Can Kosovo Vote in Peace?

November 5, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Some 100 or 200 militant Serbs are trying to hold two million Kosovars and seven million Serbs hostage. They oppose the majorities in both Serbia and Kosovo that long to start on the road to European Union membership and benefit from EU financial aid and know-how in modernizing their economy and governance.

Diehard Serbs in the Serb-majority northern tip bitterly oppose this process because of the price the EU demands for it—the first Serbia-Kosovo reconciliation since 1999, when Serbian armed forces expelled three-fifths of the 90 percent Albanian majority from their homes in what was then Serbia’s province of Kosovo, and were stopped from more drastic ethnic cleansing only by NATO intervention. For 13 years the EU has made “normalization” of relations between Serbia and Kosovo a precondition for giving Serbia EU candidate status and a starting date for accession talks, now scheduled for next January.

The ultranationalist Socialist and Progressive parties in Serbia—led today by one-time followers of strongman Slobodan Milosevic—used to share the views of Serb extremists in north Kosovo. When the two parties suddenly won both the presidency and a parliamentary majority for the first time in Serbian elections a year and a half ago, however, they turned pragmatic. They recognized that the Serbian economy was even more desolate in 2012 than in 1989, before the Balkan wars. They dropped their earlier resistance to joining the EU, said there was no alternative to this course, and abandoned the nationalist ideology that refused to acknowledge the fact that Kosovo finally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

As long as they did not have to say formally that they recognized Kosovo’s independence, the ex-ultranationalists in Belgrade were even willing to cut their loss of Kosovo and normalize relations with the new country, as the EU required. Last April they agreed in a landmark EU-brokered pact to accept the authority of Kosovo law—and elections—even in Kosovo’s northern tip. They agreed to dismantle Serbia’s illegal “parallel” security structures that kept Kosovo government authorities out of the northern tip for the past five years. And they bluntly told the Serbs there that they would now have to abide by Kosovo law and forego the subsidies Belgrade had previously given them (which remarkably exceeded Serbia’s annual pre-candidacy grants from the EU).

The about-face by the ultranationalists in Belgrade left Serb ultranationalists in Kosovo with the feeling that they had been betrayed. They would now have to give up their accustomed luxury of getting two salaries—one from Pristina and one from Belgrade for the same job—without paying taxes to either country. They would have to stop the lucrative smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband across the Kosovo-Serbia dividing line. They would have to submit to the indignity of voting in Kosovo elections if they wanted a political voice.

Last Sunday, as all of Kosovo voted in municipal elections for the first political test of the April agreement, masked Serb malcontents armed with staves gathered outside polling stations to scare away fellow Serbs in the Kosovo north who wanted to vote. Many were intimidated by the extremists and turnout was low in northern Kosovo—22 percent, according to Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

By contrast, the larger Serb population in the main part of Kosovo south of the Ibar River has from the beginning of independence accepted the Kosovo constitution’s decentralization and generous guarantees to Serbs of a political voice that exceeds their percentage of Kosovo’s population. The Gracanica community around a famous Serb monastery just south of Kosovo’s capital, for example, continued this trend and even turned out an impressive 52% of registered voters on Sunday, seven percent above the Kosovo average for both Albanians and Serbs.

In northern Kosovo the ultranationalists turned violent at about 5 p.m., two hours before the polls were to close. They suddenly trashed three polling stations in the northern (Serb) half of Mitrovica city, menaced would-be voters at a dozen other polling centers in Mitrovica and Zvecan, beat one woman with a chair, forced both Kosovo and international monitors to flee their posts, and threw one grenade, which did not explode. One reason for their action may have been just to show their muscle. Another reason may have been to deter those north Kosovo Serbs who might dare to vote as the evening grew darker and they could hide their identity from the cameras of the “hooligans,” as a United Nations official called them. NATO peacekeeping forces had to intervene to restore order in both Mitrovica and Zvecan.

