OPINION

End games in Europe’s powder keg

Unfortunately the opinion polls got it right this time. On January 20, fears grew that Serbia could be dragged further away from Europe and the ever elusive path to normalization as Serbs gave the acting leader of the extreme-nationalist Radicals a first-round victory in the country’s presidential election. Tomislav Nikolic, the former head of a provincial cemetery that won him the sobriquet «the gravedigger,» eclipsed the country’s pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic with a five-point lead. Now Nikolic, a former ally of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, threatens to bury Serbia’s EU prospects. A runoff vote is scheduled for February 3. Meanwhile, the person for whom he is standing in, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial at The Hague for war crimes committed during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. Not the best of records for the Radicals. Nearly two years after his death, Milosevic’s legacy looms large over the troubled Balkan nation that continues to produce more history than it can consume. Despite the largely cosmetic role of the president, the weekend election drew large crowds, indicating that something important is afoot – namely, the way in which this legacy should be handled. Tadic wants to break with the nationalism and isolation of the past and put Serbia into a European orbit. However, his uneasy governing alliance with the moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica is pulling him back. Kostunica, prime minister and one-time darling of the West, deems EU membership may not be worth the price tag. The truth is Europe is proving a hard sell. Kosovo, still legally a province of Serbia and a place of enormous historical significance for the Serbs, will soon declare independence with the green light from Washington and many EU governments. In fact the province’s independence-seeking Albanians, some 90 percent of the total 2 million population, were talked into delaying their declaration so as not to give a boost to the nationalist candidate in the Serb presidential vote. But they won’t wait much longer. Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Thurday in Brussels that independence «is a matter of days.» Notably, in a legally questionable decision, the EU has already agreed to take over from the UN mission here. Meanwhile, Serbia is about to sign a pre-entry deal with Brussels, also known as the stabilization and association agreement, irrespective of its failure to net Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and other fugitives sought by the UN war crimes tribunal, which had previously been set as a condition. The deal usually comes with a carrot, i.e. money, and a stick, i.e. EU-minded reforms. The influx of European funds may buy some support for Tadic but is not enough to curb nationalist sensibilities. Nikolic says giving up Kosovo is a non-starter. If it happens, Serbia must turn its back on the EU and strengthen ties with Russia – a red flag for the Europeans and Americans. Serbia and Russia yesterday signed a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline deal, serving a severe blow to EU hopes to reduce energy dependence on an increasingly assertive Russia. The South Stream project rivals the EU- and US-backed Nabucco pipeline project that aspires to deliver gas from Central Asia to Europe. Kostunica said that the «strategic deal» with Russia will secure Serbia’s energy supplies «for the coming decades.» What he did not say is that the deal also ensured a Russian «nyet» on Kosovo independence in the UN Security Council. At the signing of the energy pact in Moscow yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he «categorically» opposes the move. Moscow is not alone in the skeptical camp. EU members Spain, Romania and Slovakia are concerned that Kosovo’s secession could set a precedent for their own separatist minorities. Greece and Cyprus harbor similar fears about the breakaway state in the north of the divided island. Official pledges that Kosovo is a unique case are not very reassuring. Belgrade has pledged to meet a unilateral declaration of independence with retaliatory measures. The government has hammered out an «action plan» and although the exact details have not been made public they probably involve the breaking of diplomatic ties with states that recognize an independent Kosovo and the imposition of a trade embargo as well as a power blockade on the new state. Should Kosovo decide to go it alone, the Serb-populated north may choose to annex itself to the motherland while the Serbs of Bosnia might be tempted to follow. Meanwhile, some Kosovo Albanians as well as their ethnic kin in the fragile Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) may push for a union with Albania, reviving neighbors’ nightmares of a Greater Albania. Dominoes has long been a popular Balkan pastime. But the West seems determined not to allow this to happen again. And the nascent bureaucrats in Kosovo are not particularly keen to give up their powers either. Most certainly, the remaining chunks of Yugoslavia should finally settle unresolved territorial disputes and put their energy into more banal issues, as it were, such as building stable democracies and open markets that will bring security and prosperity to their people. And there is no safer bet than anchoring their future in Europe. As it happens, fate has once again awarded Kostunica a kingmaker role. The premier, who voted for third-place Velimir Ilic, also decided the outcome of the 2004 contest. Back then Tadic again lost to Nikolic, only to make a comeback thanks to votes from the other contenders. The Europeans would naturally hope to see a rerun of the 2004 race but that won’t come easy. In an open letter sent to the press on Thursday, Kostunica’s Democratic Party appeared to make support for Tadic conditional on the president overturning his EU-minded policies – a move he quickly slammed as «blackmail.» In all probability, a defeat for Tadic will also mark the end of his fragile coalition with Kostunica, with the Radicals lurking just around the corner. In an ironic twist, all this is unfolding under the watchful eye of Slovenia, the most successful state to emerge from the relics of former Yugoslavia and currently at the helm of the rotating EU presidency. As the second round nears, all eyes and hopes in the West will be on Kostunica. Not an ideal ally, but Europeans have had to deal with worse in the past.