Harbingers of Transformation

A few bright spots on Europe’s troubled periphery

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   April 7, 2015

by Elizabeth Pond

Even as the future of the European Union’s neighborhood remains under threat, a few developments on the EU periphery – in Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia – show that civil society and rule of law are making inroads in post-Communist kleptocracies.

For once there is some good news from the politically challenged periphery of the European Union. Chalk it up to nascent democracy, womanpower, and, believe it or not, the enduring attraction of joining the EU family.

In Ukraine, as the initial shock of Russia’s attack last year faded in memory, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky tried to return to business as usual and grab new state assets. After his private protection squad recently took over the head office of the huge Ukrnafta oil and gas concern in Kiev, however, he was sacked by the central government from his post as the governor of Dnipropetrovsk province. In Romania – a nation renowned for graft – the highest serving official to be investigated for corruption in the past quarter century, Finance Minister Darius Valcov, actually resigned. And in Serbia, for the first time since ethnic Serbs massacred some 8000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995, police arrested suspected Serb perpetrators of Europe’s worst atrocity in half a century for trial in Serbian courts.

Dangers still abound, of course. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his nuclear saber-rattling. There are widespread fears that he may end the current fragile truce in eastern Ukraine when the spring mud hardens and overpower the outgunned Ukrainian army and militia defenders to seize more territory, and the crackdown on Kolomoisky has not stopped the greater menace that Vienna-based oligarch Dmytro Firtash poses to the Kiev government, as he wields influence by funding parties and politicians in Ukraine and in German-speaking Europe. In Romania, the political system there remains largely populated by unreformed members of the old pre-1989 Communist Party, who have formed a kaleidoscope of cozy clientelist parties. And in Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic still says that Serbia will never recognize the 2008 independence of Serbia’s one-time province of Kosovo, while the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights reports that respect for human rights deteriorated in Serbia in 2014.

Nonetheless, taming Ukraine’s oligarchs, putting previously immune Romanian officials on trial, and finally bringing Serb suspects in the genocide at Srebrenica to justice in Serbia’s own courts all mark turning points.

In Ukraine, the trigger to Kolomoisky’s fall from grace was neither the opening move of a coup, as widely reported, nor a repetition of the internecine feuding of the political winners of the earlier Orange Revolution. It was instead a backsliding to the oligarchs’ snatch-what-you-can reflex on the part of a billionaire who is skillful at murky deals but also feels some sense of civic responsibility. He tried to prolong his previous low-cost control of Ukrnafta, which he had maintained as a minority shareholder by blocking corporate meetings under an old sweetheart law requiring a quorum of 60 percent of shareholders. When Ukraine’s reformist Rada changed the law to a 50-percent-plus quorum, Kolomoisky sent his protection squad into Ukrnafta headquarters, allegedly to prevent a Russian raid. His quick dismissal from the Dnipropetrovsk governorship warned other oligarchs that undue political influence really is being curtailed – and that they would do well to emulate America’s 19th-century barons, support the rule of law to protect their new wealth, pay their taxes, and become philanthropists.

Everyone agrees that the oligarchs must be coopted into the new Ukrainian system if it is going to succeed, and Kolomoisky had himself already started to evolve in this direction. He contributed handsomely to construction of the world’s largest Jewish community center, which opened in Dnipropetrovsk in 2012 and quickly became a cultural magnet for the entire city.  After Russia attacked Ukraine a year ago, he returned from his homes in Switzerland and Israel to become governor of the key province of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, where he personally paid and equipped volunteer militias that helped hold the line against pro-Russian incursions from eastern Ukraine last summer. His downfall came when he wanted to keep his favored position in both his civic and tycoon worlds – and his disciplining will continue as all volunteer militias are gradually brought under army command.

Moreover, a number of the civil society watchdogs who ignited last year’s “Revolution of Dignity” – learning by doing as they camped out in Kiev’s “Euromaidan” square for three months and organized seminars on good governance and writing legislation – now hold seats in parliament alongside oligarchs. They are continuing their crusade inside elected institutions.

In Romania, even as a post-Soviet kleptocracy took root in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, it was women who bucked the hierarchy and kept a fledgling anti-graft movement alive. Human-rights activist Monica Macovei was appointed justice minister in the three years before Romania was admitted to EU membership in 2007, survived death threats, and managed to improve the country’s human-rights protection sufficiently to meet the minimum EU legal standard. Laura Codruta Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate since 2013, won 90 percent of her indictments last year, convicting a former prime minister, five parliamentarians, 24 mayors, and 1,108 others. Romania’s women lawyers are now fully backed by Klaus Iohannis, a straight shooter from Romania’s tiny ethnic German minority who was elected president in a surprise upset last November. In order to allow the government to work without suspicion, Iohannis persuaded Finance Minister Valcov to resign last week while he is investigated on charges of accepting a two million-euro kickback for the award of a public works contract. This is a common precaution when senior officials come under investigation in northern EU member states, but not in Romania. Other senior politicians are already becoming more circumspect, especially since surveys show that the 55 percent of the electorate who supported Iohannis last November has now swelled to some 75 percent who approve of his fight against graft.

In Serbia it is the female human-rights activists, male prosecutors, and Brussels eurocrats who have worked together for transformation. Sonja Biserko founded the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade and railed against Great Serb hubris. Natasa Kandic founded the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and in 2005 broadcast a secret selfie video made by the Serb paramilitary Scorpions as they murdered six unarmed Bosniak boys and men from Srebrenica in 1995. The women braved death threats from compatriots who deemed them traitors to Serbdom. So did the unpopular male prosecutors who pursued Serb war crimes perpetrators.

Political pragmatism finally took hold as Aleksandar Vucic – who started his career as a wunderkind acolyte of strongman Slobodan Milosevic –quit Serbia’s most chauvinist party, won a decisive election, and, as prime minister reached an EU-brokered partial accommodation with Kosovo in 2013. This was the price demanded by Brussels for starting negotiations with Belgrade on Serbia’s coveted accession to the European Union. Today, twenty years after the Srebrenica massacre, Serb prosecutors are finally able to arrest Srebrenica suspects for trial in Serbian courts without igniting riots.

These are all harbingers of a healthy evolution in the region.

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of The Rebirth of Europe and Endgame in the Balkans.

Harbingers of Transformation


Serbia Reinvents Itself

August/September 2013


By Elizabeth Pond

Back in the 1990s, Ivica Dacic, known as ‘Little Slobo’, was the spokesman who justified strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s conquests of neighbouring non-Serbs in the Balkan wars. Aleksandar Vucic, as the information minister of Yugoslav President Milosevic, was the hatchet man for the media who defended the vast ethnic cleansing by paramilitary police of more than 60% of the 90%-majority Albanians living in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Tomislav Nikolic was the deputy leader of the Serbian Radical Party that berated Milosevic for being too soft and not seizing much more contiguous territory for a Greater Serbia; the party’s founder, Vojislav Seselj, would shortly report to The Hague for trial on war-crimes charges.