Kosovo authorities closed the polls in the north an hour early. Various Serbs are calling for a re-vote in the north. The Serbian government’s chief power-holder, First Deputy Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic, proposed sending Serbia’s old security forces back into north Kosovo again to establish order, but the EU rejected the idea.

The EU will hold Belgrade responsible for any further violence by north Kosovo Serbs and could conceivably postpone the planned January start of formal EU accession arrangements in Serbia if peace is not restored in north Kosovo. The 100 or 200 hooligans may not be able to hold Serbs and Kosovars hostage after all.

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

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond


Serbia Enters Europe: The End of the Bloody Balkan Wars

July 3, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Yes, it’s laudable that Croatia just became the first new member of the European Union in six years. Yet the really breathtaking news from the Balkans this week is the humdrum fact that Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga attended Croatia’s celebrations in Zagreb. And Belgrade’s top official for Kosovo affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, thanked the Serbs in the northern tip of Kosovo for welcoming Serbia’s forthcoming start of talks to join the EU.

Let me explain. Jahjaga’s presence at the Zagreb fireworks, in the company of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and others, went unnoticed simply because the Serbs have stopped storming out of regional gatherings when Kosovo officials show up. And Vulin’s pointed praise means that the north Kosovo Serbs are being coopted into the brand new Serbia-Kosovo rapprochement—and are not allowed to use violence to oppose it.

In other words, a miracle has happened. The bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s and the centuries-long Serb-Albanian feud have ended in provisional cooperation and not just in armed truce. The ideological ultranationalist politicians who won both parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia for the first time a year ago have become pragmatic ex-ultranationalists in office.

They have stopped claiming hegemony in the Balkans by right of their large population. They no longer insist that their province of Kosovo was unjustified and illegal in seceding after Slobodan Milosevic’s armed forces drove more than half of the 90 percent Albanian population from their homes and killed 10,000 of them. They no longer demonize the EU as an “anti-Serb” power that would compel them give up their patrimony of Kosovo.

Instead, six weeks ago they embraced the idea of eventual Serbian EU membership so ardently that they fulfilled the EU’s main precondition of “normalizing” relations with Kosovo. That was when Aleksandar Vulin resigned his government post in protest. He was head of Belgrade’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija and a passionate patriot for whom the very notion of Serbia without Kosovo was blasphemy. He was a parliamentarian from the largest party, the Progressives, and his trajectory was different from that of his party’s leader, Aleksandar Vucic.

Back in the 1990s Vucic was just as passionate as Vulin. Vucic was a brash young information minister during Milosevic’s suppression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But Vucic went through a steep learning curve as he became Serbia’s deputy prime minister, defense minister, coordinator of the secret services, and the acknowledged kingpin of the new government 12 months ago.

The Progressives had already come around to wanting EU membership to overcome Serbia’s economic stagnation in the two decades since the 1990s Balkan wars and the loss of population as the best and brightest young people emigrated for lack of jobs. And as he conducted orientation talks in Berlin and Brussels last summer and fall, Vucic became convinced that the only way Serbia could go forward toward Europe—and catch up with rival Croatia—was to make peace with Kosovo.

Toward the end of last year Catherine Ashton, EU foreign-policy chief and facilitator of bilateral Serbia-Kosovo talks, floated a bold idea to achieve this end. How would it be, she asked, if the two foes abandoned their quarrelsome bottom-up attempts to normalize everyday relations and started from the top? Instead of arguing over every comma and asterisk at Gate #1 between north Kosovo and Serbia, couldn’t they just agree on a brief statement of broad principles and let those principles drive normalization on the ground?

The result was a bilateral pact on April 19 that did not make Serbia cross its red line and sign any statement saying it was recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Yet elliptically the pact committed Belgrade to withdraw the shadowy security structures it had maintained since 1999 in the pocket of ethnic Serb majority in the northern tip of Kosovo. Serbia also acknowledged that Kosovo’s laws would henceforth apply in the northern tip as well as in the south and that this would end the wholesale smuggling across the Serbia-Kosovo dividing line.

