Conceding to Serbia is risky
Conceding to Serbia is risky
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Conceding to Serbia is risky

Josip Broz Tito must be smiling in his grave as Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s nationalist prime minister, takes a page from the late Yugoslav leader’s book to move Serbia back to the future.

Following Tito’s break with Joseph Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia used the west to save itself from the Soviet threat, adopting a neutral posture between east and west once the crisis with Stalin had passed. Mr Kostunica now wants to use Russia to “save” Serbia from the west, or in this case US and European plans for Kosovo’s independence.

This has significant implications for western policy in the Balkans. Russia under Boris Yeltsin ceded the Balkans to the European Union’s sphere of influence, eventually withdrawing its troops from Bosnia and Kosovo.

Recently, however, it has become increasingly assertive in the Balkans, both diplomatically and economically, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has reversed Moscow’s retreat at a time that coincides with Serbia’s need for support over the Kosovo ­question.

Taking advantage of this changed playing field, on September 15 Mr Kostunica proclaimed a new “neutrality” course when he announced that his Democratic party of Serbia, while supporting Serbia’s participation in Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme, would oppose Nato membership.

This has fed growing fears in the EU that Serbia under Mr Kostunica’s leadership will “choose Kosovo over Europe”. The EU is falling over itself to conclude a stabilisation and accession agreement with Serbia, a necessary prelude to membership negotiations, on the theory that “giving something to Serbia” will significantly moderate Belgrade’s hostility to Kosovo’s independence and make easier the task of maintaining European unity during the difficult months of decision-making on Kosovo’s future that lie ahead.

Pressure on Serbia to deliver Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, the indicted Bosnian Serb leaders, to The Hague tribunal has all but evaporated and “conditionality” is not a popular word in Brussels corridors.

But all this is premised on a number of erroneous assumptions: that EU accession is an irresistible silver bullet that will somehow put the werewolf of Serbian nationalism to rest; that Serbia is a necessary guarantor of stability in the Balkans (a logic that was used to prop up Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian leader, in the post-Dayton period, even when it was clear Belgrade was the leading cause of continuing instability in the region); that being tough on Serbia would harm its democratic forces; and that taking a hard line would somehow bring to power the ultra-nationalist Radical party of Vojislav Sesejl, who is also indicted for war crimes.

The political reality in today’s Serbia, however, is that a hard inter­national line is the only political cover Serbia’s “democrats” have and that whenever the west lowers its standards, the “democrats” inevitably suffer and nationalists profit.

The EU should not contemplate backing down either on the handing over of war criminals, or on any of the host of issues that go to the heart of the principles on which the Council of Europe and the EU were founded, including rule of law, judicial reform, economic reform and media and religious ­freedom.

If Brussels holds the line on all these issues, as well as on Kosovo’s independence, Mr Kostunica may well respond by steering Serbia away from the EU, and – with his government’s mandate not set to expire until January 2011 – the west may find itself for some time having no more ability to influence him than it did Tito during the cold war.

But, while it will be several years coming and the west will need to show patience, Mr Kostunica will eventually be forced to pay a price at the polls, with democrats led by Boris Tadic, the current president, ultimately profiting, as Serbs will eventually grow tired of self-imposed isolation. If on the other hand the EU continues to offer concession after concession, Mr Kostunica will be shown to have been justified and he will reap the benefits at the polls, as will Mr Sesejl’s Radical party and Milosevic’s Socialist party of ­Serbia.

Taking a hard-line, take-it-or-leave-it approach to EU standards and membership may mean a “refusalist” Serbia in the short run, but in the longer term the democrats will gain. Failing to do so will mean Serbia having Europe’s cake and eating it too.

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