That was a generation ago. Today Dacic, 47 years old, is prime minister of Serbia. Vucic, 43, is first deputy prime minister. Nikolic, 61, is president. Seselj, 58, is still in a remand cell at The Hague, awaiting his verdict in the autumn. Together, they have wrought a political metamorphosis – Seselj by removing himself from Belgrade politics, his three compatriots by remoulding their country’s self-identity from ‘bandit Serbia’ to ‘decent Serbia’, as Vucic sees it.1

But no, the foxes are not now ruling the chicken coop, despite all the fears in the EU after Milosevic’s old Socialists and the successors to Seselj’s Radicals won Serbia’s elections last year – and, for the first time, assumed full government responsibility. Instead, within nine months of taking office, the foxy ultranationalists decided to cut their losses by admitting that the Kosovo that seceded from Serbia in 2008 is no longer theirs. Their reward at first glance seems small: a target date for starting EU accession talks and thereby rescuing their stressed economy.2

The public proof of this sudden new pragmatism is the brief 15-point EU-brokered deal that Prime Minister Dacic initialled with his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, on 19 April 2013. In it Belgrade accepts for the first time that the local Serb majority in the northern tip of Kosovo will live under Kosovo’s laws. This augurs a halt to the mass smuggling that has deprived both Pristina and Belgrade of tariffs in this no man’s land, and a halt as well to the operation of clandestine security ‘parallel structures’ that Belgrade has maintained in the locality, at an annual cost greater than the pre-accession aid it already receives from the EU.

Even more convincing proof of the Serbian government’s new pragmatism is provided by the death threats to both Dacic and Vucic from remaining hardcore Serb ultranationalists, the frowns of Church officials who cherish Kosovo as the sacred birthplace of Serbian Orthodoxy – and the howls of pain from north Kosovo Serbs. Fourteen years after NATO bombs forced Milosevic to pull his military forces out of Kosovo and turned the province into a de facto United Nations protectorate – and five years after Pristina finally declared independence from its Serbian overlord – the rural and small-town Serbs in the north must now concede that they no longer reside in Serbia. They must follow the example of the other half of Kosovo’s Serbs, who live south of the Ibar River, and utilise the ample minority guarantees in the Kosovo constitution. Serbia is no longer willing to sacrifice the interests of its seven million to maintain the lifestyle of 60,000 north Kosovo Serbs.

This adjustment comes hard. In mid-May, some 3,000 Serbs from north Kosovo chanted ‘treason’ as they marched in Belgrade to protest their severance from Serbia – and from their sinecure of its subsidies of double salaries for some and no taxes except protection money for all. At their rally retired Serbian Orthodox Bishop Atanasije hinted broadly that God might welcome the murder of Dacic in a re-enactment of the 2003 assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. And Metropolitan Amfilohije pointedly offered a premature requiem prayer for the repose of the dead Serbian government, parliament and Serbs killed in Kosovo.3

Any previous centrist government would have had to back down in the face of such resistance from north Kosovo Serbs, the church hierarchy and the ultranationalists who would have rallied to their cause. But this time it was the ex-ultranationalist parties themselves that were making peace with the West, and these ex-chauvinists could not be blackmailed.

With the 19 April pact, the nightmare 1990s wars of Yugoslav succession, characterised on all sides less by firefights between uniformed soldiers than by militia terror against defenceless civilians, have truly ended. The ex- ultranationalists have made an extraordinary leap – without prior incremental steps of repentance or confrontation of past demons – to the goal that post-war transitional justice aspires to: transmuting a bellicose mindset. Remarkably, it is Milosevic’s Socialists and the Radicals’ heirs who are now transforming Serbs’ poisonous old sense of mingled entitlement and victimhood into a pragmatic and (Vucic’s word) ‘normal’ mentality. 4

Subterranean evolution

Nothing had prepared Western observers to intuit the subterranean evolution of the Serbian ultranationalists that was revealed in 2013. In the two decades since the 1990s wars began, they had become inured to watching Balkan extremists – and none more than the Serbs – block efforts at regional reconciliation. Only in retrospect is it possible to trace the retreat by the Socialists and Progressives from nineteenth-century ideological nationalism and special Serb inat, or ‘malevolent, vengeful and obstinate defiance’, as writer Aleksa Djilas defines it.5

The dynamic began in 2000, with what were intended to be only pro forma elections. Yugoslav President Milosevic suffered a surprise defeat, in large part because he had just lost his four local wars, following NATO intervention. He was forced to yield to the mandate of the ballot as Belgrade’s robust civil society mobilised a million-strong street protest and segments of his security apparatus, reading the omens, refused to shoot demonstrators. In June 2001 old-regime judges on the Yugoslav Constitutional Court banned any extradition of Serbs to the UN tribunal set up to adjudicate Balkan war crimes, but within hours of this ruling new Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic packed Milosevic off to The Hague before hardliners could muster crowds to block the transfer.

The moderate German-educated Djindjic, however, was not granted the time to stanch the growing popular conviction that Serbs were being specially persecuted by the European Union, by Kosovo-friendly America and by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The zeitgeist shaped by the Serb intelligentsia in its revolt against the perceived encroachment on Orthodox Serbdom by the two Western ideologies of Marxism and political liberalism still prevailed. The ideas voiced by Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts intellectuals in a famous 1980s screed against the de-ethnicised, anti-Serb doctrine of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito had justified Milosevic’s opportunistic shift in 1989 away from Communist Party control to nationalism to legitimise his regime. 6  In the post-Milosevic era the academy’s ideas justified in turn rejection of the de- ethnicised politics the West was now urging on Serbia.

In a cruder form, these ideas found popular resonance in scapegoating of the West as the cause of Serbia’s latter-day military losses and post-war economic misery. To the man on the street, The Hague was clearly biased against Serbia, since two-thirds of those being prosecuted for atrocities were Serbs and since the first defendant to be convicted of genocide, in 2001, was Radislav Krstic, the Bosnian Serb deputy commander at the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 unarmed Bosniak (Muslim) boys and men.

On 12 March 2003, the eve of Djindjic’s planned purge to rid the Yugoslav army and secret police of the intertwined networks of criminals and extreme nationalists that had grown stronger and richer under Milosevic, the prime minister was assassinated on the back doorstep of his office by a sharpshooter linked to Serbia’s elite Red Berets. 7

The murder achieved its apparent aim. For the next eight years, the ultranationalists set the political agenda. At the time, the International Crisis Group commented that

‘In politics and policies, Serbia increasingly resembles the Milosevic-era without Milosevic … [the] strong showing by ultra-nationalists in the 28 December 2003 parliamentary elections and the subsequent two-months of squabbling before democratic parties could form a minority government that depends for survival on the support of Milosevic’s old [Socialist] party all are signs that more trouble lies ahead. In 2004 Serbia can anticipate continued political instability, increasingly strained relations with the West and further economic decline … such stability as there may be will come through lowest common denominator politics, which in Belgrade today is anti-Western populism’. 8

Serbia remained a ‘criminalised state’ in which the media peddled ‘inflammatory rhetoric’, the commentary continued. And ‘Serbia’s media and judiciary are less independent today than two years ago. The myriad intelligence services still appear out of control and engage primarily in spying on domestic political opponents.’ 9

Unlike the Croats, the Serbs scorned the basic requirement of cooperation with the ICTY as a precondition for advancing towards EU membership. By 2005 Zagreb reluctantly shared security files with the tribunal that enabled Spanish police to track down and arrest fugitive Croat General Ante Gotovina for extradition to The Hague. By contrast, Belgrade’s army and secret services, with a wink and a nod, protested over 16 and 13 years respectively that in South Dakota-sized Serbia they could never find either Ratko Mladic, the commander of Serb troops at the Srebrenica slaughter, or his political counterpart Radovan Karadzic. As a consequence, by summer of 2013 Serbia would still be waiting even to open EU membership talks as neighbouring Croatia entered the club.

