Hints of a Serbia-Kosovo Rapprochement

October 25, 2012

By Elizabeth Pond

It will be a hard sell. But it’s important for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to squeeze in a visit to the tiny Balkans the week before the U.S. presidential election. 

Her trip advertises that the West is now putting maximum pressure on the new Serbian government—led by one-time cronies of ultranationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic—to make a U-turn and finally acknowledge (if even tacitly) the reality of Kosovo’s independence. 

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, B92 TV reports, will travel with Clinton to reinforce the message: It’s time for a bold Nixon-to-China move by Premier Ivica Dacic, head of Milosevic’s old Socialist Party, and First Deputy Premier Aleksandar Vucic, the Progressive Party president who started his career in the Radical Party that claimed even more neighboring territory for Greater Serbia than Milosevic himself did. 

If Clinton were frank (which she won’t be), she would say that Dacic and Vucic have a golden opportunity to admit that it was Milosevic who forfeited Serbia’s century-long rule over Kosovo by his brutal suppression of the province’s 90 percent Albanian majority. His security forces killed 10,000, drove 1.4 million ethnic Albanian refugees from their homes, and prompted President Bill Clinton to respond by launching NATO’s first war in its half century existence. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008—under a constitution that guarantees extensive protection to minority Serbs—was only the consequence of Milosevic’s bloodletting.

Thirteen years after the Kosovo war and four years after Kosovo’s secession, then, the West sees the new Serbian premier and his deputy as precisely the ones who could persuade their followers to drop 19th century territorial grievances and move on.

To be sure, the task of reconciling Serbs to their loss of Kosovo remains formidable. As long as Milosevic was winning military gambles in the 1990s, there was widespread public support for Serb conquest of a third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia. In the folk memory, the dominant narrative of the 1990s wars remains that Serbs were the greatest victims and Kosovo their unfair loss.

Moreover, even after Milosevic was defeated by NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and reformist Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic extradited him to The Hague in 2000 to stand trial for war crimes, Serbia’s unreformed security network remained strong. It was complicit in the murder of Djindjic in 2003 as he started to purge criminal gangs from the network. It was instrumental in hiding fugitive General Ratko Mladic for 16 years before the commander of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8000 unarmed Muslim boys and men was finally sent to the Hague. Today, four years after the Kosovar Albanians seceded from Serbia, Belgrade’s security forces still run illegal structures in the majority Serbian northern tip of Kosovo. These “parallel structures” have abetted sporadic violence by local Serbs against NATO peacekeepers and the EU rule-of-law mission—and also rampant smuggling by Serb and Albanian gangs that practice exemplary interethnic cooperation. 

At this point the West is not asking Dacic and Vucic to recognize Kosovo’s independence. But it is asking them to “normalize” everyday relations with the Kosovo government, to let Pristina participate fully in regional Balkan meetings, stop smuggling, and enforce customs controls at the Serbia-Kosovo dividing line. It is also asking them to dismantle the parallel security structures in northern Kosovo and to nudge Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept the Kosovar constitution and benefit from local self-government, as enclaves of Serbs south of the Ibar River have done.  

One legal model for agreement on this agenda might be a Serbia-Kosovo treaty like the 1972 détente treaty between West Germany and communist East Germany that delicately called the two signatories “entities” rather than “states.”

Belgrade’s reward for establishing a working relationship with Kosovo would be an agreed date to open negotiations for eventual membership in the European Union and additional EU financial aid beyond the €1 billion paid to Belgrade in the past five years. Joining the EU would give Serbia the chance to catch up with the spectacular gains of post-communist countries like Poland that have joined the EU and tripled their GDP, while Serbia languished.

By contrast, the alternative of continued stonewalling on the Kosovo issue would ensure continued economic stagnation for Serbia. The country dropped to a quarter of its pre-1990s per capita GDP during the Balkan wars and did not recover until 2007. It is still only a third as rich as neighboring Croatia, which has paid the hard price of settling border disputes and prosecuting senior Croatian officials for corruption in order to qualify for EU membership next year.

“There is no alternative,” one key European diplomat flatly declares. He pins his hopes on ordinary Serbs’ weariness with sacrificing improvements in their living standard to restore Belgrade’s rule over Kosovo—and on Dacic and Vucic’s newfound pragmatism. In last summer’s election campaign, both said that EU membership and economic growth are their top priorities. Since taking office, they have warned their ultranationalist followers that Serbs will have to make (as yet unspecified) tough choices to do so. 

Premier Dacic first showed pragmatism in 2008 by defeating his party’s old guard—which, like other ultranationalist parties, held a Serbian application for EU membership hostage to regaining control over Kosovo. He then dragged the Socialists into the coalition government led by the moderate Democratic Party. In 2011, he further demonstrated his pragmatism by approving the arrest and extradition of Gen. Mladic. He is now leading the Serbian side of the new EU-sponsored talks with Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci that began last weekend and will continue in mid-November. 

