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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.


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

Serbia: When the Sulking Stops

17 May 2008

Serbia: When the Sulking Stops

By Gwynne Dyer

The rhetoric before the Serbian parliamentary election on 11 May was ugly enough, but it has got worse since. President Boris Tadic spun the outcome as a victory for the pro-European Union forces when only half the votes were counted, which served his purposes as he is also the leader of the main pro-EU party, the Democratic Party. But when all the votes were counted it turned out that 48 percent of Serbs had voted anti-EU, and only 44 percent pro-EU. (The rest voted for various small ethnic-minority parties.)

This doesn’t mean that the anti-EU, pro-Moscow forces will actually form the next government, because thirty parties ran in the elections and many different coalitions are theoretically possible. The negotiations between the parties are getting quite complicated, which is why President Tadic complained about “sickening post-election mathematics (that) betray the will of the citizens and dramatically change the strategic course of the country.” In other words, he fears that his side may not form the winning coalition.

The swing party whose choice will ultimately decide the shape of the next government is the Socialist Party, once the political vehicle of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose pan-Serbian ambitions plunged former Yugoslavia into a decade of war. Since Milosevic died while on trial for war crimes before the United Nations tribunal at The Hague, the Socialists have been trying to reposition their party, but their deepest instincts are certainly anti-EU.

For the moment, the Socialists are talking about a coalition with the ultra-nationalist Radical Party (whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial at The Hague on war crimes charges) and the right-wing Serbian Democrats. All three parties dislike the European Union, admire Russia, refuse to accept the independence of Kosovo, and will not surrender war criminals to the Hague tribunal. So you’d think it would be an easy deal to strike, but it’s not.

As Boris Tadic put it, a socialist-nationalist coalition would probably be “a short trip on the Titanic.” A country with a stagnant economy and 18 percent unemployment really needs the influx of aid and investment that the EU can provide and Russia cannot . Moreover, some of the Socialists, whose 20 seats in parliament are indispensable to any coalition, want to remake their party as a modern, moderate left-wing party that would not be out of place in any EU member country.

That ambition would incline them towards a coalition deal with Tadic’s Democratic Party, which is why the Radical leader recently warned Tadic to keep his party’s “Mafioso, thieving, criminal” hands off the talks between the extreme nationalist parties and the Socialists. It really isn’t possible to predict how long the horse-trading will last, or what kind of Serbian government will emerge from these negotiations. The only safe prediction is that the next government will indulge in much wishful thinking (or just plain hypocrisy) about Kosovo.

Kosovo province was the cradle of Serbian nationhood in early medieval times, but now 90 percent of its two million people are Muslim Albanians who would rather die than live under Serbian rule. Serbia lost Kosovo nine years ago, after Milosevic’s savage repression there caused NATO and the EU to wage a brief war to force Serbian troops out, and its formal independence early this year was inevitable (although illegal under international law).

It’s over: Kosovo is not coming back. But no Serbian politician can publicly admit this and survive, so even Tadic, who wants Serbia to join the European Union, must pretend that getting Kosovo back is a condition of membership. Serbia’s wound is admittedly fresher, but it’s as if Mexican elections were dominated by the question of how to get California back, or German elections by the lost provinces of Silesia and East Prussia.

The EU really wants Serbia to join, not because it has any great economic or strategic value but because if the nationalist fever struck there again it could still destabilise the whole Balkans. Just before the election Brussels signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (the first step towards EU membership) with the caretaker government in Belgrade to show Serbian voters that they really were welcome in Europe. But the EU will not yield on its demand that Serbia hand the war criminals over, which may queer the whole deal.

Many Serbs believe that their alternative is a close relationship with Moscow, which is outraged by the West’s disregard for international law. Russians do have a genuine emotional attachment to Serbia, so the word “friendship” is not entirely out of place. But great powers do not have friends; they have interests — and Russia’s interests do not include getting into a major confrontation with the West over Serbia. It will be sympathetic to Serbia, but not very helpful.