Even many of the activists who had toppled Milosevic in 2000 supported the Socialists and Radicals in resisting EU demands and seeing themselves as victims of an anti-Serb West. The most conspicuous example was Vojislav Kostunica, the constitutional law professor and translator of America’s Federalist Papers into Serbian who issued from the nationalist intellectual milieu but shunned Milosevic, and was therefore nominated by the democratic opposition to run for president in 2000 in order to draw nationalist votes away from Milosevic. In an increasingly acrimonious split with Djindjic, Kostunica vehemently opposed sending Milosevic and other indictees to The Hague. By March 2004, he quit altogether his alliance with the Democratic Party of the murdered prime minister to become Serbian prime minister himself, at the head of a coalition with the Radicals. His government lasted four years in unhappy cohabitation with Boris Tadic, the new Serbian president and Djindjic’s successor as Democratic Party leader.

In this atmosphere, the Radicals, distancing themselves somewhat from the more extravagant claims of their imprisoned founder but still preserving their role as the most extreme of the ultranationalists in Serbia, won a plurality in the 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections. However, the party’s acting head in Belgrade, Tomislav Nikolic—who demanded only that Serbia’s police and army reoccupy Kosovo, and not also Bosnia, as his boss Seselj demanded—lost narrowly to Boris Tadic in the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008. Tadic eked out a victory both times by agreeing that of course Kosovo must belong to Serbia, but adding, disingenuously, that gaining EU membership was compatible with retaking Kosovo. To the contrary, the Radicals and Prime Minister Kostunica’s DSS party, which together held 46% of parliamentary seats throughout most of the decade, demonised the EU and argued that bowing to its diktat would mean the surrender of Serbia’s putative rule over Kosovo. 10

In spring 2006 Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack before the completion of his trial at The Hague. In his place, Ivica Dacic was elected to lead the weakened Socialist Party as the young moderniser who might revive its fortunes. By then the party had sunk to an 8% share of the votes, as its anti-Western Slavophile supporters deserted to the Radicals and the DSS en masse. It became no more than a me-too appendage to these parties in passing the slapdash post-Tito constitution that aimed primarily at declaring Kosovo an inalienable part of Serbia, thereby branding as treason any negotiations or compromise on Kosovo’s status.

Secession of Kosovo

The gravest crisis in the post-war Balkans erupted with the long-postponed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in February 2008. After 18 months of dead- end negotiations, a troika of the European Union, the United States and Russia broke up without having agreed on a final status to end the interim UN administration of Kosovo established in 1999. For the EU and the United States, any return of Kosovo to Serbian sovereignty was unthinkable after Milosevic’s juggernaut had killed 10,000 ethnic Albanians in the province, forcibly expelled more than half of the Albanian population from their homes and poisoned wells by throwing dead livestock into them. For the Russians, any formalisation of Kosovo’s de facto severance from Serbian sovereignty was equally unthinkable.

Yet spasms of Albanian-Serb violence in Kosovo and Serbia in the previous decade convinced the West that continued limbo in Kosovo would risk reigniting the 1999 conflagration. It therefore chose a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo as the last resort, the least worst of all the bad options. But it qualified the new independence as supervised by a new EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and still protected for an indefinite period by the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers; the future army of Kosovo was told by its Western mentors to follow the practice of the Kosovo Police in recruiting ethnic Serbs, as well as Albanians, and was kept in embryo for the foreseeable future.

The infant country’s constitution, as drafted by Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, ensured the most generous minority rights in the Balkans. It guaranteed the Serbs political representation above their percentage of the population, along with special protection of Serbian Orthodox monasteries and holy sites, and a very un-Balkan devolution of extensive self-rule to Serb as well as Albanian municipalities. The West hardly expected that Belgrade politicians would soon admit that, morally, Milosevic’s brutality had forfeited Serb rule over Kosovo. But they might, the West hoped, gradually claim part-ownership of the minority rights offered in the Kosovo constitution and find a role in championing those rights without turning every issue into a zero-sum contest of sovereignty.

Once this broad strategy was agreed on, the EU had to divine what might be the least disruptive moment to execute it. Just weeks before Serbia’s presidential vote on 3 February 2008, Brussels took the precaution of granting Belgrade its longed-for visa facilitation for Serbs travelling in EU countries; this favour may well have tipped the close race between Tadic and the Radical Nikolic in Tadic’s favour. Shortly after the moderate flag- bearer was re-elected, Kosovo made its unilateral declaration of independence, on 17 February.

Shockwaves hit Belgrade. Kostunica’s government resigned. A new general election was called for 11 May, only 16 months after the previous one, and was widely expected to produce an angry ultranationalist surge. In three nights of violence in the week after Kosovo’s secession rioters attacked nine foreign embassies in Belgrade, setting the US and German Embassies ablaze as police looked on or vacated the scene altogether. For good measure, thugs also beat up independent journalists, broke windows at the headquarters of the pro-Western opposition Liberal Democratic Party, looted local shops, trashed McDonald’s and other foreign businesses, left one person dead and more than 200 injured, and caused €1 million worth of damage. Serbs in north Kosovo torched two border and customs posts and clashed with UN police and the NATO-led international peacekeeping forces.

Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, from Kostunica’s DSS, blamed Western powers for all the violence, proclaiming that they ‘have broken our state, and we only broke a few of their windows. They should expect that, to learn what democracy is. Breaking some windows is also democracy.’ The nationalist daily Vecernje Novosti agreed. The US Embassy was not ‘set on fire by Serbian nationalists’, it asserted. ‘It was set on fire by US policy and contemporary fascism.’ Tabloids accused the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies of having organised the riots. The International Crisis Group remarked drily that ‘mass rallies have been a tactic of Serbia’s nationalist politicians since Milosevic. He used them sporadically, bringing hooligans from the regions to frighten the capital’s more liberal urban elite into silence.’ 11 More bluntly, the US Embassy directly blamed Kostunica’s office for the violence. 12

At the second rally that segued into violence on 21 February Radical Deputy Chairman Tomislav Nikolic told the estimated 250,000 demonstrators that ‘if there isn’t Kosovo, then there isn’t Serbia.’ Kostunica declared that ‘Serbia’s youth has sent a message that Serbia is for law, justice and freedom and that it rejects the bullying policy of Western countries’. 13  Socialist Party Chairman Dacic called for a crackdown on civil-rights activists and the Liberal Democratic Party and stated that the Socialists would not enter any government with Tadic’s Democratic Party. In March 2008 Serbs in the northern tip of Kosovo protested the declaration of independence by occupying a UN courthouse in Mitrovica, killing one UN policeman and leaving more than 100 wounded as international forces intervened. The expectation grew that an extreme nationalist coalition of the Radicals, the DSS and the Socialists would soon take the reins of government unfettered.

As it turned out, this was the political apogee of violent nationalism. In Belgrade there was no further anti-Western paroxysm comparable to the mob rampage in February. In the May election campaign, the Radicals and the DSS focused exclusively, and the Socialists primarily, on preserving Kosovo as part of Serbia and on blaming Tadic for its secession. Tadic’s alliance of parties won 38% of the vote. The Radicals won 29% and the DSS alliance 12%, for a combined 41%. The Socialists, with 8%, became the kingmakers.

