Monday, October 29, 2007

Comment: Europe's Balkan Travesty - and How to Fix It

Comment: Europe's Balkan Travesty - and How to Fix It

Edward P. Joseph

Edward P. Joseph

26 10 2007  EU indecision over Kosovo and Bosnia threatens to revive the experience of the 1990s not as tragedy, but as farce.

By Edward P. Joseph in Washington

The Balkan crisis of a decade ago was tragedy. Unless diplomats meet today's twin crises in Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina with real determination, the stage is now set for travesty – with the potential for yet more tragedy. The plot stands like this:

Act 1: Kosovo. Because of European indecision, Moscow and Belgrade have managed to string out the charade of "negotiations" over Kosovo, sanctimoniously invoking the "principle" that any solution to Kosovo must be based on agreement. (The farce works because we, the audience, understand that no agreement is possible.)

A December 10 "deadline" for the talks to end now appears once again to be merely one more opportunity to further postpone the inevitable day of reckoning when Kosovo's status must be settled. The fact that delay only prolongs stagnation in both Kosovo and Serbia is lost on many actors.

Act 2: Bosnia. Emboldened by the Kosovo fiasco and ever more energetic Russian support, Belgrade has gone to neighbouring Bosnia and called in a supporting player: Bosnia's Serb entity, RS. Its government in Banja Luka under Premier Milorad Dodik now seems inclined to defy the international community's top official in Bosnia, High Representative Miroslav Lajcak, and challenge his decision to impose important changes designed to cut through Bosnia's gridlock.

The farce here involves Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica shouting to the world that Lajcak's reasonable measures "threaten the vital interests of the Serb people." The fact that a dozen years of frustration have proven that Bosnia's structure locks its Serbs, Croats and Muslims into a zero-sum relationship is lost on many actors.

Act 3 is about to be written. In the 1990s, the play was scripted, after some initial reluctance, by the US. Now, the pen is shared fully with Europe. If European diplomats do not find the current performance funny, here is what they need to do – urgently – with their American colleagues:

1. Recognize the true nature of the Russo-Serbian challenge. Make no mistake; the stakes now are quite high – in a strategic sense, larger than in the Milosevic-Tudjman era when the Serbian and Croatian strongmen dominated former Yugoslavia. Effectively, Moscow is mounting a challenge through Belgrade to Europe's ability to decide the nature and pace of South-East Europe's integration.

For the moment, Kostunica has snubbed NATO alone. But the Serbian Premier's talk of a "third way" between Europe and Russia is really a nod to a fundamentally new Eastern orientation. Delay on Kosovo strengthens the Russo-Serb position. Delay also keeps Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians in an unproductive state of limbo. Whether or not Kosovo "explodes", no one can predict. But what no one can deny is that Kosovo's structures cannot develop properly until its status is decided. Nor can the Balkans fully integrate into Europe.

2. Forget about EU "unity" over Kosovo. The truth is that there is not even Scandinavian unity on Kosovo. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's Swedish neighbours have not shown much enthusiasm for his plan for supervised independence for Kosovo.

EU unity is a chimera. The endless search for it only renders Brussels child's play for a game of divide-and-delay tactics by Russia. Instead of unity, jittery EU diplomats should keep in mind the bed-rock interests of those European capitals that have so far resisted moving forward on Kosovo's final status.

Athens, in particular, can ill afford a permanently languishing, unstable Kosovo on its doorstep. Would Greece (and, for that matter, Cyprus) really subvert the development of an independent Kosovo? And if the answer is no, then why should any other EU state, with even less of a direct stake in a stable South-Eastern Europe? Instead of unity, the EU needs leadership.

3. Don't be bamboozled into "saving the moderates" in Serbia. On his recent trip to Washington, Serbian Deputy Premier Bozidar Djelic invoked the standard warning: "if you push us too far on Kosovo, you will undermine President Tadic, and you might get the Radicals."

The truth is that as well-intentioned as Tadic and Djelic may be, what they can achieve is strictly limited by the realities of Serbian political dynamics. So far, the "deliverables" from the moderates are rather modest. Pushing forward with independence for Kosovo may indeed produce substantial turbulence in Serbia. But outsiders cannot refrain from long-overdue decisions because of the fear of holding back political reform there.

The evidence from both Croatia and Macedonia is that true political reform comes when the main nationalist party undergoes a thorough transformation, purging its ranks of extreme nationalists and embracing fully the EU and NATO accession agendas. While Europe trembles about the political consequences in Serbia, nobody worries about Croatia's elections next month.

This is because the governing HDZ, under Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, has taken on the colour of many European center-right parties. When Kostunica's DSS undergoes the same transformation, jettisoning its retrograde nationalism, then Serbia's moderates like Tadic will be able to realize their vision for the country.

4. Stop thinking that EU accession is a panacea. EU accession is a crucial step for every state in the Balkans -- a catalyst for reform, a conduit for aid, a signal for investment, and a point of strategic orientation. But it is time to recognize its limitations.

The sad truth is that EU accession does not make states forget about borders. Banja Luka has made it painfully clear that when it comes to a choice between the RS and the EU, the Serbs choose the RS. Likewise, Serbia has made it clear that when it comes to fulfilling EU conditions, Brussels can wait. EU accession, vital as it is, cannot substitute for tackling over-arching political questions, nor can it achieve its goals if Brussels gives waivers on core principles.

5. Stand by Lajcak – to the end. Some EU capitals worry that the High Representative will not be able to stand up to Banja Luka's challenge to his use of the "Bonn Powers" to impose legislation on Bosnia. They may demand a "compromise", i.e. an embarrassing climb-down by Lajcak.

Such a step would render not only the High Representative, but the wider international community, mostly impotent. Those European diplomats with both experience and wisdom will remember the sad case of Hans Koschnik, the EU Administrator in Mostar who was emasculated when the EU failed to back him in 1996, following a violent challenge from hard-line Croats. There is no need for Koschnik's tragedy to be repeated as farce in Lajcak's case.

The truth is that power is about the perception of power. As long as the EU and Washington stand together for their principles – and not allow Moscow and Belgrade to divide them with cynical pseudo-principles – these twin crises can be weathered. The alternative is tragicomedy.

Edward P. Joseph is Visiting Scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, Washington DC. He spent over a decade in the Balkans from 1992-2003, serving in Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo, during which he served as UN Deputy Administrator in Mitrovica, Kosovo. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.
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