The Serbs living north of the Ibar River protested immediately and were joined in a march in Belgrade by senior clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who hinted broadly that God might welcome the murder of Serbia’s prime minister in re-enactment of the assassination of Serbia’s first reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in 2003. Both the Socialist prime minister and his Progressive first deputy prime minister Vucic indeed received all-too-credible death threats from remaining unreformed ultranationalists.

Aleksandar Vulin agreed with the marchers that the north Kosovo Serbs had been betrayed and resigned as head of Serbia’s Kosovo office. It took Progressive leader Vucic a month to persuade him to return to his post. In that hiatus Vucic himself faced the mutinous north Kosovo Serbs on their own turf and told his hostile audience to stop refighting the medieval 14th-century battle of Kosovo every day. Their lives too would improve as Serbia joined mainstream Europe, he assured the skeptics.

Since then the EU has given Serbia a target date next January to start membership negotiations and has already circulated its own agenda for the talks. At the same time, it has offered Kosovo a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the lowest rung on the tall ladder to EU membership. Aleksandar Vucic has begun talks with ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia about how best to implement minority rights in Serbia. And Belgrade has begun dismantling its illegal security structures in north Kosovo and is urging Serbs there to drop their previous boycott and take part in Kosovo’s elections in November.

In addition, Serbs in the north, instead of shooting at Kosovo police to keep out alien “occupiers,” have for the first time agreed by consensus with Kosovo officials to appoint a Serb member of the Kosovo Police as their district police chief. And President Nikolic is stressing that Serbs in north Kosovo are taking these conciliatory actions not because of EU fiat, but because they themselves look to the future and “want Serbia to be a modern and regulated country.”

Serbia’s mindset is at last becoming (in Vucic’s word) “normal.” And this stunning transformation has been so quiet that it has gone virtually unnoticed.

The bloody Balkan wars are over.

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

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

Serbia’s Metamorphosis: From “Bandit” to “Decent”

April 23, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

There are many things you could say about the European Union-brokered agreement on broad principles that the Serbian and Kosovar foes struck at long last this past weekend. That it is historic—the definitive end to the nasty Balkan wars of the 1990s and to the Serbs’ hegemonial aspirations. That its example should now help stabilize this still dysfunctional region. That it is a rarity in a world in which hot conflicts often go underground to sizzle on or morph, at best, into frozen conflicts.

That in retrospect, it justifies NATO’s first-ever military intervention, on behalf of the civilians who were the chief targets and victims in the Balkan bloodshed as the Cold War ended and Yugoslavia splintered. That it also justifies the EU’s long-standing offer to share its own prosperity and security with all European nations that carry out democratic reforms.

But most of all—since intervening foreigners can never impose post-conflict reconciliation without local partners who desire resolution—you would have to admire the stunning transformation of the ultranationalist parties over the past half year. Two decades ago they egged on strongman Slobodan Milosevic as Serb military forces occupied half of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia, and at Srebrenica committed Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. Many of their adherents celebrated the murder of moderate Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic in 2003, then helped to hide Srebrenica commander Ratko Mladic for 16 years before he was finally captured and extradited to the Balkan war-crimes tribunal at The Hague in 2011.

Yet today these same parties, now running the government in Belgrade for the first time, have suddenly renounced their claim to operational sovereignty over the 90 percent Albanian-majority Kosovo that seceded from Serbia in 2008. Premier Ivica Dacic now declares that a new era of friendship is opening with the West that the ultranationalists so long despised. Serbia is to be rewarded by getting a target date for starting negotiations to join the European Union.

What caused this abrupt shift of mindset?

The metamorphosis is most easily explained, perhaps, by tracing the meteoric political career of Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s first deputy premier and head of the Progressive Party that now holds the most seats in parliament.

Back in the 1990s, while he was still in his 20s, Vucic became Milosevic’s hatchet man for the media. At that point, he was a member of the fanatical Radical Party that claimed far more neighboring territory for Greater Serbia than Milosevic himself did. The Radical leader, Vojislav Seselj, formed his own militia to speed the Serb conquest of Bosnian territory—and is now standing trial for war crimes at The Hague.

