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. Read the rest of this entry »

Precedents and Damage Control in Kosovo

15 04 2008

European Affairs
Vol. 9.1, Summer 2008

In matters of foreign policy, Western governments and their officials more often than not take rhetorical refuge in assertions of vague principle. It is nearly impossible for a country, especially a superpower, to declare and implement consistent policies because there are simply too many conventions and traditions that must be honored in the name of comfort and stability. When confronted with any inconsistencies, the natural response for a democratic government is to play dodge-ball, often frantically.

When Costa Rican government officials are asked about their positions on, say, micro-lending in Kosovo, the political fallout of almost any answer would be miniscule, if only because Costa Rica does not have significant political, economic or relational capital in Kosovo. In contrast, as a superpower, the United States has its hand in an infinite number of cookie jars, and inevitably that hand will get stuck. Not only are there more jars around the world in which America inserts itself, but there are more contraptions (money, pride, ideology, tradition) in those jars that can ensnare America’s hand, often over relatively minor concerns whose symbolism seems to take the shape of public policy.

The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo’s development and independence have left many scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo’s status could have on the global order. Given that the intervention, protection and development of Kosovo have each defied convention in various ways, there has been no shortage of curiosity as to what message has been delivered (and to whom) by the heavy international involvement in Kosovo. But what precisely is that message? Who is supposed to hear it, and who is not? Which precedents actually pose a threat, and to whom? And finally, how might these concerns and their inherent inconsistencies translate into future foreign policy?

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Bringing in Serbia from the Cold

9 04 2008

Voice of America
9 April 2008

Video of my VOA interview, aired in Serbia.

Serbia’s International Balancing Act

28 01 2008

Voice of America
28 January 2008

Video of my VOA interview, aired in Serbia.

Next Moves in Kosovo

2 01 2008

Foreign Policy in Focus
2 January 2008

Negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina over the final status of Kosovo have officially failed, and Russia will veto any Western attempt at the UN Security Council to recognize the independence of this Serbian province populated by mostly ethnic Albanians.

At some point during the next three months, the United States and the European Union (EU) will give Kosovo the green light to unilaterally declare its independence.

But a few things must happen before then.

Next Steps for Kosovo

To avoid a repeat of the March 2004 riots, in which ethnic Albanians burned hundreds of Serbian homes and dozens of churches, NATO’s force in Kosovo will have to be certain that they have the right number of troops and that these troops are in all the right places.

The European Union also has to do some house-cleaning in anticipation of replacing the UN peacekeeping force (UNMIK) of roughly 2500 professionals. While nearly all the EU countries will recognize Kosovo’s independence, a handful of its 27 member-states have expressed understandable reluctance given their own internal secessionist conflicts. And while Kosovo’s independence would have greater legitimacy if endorsed by all the EU countries individually and collectively, a far more important European consensus concerns the continued political and economic development of this nominally Serbian province.

For the last eight years, Russia has consistently voted in the Security Council to renew the UN’s nation-building mandate in Kosovo under the condition that final status negotiations continue between Belgrade and Prishtina. If, however, Kosovo unilaterally declares independence, Moscow will likely veto any resolution that takes that independence for granted, including a renewed UN mandate. As a result, as soon as Kosovo declares, UNMIK will become obsolete, and a very large void must be filled very quickly. Read the rest of this entry »

The EU’s New Role in Kosovo

6 12 2007

Voice of America
6 December 2007

Transcript of my VOA Interview, in Serbian.

Separatist Playbooks in Kosovo

15 11 2007
Voice of America
15 November 2007

Transcript of my VOA interview, in Serbian.

If You Give Separatists an Inch….

5 11 2007

Christian Science Monitor
5 November 2007

The NATO intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo’s development and independence have left many analysts and politicians scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo’s final status could have on the global order.

With the looming Dec. 10 deadline for the latest round of negotiations, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Washington will be able to persuade Moscow to endorse Kosovo’s independence at the UN Security Council. Yet Kosovo’s frustrated Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of the province’s population, have hinted that they are on the brink of declaring independence unilaterally, even if it means renewed conflict with Belgrade.

Ultimately, in our international system, a nation’s “independence” is little more than the rest of the world’s willingness to recognize it as independent. So, even if Moscow vetoes Kosovo’s bid for independence, Kosovo can still enjoy some of the benefits of being an independent country. These benefits become more substantial with every state that recognizes Kosovo. Similarly, the likelihood of renewed violence would decrease if other countries viewed Kosovo’s self-defense as legitimate.

This means, however, that because negotiations are likely to fail, Washington has been encouraging, and will continue to encourage, foreign governments to support a technically illegal, self-declared, independent Kosovo in the event that negotiations collapse. Yet this kind of persuasion does not come easily.

There are more than 50 separatist conflicts across the globe, and few of the governments that have endured the bane of irredentism will be eager to recognize Kosovo if such a precedent could come back to haunt them.

Echoing countless other US and European officials, Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responded to such concerns in February with the following logic: “Kosovo is a unique situation because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations, not by Serbia. UN Council Resolution 1244 also stated that Kosovo’s final status would be the subject of negotiation. Those conditions do not pertain to any of the conflicts that are usually brought up in this context.”

