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Serbia: "Double Trouble"

, James Lyon, The Guardian  |   14 Nov 2007

European right hand, meet European left hand. Now that you've been properly introduced, maybe each of you can find out what the other is doing and come up with a single policy towards Serbia instead of the two diametrically opposed ones you have been pursuing lately.

On October 30, one hand in action, the UK, France, Italy and Germany -along with the US - issued a joint demarche to Serbia criticising its suggestion a few days before that the fates of Kosovo and Bosnia were tied: that if Kosovo became independent, the Dayton Accords might also be questioned, undoing 12 years of difficult and costly international engagement to patch a devastated Bosnia back together.

The other hand then took over last week, as EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn initialled a stabilisation and association agreement with Belgrade, the next step toward membership talks for Serbia, overlooking not only the demarche but also Serbia's continued harbouring of Europe's most wanted men, Bosnian war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

One week chastising Belgrade and the next week rewarding it, Europe's relations with Serbia have seemed guided by two policies rather than one. A single, coherent approach means choosing between them, and considering what is actually going on in the region right now, the right choice is clear.

The sad truth is, Serbia is back in full Balkan bully mode, once more setting fires everywhere, or at least preparing enormous loads of kindling wood, hoping this will somehow prevent Kosovo's independence.

Most worrying is its interference in Bosnia. In the 1990s, Bosnia fell victim to Belgrade's efforts to create a Greater Serbia, with well known results: genocide, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, concentration camps, a brutal three-and a-half-year war and the Srebrenica massacre.

Unfortunately, Belgrade has never really counted its losses - including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and, soon, Kosovo -and learned the hard lesson about where ultra-nationalism leads. Today, it is back to its old tricks, threatening to play the Greater Serbia card again.

Within the last two weeks, Serbia's nationalist premier Vojislav Kostunica - with Russian support - has not only directly linked the fate of Kosovo to that of Bosnia, suggesting that any change in Kosovo would undermine Dayton, but has intervened openly on the side of Bosnia's Serbs in their opposition to the international community's efforts to unblock the reform process. Zeljko Komsic, the Croat president of Bosnia's three-man rotating multi-ethnic presidency warned Kostunica to "keep his fingers out of Bosnia".

Belgrade also meddles openly in Montenegrin politics, actively supporting that country's political opposition in its efforts to block passage of the liberal, western-style constitution that made Montenegro a civic state, rather than an ethnic Serb state. More than a year after Montenegro became independent, Kostunica has yet to acknowledge its independence and permits his top adviser to publicly refer to Montenegro as a "quasi-state", while giving full governmental support to the Serbian Orthodox church in its fight against the Montenegrin Orthodox church. In Macedonia too the Serbian Orthodox church, with the full backing of the Serbian government, has been attempting to destroy the legitimacy of that country's own Orthodox church, as well as undermine its claim to statehood.

Europe's two-policy approach to Serbia, is not helping. The joint demarche to Belgrade's bullying in Bosnia was the right response. There can be no tolerance for the politics of threat and intimidation, which is antithetical to both EU interests and regional stability.

Initialling the stabilisation and association agreement at this time, however, was an EU foreign policy mistake. Since the beginning of SAA talks, Brussels has rightly insisted upon Serbia's full cooperation with The Hague tribunal as a condition for an agreement. True, initialling is a lower level of commitment than signing, but it still represents the EU rewarding Belgrade while Mladic remains at liberty on Serbian soil.

And as if that were not bad enough, this diplomatic gift comes just after Belgrade's threat to the integrity of Bosnia. In the SAA process, the EU has demanded that Serbia exert credible pressure on the Bosnian Serbs so that they cooperate in the creation and running of joint institutions there. That is precisely what Belgrade is not doing, and moving forward on the SAA at this time sends the signal that Serbia's threats toward its neighbours will be tolerated. Thus encouraged by Brussels, Serbia's leaders are likely to offer repeat performances.

The EU doesn't need two policies to address Belgrade's bullying. One consistent policy of zero tolerance for re-emerging bully tactics would suffice.

James Lyon is the senior Balkan adviser and Andrew Stroehlein is the director of media and information at the International Crisis Group.

 
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