Deputy Premier Vucic first tiptoed into pragmatism in 2008 when key parliamentarians from the Radical Party split to form a new Progressive Party and repudiated Radicals’ founder Vojislav Seselj, who still led the party from a Hague cell while defending himself against charges of war crimes. The Progressives, who managed to crowd the old Radicals out of parliament in this year’s election, have been slower to soften their fixation on restoring Serbian rule in Kosovo. They too, however, are adjusting to being part of the government rather than the opposition, and the party leaders, at least, are avoiding inflammatory rhetoric. Vucic, who doubles as defense minister, is now the operational point man for contacts with European and American diplomats.

European diplomats credit Dacic and Vucic’s vows of giving EU accession priority. They detect some hints, though, that the pair lack the necessary sense of urgency and do not understand that they must take practical steps toward solving the Kosovo issue in the next six months. If they don’t quickly outface their hardline constituents’ resistance to accommodation with Pristina, they may lose this window of opportunity. After nine years of Serbian stonewalling, the EU wants proof of their sincerity—both in reining in its parallel security structures in northern Kosovo and in clamping down down on periodic violence by local Serbs there. 

Otherwise, the EU will not give Belgrade a green light to begin the membership negotiations they long for. “Enlargement fatigue” could engulf both EU member states and Serbia. Support for EU accession has already dipped to 48 percent in Serbia (with 33 percent against), and EU enlargement fatigue could become a factor in Germany’s elections next year. This vacuum could be filled with polarizing violence by Serb extremists and Albanians, who clashed with police in Pristina last weekend to protest the Kosovo government’s “treason” in talking with Dacic. 

Western doubt has been triggered in part by public statements by new officials. Last summer President Tomislav Nikolic—who ceded leadership of the Progressive Party to Vucic when he assumed his high but constitutionally non-partisan office—denied that Serbs committed genocide at Srebrenica, despite the Hague Tribunal ruling that they did. He refloated the discredited idea that Kosovo might be partitioned. He also called Vukovar a “Serb” city—an insult to the Croatian city on the Serbian border that, before a savage siege by Serb forces in 1991, had a roughly even mix of Croats and Serbs. 

In recent days, President Nikolic also raised the spectre of a drive for a “Greater Albania” in the Balkans. He told EU officials that it was impossible that any Serb born in the next hundred years would accept independence for Kosovo and Metohija. “We are refusing to accept our territory to be taken away,” he said further. “I will sooner step down than allow an entry into the Union without Kosovo.”

More positive signals are coming from Dacic and Vucic, however, and they hint at a new flexibility that Clinton and Ashton want to encourage. They have promised that Serbia will shortly negotiate specifics for “integrated border management” and tax collection in lawless northern Kosovo that the moderate outgoing Serbian government agreed to but never implemented. Unlike President Nikolic, they are now reducing their “red lines” to saying Belgrade will never (formally) recognize Kosovo—which, in any case, the West is not demanding.

In successive TV interviews and press conferences about his first meeting with Kosovo Premier Thaci this past week, Dacic stated that “it is time for a historic agreement” and that “Now it is time to talk and look for solutions that are in [our] mutual interest.” In the past, Serbia was “slowly losing Kosovo by wasting time from year to year” and isolating itself from the international community. “There are historical crises that are solved [with] time, but if we wait, it will be solved to our detriment.” He wants a “quick solution” and does not want to be “like Greece and say that Constantinople is a Greek capital, but it no longer is and they have been saying this for 100 years.” And then the capstone from Deputy Premier Vucic: “I am also convinced that Serbia is on the EU pathway and that we will get a date [for the start of negotiations] in June.”

The public discourse, too, has taken a new turn recently with an investigative TV series “Patriotic Pillage” that pricks the narrative of poor but noble Serb heroes in north Kosovo. The series lifts the curtain on staunch nationalist Serb mayors of towns in the north to show them pocketing three salaries—one from Pristina, and one from Belgrade doubled by a generous bonus. It also traces funds that are sent from Belgrade to help the needy Serb population in the north, but get diverted to private pockets. And it reminds viewers of the “scandalous abuse” of soup kitchen funds by Bishop Artemije that led to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s dismissal of this prominent defender of Serbdom from the eparchy in Kosovo. 

Bill Clinton, it’s safe to assume, will be watching the outcome of his wife’s farewell trip to Serbia and Kosovo with keen interest.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Endgame in the Balkans.

World Policy Journal

© Elizabeth Pond

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Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Tocqueville in the Middle Kingdom

October 12, 2012
By Elizabeth Pond

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when there lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, puts it, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

To be sure, this is a country in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), by contrast to its Russian counterpart, has largely privatized and transformed a centralized state economy, while still preserving its own political monopoly. The land’s 10 percent annual growth over the past 30 years has not only made China the second biggest economic power in the world, but has also lifted half a billion peasants out of poverty and spawned a new middle class larger than the entire US population. Along the way, it weathered the 2008-09 financial crash better than most Western economies. So far, its citizens have been grateful for this miracle in their lives.

Torrid growth is now decelerating, though, even as expectations continue to rise. Simultaneously, the egalitarianism of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms—which shrank the huge Mao-era gap between city and country life—has been superseded by a growing domestic divide between top and bottom social strata that surpasses even America and Russia’s notoriously high inequality.

