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Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Redemption in Kosovo

“The signs of collusion between the criminal class and the highest political and institutional office holders are too numerous and too serious to be ignored,” concluded the report submitted to the Council of Europe in December, 2010. The name of Hashim Thaci, then prime minister of Kosovo and former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was mentioned 27 times in 27 pages.

Hashim Thaci is still prime minister of Kosovo. Indeed, he has just been re-elected to the job, although the turnout was a feeble 42 percent. The European Union and NATO, the two organisations that helped the Kosovars free themselves from Serbian rule, seem quite happy about his victory – and even the Serbian government urged the Serbian minority who still live there to vote in Kosovo’s election. So redemption is possible, after all.

Thaci might have turned out to be a mild-mannered accountant if he had been born in a different era, but he came to adulthood just as the independence struggle of the Albanian-speaking majority in Kosovo was coming to the boil. He joined the KLA, and after several rivals suffered unfortunate accidents he emerged as the undisputed leader.

Revolutionary movements need money, especially if they include an armed wing, and since they have no legal sources of income, they must resort to crime. They rob banks; they blackmail people and kidnap them for ransom; they smuggle stuff, including drugs. Whether their cause is good or bad, they have almost all done it: the Taliban, the Irish Republican Army, Boko Haram, ETA, FARC and the KLA.

Hashim Thaci certainly did it all. In fact, you could argue that he overdid it. After NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 forced Slobodan Milosevic’s government to evacuate all the Serbian troops from Kosovo and a United Nations administration backed by NATO peacekeeping troops took over, the time for fighting – and illicit fund-raising methods – was over. But Thaci just kept going.

The KLA was renamed the Kosovo Protection Corps, and used intimidation and occasional assassinations to gain control of almost all the municipal governments in the country. A recent report on corruption in Kosovo by BND, the German intelligence service, noted that “The key players (including…Thaci) are intimately involved in inter-linkages between politics, business, and organised crime structures in Kosovo.”

The Council of Europe report of 2010 says bluntly: “In confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combatting drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci…as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics. Thaci and [other former KLA members] are consistently named as ‘key players’ in intelligence reports on Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organised crime.”

That report, commissioned after the chief prosecutor for war crimes at the Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from investigating senior KLA officials, also contained details about the KLA’s fund-raising methods just after the fighting ended in 2000. The most shocking was the allegation that some Serbian prisoners held by Thaci’s faction of the KLA were killed in order to harvest their organs for sale abroad.

The report found that Thaci’s people held Serb captives in six detention facilities in Albania, and that a “handful” were transferred to Tirana, where they were killed for their kidneys. “As and when the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the captives were brought out of the ‘safe house’ individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic.”

The human rights rapporteur who wrote the Council of Europe report, the Swiss lawyer Dick Marty, subsequently admitted that he had no evidence directly linking Thaci with the organ trafficking, but if you’re the boss, you have to accept at least a share of the blame. So why is this suspected war criminal and big-time crime boss being welcomed as Kosovo’s legitimate leader by all the European countries, including even Serbia?

Two obvious reasons are that he won the election, and that he doesn’t actually face any outstanding criminal charges. But the deeper reason is that Serbia wants to join the European Union.

The European Union wants it too: it’s important to bring the Serbs into the club and not leave them feeling bruised and resentful about the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even if they were largely responsible for them. However, Serbia cannot join the EU until it accepts that the breakaway province of Kosovo is gone forever and recognises its leader as legitimate. The EU does not accept applicants with unresolved border disputes. (Ukraine please note.)

And this also means, by the way, that the EU has to accept Kosovo as a legitimate candidate for membership even under its current leader. Both the EU and Serbia would certainly prefer the prime minister of Kosovo to be somebody a bit more presentable, but the Kosovars keep electing Hashim Thaci, albeit with a small and dwindling turnout of voters. And maybe he really has changed.

Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you, and maybe even some of the present too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The KLA…Kosovo” and “The report…clinic””)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.

