What is at stake in the struggle for Serbia?

Author: Marko Attila Hoare
Uploaded: Tuesday, 26 February, 2008

Essay published by the Henry Jackson Society, and also on the author's Greater Surbiton weblog, arguing that it is now essential not just to ensure that Kosova's independence is protected, but also to do everything for the eventual victory of democracy in Serbia

‘The list of countries refusing to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty reads like a global A-Z of separatist strife.’ So says Reuters. Indeed, the division of the world, between states that are and states that are not recognising Kosova’s independence is very largely a division between the majority of democratic countries on the one hand, and those that either themselves fear ’separatist’ threats to their own territorial integrity, or that are politically hostile to the West. Russia falls into the second camp. Having itself promoted the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, and of Transnistria from Moldova, Russia cannot seriously be described as ‘fearing separatism’. Russian President Vladimir Putin has deliberately manufactured an international crisis over the Kosova issue with the express intention of disrupting the expansion of the EU and NATO and of splitting the ranks of their existing members. This has been openly stated by Moscow’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, who has threatened force in the event that the EU adopts a common policy over Kosova: ‘If the EU works out a single position or if NATO steps beyond its mandate in Kosovo, these organizations will be in conflict with the U.N., and then I think we will also begin operating under the assumption that in order to be respected, one needs to use force.’

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez naturally opposes recognition: ‘We do not recognize the independence of Kosovo’, he said; ‘This cannot be accepted. It’s a very dangerous precedent for the entire world’. The parliament of Belarus has condemned Kosovo’s declaration of independence; Belarus’s despot Alexander Lukashenka lamenting the fact that opponents of Kosovo’s independence ‘betrayed our fraternal Slavic nation’ in 1999 and failed to defend Serbia from NATO. Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN, Dayan Jayatilleka, criticised Serbia for having failed to stand its ground against NATO in the Kosovo War: ‘Never withdraw the armed forces from any part of [your] territory in which they are challenged, and never permit a foreign presence on [your] soil.’ (Sri Lanka is fighting a brutal war against its Tamil population). The chorus of voices raised internationally against Kosova’s independence is a chorus of demagogues, despots and xenophobes.

Within the EU, the mature democracies that make up the core of the alliance have been largely united in their readiness to recognise Kosova’s independence. Opposition has come from those whose experience of democracy is more recent and which themselves have nationalistic reasons for opposing recognition: Spain and Greece were dictatorships as recently as the mid-1970s; Slovakia and Romania as recently as 1989. Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus all have strong recent histories of xenophobic bigotry and intolerance. While Spain is in most respects a mature democracy, it is in a sense the exception that proves the rule; its historic fear of Catalan and Basque separation, manifested most brutally by Francisco Franco and the Spanish fascists in the 1930s and after, is guiding its Kosova policy.

In this international context, in which enemies of the West are seeking to attack us over Kosova and profit from our divisions, and with EU ranks suffering from dissention on the part of those members not fully assimilated to post-nationalist European values, it is absolutely essential that our resolution does not waver. Given existing British and US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, some might be tempted to say that we cannot afford a major commitment in the Balkans. In fact, we cannot afford not to make such a commitment. The danger is that if Russia and Serbia succeed in embarrassing us over Kosova, both our credibility in the eyes of the world and EU unity itself could be jeopardised.

Western credibility was already slightly dented by the Serb attack on Kosova’s border crossings with Serbia, against which sufficient precautions were not taken. Northern Kosova, with its artificial Serb majority manufactured by ethnic cleansing, has long been an unhealed sore, and is an area where Serb obstructionists can cause problems for us if we do not resolve the problem promptly. An informally partitioned Kosova, such as exists at present, will not simply be another Cyprus - an annoying problem whose resolution can be postponed indefinitely at minor but bearable cost to Western interests. Serbia in northern Kosova, unlike Turkey in northern Cyprus, is not ready to rest content with a quiet, de facto partition. The Serbian government minister for Kosova, Slobodan Samardzic, has stated openly that the attack on the border crossings was ‘in accordance with general [Serbian] government policies.’ In other words, Belgrade intends to use northern Kosova as a weapon with which to destabilise the whole of Kosova and the stability of the Western Balkans in general. Indeed, some of the Serbs who attacked the border were in all probability agents of the Serbian Interior Ministry.

Belgrade will undoubtedly make life difficult for newly independent Kosova. Ultimately, however, Serbia is not strong enough to overturn the new order in Kosova. This raises the question of what the Serbian government is hoping to achieve by engaging in a struggle it cannot possibly win. A lot of commentators in the West like to stereotype the Serbian people as irrationally and spontaneously nationalist, and their politicians and statesmen as simply expressions of this characteristic. According to such a model, the attack on the Kosova border, as well as Thursday’s demonstration and rioting in Belgrade, simply reflected atavistic Serb nationalism, which reacted to the recognition of Kosova like a bull to a red rag.

In reality, three things about Thursday’s demonstration are apparent. The first is that a demonstration of that size does not take place spontaneously; it was the result of careful planning and organisation by the Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his supporters and allies, above all Tomislav Nikolic’s extreme-right Serbian Radical Party. Workers and schoolchildren were given the day off and bussed into Belgrade from all over the country to participate. The second point to note is that, this being the case, a demonstration that enjoyed the full logistical support of the Serbian state but still numbered only 150-200,000 is actually a fairly sorry affair. Milosevic’s regime in its prime was capable of mobilising demonstrations several times larger, reaching up to and above one million people. And the third point to note is that the demonstration rapidly spawned a riot in which, not only the US embassy was attacked but also the Croatian and Bosnian embassies, McDonald’s restaurants and several shops, some of which were looted in the process. In other words, this was a demonstration of the state-organised hooligan fringe of Serbian society, to which the ordinary citizens and celebrities who attended merely added a respectable veneer.

‘The "dangerous class", the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.‘ - Karl Marx

During the Koso

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