Part of what Vucic stoutly defended in his term as government Information Minister was Milosevic’s brutal suppression of the huge Albanian majority in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999 during the decade’s last Balkan war. Milosevic’s heavily armed security forces killed more than 10,000 Albanians and forcibly expelled more than 60 percent of the Albanian population from their homes, often discouraging their return by throwing dead livestock into wells to poison the water. NATO intervened a second time in the Balkans, bombed key targets in Serbia to prevent any worse “ethnic cleansing,” then turned over interim administration of Kosovo to a United Nations mission, while keeping NATO-led peacekeepers in the province.

The one pocket that Belgrade continued to control on the ground in Kosovo was the north tip bordering Serbia, where ethnic Serbs form a local majority. There Belgrade maintained control through illegal security “parallel structures”—that is, parallel to the legal structures authorized for this international protectorate under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Serbian police and intelligence agents in the north tip shut the bi-ethnic Kosovar police out and protected both collaborative Serb and Albanian smugglers. Serb locals allied with the Radicals and other Belgrade extremists in sporadic violence against international civil servants and peacekeepers—all at a cost to Belgrade’s budget that surpassed its annual windfall from the EU to help prospective candidates prepare for accession talks.

With overwhelming popular backing, Milosevic’s Socialists and the Radicals, under deputy leader Tomislav Nikolic and (by then) Secretary-General Aleksandar Vucic, declared Kosovo an eternal Serb patrimony; denounced America and the European Union; and lionized General Mladic, whose troops had massacred some 8,000 unarmed Bosniak (Muslim) boys and men at Srebrenica. The prevailing mood in Belgrade combined contempt for the “anti-Serb” West, an assertion of Serb political exceptionalism and right to lead other Balkan ethnicities, and inat—”malevolent, vengeful, and obstinate defiance,” as writer Aleksa Djilas defines it.

For half a decade after 2003—when first post-Milosevic Premier Zoran Djindjic was assassinated just after he proposed to let Kosovo go and move on to rebuilding war-warped Serbia—the chauvinists set the political agenda in Belgrade. It consisted of only one issue: reinstatement of Serbian rule over all of Kosovo or, as a fallback, partition that would cede its north tip to Belgrade. Centrist pro-Europe governments squeaked through two national elections only by avowing that they too sought a restoration of Kosovo to Serbia—and blandly maintaining that Serbia could both keep Kosovo and gain EU membership.

The first crack in the hardline front came in 2008, as Ivica Dacic, the Socialists’ post-Milosevic leader (and today’s premier), joined a coalition with the centrist Democratic Party and softened his earlier militancy. Shortly thereafter, Kosovo seceded from Serbia unilaterally to assert a “supervised” independence under EU tutelage and a new constitution that gave generous minority protection to Serbs, including local decentralization and a guaranteed parliamentary representation higher than their 8 percent of the population would warrant. Belgrade refused to recognize Kosovo’s existence as an independent state and blocked it from participating in regional governmental conferences.

By late 2008, the two top Radical officials on the ground in Belgrade, fed up with being micromanaged by Seselj from his cell at The Hague, made another breach in the hardliner consensus. Nikolic and Vucic, taking the bulk of senior Radicals with them, quit the party and formed a new Progressive Party. They quietly stopped demonizing the EU, and by last year’s spring elections, they adopted the centrists’ piety that regaining Kosovo and striving for eventual EU membership were indeed compatible.

Western diplomats were skeptical of the volte-face. In the mouths of the Progressives, the new formula sounded suspiciously as if they hoped not to budge on Kosovo, while still persuading the EU to grant Belgrade its longed-for target date to start negotiations on EU accession. The pinpointing of a date for talks, the EU again made clear, was contingent on “normalization” of Serb-Kosovo relations.