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Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

23 July 2010

Kosovo: Sauce for the Goose…

By Gwynne Dyer

Just before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, warned that in Africa alone “there are about fifty Kosovos waiting to happen.” The fifty African wannabes can take heart, as the International Court of Justice has just ruled that Kosovo’s action was not illegal, as international law contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence.”

The International Court of Justice is a conservative body whose judges are almost evenly split between those whose home countries have recognised Kosovo’s independence and those that have not, but ten of the fourteen judges on the panel voted for the ruling. The ruling does not oblige other countries to recognise Kosovo’s independence – but it definitely shifts the balance in favour of secession.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: minorities seeking independence anywhere will be encouraged by the court’s ruling. Five of the European Union’s 27 members refuse to recognise Kosovo precisely because they fear that their own minorities might use its independence as a precedent: Cyprus (Turkish Cypriots), Greece (Macedonian Turks), Slovakia (Hungarians), Romania (also Hungarians), and Spain (Catalans and Basques).

Further afield, China worries about Tibet and Xinjiang and Russia frets about all sorts of potential secessionist movements (20 percent of Russia’s population are minorities), so both countries sternly condemn Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. In fact, only 69 countries have recognised Kosovo. Countries with restive minorities of their own have not, and it is therefore still not a member of the United Nations.

There is an old legal adage that “hard cases make bad law,” and that is certainly at work in Kosovo. The Kosovars, who were 90 percent of the population before the 1999 war and now account for 95 percent, are Albanian-speaking Muslims who were mercilessly oppressed by the ultra-nationalist Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic abolished the autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia, and by the late 1990s his troops and police were regularly beating, jailing and killing Kosovars whom they suspected of seeking its restoration. He drove some Kosovars into a guerilla war against the Serbian regime, and then killed around 10,000 people in an indiscriminate attempt to terrorise the Kosovars into submission.

The Kosovars were not saints in all this, but they obviously owe no allegiance to a state that treated them in such a vile manner. In the end, in 1999, the United States and the European members of NATO decided that Serbian behaviour was intolerable, and waged an eleven-week war of aerial bombardment to force Serbian troops to evacuate Kosovo. Then they occupied it – and started looking for a way to leave.

The only way to get out was to create a sovereign Kosovo state, with protection for the rights of the remaining Serbian minority (now just 120,000 out of two million). When Serbia steadfastly refused to accept the independence of a province it sees as the cradle of the nation – “our Jerusalem,” in Vuk Jeremic’s words – the US and the major European countries told the Kosovars that they could declare their independence unilaterally.

Kosovo could not reasonably be expected to stay in Serbia after all that has happened, but it is a hard case, and it makes bad law. Or at least, it changes the law in ways that we may regret.

The International Court of Justice is right: international law does not ban declarations of independence. But the deal that underlies the creation of the United Nations, and that has spared us from great-power wars (and probably quite a few smaller wars) over the past sixty-five years, does forbid any changes in the borders of UN members that are imposed by force.

That deal is embedded in the UN Charter: thou shalt not change a border by force. What they really intended in 1945 – quite understandably, given what they had just been through – was to stop cross-border wars of aggression. In practice, however, the Charter has also been used to delegitimise unilateral declarations of independence all over the world.

Once upon a time, a breakaway province could establish its independence simply by demonstrating that it controlled all of its territory and had established a viable government. That is no longer true. The UN has become a trade union of the existing sovereign states, operating as a closed shop and refusing to recognise secessions even after they have succeeded in fact.

It was a largely unintended side effect of the UN Charter, and although it has suppressed violence in some places, it also helped to perpetuate terrible injustices in many others. The decision of the International Court of Justice undermines this interpretation of the Charter, and probably means that more secessions actually succeed in the end.