This is no abstract concern. Just as the CCP heads into next month’s tricky once-a-decade turnover of party chiefs, the vast new class divide has been spotlighted by public revelations about corruption and lavish elite lifestyles in the bizarre case of the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in a Chongqing mountain hotel. Already the scandal has led to the expulsion of Chongqing political baron Bo Xilai from the Communist Party and the conviction of his wife for murder. The affair will probably end with the jailing of Bo himself on criminal charges—and with rising popular disillusionment.

For Brookings’ Cheng Li—who grew up in a rural backwater during the cruel Cultural Revolution, knows many party officials at various levels, and has a sixth sense of factional politics—this year’s conjunction of scandal, widening social inequality, and political stagnation adds up to a crisis of authority for the CCP that is overpowering its touted “resilience.” The party’s original legitimation by ideology vanished after Chairman Mao died. Its current legitimation by history’s fastest economic growth and trickle-down enrichment is now under threat as growth lags behind expectations, China tries to escape from the middle-income trap by scaling the value-added ladder, and powerful state-owned enterprises have resurged to block needed reforms and provide slush funds for officials’ private investments abroad and their mistresses’ villas at home. In this atmosphere, efforts by political reformers to give the party a renewed source of legitimacy by opening it up to greater citizen participation have also been thwarted for the past ten years.

Significantly, the party’s crisis of authority is playing out against the backdrop of the stellar example of democratic Taiwan. There one-party Kuomintang rule morphed two decades ago into a robust democracy that has already generated per capita income surpassing European Union levels. This voids the CCP’s mantra that self-government is alien to Chinese culture. So does the protodemocracy of a Hong Kong that takes seriously the autonomy it was promised on reverting from British to Chinese rule 15 years ago. In the most recent exercise of autonomy, when tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to denounce as “brainwashing” Beijing’s attempt to force ideologically correct “moral and national education” on their schools, Beijing withdrew its diktat.

Little wonder, then, that in a 4,000-year-old nation whose dynasties repeatedly turned decadent and were toppled by angry peasant uprisings, today’s think tank mandarins worry about Tocqeville’s relevance to 2012 China. One cyberspace debater, alluding to both disappointed popular expectations and erosion of CCP legitimacy, wrote, “Without doubt people’s living standards are far above what they were years ago, but, on the contrary, people’s discontent with society is greater than ever.”

Other bloggers “see China as stuck between an unsustainable present and the probability that reform will only unleash pent-up demand for immediate democratization,” comments Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith. He notes the surprising flip in Chinese self-identification with the French revolution in earlier years, but with the French ancien regime today. He concludes, “[T]he French Revolution, which used to be held up as an exemplar precisely because it was bloody and decisively ended ‘feudal’ society, has given rise to a new conversation about not only the need for [Chinese] self-government, an independent judiciary, and a constitutional government, but also about the difficulty of reform at the current time.”

The opposing theory to Tocqueville’s thesis, of course, is the rather newer Western paradigm of resilient authoritarianism that Cheng Li contests. This evolved after the 1989 Tienanmen massacre as an explanation for the puzzling CCP success in effecting tumultuous economic and social change while still perpetuating one-party rule. In this analysis, the CCP has deployed enough violence by police and hired thugs to keep scattered protests from spreading—but has on rare occasions also conciliated irate demonstrators against land seizures in Wukan or construction of a polluting copper alloy plant in Shifang, in order to provide a safety valve and keep tempers from boiling over.

So far Western proponents of the adaptive-authoritarian school of analysis can cite ample supporting evidence. China’s new middle class has stayed conspicuously consumerist rather than turning political. And peasants who protest municipality land grabs still tend to blame injustice on local officials rather than venting their anger on a distant Beijing that routinely ignores China’s own laws and rewards local injustice if it leads to commercial wealth.

Yet the outgoing CCP leadership seems far less impressed by its own adaptability than by its fragility, as its nervous ban over the past ten years on public release of Gini coefficient statistics on the widening rich-poor gap suggests. This fall, the two main CCP factions have made common cause against the danger that Bo Xilai’s escapades might stoke cynicism about why the party tolerated Bo’s behavior before his police chief tried to defect to America. The party factions have not gone beyond damage control, however, to make the fundamental choice between extending the past decade’s stagnation in economic and political reform or starting a new reform wave that might put their Leninist party at risk. Nor have the new president- and premier-designates tipped their hands in a collective leadership that at times of succession favors the bland.

At this point, the policy tug-of-war within party ranks, in part through the surrogate controversy over Tocqueville, is the crucial debate for China’s future. Cheng Li identifies at least three strategic (and not just tactical) party reformers in outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, Quangdong party chief and conciliator of the Wukan protesters Wang Yang, and head of the Politburo Organization Department Li Yuanchao. “Wen, Li and Wang have argued explicitly that democracy reflects universal values and should be the shared aspiration of the Chinese people,” Cheng Li points out.

This trio is supported by an array of intellectuals in both party and semi-autonomous think tanks. They are opposed by those senior officials who have successfully stalled further reforms in recent years.

What the two camps are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as an ancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond