Serbia’s shaky platform

Serbian president Nikolic’s platform on Kosovo has more to do with domestic politics – particularly attempts to undermine prime minister Dacic’s effort to strike a deal that would freeze Kosovo’s de facto partition – rather than with the status of his country’s former province.

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By David B. Kanin

Serbian president Nikolic’s draft statement of principle and strategy regarding Kosovo has more to do with domestic politics than with the status of his country’s former province.  It involves an effort to undermine prime minister Dacic’s effort to strike a deal that would freeze the de facto partition between the contested state of Kosova and Serb-controlled northern Kosovo.  It is much too soon to conclude – as some have – that the Platform does or does not mark a step backward in Serbia’s approach to this regional dispute.  Decisions in Pristina as well as Belgrade will decide if this is the case.

Dacic likely was as surprised by this grandstand play as were the internationals (not that the latter ever admit to being surprised by the local politicians they attempt to manage).  For the previous several weeks, he had been forging a deal with Kosova’s prime minister Thaci over customs arrangements.  If he could negotiate an agreement with Pristina acceptable to the Balkans’ Western monitors, then he hoped Brussels would permit him to take the early steps toward the very distant (and somewhat tarnished) prize of EU membership.

This infuriated Serbian nationalists, but was perfectly consistent with Dacic’s public recognition that Belgrade has lost the bulk of what modern Serbia acquired during Balkan Wars.  Nationalists in Serbia and the area north of the Ibar complained about that new customs rules were creating a border, and also were becoming fearful of the fact that increasing numbers of Serbs in that region are beginning to cooperate with EULEX and even Kosova officials (much as has happened in larger numbers and from a much earlier date south of the Ibar).  Dacic likely had expected this reaction to his diplomacy.  He also likely had calculated he could act more decisively than either the nationalists or a president who so far had seemed better able to get into disputes over his public statements than to take care of the business of politics and government.

With his Platform, however, Nikolic showed he was not willing to abdicate the action to the prime minister.  It seems unlikely the president actually believed the document would become the basis for a unified Serbian position, but he may also have overestimated its ability to rally at least other nationalists behind him.  The ever-legal minded Vojislav Kostunica focused on its main lacuna – as written the Platform dodged the question of whether its proposals involved protecting Serbian rights in an independent Kosova, or within what would remain in Serb eyes a province that remained theirs.  After a meeting in which Kostunica apparently pointed out the necessity of maintaining the legal fiction of Serbia’s sovereignty over its lost province,  Nikolic seemed to have agreed to adjustments that adjust the Platform so it sort of fits in with the nationalist record going back to the Nacertanje of 1844.

Dacic, meanwhile, tap-danced.  He and other Socialist party figures dismissed the Platform as having no political or legal authority.  They said parliament would vote only on its general principles.  This amounted to a challenge to Nikolic, his ambitious deputy Alexander Vucic, and other Progressive Party stalwarts.   Their response so far is to redouble efforts to drum up enthusiasm for the Platform from wary Kosovar Serb politicians and smuggler/businessmen.

Of course, Nikolic and Vucic could attempt to force parliament to adopt the Platform as a whole in some sort of vote of confidence.  That would pose a risk to the government’s cohesion.  Which, if any, members of a coalition that has been functioning rather effectively since it defeated – and discredited – the previous Democratic Party (DS)-led government are willing to risk a new election on an issue over which Serbia has done nothing but lose and lose again since 1966 (with the brutal and eventually self-defeating exception of Milosevic’s repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority during the 1990s)?  This is not a rhetorical question, of course, but it is hard to see how anyone would benefit from formal political theatre centered on the lost province.

As a political beast, Serbia’s current governing coalition suffers from a basic imbalance.  Dacic clearly is its most capable administrator and political manager, but his party has far fewer seats in Parliament than its Progressive partners, and would not have a realistic shot at increasing its vote significantly in an early election.  For their part, the Progressives have more political clout, but their leaders either have shown little aptitude for political management (Nikolic) or are distracted by too many initiatives and too little skill at setting strategic priorities (Vucic).

Things might be a bit less opaque if the DS was in better shape – the erstwhile coalition partners could perform risk-benefit analyses on whether either should attempt to change partners.  The DS, however, still is in the early stages of getting its act together and figuring out how it can revive an organization and sense of purpose so badly wrecked by Boris Tadic.  (It could be worse – the DS at least looks less feckless than France’s political opposition).  Dragan Djilas, the new DS standard-bearer, cannot have much confidence he would gain either from joining hands with one or another partner or by pressing for new elections.  The former choice would subordinate him to either Dacic or Vucic.  In an election campaign the DS, like its rivals, would face the wrath of a sullen electorate unlikely to believe its votes would engender a constructive outcome.  Recent poll numbers also suggest voters are not inclined toward the European brand Tadic had tied himself to so slavishly.

So what does this all mean for the dispute with Kosova?  Dacic likely will continue to try to marginalize the Platform domestically while convincing Pristina and the internationals that the thing can be safely ignored.  Scared local authorities north of the Ibar will press Nikolic to make sure this does not happen, but – assuming he attempts to see his nationalist vision through – Nikolic will have to grapple with Vucic’s likely preference to focus the government’s work on his effort to portray himself as the slayer of corruption.  Vucic, and likely for other Serbian politicians, realize the Platform is just another losing episode in the never-ending saga of the lost province.

The new customs arrangements does create something like a border, and also enables a new status quo that moves the issue of Kosova more toward a resemblance with Cyprus and other durable “temporary” political arrangements.  Dacic seems to realize this, which may be why he has been using negotiations with Pristina to “save what can be saved.”

Kosova is more likely to gain from the customs arrangement – and from Serbia’s political drama – if it says little and sticks to the negotiating process it is engaged in with Dacic.  Pristina benefits not because of any active effort to gain traction north of the river.  Rather, the recent diplomacy comes against the backdrop of the gradual deterioration of the ability of the local notables and their thugs to prevent some Serbs living north of the Ibar from quietly seeking services from the local Kosova/EULEX presence.  This is happening because the inefficiencies of the patronage/smuggling economy prevalent in those municipalities are leaving too many people without access to adequate material and social resources.

Nevertheless, both sides remain mindful that Serbia retains one enormous advantage.  No matter how many states outside Europe recognize Kosova, five members of the EU continue to reject American efforts to convince them to recognize a country whose existence is a bad precedent for their own problems with local separatists and other issues of sovereignty.  The new customs choreography north of the Ibar does not affect the basic fact that a universally recognized Serbia can envisage at least a rutted road toward EU membership, while Kosova has to rely on what so far is unreliable American assurances that, some day, the five nay-sayers will change their minds.  Until and unless at least one or more of them does so, Kosova’s legal existence will remain contested, no matter declarations from Washington that this is not the case.

So, the adventure of the Platform so far makes no one happy.  Nikolic has rhetorically overshot, Dacic has to scramble to protect his political backside, the DS is not ready for prime time, Serbia’s nationalists fear the future, the internationals – already non-plussed by the Dodik-Lagumdzija gambit in Bosnia – have further evidence their grip on the region is weaker than they think, and Kosova continues to suffer from independence interruptus.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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