Daniel Hamilton: Serbia’s treacherous path to Europe

Nobody could doubt that the past few years have been painful ones for Serbia.

Once the motor of the powerful Yugoslav state, the country now struggles to deal with the realities of its recent history that have reduced it to little more than a minor regional power, scarred by two decades of ultranationalist policies imposed by a short-sighted and self-serving political class. Divorced from Montenegro and stripped of Kosovo, a province of profound cultural, religious and historical importance to the Srpski psyche, the Serbian state’s humiliation is absolute.

The International Court of Justice’s ruling on 22 July 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia was lawful has once again opened old wounds and promoted a strongly-worded statement from President Boris Tadić insisting that his country will “never” recognise the province’s largely ethnic-Albanian government. Nobody, least of all the Kosovan administration, was surprised by Tadić’s statement.

Given that memories of NATO’s armed intervention in Kosovo still profoundly effects the Serbian political psyche, the news that the country’s Government has decided to fully engage with NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme should be warmly welcomed – and indeed viewed as a clear pro-Western move by an administration whose political outlook was formed in the years of Slobodan Milošević’s pariah state Yugoslavia.

The Partnership for Peace, established in 1993 to form closer security bonds between existing NATO members and states in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism, focuses on increasing joint action between members in fields such as disaster alleviation, combating terrorism and tackling illegal arms proliferation. There is a strong precedent for members of the PFP to ultimately accede to full NATO membership, as in the case of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia who joined 2004. Croatia and Albania were admitted to full membership in 2009.

Partnership for Peace aside, the Tadić administration has continually restated Serbia’s commitment to EU membership, lodging the country’s application with then Council President Fredrik Reinfeldt in December 2009. Tadić’s application for full EU membership follows the signing of the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2007 which, along with promises of trade liberalisation commits the country to fully cooperate with efforts to capture and prosecute war criminals. Radovan Karadžić was successfully apprehended in July 2008.

In the light of the International Court of Justice’s ruling, Tadić and his Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic have indicated willingness to reach a compromise on the issue of Kosovo’s status which does not cross the Serbian government’s stated “red line” of recognising of the territory’s independence. The first such compromise could come in the form of amendments to the motion his government will bring to the United Nations General Assembly in the coming weeks, an issue William Hague pushed on his visit to Belgrade on Tuesday. Issues on which Serbia is said to be ready to acquiesce include a stated commitment to the autonomy of the province inside a loose federal structure such as that in place in Bosnia and Herzegovina and engagement with local government institutions.

The increasingly conciliatory messages coming from Belgrade regarding Kosovo are mirrored by the Government’s commitment to stability in the Republika Srpska element of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the territory’s Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has cited the ICJ’s ruling on Kosovo as a precedent by which to guarantee the Republika Srpska independence from the Bosnian Federation, the Tadić administration has cautiously commitment to a negotiated settlement on the future of the territory. The Serbian Parliament’s decision in March to pass a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre suggests, if anything, that relations towards Belgrade and Banja Luka have cooled to a point which would make the unification of the two entities extremely difficult.

At the end of March of this year, the first direct talks between the governments of the Republic of Serbia and Kosovo about the future of the breakaway province commenced in Brussels under the chairmanship of the European Union Rule of LawMission (EULEX).While the talks have to date been inclusive, Belgrade has pledged to work constructively with Pristina to find solutions to shared problems such as electricity supply and historic records relating to the registration of births, deaths and marriages.

Given Serbia’s clear commitment to reform and engagement with its neighbours it is sad that so many senior figures in European politics still appear to view Serbia through the sorry prism of Srebrenica and Donji Prekaz.

One such figure is German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle who used a speech at the University of Belgrade late last year to inform the Serbian dignitaries gathered that country could “forget about” the possibility of EU membership so long as it failed to adopt a “cooperative” stance on Kosovo – in essence, complete diplomatic recognition of Pristina’s independence. Anyone with even the slightest understanding of Serbian history should know that, just as in the case of Romania’s close links to Moldova or Bulgaria’s to Macedonia, this is not a position the country should reasonably be expected to accept overnight.

His comments have been echoed by others such as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner but not, encouragingly, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who despite his support for Kosovan independence has not brought threats or ultimatums to his meetings with Serb ministers.

Indeed, while Westerwelle’s comments may reflect the view of his own Foreign Ministry, they do not represent the position of the European Union which itself has no legal power to recognise a nation state without a unanimous vote of the Council of Ministers. The refusal of Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania – each of whom struggle with irredentist separatist movements of their own – to recognise Kosovo makes this impossible. While (along national lines) the European Parliament has passed a resolution urging all EU Member States to recognise Kosovo, the European Union has no formal position on the issue of Kosovo’s status.

Through their tough talking and diplomatic insensitivities, the likes of Westerwelle risk undermining the fragile nature of Serbia’s pro-western outlook and driving the Serbian public back into the hands of ultranationalist demagogues such as the Radical Party.

The far-right group, which as recently as the 2007 Presidential election the party captured 48%of the vote, is founded on a pan-Slavic ideology which favours ever closer links with Moscow and firmly opposes Belgrade’s membership of groups such as the World Trade Organisation and United Nations. The group is firmly committed to the realisation of a ‘Greater Serbia’, often invoking references to the re-establishment of the Serbian Krajina Republic in Croatia and advocating unilateral independence for the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vojislav Seselj, the party’s President, is currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for human rights abuses against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

Curiously, however, the strength of Serbia’s ultranationalist movements has declined in recent years – chiefly due to the country’s drive for EU membership. In 2008, the Radical Party’s caucus in the Serbian Parliament collapsed amid arguments between supporters of Nikolić and Seselj over moves by the Government to submit an application for EU membership. The result was the establishment of the Progressive Party who, if opinion polls are to be believed, is the largest force in Serbian politics today. As party leader Nikolić’s once tough rhetoric has been replaced with a pragmatic and conciliatory tone.

While still predisposed to closer links with Russia and military neutrality, Nikolić’s party should be seen as a welcome player in the country’s politics for the simple reason it has been able to redefine Serb nationalism on the basis of national purpose rather than ethnicity. Clearly focussed on EU membership, the Party’s constitution commits it to respect for minorities, regional autonomy and the rule of law.

In offering Serbia the chance of EU membership and acceptability on the international stage, the West has achieved something that ten years ago would have been seen as impossible: a unity of purpose among the political classes founded on respect for minorities, sensitivity in diplomatic relations with its neighbours and a long-term vision of the country’s future.

At the top of the Foreign Office’s grand staircase is a series of murals painted by Sigismund Goetze depicting Britain’s involvement in military conflicts over the past hundred or so year.

Alongside the politically-incorrect depictions of France and Japan is an illustration of Britannia shaking hands with the United States while seeking to nurture weak and vulnerable Serbia. Goetze’s illustration could just as well have been painted today, for it remains painfully prescient.

Serbia has the potential to be both Britain’s friend and our ally – but this fragile relationship must be handled with care and respect, not threats and intimidation.

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