Serbia's Stain Lingers
Serbia's Stain Lingers
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Serbia's Stain Lingers

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has let the nationalist genie out of the bottle and may be unable to put it back anytime soon. This will have serious repercussions for Serbia's relations with the European Union and the United States, Montenegro's independence referendum, the future status of Kosovo and cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.

By providing Slobodan Milosevic with a state funeral in all but name, Mr. Kostunica disgraced Serbia and demonstrated his commitment to preserving Mr. Milosevic's legacy and interpretation of history. Mr. Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell in The Hague on March 11. He had been on trial for war crimes.

Once again, Mr. Kostunica willingly accommodated Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which supports his right-wing minority government, while ignoring Serbia's pro-Western democratic forces, which he has kept out of government.

The lack of a clear response from Serbian President Boris Tadic, leader of the Democratic Party, was symptomatic, as was the failure of leading democratic politicians to appear at a spontaneously organized anti-Milosevic rally the day of the March 18 funeral.

The funeral served as a symbolic passing of the torch from the SPS to the extremist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by Hague indictee Vojislav Seselj, and it will certainly hasten the Radicals' rise to power. The two parties now have a combined popularity of nearly 50 percent that has been stoked by the humiliation Serbs feel because of The Hague's tribunal.

But the Radicals won't come to power immediately, even though they could. They, like Mr. Tadic's Democratic Party, are afraid of the popular backlash from the "triple whammy" that will come from losing Kosovo and Montenegro and turning over wartime Gen. Ratko Mladic to The Hague.

They are willing to let Mr. Kostunica remain in office and take the blame until these unpopular issues are resolved. In the meantime, they will make life as difficult as possible for the government while watching their popularity increase and making cooperation with The Hague more difficult.

Europe and the United States should have resolved these three issues long ago: Kosovo in 1999, Montenegro in 2000 and Hague cooperation in 2001.

But their unwillingness to push Serbia in these matters means that the three issues will increase the Radicals' popularity. The EU and United States must also share blame for the rise of the Radicals because they gutted assistance to democracy-building and civil society after Mr. Milosevic's overthrow.

This permitted the nationalists to continue propagating the Milosevic-era anti-Western messages that Serbia is a victim and unjustly suffered more than anyone else in the conflicts of the 1990s, particularly at the hands of the West. Unfortunately, this mindset is shared by much of Serbia's "democratic" political elite.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Kostunica will turn General Mladic over to the tribunal anytime soon, especially since the Radicals are introducing a resolution on The Hague to the Serbian parliament that will make cooperation extremely difficult. A lack of cooperation will result in a possible suspension of EU membership talks this month and of U.S. assistance at the end of May.

Increasingly visible Serbian nationalism and worsened relations with the EU and United States will strengthen arguments for Kosovo independence. It will also strengthen Montenegro's pro-independence forces and ensure that republic's exit from the dysfunctional union with Serbia in May. Montenegro recently took control of the armed forces on its territory away from Belgrade.

The long-term impact on Serbian politics will to a great extent depend on whether the EU and United States are willing to try to win back the hearts and minds of Serbia's population, which will mean increasing long-term funding for civil society development and democratization.

Unfortunately, in the short term, there is little that can be done to prevent the SRS from taking power. Symbolically, even after his death, all of Serbia is poised once again to become Mr. Milosevic's victim.

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