As the coalition building dragged on, the first crack in the ultranationalist front appeared. The sole public prophet to contest the gloomy European consensus that moderate Serbs had finally lost to the extremists was Ivan Vejvoda, the veteran liberal Serb political activist and analyst who at that point headed the German Marshall Fund’s Balkan Trust for Democracy. In Berlin and Brussels he assured disbelieving audiences that the horse-trading would produce a Democratic-Socialist Party government that would not paralyse moderates, but instead pull the Socialists towards the centre.

After Dacic successfully lobbied old-guard party stalwarts, he indeed gambled on throwing the Socialists’ crucial 8% of the vote not to fellow hardliners, but to their erstwhile Democratic Party foes. Dacic was rewarded with the senior posts of deputy prime minister and interior minister in the new government. The move was widely dismissed in Europe as pure opportunism aimed at winning some respectability for the Socialists, the usual financial perks that state enterprises shower on election victors and, for Dacic, higher positions than he could have wrested as a junior partner of the Radicals. Yet the split broke the Radical-DSS chokehold on the political agenda. The goal of eventual EU membership began to creep back into the political mainstream as the Socialists refrained from trashing their new partners’ pro-Europe policy.

Two weeks after the Democratic-Socialist pact and 13 years after the ICTY indictment of Radovan Karadzic, a Serbian police unit of untouchables finally made a stealthy snatch of the politician who had led the Bosnian Serbs at the time of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. This time there was no advance leak to the target in time for him to evade capture. Vucic, the as yet unreformed secretary-general of the Radical Party, told Balkan Insight that Karadzic’s arrest was ‘horrible news for Serbia’, and added that ‘we will continue our resistance against the treacherous regime of Tadic.’ By contrast, as a novice member of this ‘treacherous regime’, interior minister-designate Dacic confined his comments to noting that his ministry’s ‘servicemen did not take part’ in the operation. 14

Then US Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter recently described sensing a turning point in 2008. ‘It became clear to me that the post- Milosevic Socialists (i.e., Dacic) and the post-Seselj Radicals (i.e., Nikolic and Vucic) sensed that their constituencies wanted “Europe”, or the kind of prosperity and ease that the prospect of EU membership seemed to offer’, he recollected in 2013. He continued:

‘In 2008 and 2009 they told me so; and I recall thinking that the 2008 vote was a choice for forward-to-Europe Boris [Tadic] vs. back-to-Old-Serbia Toma [Nikolic], while the next vote would be Europe vs. Europe. And so it turned out in 2012. Both sides used the EU-and-Kosovo mantra [that Tadic first articulated] in the years 2008-2012. Dacic, but also Nikolic and Vucic were solidly pro-EU (essentially, pro-future) by 2009, and that helped them leave their pasts behind.’ 15

With such novel movement on the 2008 political scene, even the Radicals began to shift a few months later. In autumn 2008 Deputy Leader Nikolic and Secretary-General Vucic tired of being the messenger boys for orders from Seselj’s remand cell, defied the customary autocracy of party leaders in Serbia and quit the Radicals, taking 19 other parliamentary colleagues with them, to found the Progressive Party. Seselj branded the Progressives as traitors and the puppets of foreign intelligence agencies. At this stage policy differences between the Radicals and their deserters were negligible, although Nikolic did tone down his appeals for Serbia to become part of Russia rather than a colony of the EU.

As for the re-elected President Tadic, he gained some new room for manoeuvre through his alliance with the Socialists. He continued the gradual purge of the ultranationalist-criminal nexuses in the army and security services that he had begun as defence minister after Djindjic’s assassination. He also resumed the rapprochement with Croatia that Djindjic had initiated.

In January 2010 he launched a three-month campaign to get the first parliamentary statement condemning the ‘crime’ at Srebrenica. (The word ‘genocide’ was still taboo in Serbia, despite prior ICTY and International Court of Justice designation of this massacre as genocide. So was any explicit mention that the perpetrators who shot the 8,000 victims were Serb troops.) Tadic’s stated rationale was not moral compulsion, but rather the instrumental need for Serbia to acknowledge the massacre in order to advance Belgrade’s stalled march to EU membership and show good will in advance of the International Court of Justice’s imminent ruling on an appeal from Belgrade about the legality of Kosovo’s secession.16  His efforts to claim some patriotic credit domestically for serving Serbia’s future foundered, however. They were still trumped by the Radical, Progressive and DSS objections that singling out Srebrenica for a memorial would discriminate against the far greater victimisation of Serbs in the 1990s wars and in the Second World War.

After an emotional 13 hours of final legislative debate that was carried live on TV, the Srebrenica statement passed on 31 March 2008 with the votes of the government majority. The still nationalist Progressives joined the Radicals in abstaining. Progressive Chairman Nikolic joined other opposition politicians in accusing the government and the few Bosniak parliamentarians of selling out Serbia to European blackmail, igniting new conflicts and insulting Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church.17

In early July 2010, on the fifteenth anniversary of the 1995 massacre, Tadic laid a wreath at the Srebrenica memorial as he had done on the tenth anniversary. The following November he became the first Serbian leader to pay his respects to the 260 Croat victims who, after a three-month siege of Vukovar by Serb militias, were hauled out of the city hospital, shot and buried in mass graves on a nearby pig farm in 1991.

On 22 July 2010, to the disappointment of Belgrade, the International Court of Justice announced its non-binding judgement that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence violated neither general international law nor UN Security Council resolutions. Two months after this, the Belgrade government endorsed a UN resolution calling for a bilateral Serbia–Kosovo dialogue to resolve practical issues of everyday life in north Kosovo. The aim was ‘normalisation’, which the EU defined as reaching bottom-up bilateral ‘technical’ agreements to improve such mundane conditions as settling electricity and phone spats between Serbia and Kosovo and achieving some cooperation on the crossing points between the two.

Progressive consolidation

As they consolidated their new party and their new role as the largest opposition group in parliament in 2009 and 2010, the Progressives eventually decided that what distinguished them from their parent Radicals was their attitude towards the European Union. The Radicals still vilified it and castigated the Serbian government for having filed an official application for membership in December 2009. The Progressives paid lip service to joining the club, even if their friendlier view did not yet lead to policy consequences and hardly curbed their nationalist rhetoric. To European ears, the Progressives’ adoption of the formula that joining the EU was compatible with preserving Kosovo as a province of Serbia did not sound like Tadic’s apparent ploy of preventing the EU option from drowning in the tsunami of patriotic fervour. It sounded instead like a presumption that Serbia could successfully repossess its old province and still win admittance to the club by banking on an irresolute EU to waive its ban on admitting any new member with border conflicts.

Under Dutch and German pressure, however, the EU gradually became tougher in its insistence that Belgrade first deliver Mladic to The Hague – and normalise relations with Kosovo – before it could acquire its desired status as a candidate for membership. This status was one of several rungs at the bottom of the ladder to accession that the EU had added successively to give ill-prepared Balkan states an early sense of progress. Almost imperceptibly, the Progressives tilted towards the EU side of the political spectrum and began positioning themselves as a potential coalition partner for either Dacic’s Socialists or Tadic’s Democrats in the next election.

