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Running Out of Time in the Balkans

By Elizabeth Pond

It will be a hard sell. But it's important for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to squeeze in a visit to the tiny Balkans the week before the U.S. presidential election. 

Her trip advertises that the West is now putting maximum pressure on the new Serbian government—led by one-time cronies of ultranationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic—to make a U-turn and finally acknowledge (if even tacitly) the reality of Kosovo's independence. 

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, B92 TV reports, will travel with Clinton to reinforce the message: It's time for a bold Nixon-to-China move by Premier Ivica Dacic, head of Milosevic's old Socialist Party, and First Deputy Premier Aleksandar Vucic, the Progressive Party president who started his career in the Radical Party that claimed even more neighboring territory for Greater Serbia than Milosevic himself did. 

If Clinton were frank (which she won't be), she would say that Dacic and Vucic have a golden opportunity to admit that it was Milosevic who forfeited Serbia's century-long rule over Kosovo by his brutal suppression of the province's 90 percent Albanian majority. His security forces killed 10,000, drove 1.4 million ethnic Albanian refugees from their homes, and prompted President Bill Clinton to respond by launching NATO's first war in its half century existence. Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008—under a constitution that guarantees extensive protection to minority Serbs—was only the consequence of Milosevic's bloodletting.

Thirteen years after the Kosovo war and four years after Kosovo's secession, then, the West sees the new Serbian premier and his deputy as precisely the ones who could persuade their followers to drop 19th century territorial grievances and move on.

To be sure, the task of reconciling Serbs to their loss of Kosovo remains formidable. As long as Milosevic was winning military gambles in the 1990s, there was widespread public support for Serb conquest of a third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia. In the folk memory, the dominant narrative of the 1990s wars remains that Serbs were the greatest victims and Kosovo their unfair loss.

Moreover, even after Milosevic was defeated by NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and reformist Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic extradited him to The Hague in 2000 to stand trial for war crimes, Serbia's unreformed security network remained strong. It was complicit in the murder of Djindjic in 2003 as he started to purge criminal gangs from the network. It was instrumental in hiding fugitive General Ratko Mladic for 16 years before the commander of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8000 unarmed Muslim boys and men was finally sent to the Hague. Today, four years after the Kosovar Albanians seceded from Serbia, Belgrade's security forces still run illegal structures in the majority Serbian northern tip of Kosovo. These "parallel structures" have abetted sporadic violence by local Serbs against NATO peacekeepers and the EU rule-of-law mission—and also rampant smuggling by Serb and Albanian gangs that practice exemplary interethnic cooperation. 

At this point the West is not asking Dacic and Vucic to recognize Kosovo's independence. But it is asking them to "normalize" everyday relations with the Kosovo government, to let Pristina participate fully in regional Balkan meetings, stop smuggling, and enforce customs controls at the Serbia-Kosovo dividing line. It is also asking them to dismantle the parallel security structures in northern Kosovo and to nudge Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept the Kosovar constitution and benefit from local self-government, as enclaves of Serbs south of the Ibar River have done.  

One legal model for agreement on this agenda might be a Serbia-Kosovo treaty like the 1972 détente treaty between West Germany and communist East Germany that delicately called the two signatories "entities" rather than "states."

Belgrade's reward for establishing a working relationship with Kosovo would be an agreed date to open negotiations for eventual membership in the European Union and additional EU financial aid beyond the €1 billion paid to Belgrade in the past five years. Joining the EU would give Serbia the chance to catch up with the spectacular gains of post-communist countries like Poland that have joined the EU and tripled their GDP, while Serbia languished.

By contrast, the alternative of continued stonewalling on the Kosovo issue would ensure continued economic stagnation for Serbia. The country dropped to a quarter of its pre-1990s per capita GDP during the Balkan wars and did not recover until 2007. It is still only a third as rich as neighboring Croatia, which has paid the hard price of settling border disputes and prosecuting senior Croatian officials for corruption in order to qualify for EU membership next year.

"There is no alternative," one key European diplomat flatly declares. He pins his hopes on ordinary Serbs' weariness with sacrificing improvements in their living standard to restore Belgrade's rule over Kosovo—and on Dacic and Vucic's newfound pragmatism. In last summer's election campaign, both said that EU membership and economic growth are their top priorities. Since taking office, they have warned their ultranationalist followers that Serbs will have to make (as yet unspecified) tough choices to do so. 

Premier Dacic first showed pragmatism in 2008 by defeating his party's old guard—which, like other ultranationalist parties, held a Serbian application for EU membership hostage to regaining control over Kosovo. He then dragged the Socialists into the coalition government led by the moderate Democratic Party. In 2011, he further demonstrated his pragmatism by approving the arrest and extradition of Gen. Mladic. He is now leading the Serbian side of the new EU-sponsored talks with Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci that began last weekend and will continue in mid-November. 

