Losing Serbia

The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo are expected to make a unilateral declaration of independence within days. Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci claimed on Friday that about 100 countries were ready to recognize Kosovo when it breaks away from Serbia. Every nation seeks its independence and no one can blame the Kosovo Albanians for the persistence with which they have pursued theirs. Through the mistakes and brutality of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and by very cleverly playing on the West’s guilt over its negligent handling of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Kosovar Albanians have managed to draw Western public opinion in the direction that benefited them. What is less understandable is how Europe has acted in such a frivolous and thoughtless way as to stoke division in Serbia and send this important country into isolation. For the sake of Kosovo, Europe is in danger of losing Serbia. We may blame the Serbs for many things – among them an inability to come to grips with the past and to send to the international tribunal in The Hague those among them who are accused of war crimes. But that is no reason to push them into desperation. The reaction of many Serbs to the threats and deadlines they have faced is what we would expect of a proud and talented people (who were among the first to fight for and gain their liberation from the Ottoman yoke, starting their revolt in 1804). Over the past few years, the Serbs have suffered a series of humiliations in the breakup of Yugoslavia (a disintegration in which they were instrumental). In 1999, there was the secret annex to the Rambouillet talks aimed at averting war over Kosovo, in which Serbia was ordered to accept the presence of NATO forces on its territory. In 2001, after the war, the Serb authorities arrested Milosevic on the day that a US ultimatum to do so expired. Naturally, the government of Prime Minister Zoran Djindic was criticized for bowing to the Americans. Two years later, the man who assassinated Djindjic claimed that the prime minister was a «traitor.» No Serb politician can acquiesce to the loss of Kosovo, the traditional heartland of the Serb nation – neither pro-Western President Boris Tadic nor nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. In last Sunday’s runoff presidential elections, Tadic won 50.5 percent of the vote to 47.9 percent for Tomislav Nikolic, who ran on a strongly nationalist platform. The nation is divided equally and no one has the luxury of being able to provoke public anger by signing on to the further loss of Serb territory. Policymakers in Washington, Brussels and all other European capitals ought to be weighing the dynamics that will arise with Kosovo’s independence. Among the many ills is the fact that the progressive Serb president and his political friends will be seen to have sat by quietly, betraying their national cause, while at the same time being the victims of betrayal by their Western allies abroad. Unfortunately, in their demand that the Serbs accept the loss of Kosovo, with the promise of EU accession sometime in the distant future, European leaders do not appear to care much about what will happen if the Serbs, out of national pride and their leaders’ political survival, turn their backs on Europe. The damage will not be to Serbia alone. For example, what kind of independence can Kosovo enjoy when it will forever face the enmity of a far more powerful neighbor? What economic and social development will Kosovo achieve if it must forever rely on foreign powers for its existence, and when organized crime is rife? Where will the political scene in Serbia – and Belgrade’s increasing dependence on Russia – lead? How long will Europe be able to provide Kosovo with police officers and judges, in accordance with a recent EU decision? It was this last decision that raised the anger of Prime Minister Kostunica, who saw it as an active move toward tearing Kosovo away from Serb sovereignty and therefore refused to agree to the last-minute carrot the EU threw to Serbia a few days ago: In the wake of the presidential elections, Brussels offered Belgrade an agreement on trade, and easier visa requirements and student exchanges. If the Europeans truly wanted to solve the Balkans’ most complicated problem (and win the steadfast cooperation of Serbia) they would put Serbia on a fast track to EU accession and make it crystal clear to the Albanians of Kosovo that they would get their independence on the day that they and the Serbs both become members of the European Union. The EU has not made that offer. Now we will all have to live with the result, and watch as one problem succeeds another.