In March 2011 the first high-level Serbia–Kosovo contacts opened in the EU-sponsored technical dialogue. In May 2011, the untouchables finally captured the most-wanted Ratko Mladic after his 16 years on the run, at the house of a cousin 50 miles north of Belgrade. Days before his arrest, a reputable opinion poll found that 40% of Serbia’s citizens still deemed Mladic a Serb hero, while 78%, scorning the €10m reward on offer, declared they would not report Mladic’s whereabouts to authorities if they knew them.18 Tadic told reporters that the arrest should clinch Serbia’s entry into the EU. Yet opinion polls of the Serbian Office for European Integration showed a sharp drop in popular support for EU membership, from 73% in November 2009 to 56% in November 2010 to 49% in November 2011. 19

Mladic’s capture was followed by the July 2011 arrest of Goran Hadzic, the former president of the breakaway Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia and the last remaining fugitive of any nationality on The Hague’s list. The double coup might indeed have clinched Serbia’s rise to the next rung up the ladder to EU membership, had it not been for violence by Serbs in north Kosovo that erupted within days of Hadzic’s detention. This violence both revealed and magnified a new split in the chauvinist ranks. Even some Progressive politicians in Belgrade came to fear that the north Kosovo Serbs could veto Serbia–Kosovo rapprochement and thwart efforts to modernise Belgrade’s economy and lift it out of stagnation. Politicians in north Kosovo increasingly feared that they might be abandoned even by the Progressives. At the same time Pristina, frustrated by its continuing inability to exercise any sovereignty in Kosovo’s northern tip and by the failure of the International Court of Justice ruling to change anything on the ground, feared that the passive West might abandon it and yield to Belgrade’s increasing calls for the partition of Kosovo, with northern Kosovo reverting to Serbia.

On 25 July 2011 the Kosovo government tried to break out of the stalemate, with no advance notice to its Western protectors. It dispatched rapid-reaction police in a lightning raid to take physical control, for the first time, of two customs checkpoints on the northern dividing line that Kosovo and the EU regarded as an international border between Kosovo and Serbia but Belgrade regarded as a mere administrative line in its own territory. Local Serbs deployed a well-prepared instant posse, killed one of the Kosovo policemen, forced the others to retreat, burned one of the customs posts and barricaded all roads leading to the posts against Kosovo and international officials. The West condemned Pristina’s unilateral action, but KFOR rescued the remaining Kosovo police and took control of the border area for the next month, declaring it a closed military zone.

Within weeks German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Belgrade and publicly read the riot act to a stunned Tadic, demanding that he end Serbian support of the parallel security structures in north Kosovo. For Merkel the subsequent wounding by Kosovo Serbs of two German KFOR soldiers who were dismantling barricades was the last straw. Belgrade lost what had looked like a good chance to attain EU candidate status.

On 2 September 2011 the sixth meeting of the Serbia–Kosovo dialogue reached a minimal agreement on customs stamps and cadastral records. EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton ordered EULEX officers – who carried no weapons and had generally been barred from entering north Kosovo by well-armed local Serbs – to accompany Kosovo customs officers to the border posts. The northern Serbs responded by expanding their barricades against the ‘occupiers’ and bringing in bulldozers to construct half-a-dozen heavy-duty bypass roads so all the trailer trucks shuttling cigarettes and other lucrative contraband could skirt the customs posts, and evade both Serbian and Kosovo VAT. On 26 September KFOR removed a barricade near gate one. In the subsequent skirmish 1,000 Serbs threw rocks, a grenade and pipe bombs at KFOR. Both sides fired live ammunition. Thereafter, KFOR helicoptered EU and Kosovo officials past the barricades to the customs gates to monitor traffic symbolically, if not yet to actually inspect cargoes or levy taxes.

In Belgrade, the parties differed in their response. Tadic, who had initially backed the north Serbs’ barricades, now called for them to be dismantled to allow freedom of movement for EULEX and KFOR, and even stopped demanding Kosovo’s partition. Kostunica’s DSS and the Radicals, by contrast, repeatedly visited the barricades in solidarity and demanded an end to the bilateral dialogue. Nikolic supported the DSS, while other Progressives leaned towards Tadic’s more conciliatory position. The government too was split. Deputy Prime Minister Dacic dropped his by- then customary discretion to say publicly that a military solution could not be ruled out and ‘Thaci must know that an attack on Mitrovica [the city straddling the Ibar River] is an attack on Belgrade.’20  A few lives were lost in the clashes – surprisingly few, given the passions involved.


The Progressives won the May 2012 elections – or rather, President Tadic lost them. The EU’s usual pre-vote favour to him as the centrist – this time the grant to Serbia of candidate status for membership – failed to boost him over the top, either in the parliamentary or presidential polls.21

During the campaign, for the first time in the post-Djindjic era, Kosovo was not the all-consuming issue. It had fallen well below unemployment and standard of living on the scale of public concerns, and all political parties except the DSS agreed that Serbia should now head for Europe, even if they did not yet concur on the political price they would pay for doing so. The Progressives presented a fresh face, while Tadic’s Democratic Party was tarred by cronyism, scandals and longevity in office in a period of economic stagnation. The Progressives (who at that point still went by an interim name) won a plurality, with 24% of the parliamentary vote. The Democrats reached only 22% and fell into factional infighting. Dacic won his bid to make the Socialists respectable again and almost doubled his party’s votes to 15%, to play the kingmaker once more.

In the May 2012 presidential vote, Progressive Nikolic edged out Democrat Tadic, as a portion of the incumbent president’s disappointed voters stayed away from the polls. Only months before, Nikolic was still calling the Srebrenica massacre an invention of the French secret service and upbraiding the Tadic government for its ’treasonous’ extradition of Serb ’heroes’ to The Hague for trial. And in an interview with a German newspaper just before the presidential runoff, he asserted that he regretted nothing about his service with Serb militias in eastern Croatia in the 1990s and still held a Greater Serbia as his dream. The one modification he made was that he no longer expected to see his dream fulfilled. 22

In the usual two-month coalition negotiations, Dacic flirted with the Democratic Party but finally teamed up with the Progressives, and with his improved constituency and government experience claimed the position of prime minister. Nikolic resigned his chairmanship of the Progressives to assume the constitutional non-partisan role of president. His (and Seselj’s) protégé Vucic took over leadership of the party as well as the government posts of first deputy prime minister, defence minister and coordinator of the secret services and quickly became the recognised power holder within the government.

As in 2008, Western diplomats were disheartened by the outcome. After failing to persuade the new coalition to allow the Democratic Party into the tent, they laboured on in facilitating the Kosovo–Serbia dialogue, but entertained few hopes. They were frustrated by the failure of pro-Europe advocate Tadic to implement the one significant agreement reached in the bottom-up technical talks: setting up Integrated Border Management on the boundary line between Kosovo and Serbia. They expected little from the new Serbian government, except even worse foot-dragging and sabotage of the bilateral dialogue. They had come to regard Dacic, in his earlier coalition with Tadic, as a non-ideological, pragmatic politician. They detected little sign, however, that time and circumstance had similarly reshaped the previously rigid Nikolic or the ambitious Vucic, whom they barely knew but remembered for his zealous suppression of independent journalists in the Milosevic era.