Whether that is a good thing or not depends on which side of the fence you are on, but it probably means more violence, at least in the short term.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The International…secession”; and “Once…fact”)

Karadzic: A Victim of Soft Power

24 July 2008

Karadzic: A Victim of Soft Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

Radovan Karadzic’s disguise was quite elaborate, but he didn’t spent the past thirteen years hiding from the Serbian authorities. They knew where he was all along. Only ten days after the government changed, the police plucked him off the 73 bus that he rode to work every day and started the process of extraditing him to The Hague to face the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So why was Karadzic in disguise, then? Because he was a compulsive showman who always sought the limelight, and hiding in obscurity was driving him crazy. The disguise, the false name, the whole different persona were a way for him to resume a public life (as an alternative medicine “healer”), not a way of hiding from the state security and intelligence services. They were actually protecting him from the agents of the international court, because that was usually what the Serbian government wanted.

It was certainly what Slobodan Milosevic, the main author of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, wanted. Until he was overthrown by a bloodless revolution in 2000, all the ultra-nationalists who had set out “cleanse” non-Serbs from the Serbian-inhabited parts of former Yugoslavia were safe from the UN tribunal in The Hague, including Karadzic and his chief collaborator in the murder of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, General Ratko Mladic.

But Milosevic was overthrown because he had lost the wars and ruined the economy, not because he had sponsored a genocide. Even today, fully a third of the Serbian population believes that Serbs are the innocent victims of foreign plots, not the citizens of a state that set out “cleanse” non-Serbs from all the parts of former Yugoslavia where there was a substantial Serbian population. And the new president who sent Milosevic and a couple of his close allies off to face trial at The Hague, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated by a Serbian extremist in 2003.

Serbia was sinking into the role of a pariah state — even Montenegro voted to separate from it in 2006 — but nobody in power was able to make a clean break with the past by denouncing the genocide and handing its other chief actors, like Karadzic and Mladic, over to the international court.

Other parts of former Yugoslavia joined the European Union (Slovenia) or at least became candidates for membership (Croatia and Macedonia). Their economies began to take off as EU funds flowed in, and foreign investment followed because they now seemed like good, stable places to invest. All the while, Serbia sat in the corner muttering to itself about how unfair it was and clinging to its self-justifying myths about the past.

Indeed, in recent years it seemed likely that none of the major Serbian perpetrators of the genocide would be punished at all. Milosevic died before he could be convicted, and Serbia wasn’t handing over any more suspects even though it was increasingly beset by isolation and poverty. Then came the parliamentary election of ten weeks ago. It was not a sweeping rejection of the nationalists and their obsessions, but it did create the mathematical possibility of a coalition government in Belgrade that rejected the past.

It took two months, but early this month a government emerged (with much help from President Boris Tadic) that was willing to move against the Serbian war criminals. Led by Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, it has already “found” Radovan Karadzic, and before long it may also find General Mladic and the Serb responsible for the worst atrocities in Croatia, Goran Hadzic. What is motivating it to act so decisively, and why are so many Serbs now willing to go along with it?

Two letters: EU. The Serbs are tired of being out in the cold, and they want back into Europe. They want the prosperity, the constitutional stability, the democracy, the rule of law that seem to flourish almost magically in countries that join the European Union. And EU diplomats have made it very clear to the Serbs that there will be no discussions about membership until Serbia hands over its war criminals.

What got Karadzic, in the end, was the “soft power” of the European Union: the immense attraction of belonging to a continent-wide organisation that really does deliver such benefits to its members. It’s a cumbersome organisation and frequently criticised for good reasons, but it offers Serbia a way back into civilised society. Under Tadic and Cvetkovic, it is taking that route at last.

The EU is playing hardball: no formal discussions on membership until the other two “most wanted” men, Mladic and Hadzic, are also handed over to The Hague for trial. But meeting that demand should not even cause the Serbian security and intelligence people to break out in a sweat, because they surely must know their whereabouts day and night. Then, the Serbs reckon, it’s one year to candidate membership status, and five years to full membership.

Genuine repentance for all the horrors that Serbia inflicted on its partners in former Yugoslavia would be nice, but it’s too soon to hope for that. Radovan Karadzic in chains will have to do.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Serbia…past”)