Serbia has been open hostility towards the West, and this has been very difficult for the US and Europe to swallow.  Nevertheless, the focus must be on results, and even setting aside every political shortcoming that Belgrade must rectify to join the EU, the emotional and ideological transformation among Serbs has been unprecedented.   Even with the radicals getting 30% of the parliamentary vote in May, there have been no Serbian uprisings or instances of organized violence of any kind since the initial days after Kosovo’s declaration.

To be sure, Serbian fury over Kosovo has been channeled—not reduced—in a productive and therapeutic manner by talented politicians acting in what they believe to be the best interest of their country.  Koštunica served an invaluable purpose, and in a remarkably short period of time, he restored his nation’s pride in a way Tadić could only emulate.  Now, however, having passed the torch wholly to Tadić, Serbs are in a position to use Western ideals and methods to protest Western policies.

Serbian democracy is alive and kicking.

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