However, as new bilateral talks resumed between the Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers – and as Vucic turned out to be a very fast learner in his troubleshooting between Berlin, Brussels and Washington – a few Western diplomats began to wonder if Vucic too was being remade. He was moody, according to Western officials who dealt with him, and he reacted viscerally to the intractable situations he encountered. One Western official who worked with him thought he had something of a martyr complex, or at least an understandable sensitivity to the all-too-credible death threats he was receiving. But he increasingly became the go-to person whenever the bilateral negotiations stalled. Moreover, he turned out to be the one who could persuade his Progressive colleagues in Belgrade that although the Serbs were getting a bad deal, as he repeated incessantly, it was the best deal they could get, and they had to take it. Vucic also turned out to be the one who could confront the north Kosovo Serb politicians on their own turf and tell them bluntly that the old game was over and they would just have to adapt to living peacefully in Kosovo, under Kosovo’s laws.

At first the trio of President Nikolic, Prime Minister Dacic and First Deputy Prime Minister Vucic did not soften their criticism of what the Democrats had negotiated before then. However, they said that as the leaders of the successor government, they were bound by the inherited Integrated Border Management agreement, and would work to implement its provisions. Yet even as chief negotiator Dacic tackled the nitty-gritty of customs forms, rubber-stamp insignias and placement of toilets, he and Vucic began shifting the dominant Serb narrative away from the Serbs’ founding myth of the 1389 battle against the Turks at Kosovo’s Field of Blackbirds to pragmatic contemporary economics.

A generation after the first Balkan war of the 1990s, they stressed, Serbia’s economy had not yet recovered its pre-war level. Unemployment stood at 28%. Worst of all, a brain drain among the country’s youth had shrunk the population by 5% over the previous decade. In this context, even a Europe in the throes of the euro crisis and enlargement fatigue looked like the kind of financial saviour that their Slav brothers in Moscow could never be. There was no alternative to joining the European Union and profiting from its technical and institutional as well as its financial aid. The example of neighbouring Croatia showed the advantages. To be sure, Croatia had started with higher per capita wealth than Serbia, but in the course of its membership negotiations it had increased the gap to a level 70% higher than Serbia’s per capita GDP and would already join the EU in July 2013.

Dacic and Vucic similarly reconfigured their obligation to their Serb brothers in north Kosovo. Instead of pronouncing the inviolability of the sovereignty Serbia once possessed in its ancestral land before the Ottoman Empire ruled it for half a millennium, they redefined Belgrade’s duty to the north Kosovo Serbs as simply ensuring that they could lead better lives. 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.

This sounded like just the kind of constructive engagement Ahtisaari had hoped for from Belgrade when he designed the Kosovo constitution – so much so that Western diplomats dubbed this approach ‘Ahtisaari plus’. They rejected attempts by Belgrade to stretch the notion of Kosovo’s local self-government to anything approaching the autonomy of the spoiler Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They insisted that Belgrade dismantle the illegal parallel security structures Serbia had maintained in north Kosovo since the 1999 war – and that Serbs in the north now abide by Kosovo’s laws. They welcomed Belgrade’s funding of schools, hospitals and social services there, however, as long as it was transparent. They were further willing to help Dacic and Vucic sell the loosening of Belgrade’s security grip on north Kosovo to their domestic constituency by letting them champion the right of Serb municipalities to nominate candidates for local police chiefs – an easy decision, since community policing was also part of the Ahtisaari political ethos.

Serbian Prime Minister Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci picked up the formal bilateral dialogue for the first time in October, in the office of Ashton, the hands-on facilitator of the talks. As the two probed and sparred with each other over the implementation of Integrated Border Management, they agreed by December on four cautious pilot projects for customs, involving EULEX officials as go-betweens so that Serbian and Kosovo officials would not have to face each other directly at their common dividing line.

That pace of problem-solving suggested that negotiations could last decades, however, and speed was crucial for the Serbs. The EU made it clear that Belgrade’s window of opportunity for demonstrating progress in normalising relations with Kosovo and thereby gaining a fixed date for opening membership talks would close by 22 April 2013, to fit the cycles of EU decision-making. Any time after that would be too late, because no political deals could be struck during the campaign for the German election in September and the selection of new European Commission officials in 2014. That delay would set the Serbs back two precious years, squander the momentum of their new government and force them to start EU pre- negotiations all over again just as they faced a domestic campaign for their own re-election.

It was Ashton, according to one source familiar with the closely held talks, who assessed the dynamic she saw at work in the compromises over Integrated Border Management and proposed a revolutionary experiment in late 2012. She suggested leapfrogging the incremental bottom-up approach and trying instead to write a brief top-down statement of principles and then let these principles drive the subsequent implementation.

This approach would require precisely the quality most conspicuous by its absence: a provisional mutual trust among all of the suspicious stakeholders. The Belgrade Serbs who were desperate to join the EU world of prosperity and stability would first have to prove their willingness to cut their losses in Kosovo. The Kosovo officials would have to be reassured during the talks by the presence off-stage of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker that a Washington fixated on half-a-dozen world crises was not abandoning them. The EU governments would have to be satisfied that the Serbs were not just telling them what they wanted to hear to gain concessions that Belgrade would pocket without delivering the ill- defined quid pro quo. The north Kosovo Serbs, whose rough lives would be upended, would, at a minimum, have to entrust their physical protection to the KFOR and EULEX ‘occupiers’ they had so recently fought.

The proximate model was the controversial East–West German normalisation of relations as the Cold War thawed into detente in the 1970s. The Basic Treaty that sealed that rapprochement was a masterpiece of deliberate ambiguity that could have backfired at any time. Both German signatories clearly identified themselves by their names, positions and countries: Undersecretary of the Federal Chancellery Egon Bahr for the Federal Republic of Germany and State Secretary Michael Kohl for the German Democratic Republic. Beyond that, however, any uninitiated reader of the treaty needed a decoder to figure out what exactly they had promised each other.

The Serbia–Kosovo document would have to be even more ambiguous. The Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers who eventually reached the agreement on 19 April 2013 did not even identify their names on their joint paper, let alone their positions or countries, since the Serbs’ red line, repeated many times daily, was that Serbia would not recognise Kosovo. The two interlocutors would simply initial the pact without ever saying who they were.

Both sides accepted the gamble. And as they accelerated their negotiations in 2013, Dacic and Vucic bent their grand narrative even more and expended ever more political capital to overcome the resistance of their party followers to the new course. Dacic proclaimed that heroism did not mean to ‘give one’s life for nothing, but to open new jobs and build new roads’.23  He agreed in the bilateral dialogue to an arrangement by which customs could be collected at the north Kosovo crossing points and put into a fund to benefit north Kosovo.

Most dramatically, in March 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, Dacic rehabilitated this nemesis of extremists. He lauded his predecessor—and dropped a bombshell. In the decade since Djindjic’s death, he said, Serbs had been lied to and told that Kosovo still belonged to Serbia. That is false, he declared, and we must now face the reality that Kosovo is no longer ours.24  As late as a week before the 19 April deal President Nikolic remained at the rear of the new vanguard. At a special UN General Assembly he compared The Hague to the Spanish Inquisition and called it unjust, since it had sentenced Serbs to 1,150 years in prison while jailing those convicted of crimes against Serbs to only 55 years.

