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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”)

Kosovo: Partitions Without End

11 December 2007

Kosovo: Partitions Without End

By Gwynne Dyer

“In one hundred days we’ve explored almost every humanly known option for squaring the circle of Kosovo’s status,” said German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger last month, admitting that his three-person mediation team (one American, one Russian, and one from the European Union) had not been able to find a future for the territory that was acceptable both to Serbia and to the Kosovars themselves. Last Monday (10 December), the team reported to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that it had failed, and the count-down began to Kosovo’s independence.

It will be a bumpy ride, and many fear that it may end with renewed war in the Balkans. “Serbia will encourage a mass exodus from the (Serbian minority’s) enclaves (in Kosovo),” predicted Dukagjin Gorani, chief aide to Kosovo’s newly elected prime minister, Hashim Thaci. “They want to win over world opinion, and they know how bad it will look for Kosovo if BBC and CNN are showing convoys of Serbs on tractors leaving home.”

We have seen those pictures before, in 1998-99, although that time it was the Kosovars (Albanian-speaking Muslims) fleeing from Serbian army atrocities. Even then the Kosovars accounted for 90 percent of Kosovo’s two million people, but they had suffered decades of repression by the government in Belgrade. Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their nation, so when Kosovar guerillas attacked the local army garrisons in 1998 they reacted savagely, trying to frighten the majority population into flight.

About half the Kosovars did flee, but after two previous rounds of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia the West had had enough of the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in early 1999 that ultimately forced Milosevic to concede. The Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo, NATO troops took control, and the Kosovar refugees came home – but almost half of the province’s 200,000-strong Serbian minority fled instead.

Now there are only about 120,000 Serbs left in Kosovo, and it is virtually certain that the Serbian government, which vehemently opposes Kosovo’s independence, will tacitly encourage the Serbs living in the more isolated enclaves in Kosovo to flee. Tragic images will fill the television screens once again, and the Balkans will be lucky to escape another round of violence.

But why is there a crisis over independence now? After all, the war was eight years ago. It’s happening because the pressure from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority to break the province’s remaining legal link with Serbia was growing, and the West misjudged Russia.

The United States in particular assumed that the Serbs could be forced to relinquish their claim to Kosovo – President Bush hailed Kosovo’s impending independence on his visit there last June – and that the Russians would reluctantly accept the West’s lead as usual.

Wrong. The Kosovars, strongly backed by the United States, felt no need to compromise on their demand for early independence, but the Serbs turned out to have equally firm backing from Russia and were unwilling to compromise either. Moreover, the Serbs and the Russians have international law on their side.

Foreign military intervention to prevent a genocide, which is what NATO said it was doing in 1999, can be defended on moral grounds, and may even be legal if backed by the UN Security Council (which the 1999 intervention in Kosovo wasn’t, due to Russian and Chinese opposition). But partitioning a sovereign state without its permission, which is what is being done to Serbia now, is against the UN Charter, and would not be legitimate even if the Security Council did approve.

And if you can partition Serbia, then why can’t you also partition the province of Kosovo so that the northern bit around Mitrovica, where almost half of the remaining Serbs live, stays in Serbia? Why can’t you partition Bosnia, so that the 40 percent of the population who are ethnically Serbian (and live on lands that have now been “cleansed” of other ethnic groups) can unite with Serbia itself?

Why can’t you partition Cyprus, so that the Turkish minority get their own country? Why can’t you partition Spain or Romania or Russia, or anywhere that has a restive minority somewhere on its territory? This is why not only Russia, but also European Union members like Cyprus, Spain and Romania, are deeply unhappy about present US and EU policy, and at least in Cyprus’s case will refuse to back it.

There is no good answer. Should the West leave the Kosovars in perpetual limbo, administered by UN bureaucrats and guarded by 16,000 NATO soldiers? No. Force them back under Serbian rule? Unthinkable and undoable. Partition Serbia and give Kosovo its independence, leaving the NATO soldiers there to protect what’s left of the Serbian minority and to stop Serbia itself from intervening? Maybe that’s the least bad option, but it’s still a thoroughly bad one.

And by the way, what the Kosovars, or at least a great many of them, really want is not independence. It is union with Albania. As a Kosovar student leader said this week at a pro-independence demonstration in the capital, Pristina, “independence is itself a compromise.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Now…violence”; and “Why can’t…back it”)