Deputy Premier Vucic first tiptoed into pragmatism in 2008 when key parliamentarians from the Radical Party split to form a new Progressive Party and repudiated Radicals' founder Vojislav Seselj, who still led the party from a Hague cell while defending himself against charges of war crimes. The Progressives, who managed to crowd the old Radicals out of parliament in this year's election, have been slower to soften their fixation on restoring Serbian rule in Kosovo. They too, however, are adjusting to being part of the government rather than the opposition, and the party leaders, at least, are avoiding inflammatory rhetoric. Vucic, who doubles as defense minister, is now the operational point man for contacts with European and American diplomats.

European diplomats credit Dacic and Vucic's vows of giving EU accession priority. They detect some hints, though, that the pair lack the necessary sense of urgency and do not understand that they must take practical steps toward solving the Kosovo issue in the next six months. If they don't quickly outface their hardline constituents’ resistance to accommodation with Pristina, they may lose this window of opportunity. After nine years of Serbian stonewalling, the EU wants proof of their sincerity—both in reining in its parallel security structures in northern Kosovo and in clamping down down on periodic violence by local Serbs there. 

Otherwise, the EU will not give Belgrade a green light to begin the membership negotiations they long for. "Enlargement fatigue" could engulf both EU member states and Serbia. Support for EU accession has already dipped to 48 percent in Serbia (with 33 percent against), and EU enlargement fatigue could become a factor in Germany’s elections next year. This vacuum could be filled with polarizing violence by Serb extremists and Albanians, who clashed with police in Pristina last weekend to protest the Kosovo government's "treason" in talking with Dacic. 

Western doubt has been triggered in part by public statements by new officials. Last summer President Tomislav Nikolic—who ceded leadership of the Progressive Party to Vucic when he assumed his high but constitutionally non-partisan office—denied that Serbs committed genocide at Srebrenica, despite the Hague Tribunal ruling that they did. He refloated the discredited idea that Kosovo might be partitioned. He also called Vukovar a "Serb" city—an insult to the Croatian city on the Serbian border that, before a savage siege by Serb forces in 1991, had a roughly even mix of Croats and Serbs. 

In recent days, President Nikolic also raised the spectre of a drive for a "Greater Albania" in the Balkans. He told EU officials that it was impossible that any Serb born in the next hundred years would accept independence for Kosovo and Metohija. "We are refusing to accept our territory to be taken away," he said further. "I will sooner step down than allow an entry into the Union without Kosovo."

More positive signals are coming from Dacic and Vucic, however, and they hint at a new flexibility that Clinton and Ashton want to encourage. They have promised that Serbia will shortly negotiate specifics for "integrated border management" and tax collection in lawless northern Kosovo that the moderate outgoing Serbian government agreed to but never implemented. Unlike President Nikolic, they are now reducing their "red lines" to saying Belgrade will never (formally) recognize Kosovo—which, in any case, the West is not demanding.

In successive TV interviews and press conferences about his first meeting with Kosovo Premier Thaci this past week, Dacic stated that "it is time for a historic agreement" and that "Now it is time to talk and look for solutions that are in [our] mutual interest." In the past, Serbia was "slowly losing Kosovo by wasting time from year to year" and isolating itself from the international community. "There are historical crises that are solved [with] time, but if we wait, it will be solved to our detriment." He wants a "quick solution" and does not want to be "like Greece and say that Constantinople is a Greek capital, but it no longer is and they have been saying this for 100 years." And then the capstone from Deputy Premier Vucic: "I am also convinced that Serbia is on the EU pathway and that we will get a date [for the start of negotiations] in June."

The public discourse, too, has taken a new turn recently with an investigative TV series "Patriotic Pillage" that pricks the narrative of poor but noble Serb heroes in north Kosovo. The series lifts the curtain on staunch nationalist Serb mayors of towns in the north to show them pocketing three salaries—one from Pristina, and one from Belgrade doubled by a generous bonus. It also traces funds that are sent from Belgrade to help the needy Serb population in the north, but get diverted to private pockets. And it reminds viewers of the "scandalous abuse" of soup kitchen funds by Bishop Artemije that led to the Serbian Orthodox Church's dismissal of this prominent defender of Serbdom from the eparchy in Kosovo. 

Bill Clinton, it's safe to assume, will be watching the outcome of his wife's farewell trip to Serbia and Kosovo with keen interest.



Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Endgame in the Balkans.

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