By 19 April, the gamble of trust and political courage paid off. Dacic and Thaci initialled a list of 15 short principles covering, mostly, the northern tip of Kosovo. Western diplomats described it as Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence in everything but name. Serbia’s illegal security cadres are to be removed under point seven, which never mentions them by name, but instead states blandly that ‘there shall be one police force in Kosovo called the Kosovo Police. All police in northern Kosovo shall be integrated in the Kosovo Police framework. Salaries will be only from the KP.’ And by the way, the laws governing northern Kosovo will be those of Kosovo. And both Serbia and Kosovo promise not to hinder the other’s path to the European Union.

This was historic. Vejvoda, the original optimist who foresaw this turnaround five years earlier, called the deal ‘going through the sound barrier’.

Moreover, this breakthrough was achieved with a political consensus in Serbia that only ex-ultranationalists could have generated. The Socialist presidency backed Prime Minister Dacic unanimously. President Nikolic backed First Deputy Prime Minister Vucic, and the Progressive Party’s main board also supported Vucic with a landslide of 377 to 10. Parliament approved the terms of the deal by a vote of 173 to 24. Angry north Kosovo Serbs demanded a Serbia-wide referendum, but Vucic called their bluff by agreeing to it if both sides would pledge to respect the outcome of the plebiscite. Visiting the renegades in their own territory, he argued that while he too ‘could list many reasons to oppose the agreement, there is an important point in its favour. It is the only way for Serbia to survive, to exist and remain united in the search for a path to a better future.’ 25

On 25 April, Nikolic apologised for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in an interview with Bosnian TV. He called it a crime rather than genocide, but it was still the first time he had apologised in any form. He said, ‘I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia for the crime committed in Srebrenica. I apologise for the crimes committed by any individual in the name of our state and our people.’ 26

On 28 June the European Council, startled by the power of its mere naming of a date for starting membership negotiations, granted Serbia a provisional date – in January 2014 – on the German condition that the withdrawal of Serbia’s shadowy security networks from north Kosovo that has already begun is well advanced by then. Simultaneously, the European Council approved the start of talks with Kosovo on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the lowest rung on the ladder to EU membership.

Aleksandar Vucic wrote the epilogue to this extraordinary bilateral gamble in the form of a mea culpa and a tribute to European ideas in Belgrade’s Danas newspaper in May. He was not telling Western audiences what they wanted to hear, but rather telling Serb listeners what they did not want to hear, writing:

‘We Serbs are the only ones who slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall and didn’t in the least understand the political and economic dynamics in Europe and the world … The writer of these words is one of the politicians who resisted the new ideas. [Now, however,] we can and must respect the laws of Europe, its order, its rules, its system of law and the obligations that issue from them’.27

For him, this is Serbia’s new ‘normal’.


1 ‘Progressives Back Deal, Will Not Rule Out Referendum’, B92, 22 April 2013, http://www6.b92.net/mobilni/eng/index.php?nav_id=85828.

2 For a contrary pessimistic reading that the 19 April deal has not changed anything fundamentally, see David L. Phillips, ‘How to Heal Balkan Wounds for Good’, New York Times, 9 May 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/opinion/how-to-mend- balkan-wounds-for-good.html; and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, ‘Kosovo and Serbia Make a Deal’, Foreign Affairs, 25 April 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139346/nikolas-k-gvosdev/kosovo-and- serbia-make-a-deal.

3 Atanasije‘s precise words were, ‘Prime Minister Dacic is saying that he is in favor of realistic policy and worldly Serbia, rather than a heavenly one. Unfortunately, Djindjic spoke in the same way, and look how he ended up. Let God be the judge.’ ‘Metropolitan Prays for Repose of Govt, Parliament’, Tanjug, 10 May 2013, http://www.tanjug.rs/news/86510/metropolitan-prays-for-repose-of-govt– parliament.htm. Patriarch Irinej, who at first strongly criticised the 19 April pact, did not join the 10 May march and distanced the Church from the lower-ranking prelates’ positions. ‘Kosovo Serbs Request Referendum on Brussels Deal’, B92, 25 April 2013, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics.php?yyyy=2013&mm=04&dd=25&nav_id=858 93; and ‘Patriarch Distances Himself from Rally Controversy’, B92, 10 May 2013, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/comments.php?nav_id=86112.

4 ‘Threats Will Not Be Tolerated, Says MUP Secretary’, B92, 23 April 2013, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/crimes-article.php?yyyy=2013&mm=04&dd=23&nav_id=85842.

5 Aleksa Djilas, ‘Funeral Oration for Yugoslavia: An Imaginary Dialogue with Western Friends’, in Dejan Djokic (ed.), Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918- 1992 (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2003), pp. 317–33.

6 ‘Memorandum 1986 (the Greater Serbian Ideology)’, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, http://www.trepca.net/english/2006/serbian_memorandum_1986/serbia_memorand um_1986.html.

7 ‘Partners in Crime: The Risks of Symbiosis Between the Security Sector and Organized Crime in Southeast Europe’, Center for the Study of Democracy, 2004, http://www.csd.bg/artShow.php?id=9626.

8 ‘Serbia’s U-Turn’, International Crisis Group, 26 March 2004, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/balkans/serbia/154-serbias-u- turn.aspx.

9 Ibid.

10 The DSS is formally called the Democratic Party of Serbia, not to be confused with Tadic’s Democratic Party.

11 ‘Will the Real Serbia Please Stand Up?’, International Crisis Group, 23 April 2008, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/europe/b49_will_the_real_serbia_please_s tand_up.pdf.

12 US and Serb sources.

13 Vesna Peric Zimonjic, ‘Serbia Gives Reminder of Defiance Under Milosevic’, Independent, 23 February 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/serbia-gives-reminder-of- defiance-under-milosevic-786167.html.

14 ‘Serbia Reacts to Karadzic’s Arrest’, Balkan Insight, 21 July 2008, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/serbia-reacts-to-karadzic-s-arrest.

15 Communication with the author, 18 May 2013.

16 For a criticism of this rationale – which also drove the government’s monetary rewards to less prominent indictees to turn themselves in to The Hague – as an evasion of questions of conscience and any moral reckoning with the past, see Jelena Subotic, Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

17 Daniela Mehler, ‘Understanding Normative Gaps in Transitional Justice: The Serbian Discourse on the Srebrenica Declaration 2010’, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, vol. 11, no. 4, 2012, http://www.ecmi.de/fileadmin/downloads/publications/JEMIE/2012/Mehler.pdf.

18 ‘Poll: Most Serbs Support General Accused of War Crimes’, Radio Free Europe, 16 May 2011, http://www.rferl.org/content/poll_says_most_serbs_support_general_accused_of_w ar_crimes/24176617.html.

19 ‘European Orientation of the Citizens of the Republic of Serbia Trends’, Republic of Serbia Government, European Integration Office, January 2012, http://www.seio.gov.rs/upload/documents/nacionalna_dokumenta/istrazivanja_javn og_mnjenja/opinionpoll_december_2011.pdf.

20 ‘Kosovo and Serbia: A Little Goodwill Could Go a Long Way’, International Crisis Group, 2 February 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/balkans/kosovo/215-kosovo-and- serbia-a-little-goodwill-could-go-a-long-way.aspx.