So there is no crisis. Serbia will get a pro-EU government that gets on with negotiating the country’s membership, or it will get a socialist-nationalist coalition that takes “a short trip on the Titanic.” But even the Serbs are not ready for another war, so it will be a purely Serbian shipwreck — and then there will be another election (the ninth since 2000) and they will try to get the right answer again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Kosovo…Prussia”)

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

21 March 2008

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Last month Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and most of the NATO countries recognised it. Russia condemned this as an illegal and dangerous precedent, and hinted that it might recognise other breakaway states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But early next month Russian President Vladimir Putin will show up at the NATO summit in Bucharest, in one of his last official acts before passing power to the president-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He will not have recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He was only bluffing.

It sounded serious at first. Early this month, Russia ended the trade restrictions it placed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia when they declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Moscow is very angry about the way that NATO and the European Union have dismantled Serbia without permission from the United Nations, and it wanted to make a point.

Georgia accused Russia of “an undisguised attempt to infringe the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, to encourage separatism,” but all Moscow actually did was to ease the rules on trade between the two would-be countries and Russia. It did not officially recognise them as independent states, and it never will.

The back-story is that when the Soviet Union replaced the Russian empire in 1917, its new Communist rulers rationalised the patchwork quilt of smaller nationalities they inherited in the Caucasus and Central Asia into “republics” that formally respected the principle of national self-determination. But they never actually became independent, of course, and Moscow didn’t want to have to deal with dozens of them directly.

So the republics were ranked in three tiers, with fifteen “Union republics” (including Russia itself) as the top tier. The lower tiers, having been granted “autonomy”, were bundled into one or another of the Union republics, with Russia getting the lion’s share of them. Georgia got several of them, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 it expected to keep them. However, the locals had other ideas.

By then massive immigration into Abkhazia, a subtropical area on the Black Sea coast, had reduced the Abkhaz ethnic group to only one-fifth of the population. Over half the 550,000 people living in Abkhazia in 1991 were Georgians. But in two years of vicious fighting an Abkhaz militia, backed by volunteers from other parts of the north Caucasus (and perhaps also secretly by Russia), drove out the Georgian army and most of the Georgian civilians as well.

It was unapologetic ethnic cleansing, conducted by a tiny nationality (less than 100,000 people) who feared that they were disappearing under an avalanche of immigrant foreigners. Now two-thirds of the previous residents of Abkhazia have fled, including all but a few tens of thousands of Georgians, and the Abkhaz are a large majority of the remaining population. But nobody recognises the independence of their heavily armed little state.

Russia does not like the current Georgian government, which talks about joining NATO and the European Union. But Moscow has not recognised Abkhazia’s independence (or South Ossetia’s) because that would be a precedent that could be used by ethnic minorities in other “autonomous republics” in Russia itself. And there is a bigger problem, too.

What horrifies the Russians about many recent actions of the United States and some its European allies — the war against Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the creation of an independent Kosovo in 2008 — is that they are deliberately tearing up the United Nations Charter, the rules that the victorious powers drew up at the end of the Second World War in the hope of avoiding further great-power wars.

Attacking the UN is often popular in the United States. Republican presidential candidate John McCain now talks about a League of Democracies that would effectively bypass the UN (and would presumably authorise its members to invade anybody who needed a lesson). President George W. Bush acts as though such a vigilante outfit already exists.

The Russians, who lost forty million killed in the last world war, think that this is a very bad idea. They are right. If the great powers were ever to go to war again, the nuclear weapons would come out and hundreds of millions would die.

The United Nations’ core rules are that no country can attack another, and that the whole international community will defend and preserve the existing borders of every UN member. These rules creates much injustice, especially when oppressed minorities are seeking independence from intolerant majorities, but they are probably necessary. They have certainly been useful: no great power has fought another directly since 1945.

Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, even if most of its people didn’t want anything to do with Serbia. Giving it independence without Serbia’s assent and in defiance of the UN rules suits the Western great powers for the moment, but it undermines those essential UN rules that were invented to bring some order to international affairs.

If Russia one day recognises Abkhazia’s independence without Georgian consent and Security Council approval, it will mean that Moscow has finally lost its faith in international law and accepted that the world has reverted to jungle. For the moment it’s just bluffing, but to no avail. The historically challenged dwarves who currently run foreign policy in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin don’t even understand what really troubles the Russians.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“It was…state”; and “Attacking…die”)

Kosovo: The Least Bad Option?