In any event, in the May 2012 elections the Progressives won both the presidency, which Nikolic now holds, and a plurality in parliament, where Vucic is caucus leader. In July the Progressives formed a coalition government with Milosevic’s old Socialists, the third-largest parliamentary party, and set their priority as EU accession.

Still, ambiguity remained. President Nikolic promptly offended Croats by declaring Croatia’s Vukovar, the site of one of the earliest atrocities committed by Serbs in 1991, a Serb town. Serbs north of the Ibar River in Kosovo continued to put up barriers to keep out Kosovo-licensed cars and even official EU vehicles. Trucks loaded with fuel and cigarettes continued to evade both Serbian and Kosovar customs by roaring down the half dozen illegal asphalt roads that local Serbs had built to shuttle contraband back and forth across the Serbia-Kosovo line.

Yet as the wary EU-sponsored “dialogue” between the Serbian and Kosovar premiers proceeded in 2013, Dacic and Vucic made more forthcoming proposals than their centrist Serbian predecessors had ever dared float, tried hard to win support for them from resistant party colleagues—and attracted an increasing number of death threats. They began letting Kosovar officials attend regional conferences, and stopped walking out of these meetings themselves. Most fundamentally, they shifted the dominant narrative away from the Serbs’ founding myth of the 1389 battle against Turks at Kosovo to pragmatic contemporary economics.

Thus, instead of stressing the inviolability of Serbia’s sovereignty over the holy land it possessed before the Ottoman Empire ruled it for half a millennium, they redefined the duty of Serbia’s seven million to their roughly 60,000 compatriots in northern Kosovo away from reunification to ensuring simply that these Serbs could live a better life. This took the form of promoting Serb localities’ self-government and forming an “association” of Serb municipalities, both of which were allowed under the Kosovo constitution.

In parallel, the two leaders emphasized Serbia’s own need to escape from the economic stagnation of the previous quarter century by pursuing EU accession now and implementing the rule-of-law and anti-crime reforms this course requires. They knew well that the rival Croats, who pioneered this option when they cut their own corresponding losses in Bosnia a decade ago, now have a per capita GDP 70 percent higher than Serbia’s and will reap the reward of joining the EU this coming July. Serbia, by contrast, has never recovered its pre-wars GDP of 1989, has 26 percent unemployment, and suffers a brain drain of young people that has shrunk the country’s population in the past decade by 5 percent.

Most dramatically, Dacic and Vucic rehabilitated the memory of the extremists’ nemesis, Zoran Djindjic, the man who sent Milosevic to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes. On the 10th anniversary of the assassination last month, Dacic lauded his predecessor and declared that in the decade since his death, Serbs have been deceived by the lie that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia. They now have to face the reality that Kosovo is in practice no longer theirs, he said bluntly. What he did not add was that he and Vucic were now seeking the very compromise that Serbia probably could have achieved under Djindjic in 2003.

Once the premier and his first deputy made the basic decision to cut the Kosovo “ball and chain” on Serbia’s modernization, as one Serb observer put it, the two pressed ahead with negotiations in Brussels under the mediation of Catherine Ashton, head of the fledgling EU foreign service. The risky aim was to reach a quick statement of general principles in good faith and let this drive later negotiations on details of implementation.

The tactic made sense, especially since the window of opportunity was short. Dacic and Vucic needed to capitalize fast on their 2012 electoral victory before public opinion soured on them as it had soured on the centrists during a generation of stagnation and graft. They needed to show voters results, and this meant one thing—getting from the EU that fixed date to begin accession negotiations, catch up with Croatia’s long head start, and gain the benefits not only of EU grants and soft loans, but also EU institutional and business expertise.

For the EU—which seemed startled by the manifest power of its conditionality in requiring normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations before specifying a date for opening talks—the window of opportunity would close on April 22, 2013. This was the scheduled day for the European Commission to forward its recommendation on relations with Serbia to EU foreign ministers and to the next EU summit in June. If no deal were reached by then, the Commission told Belgrade, the campaign would start for Germany’s general election in September, and decisions on starting Serbian accession talks would have to be postponed for another two years.

