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).

To read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

If you are interested in contributing to the debate on conflict in the Balkans, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.



10 Responses

  1. Hesh

    Referring to Kosovo i Metohija as Serbia’s “former province” represents a very biased view by this author. Perhaps he misread the UN list of countries and saw “Kosovo” somewhere there but this will never be the case (unless Serbia’s traitorous government agrees to it). But for the simple fact that Serbia’s acceptance in every step of the “Kosovo project” is absolutely needed (and thus the intense pressure on Serbia by the West), it becomes clear who the territory legally belongs to.

    Kosovo i Metohija is an occupied part of Serbia-nothing more, nothing less. It is a problem that future generations will probably solve but thus far a frozen conflict. Serbia needs to have a government that will not negotiate with organ extractors and separatists. Serbia can afford to freeze this conflict for years to come, it is the Albanians who are not living in a real state but a occupied and internationally administered territory who require negotiations with Serbia.

    Serbia needs to smarten up and proclaim Kosovo i Metohija for what it is, a (temporarily) occupied part of Serbia.

    1. shqipo-nyc

      There is no “Kosovo i Metohija” and will never be. And feel free to wait for generations. You can’t turn back the clock of history.

    2. Fadil

      Hesh, there is not a SINGLE document saying that an entity is independent country only if it appears in the list of UN list of countries. All experts and professors of international law generally agree on the principles of Montevideo Convention and Kosovo fulfills all of them.

      People in Kosovo, if you wish so, will be very happy so you can “freeze this conflict”. JUST DO IT NOW. What you are waiting AT ALL??? Just stop negotiations, close the border and see how long you can afford.

  2. MikeS

    Acquired during the Balkan Wars? First of all it’s clear to see that you don’t hide your completely biased views against the Serbs. Using the Albanian favoured name ‘Kosova’ (which by the way is Serbian as well!) instead of Kosovo throughout is more than provocation. Secondly, Kosovo was not ‘acquired’ as a result from the Balkan Wars. It was liberated. One cannot acquire something 100 years ago and then implant ancient Serb Churches and Monasteries from hundreds of years before that.

    1. shqipo-nyc

      Kosovo was liberated in 1999. It was illegally occupied in the Balkan Wars and then colonized. The presence of ancient churches has nothing to do with this. They are monuments of Albanian tolerance over the centuries.

    2. Fadil

      Mike, sorry but there are very strong arguments on what David says. The international Commission on Balkan wars (1912) found that “Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind — such were the means which were employed and are still being employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.[1]”

      So as you can see, Serbian soldiery, on 1912, wanted “the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians”.

      Its clear that the territory of Kosovo was inhabited EXCLUSIVELY by Albanians hence it was OCCUPATION. Its not important at all how individuals treat such action but how it is accepted from MAJORITY of population of certain territory. In this regard, the MAJORITY of people in Kosovo treats such aggression, massacres and incredible acts of violence of Serbian soldiery as OCCUPATION.

  3. shqipo-nyc

    Serbs know that Kosovo will never go back to be a part of Serbia, but they would rather see their own country sink than accept the new reality.

    This is why we’re glad to have joined the rest of the former Yugoslavian countries who did not want to be in the same federation with Serbia.

    The Serbian society is badly damaged by extreme nationalism. Not even the Montenegrins wanted to continue with it. Hard to find a more classical case of criminals suffering from a victimization-mentality. That the essence of Nazism right there.

    1. Hi shqipo-nyc,
      I think, to appraise this matter adequately, you must approach it with a less biased point of view. I understand it’s difficult for most people to understand why Serbia is holding onto the Kosovo region so fervently, and certainly to some it may appear to be the result of nothing but blatant hard-headedness, but this is not the case.

      Historically, Kosovo has belonged to Serbia for centuries. In medieval times it was the cultural and political centre of “Old Serbia,” ruled by the iconic Nemanjic dynasty. Albanians began to migrate to Kosovo in the 15th century, and most were still Christian and able to cohabit the territory with Serbs in relative harmony. After the Ottoman invasion the centre of “Old Serbia” began to migrate toward the north, but the historical significance remained. Serbia is not holding on because of stubbornness, but because it still harbours important cultural, religious (I am talking, of course, about the abundance of Serbian churches and monasteries, build when Kosovo was still the epicentre of the Serbian Orthodox Church) and historical ties. To simply renounce them at behest of the West would be unimaginable.

      To put this in perspective; the scenario is no different than the Falklands War. When Argentinians attempted to take the Falklands, then PM Thatcher sought to reclaim it. This incentive was bought supported and celebrated among the Brits. Why? Because it would be madness to allow others to just partition your country as they please! Wouldn’t it?
      It would be a lot like Mexico pronouncing Texas it’s own. Would the US settle for it? No. Should it? Of course not! It creates a dangerous precedent. If this can happen, what can happen next? Will Orthodox Egyptians and Muslim Egyptians decided to halve the country due to religious conflict? Will we have North Egypt and South Egypt on maps in five years? Where is the protection of the territory of sovereign states?

      Furthermore, as to your quip about nationalism, I must emphasize that nationalism is in the eye of the beholder. Americans aren’t exactly foreign to the concept of nationalism. Nationalism is not a bad thing. Not for America and not for Serbia. I think you’ll find most European countries are fiercely nationalistic, and not in an aggressive way.

      Can I also remind you that it was Albanian Kosovar who aligned with the Axis powers in WW2 whilst Serbia remained firmly anti-Nazi despite overwhelming Axis support from nearly all neighbouring countries.

      It’s time to let go of the misconceptions! Serbians are not Nazis. They are not extremists. They are not terrorizing or aggressively fighting the West. They are merely naturally reacting to external powers attempting to partition and “chop” (for lack of a better word) their country.
      Certainly there is a lot in the Kosovo region that demands the attention of human rights activitis. The violence itself is inexcusable and must be stopped. But to declare Kosovo independent, as those with sharper perspectives and foresight have already determined, will create more hostility.

      1. Fadil

        AnnaPolit, you should read carefully historical books and find that Kosovo was ruled much lesser from Serbia then others. Bulgarian empire ruled more and not to mention Ottoman empire. “Old Serbia” is juts a discovery of Serbian nationalists and nothing more since nations were created in the 18th and 19th century and not for sure on 14th or 15th century. The second wrong and false statement is for “Albanian Kosovar who aligned with the Axis powers” which is not true since many of Albanians from Kosovo fought against Nazis continuing to fight even at Srem (northern Serbia).

        Thirdly, keep in mind that dealing with history just makes troubles, in particular knowing that Slavic people migrated from Carpathian Mountains into Balkans so Balkan is not their motherland but Carpathian Mountains if you like so. In other side there is NOT A SINGLE evidence that Albanians came into Balkan peninsula. If we know 100% for the migration of Slavic people from Carpathian Mountains into Balkans, for sure we would know also for Albanians but, as I said, there is not a single evidence (reliable one) confirming that.

        So it’s much better keeping history aside and try to realize in which century we do live. Today, in the 21st century people vote and choose their leaders, regardless of ethnic background, faith, race and color.

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