4 February 2008

Kosovo: The Least Bad Option?

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Serbian presidential election on Sunday was a near-run thing, but in the end the good guy won. Not that President Boris Tadic is all that wonderful, but he positively glows with virtue in contrast to his opponent Tomislav Nikolic, an ultra-nationalist who served as a government minister under strongman Slobodan Milosevic and has been accused of war crimes during the Serbian occupation of eastern Croatia in the 1990s. Tadic ended up with 50.5 percent of the votes to Nikolic’s 47.7 percent.

This means that the elaborately choreographed diplomatic dance to give Kosovo its independence can go ahead without unleashing a Balkan war, for Tadic, while he opposes Kosovo’s independence as much as any other Serb, has promised not to use force to stop it. The European Union took the first step in the dance the day after the Serbian election, announcing that an EU “peace and justice mission” made up of 1,800 European police and legal officials will take the place of the existing United Nations mission in Kosovo.

A good many of these officials are already in Kosovo wearing UN hats, but they have to change headgear because what’s about to happen in Kosovo is illegal under UN rules. Although more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people are Albanian-speaking Muslims (Kosovars), the province has legally been part of Serbia since 1912. Even if the Russians were not there to veto Kosovo’s independence, the UN Security Council has no authority to dismantle a sovereign state.

So it is being done outside the UN rules. Indeed, almost everything in Kosovo in the past decade has been done outside UN rules, including the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1998-99 that forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw the Serbian army from the province. There was strong humanitarian justification, for Milosevic was applying the same brutal ethnic cleansing tactics to the Kosovars that he had previously used against the Croatians and the Muslims of Bosnia, but the NATO campaign was illegal under international law.

The subsequent military occupation of Kosovo by 16,000 NATO troops (who are still there) got some legal cover when Russia supported a Security Council resolution setting up KFOR, as the force is now known. But Moscow never envisaged Kosovo as an independent country — and to be fair, neither did the NATO countries at the start.

NATO’s brief air war against Serbia nine years ago was not really a calculated thing. It was a final, exasperated lashing out against the demonic Milosevic, who had been sponsoring bloody campaigns of ethnic cleansing against various non-Serbian peoples of former Yugoslavia for almost a decade.

But the big NATO countries that drove the policy (if you can call it that) had no clear idea what they would do with Kosovo afterwards. That left the field clear for the Kosovars themselves, who almost unanimously wanted independence from the hated Serbs.

The NATO powers were mindful of the need to protect the Serbian minority (about 5 percent of the population) that still remains in Kosovo, but basically they accepted the US and British position that the occupation could only be ended by granting Kosovo independence. If that means the partition of the sovereign nation of Serbia, so be it.

George W. Bush and Tony Blair didn’t much care about international law and the authority of the UN, or else they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. It all seemed quite straightforward to them. But this policy did cause anxiety among NATO members like Cyprus and Spain, where the notion that aggrieved ethnic groups with a local majority can simply dismantle long-established states — and get international support for the enterprise — set off all the local alarm bells. It did the same in Russia, which has plenty of aggrieved minorities of its own.

Once the Kosovars had open Western support for full independence, they had no incentive whatever to make compromises with the Serbs, so two years of UN-backed negotiations on some halfway-house deal that would save Serbian face failed conclusively late last year. Russian opposition made a UN resolution authorising Kosovo’s independence impossible.

So the UN mission in Kosovo is being turned into an EU mission, and in a week or two Kosovo will unilaterally declare its independence (with promises of security for the Serb minority, of course). The big EU countries will all recognise Kosovo’s independence at once. The Serbs and the Russians can complain all they want, but they won’t do anything. And that’s the end of the story, apart from the collateral damage to international law and the West’s relationship with Moscow.

The Serbs and Russians probably won’t do anything. Tadic’s narrow re-election victory was helped along by EU promises of more aid for Serbia, visa-free travel in Europe for Serbian citizens, and the prospect of eventual EU membership, and he won’t resort to force. The Russians will be furious, but they have no means of stopping it. It’s a shabby, shady business, but at this point it may be the least bad solution to an insoluble problem.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“NATO’s…decade”; and “George…own”)