With this pressure, Serbia’s Premier Ivica Dacic and Kosovo’s Premier Hashim Thaci initialed their 15-point deal by April 19. In the artful language of the agreement the Serbian government never says it recognizes the state of Kosovo, and Dacic and Vucic vow they will never do so. They further defend their compromise by telling critics that they won the broadest autonomy possible for the “association of Serb majority municipalities” that will now be set up in the north—including the right to have a majority of Kosovo Serb judges on the Mitrovica District Court, to nominate the regional Kosovo Serb police commander, and to have Kosovo Serb policemen deployed in numbers proportional to the ethnic Serb population in their precincts.

In addition, Belgrade has asked NATO for and received an oral promise from Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to keep the embryo Kosovo army out of north Kosovo territory for a number of years, except in cases of natural catastrophe and with NATO’s permission. Dacic claims that this promise gives Serbs in north Kosovo unprecedented safety.

Not surprisingly, Kosovo Premier Hashim Thaci’s interpretation of the deal differs from Belgrade’s. He argues that by accepting that Serb policemen north of the Ibar River will operate under Kosovo law and will be paid only by the Kosovo Police (and not by the Belgrade government, as happened clandestinely in the past), Belgrade has implicitly accepted Kosovo independence. He draws the same conclusion from the Serbian agreement that in the north the local judiciary and elections too will follow Kosovo law.

On this point Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church agrees with Thaci—and is incensed. Citing his “holy duty,” he has pled with the Belgrade government not to “cede, betray or sell Kosovo and Metohija, the historic Old Serbia, under any conditions.” His rejection of the compact has been echoed by marchers in Belgrade who shouted “treason” as they passed the presidential offices, and by several thousand Serbs who gathered in north Kosovo to announce formation of their own “Autonomous Province of Kosovo-Metohija,” apparently on the pattern of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

Does this opposition invalidate or jeopardize the whole project to normalize Serbia-Kosovo relations? Ivan Vejvoda doesn’t think so. This veteran of the democratic opposition to Milosevic, one-time senior adviser to Premier Djindjic, and now Vice President for Programs at the German Marshal Fund of the United States, calls the Serbia-Kosovo deal “going through the sound barrier” on the big issue of guaranteeing legitimate Serb autonomy in the north of Kosovo. He expects this example of a modus vivendi to have a beneficial impact on Bosnia and perhaps other Balkan neighbors.

Indeed, in perspective, the striking thing is perhaps that there is so little Serb hostility so far to the course of reconciliation, demystification of the Serb ethos, and sheer normality that Dacic and Vucic have set. In this the lessons of President Richard Nixon’s normalizing of US-China relations in 1972 and bringing the recalcitrant Republican Party with him apply. In Serbia former ultranationalists seem to be far better than moderates in persuading ultranationalist colleagues to endorse a change of course. The Socialist presidency has backed Dacic unanimously. President Tomislav Nikolic, 61, has backed his protégé Vucic, 43, and the Progressive Party’s main board has also supported Vucic by a landslide 377 to 10. Furthermore, the Kosovo Serbs who live south of the Ibar River and have been participating routinely in Kosovar political life since 2008 see no reason why Serbs north of the Ibar can’t do the same.

The best bet probably is that there will be spasmodic violence by local Serbs in north Kosovo before they accept what now looks like future reconciliation between their old country and their new country. Yet this should fade out as their financial sponsors in Belgrade shrink in number and in their access to Serbian government funding. The European vision of reducing the importance of borders altogether should help smooth the adjustment as Serbia now gets its date for starting accession talks and Kosovo starts work on its lower-rung negotiations toward a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU.

But the last word on this turning point in history should go to Aleksandar Vucic. He didn’t drop his natural gloom on the eve of the D-Day of  April 22. But he did defy those who sent him death threats by saying that they were wrong to believe that “the bandit Serbia will win over the decent Serbia.” They can’t stop the country, he continued, from “moving toward normal values and the creation of a decent Serbia.”

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

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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