21 By then the EU was disenchanted with Tadic, seeing him as a talker but not an implementer. It tried to help him once more, however, since it still viewed the likely alternative of the Progressives with dismay. For an unusually blunt statement of EU disenchantment, see Bodo Weber, ‘A Date for Belgrade? Conditionality, German Leadership and Serbia’s Path to the EU’, Democratization Policy Council, June 2013, http://democratizationpolicy.org/images/policybriefs/serbiapolicy.pdf. The study regards the EU’s tough insistence on Serbian conditionality, led by Merkel after August 2011, as the cardinal cause of the subsequent Progressive-Socialist government’s more accommodating stance in Kosovo negotiations in 2013.

22 Michael Martens, ‘Wahl in Serbien: ‚Die Serben Durften Nicht Entscheiden, Wo Sie Leben Wollen‛’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 19 May 2012, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/wahl-in-serbien-die-serben-durften- nicht-entscheiden-wo-sie-leben-wollen-11750937.html.

23 ‘PM: EU Integration Will Ensure Better Life for Citizens’, B92, 27 January 2013, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics.php?yyyy=2013&mm=01&dd=27&nav_id=843 62.

24 ‘‚Lies were told that Kosovo is ours‛ – PM’, B92, 7 March 2013, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics.php?yyyy=2013&mm=03&dd=07&nav_id=85044.

25 ‘Belgrade Urges Serbs in Kosovo to Accept EU Deal’, Agence France-Presse, 13 May 2013, http://www.afp.com/en/news/topstories/belgrade-urges-serbs-kosovo-accept- eu-deal/.

26 ‘Serbian President Apologises for Srebrenica ‚Crime‛’, BBC, 25 April 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22297089.

27 ‘Serbien Übt Ungewöhnliche Selbstkritik’, Focus, 9 May 2013, http://www.focus.de/politik/ausland/eu-serbien-uebt-ungewoehnliche- selbstkritik_aid_984915.html.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change European Style (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006).

*This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the Survival: Global Politics and Strategy copyright 2013. The International Institute for Strategic Studies;Survival: Global Politics and Strategy is available online at: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/ with the open URL of your article.

The Hague Tribunal Heritage after 20 Years

July 16, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

As the special war-crimes court for ex-Yugoslavia celebrates its 20th anniversary in Sarajevo today and prepares to close its doors by 2016, it seems to have performed better at politics than at jurisprudence.

That’s not a bad record, perhaps, for a court that started as an orphan, had no enforcement arm to arrest those indicted, and had to start building prosecution cases with its own forensic exhumations of mass graves under the hostile eyes of Serb soldiers. But it is certainly a different outcome than that envisioned by the tribunal’s founders a generation ago.

The United Nations established the court in 1993, as the end of the Cold War once again made Europe safe for national wars. Yugoslavia responded instantly by fracturing into a replay of the early 20th-century Balkan wars that ended the Ottoman Empire and sparked World War I. The ideal of humanitarian intervention that would climax in the UN. “Responsibility to Protect” norm of 2005 was beginning to gather momentum. Yet the United States, the world’s one remaining superpower, was determined not to get its ground troops sucked into the non-strategic Balkans and agreed to help set up the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) rather more as a substitute for military action than as a summons to conscience.

From the beginning, the founding nations starved The Hague’s ad hoc ICTY of funds. Its opening annual budget was a risible $276,000. For more than a year it did not have enough money to hire its chief prosecutor. The judges initially had to rent their robes from a theatrical supplier. U.S. and allied peacekeepers in Bosnia refused to share intelligence with the tribunal or apprehend indictees like Ratko Mladic, and for years the Serb commander at the 1995 massacre of close to 8000 unarmed boys and men in Srebrenica mocked the tribunal by roaming freely in Belgrade. It was not until Madeleine Albright became secretary of state in 1997 that Washington took the ICTY seriously.

In the next decade and a half, the ICTY—along with its companion temporary UN court for Rwanda—translated the bare principles of the 1948 Genocide Convention into specific jurisprudence for the first time.  The two tribunals wrote the world’s first convictions of genocide and the first legal definitions of the convention’s outlawing of genocide of a people “in part” as well as “in whole,” including the ban on “measures intended to prevent births within the group.” The tribunal indicted 161 persons and granted them extensive legal counsel for their defense. The rare trial of a head of state for atrocities committed under his rule—Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic—remained inconclusive, as Milosevic died in his cell fifty court hours short of a verdict in 2006. But the tribunal did convict 69 defendants for genocide or lesser war crimes, including the new category of systematic rape as torture. In the process it defined the evidence required to prove command responsibility for war crimes.

Last November, however, the ICTY suddenly risked voiding its own jurisprudence of two decades and the world’s first post-Hitler attempt to hold senior leaders accountable for genocide carried out by subordinates. In a controversial acquittal the appeals chamber, unusually, threw out the extensive evidence cited by the trial bench in convicting the senior Croat General Ante Gotovina and a fellow defendant.

One of the appellate judges wrote a sharp dissent to the split decision at the time. Another tribunal judge, Frederik Harhoff of Denmark, subsequently wrote a letter, which was leaked to the media, charging that the ICTY’s American president Theodor Meron had pressured the appeals chamber to acquit both Gotovina and, in May 2013, Milosevic’s two senior intelligence officials. Meron has remained silent on this internal judicial issue.

The upshot could be that on this precedent no future leader who condones atrocities committed by his armed forces can be convicted unless he has signed a written order to them to commit crimes. That would be an impossibly high bar for proof—and just the opposite of the accountability that was the aim of those who launched the Hague tribunal.

On the political side, the Hague tribunal has arguably done better than on the purely legal side. The ICTY performed a huge and unintended initial service, especially in Serbia, by removing senior leaders like Milosevic and militia leader Vojislav Seselj from domestic politics in their home countries during the early post-war transition years. It further became the measuring rod—especially in the cases of Croatia and Serbia—of Balkan countries’ advance toward rule of law as the European Union made cooperation with the ICTY its main precondition for coveted candidacy for membership in the rich and secure European Union.

Most dramatically, the incentive of eventual EU membership finally brought Serbia, after 16 years in which its secret services hid Ratko Mladic, to arrest Mladic and extradite him to The Hague in 2011. The verdicts in his trial and in the 24 other ongoing trials are expected by 2016.

The tribunal also, like the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders half a century ago, established a baseline of legal truth about the tangled Balkan wars of the 1990s and collected a trove of documents and analysis for the reference of future historians. It familiarized Balkan judges and lawyers with the European concept of rule of law, and provided them with organized, searchable archives to continue in their domestic courts with prosecutions of war crimes and crimes against humanity begun at The Hague. It also forced Serbs, argues Bruno Vekaric, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor, to stop denying that war crimes ever took place.

Finally, the ICTY, in conjunction with international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, provided time for passions to cool without any escalation of revenge killings. Above all, the tribunal gave Serbian ultranationalists the time and distance to turn pragmatic and moderate by the time they finally came to power a year ago. Serbia in particular needed this breathing space. Unlike the Croats, whose bellicose leader Franjo Tudjman did them the favor of dying before he could be indicted and thus giving them a tabula rasa, Serbs had to live with the burden of a bellicose Milosevic until he died in 2006. It took a younger generation of leaders and popular despair over constant political mobilization and economic hardship to bring them to this year’s unexpected “normalization” with independent Kosovo.

If that normalization now spreads to the Serb “entity” in Bosnia and eventually helps all of the Balkans to modernize and join the European Union, the Hague tribunal will be able to claim much of the credit, as much through its political impact as through its certification of the legal truth of the 1990s wars.

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