bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
Welcome Kostunica - but with serious reservations
by Noel Malcolm

Welcome Koštunica - but with serious reservations

Noel Malcolm


‘I can't tell you what a relief it is - to think it's all over at last,’ one senior Foreign Office official said to me. ‘When I think of all the trouble this Balkan business has given us, the phone calls, the conferences, the endless crisis management - now we just want to get back to normal life.’

I sympathised, of course, knowing that even Foreign Office officials are human. But that conversation took place in November 1995, after the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia. The Kosovo crisis had merely been left on one side; the first outbreaks of violence, by frustrated and radicalised Albanians, began only a few months later.

As the diplomats breathe their sighs of relief today, contemplating the fall of Miloševic, are they making the same mistake? In one important sense, the answer has to be ‘no’. The role played by Miloševic in the tragic recent history of the former Yugoslavia was different from that of any other factor: he really was the primary cause of the wars, the massacres of Bosnians and Albanians, and indeed the sufferings of his own people.

That does not mean that, without Miloševic, the old Titoist Yugoslavia would still be there today, delighting the tourists with its gipsy music, ‘socialist self-management’ and other items of folklore. There were plenty of reasons why Slovenes, Croats and others might have wanted to go their separate ways. The point is simply that, without Miloševic, the unravelling of Yugoslavia could have taken place peacefully - no Vukovar, no Srebrenica, no Racak. With Miloševic gone, there is no reason to expect horrors of that kind to be seen on ex-Yugoslav soil again.

On the other hand, the consequences of a decade of Miloševic's rule cannot be wiped from the slate as quickly as the man himself. His policies created problems that had not existed before, such as the quasi-partition of Bosnia. And they also helped to radicalise nationalist feelings in the minds of many former Yugoslavs - above all, among the intellectuals of Serbia, some of whom are now coming to power. There will, alas, be no shortage of Balkan problems to deal with; those Foreign Office officials cannot put away their aspirin bottles just yet.

Kosovo and Montenegro

The biggest unresolved issue is Kosovo, where Western governments have just missed a golden opportunity. If they had announced, while Miloševic was in power, that Kosovo would definitely become independent, the Serbian people could have accepted such a political fait accompli as the final loss inflicted on them by Miloševic's policies; they could then have drawn a line under it, and got on with building normal politics in a post-Miloševic and post-Kosovo Serbia. Instead, the unresolved problem of Kosovo will poison Serbian politics for years to come.

This will be the case under almost any government in Belgrade; but the problem may be particularly acute under Vojislav Koštunica, the new president, who has campaigned on Kosovo for much of his adult life - from 1974, when he criticised Tito for giving too much autonomy to the Kosovo Albanians, to last year, when he posed for photographers in northern Kosovo with an assault rifle in his hands. One of the things Mr Koštunica may start pressing for is the return (agreed to in theory by the West at the end of the bombing) of a small number of Serbian troops to Kosovo. There could be no surer way of jeopardising the fragile progress made so far in that territory.

Another issue that still simmers is the status of Montenegro, the junior partner in the Yugoslav federation. Mr Koštunica was elected on the basis of a new federal constitution, pushed through by Miloševic in the summer; the Montenegrin government, which was not properly consulted, refuses to recognise this constitution.

Meanwhile, Koštunica is forming a federal government which depends on the support of the old pro-Miloševic party in Montenegro - an embittered opposition to the Montenegrin government. Somehow he has to negotiate a new federal constitution, which means riding both these horses at once. Recent talk of outright secession by the Montenegrin authorities may have been largely gamesmanship; but the game is a serious one, and it is still in progress.

The risk to Bosnia

Then there is Bosnia. The fact that, five years after Dayton, the Western media have lost all interest in the place does not mean that Bosnia's problems have been solved. Bosnia is still a non-functioning state and a potential trouble-spot, pinning down thousands of Western troops. The effects of ethnic cleansing have not been reversed; rather, they have been strengthened, both by the failure to return refugees to their homes, and by the Dayton constitution, which gives the ‘Republika Srpska’ half of Bosnia, an official ethnic identity and strong local powers.

Just in the past year the picture did start to improve, as the return of non-Serb refugees to Republika Srpska accelerated. Part of the reason for this was the feeling among Serb politicians there that they had no choice but to co-operate with the rest of Bosnia, as they could not expect any support, either economic or diplomatic, from Belgrade.

That factor has now changed. No one in Bosnia can forget that Mr Koštunica was an enthusiastic supporter of Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnian war; he also denounced the Dayton accord, not because it gave too much power to Republika Srpska, but because it gave it, in his view, too little.

This does not mean that Mr Koštunica is going to start up some new project of Serb nationalist adventurism in Bosnia, let alone in Croatia or further afield. He has more than enough problems at home to be getting on with. And if he does succeed in building a new, democratic society there, one consequence will be that Serbs may learn to think in a new way, critically examining their own recent past and questioning some of the claims of Serbian nationalism - including ones made by Mr Koštunica himself. That, in the long term, is the most important reason why we should all wish him success.


This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph, 7 October 2000


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