Unfortunately, Washington’s “unique” talking points are actually engraving a separatist playbook in stone, blazing a glorious trail that separatists will follow with greater determination, recruits, and (in all likelihood) success.

Separatist regions like the Basque Country or Abkhazia might not resemble Kosovo right now – as Washington is quick to note – but by so explicitly stating the merits of Kosovar self-determination and independence, Washington is essentially creating an innovative code, only to make the cipher publicly available. Current and future separatists merely have to manufacture the same conditions and sequencing that have compelled the West to embrace an independent Kosovo: terrorize locals, invite government crackdowns, incite a rebellion, and lure in foreign intervention and commitment to rebuild.

Once militants get this far, Kosovo will no longer be unique – even by Washington’s peculiar standards – and areas that share Kosovo’s characteristics will be equally deserving of independence. The horrid irony, of course, is that declaring Kosovo’s uniqueness has been Washington’s deliberate attempt to prevent future separatism, but it is inadvertently teaching militants how to navigate the complex inconsistencies of geopolitics. In fact, the more thorough and persuasive Western governments are about Kosovo’s “uniqueness,” the more legitimate separatists’ ambitions become, if only they follow the Kosovo model.

Not only, then, has Washington had a hard time selling Kosovo’s independence to all but its closest allies, but the very basis for that appeal is even more threatening to governments that would face invigorated separatism in the wake of an independent Kosovo – even if that independence is informal and technically illegal.

With the “unique” endorsement, Washington and a few European capitals close even more rhetorical doors that they will need to slip through when the time comes to reject separatist analogies in the future, and our failure to anticipate these complicated roadblocks will cost our allies more than anyone else.

[View this Op-Ed at CS Monitor]

Srebrenica’s Mass Graves & Mass Funerals

22 07 2007

Arab News (Saudi Arabia)
22 July 2007

For a witness soaking up the remnants of a war gone by, a funeral for 465 people is a surreal experience. But for the inheritors of a genocide just outside the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, it has become an annual ceremony that brings horror and closure in equal measure.

Unlike the anniversary of most tragedies, every year in Srebrenica, hundreds of Muslim families are told that some of the human remains recently discovered in mass graves belong to their son, father, brother or husband.

Among the nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were systematically killed by nationalist Serbian forces in July 1995, less than half have been identified through forensic testing, and many of the graves have yet to be located.

The families lucky enough to be released from the torture of not knowing stood graveside with one another and, on this 12th anniversary of the massacre, buried the remains of 465 men and boys in a matter of a few minutes. Last year’s total was 505.

The task was daunting enough for the memorial site to hire helpful ushers dressed in bright yellow to guide families to their respective minifunerals. The efficiency of the day’s events, which included a collective Muslim prayer for mourners, seemed to be as systematic as the genocide itself. Because the victims’ remains have taken years to identify, or were only discovered in the last 12 months, the green coffins were shorter, narrower and lighter than most — holding little more than bones and perhaps a few torn pieces of clothing. These graves were dug so closely to one another that mourners had no choice but to step on the dirt mounds from previous years’ burials as they navigated the graveyard, clutching the obelisk headstones to keep their balance in the muddy soil.

Yet not only was their efficiency startling, but everything the families and mourners did was virtually synchronized, like a factory assembly line. For twenty minutes, in a sea of nearly 50,000 people, the only sounds were the scraping of dirt on thousands of shovels and the thuds of soil settling in the graves. Many elderly women fainted during the mass funeral, and nearby men carried them to the memorial’s first-aid station, valiantly trying to fill a void left by so many murdered sons and fathers.

The women of Srebrenica have become accustomed to burying loved ones in this collective and annual ritual. Male family members from nearby towns were equally ready, informally dressed in T-shirts, jeans and raincoats, in anticipation of the grueling work of interring the dead. At first glance, the men could have been plowing a field for crops, but the wailing grandmothers were unmistakable. Many of the women were actually too young to be grandmothers, but three years of war in the early 1990s — which ended shortly after Srebrenica’s massacre — has left their faces worn and weary.

The only sight that might have seemed out of place was the occasional elderly woman, kneeling over the grave of her son or husband from a previous year’s burial. With most of the attention focused on the graveyard’s new arrivals, these were the only mourners who grieved alone. One mother sat alone in the dirt, clawing at the muddy earth, tilling the ground that covered her 22 year-old-son’s final resting place, perhaps to reclaim a lost memory.

Only 20 feet away, another mother looked around desperately for support, but she too was alone. She said that all the men in her life lay beneath her feet.

After burying her father, one woman’s family together moved ten steps to the left and proceeded to bury her youngest son, whose remains, she said, were found next to his grandfather’s in a mass grave down the road. Burying her son and her father on the same day, 12 years after they were killed, did not seem particularly strange to any one in the family. It seemed that the digging ritual had pleased the gods enough to warrant a torrential downpour. People finished their tasks and quickly said goodbye to family members. Their job was done. The rain provided the families of Srebrenica with just enough sustenance until next year’s drought. The consensus seemed clear. There are many more seeds to sow in Srebrenica, and many more fields to raise.

[View this Report at Arab News]

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