Engage them

Engage them

Vucic and Dacic are mixing political interests with substantive proposals. So what?

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By David B. Kanin

There exists a condition considered shameful in the Balkans (and elsewhere). That is the abomination of being naïve. Lie, cheat, steal – but not so much that you get caught (although these days it appears you can lie, get caught and shrug it off). But, no matter what, do not become associated with accepting anything at face value, because then you are exposed to ridicule and shunned by the those who see fit to judge you as not “serious.” Nothing is as it seems, but rather a piece of some dark conspiracy or complicated strategy designed to hurt your community’s interests and—worse – expose you as the fool you fear you are.

An example of this was printed in Vecernje Novosti recently. It said the big powers need the Balkans to be in crisis so they can keep the unsuspecting locals on a leash. No matter the historical pattern and current evidence to the contrary, it is necessary for such voices to imagine the big powers are smart enough, subtle enough and focused in the Balkans enough to think that way. It may be that the people who concoct such silliness need to portray outsiders or adversaries as masterminds so they can gain credit for foiling the made-up plots.

Something like this is going on both inside the Balkans and among pundits who consider themselves expert on the region regarding the public comments of Aleksander Vucic on the unresolved situation in Kosova. Vucic’s suggestion for a dialogue on the range of issues involved are less than detailed, but they are spot on in the sense of recognizing that the stunted sovereignty of Serbia’s lost province is anything but a final status. Vucic also recognizes that the so-called dialogue that the EU has mediated in Brussels is a dead end, no matter how many technical agreements it comes up with.

It also is worth paying some attention to Ivica Dacic’s different ideas on dialogue and – let’s use the word – partition. Dacic appears to be attempting to prevent Vucic from having a monopoly on setting the agenda for the politics and diplomacy around the issue, so far with minimal success. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for articulating the truth that borders and other material aspects of identity and ownership south of the Sava (and so, in Bosnia and Macedonia as well as Kosova), remain on the table.

Rather than grapple with the substance of things, the reaction largely has been limited to searching for Vucic’s (and Dacic’s?) personal and political motives. This is a form of work avoidance. There has never been, is not now, and will not be a proposal for negotiations among adversaries that does not include calculations by all of them of what they can gain or lose from the transaction. The question always is whether it is worth the effort and risks (and these are always present) to engage in the palaver. In my view, it is worth pressing Vucic (and Dacic) for specifics to find out if there is more here than just noise.

Vucic so far has proposed a vaguely described common market or customs arrangement among Balkan states and some sort of open-agenda talks on Kosova. At the same time, he has called on Serbs to issue some sort of declaration aimed at ensuring the survival of Serb identity in the former Yugoslav space.

It is hard to know how one would grab onto all this, but it is too easy to dismiss it out of had as old news or some sort of threat to the Western multicultural teleology, as did a recent criticism from a Western commentator. For two decades and more, the internationals have had to strain hard just to keep the processes they have imposed on the region in place. Why not call Vucic on his rhetoric? It would be a good learning experience (for the internationals as well as for Vucic) if the outside powers for once expressed a willingness to take the lead from local governments, rather than insist those officials simply obey demands for “reform,” constitutional change, government formation, or whatever else has those powers’ attention.

Edi Rama deserves credit for treating Vucic’s rhetoric with respect. Rama has his own agenda, of course, but – again – so what? For too long the various politicians in the region have been content to slough off responsibility for their communities’ future on European and American politicians they know are not going to solve anything. A constructive relationship is being built between the current Serbian and Albanian leaderships without outside mediation – and this is a good thing.

A useful next step would be for Serbian, Albanian, Kosovar, Montenegrin, and Bosnian (representatives of the three constituent communities, constituted as such, not as officials of the moribund Bosnian state or its entities) to hold informal discussions to consider how they would organize an effort to settle their considerable list of disputes. They also would need to exchange views on how they would handle the domestic spoilers (cosmopolitan public intellectuals, ultra-nationalists, and outside powers) who would attempt to scuttle or capture the process. They also would have to consider how to make negotiating transitions when government changes affect the diplomatic and personal dynamic (think Truman for Roosevelt between Yalta and Potsdam).

It would soon become clear that all his would take time and would almost certainly suffer periodic, considerable setbacks. Nevertheless, such a process offers at least an outside chance of creating the basis for conflict prevention and mitigation networks that the Balkans have never had. It would be a good start if these authorities would just figure out how to communicate during a crisis, and how to turn a suddenly discovered common interest into a more systematized exploration of shared opportunities (for example, the recent cooperation among Croatia’s trading partners that forced Zagreb to reverse its intention to increase import duties).

One thing largely lacking in the Balkans is a belief in the possibility of practical progress toward a future different from the region’s troubled past. It may be that it is necessary for authorities and publics to become naïve before such an attitude can become conceivable.

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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