Serbia and Syria

There has been a failure of public diplomacy by the US, the UK, France and Germany to serve the interests of stability in either Serbia or Syria, and thus a failure to strengthen or secure both ‘western’ interests, and the interests of the poor people of these two countries.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?

By Julian Harston 

On the face of it Serbia and Syria have nothing in common at all today. They share only the memory of a proud place in the Non-Aligned movement when that meant something all those years ago. But when, a couple of weeks ago, the German Ambassador in Belgrade came close to an apology for a disobliging statement he had made about Serbia, (he said he had been mis-translated. But he clearly had not ), a link between Serbia and Syria became clear.

The link is the failure of Western ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to be an influence for the better in both countries. There has been a failure of public diplomacy by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany to serve the interests of stability in either country – and thus a failure to strengthen or secure both ‘western’ interests, and the interests of the poor people of Syria or of Serbia. Ironically, it started with Kosovo and Serbia and was followed by Syria, with a brief venture into some common sense in Libya, where there was recognition that Arabs were essential to the mix if change were to be consolidated.

In the case of Syria the public and loud moral outrage expressed by Western leaders at the start of the civil war did nothing to help solve the problem, however justified that outrage was, and still is. It was necessary not to be loud but to be smart.

It was above all necessary to understand that the problem should be solved if possible by those closest to it. By Turkey, the Gulf States, Egypt and even Iran. And it was necessary to understand that self righteous and domestically self serving declarations from leaders in the West, whose moral authority has been reduced to its lowest level in recent history by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by what was seen by many, including Russia and China, as their lack of honesty about their real intentions in Libya, would make a solution far more difficult.

Despite the best efforts of Kofi Annan, and Lahkdar Brahimi, innocents on both sides continue to die in terrible ways. Three permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations in seeking action from that body find that they have managed to further entrench the positions of Russia and China by making it easy for them to resist. How much more difficult it would have been for those two permanent members to say no if the catalyst for action had been Arab, and Iranian, and the voice of their Nato ally, Turkey. And, of course the Syrians themselves. Early shouting for regime change as a necessary prelude to peace has so often proven counter productive that it is amazing that it seems still to be the default reaction of the West. But there may be change here. Whereas the departed Hilary Clinton said that Bashar al Assad’s departure was a precondition to any solution, successor John Kerry, experienced in the region, is now saying that a negotiated agreement will lead to the departure of Assad. Subtle change but important.

In the case of Serbia, the German Ambassador’s ‘apology’ was important. Perhaps this apology and the quieter and more thoughtful statements by the United States, are indicators of a realisation that the days of exaggerated explosions of righteous indignation in public, and diplomacy by humiliation are over. Serbia and the Serbs have become tired and increasingly irritated by the habit of important Western, European, or Nato ambassadors and other guests using any perceived transgression of so called ‘european standards’, or worse ‘civilised standards’ as a stick to instantly beat Serbia and the Serbs in public. No Gay Parade two years ago, and immediate anguished public statements by the UK Ambassador and others that Serbia had ‘ again ‘ shown itself unfit to join the civilised part of Europe. No matter that the Bulgarians held their first gay Parade some time after European accession. The tragic death of a French football supporter brought the French Ambassador to TV screens rightly condemning the murder, but using the opportunity to join the chorus that claimed another reason for excluding Serbia from ‘civilised’ society. Perhaps his advisers had not reminded him that the last similar death in France was only a short two years before.

Serbs by nature and some would say experience believe in conspiracy, and tend to shrug their shoulders at it. The fact that young Serbs were left by Schengen to wait for hours outside Consulates in Belgrade for visas for years after the majority of their Balkan neighbours, was seen as just another injustice meted out by those who had chosen to forget that Serbia had been a staunch ally in two world wars and her young people who bore no blame at all for more recent events did not deserve to be denied in this way.

The policy of western governments towards Serbia in the last ten years or so has been driven in Foreign Ministries and in Brussels by those who in the mid-nineteen nineties were looking at events in the Balkans from mid level positions in the ‘western Balkan’ departments. They had no doubt that the Serbs were the villains of the piece. And in London there was the extra embarrassing memory to be erased of what had been seen by the rest of Europe as early support for Serbia. The result has been that it became a perfectly acceptable habit to continue long after the Dayton Agreement and after the bombing of Belgrade and events in Kosovo to attack Serbia in public with a patronising Gallic shrug of the shoulders as if to say the Serbs will never change. This too then was the habit of Ambassadors in Serbia, both in private and in public. A habit incidentally which in a less tolerant capital would have met with more than one Ambassador being asked to leave.

And like Syria the results have largely been the very opposite of what the shouting was about. Serbia and Serbian stability and success remain the key to the stability and success of the Balkans for reasons that surely need no repetition here. And yet the continued dangling of Serbia on the string of European accession with contradictory statements from Brussels and elsewhere becoming a daily occurrence only serves to destabilise not to teach. It has got to the stage where the only opinion on Serbian accession that we have not yet heard is from the cleaning ladies in the Berlaymont! If the German apology, such as it was, is a watershed then Thank God.

At last perhaps the megaphones will find their way back to the Emergency stores. Perhaps on Kosovo it will be realised that both sides must be encouraged to really negotiate if progress is to be made and the endemic dishonesty of those who claim to be status neutral exposed and changed. Perhaps on European accession those who remain pro European in Serbia can be encouraged both privately and publicly both by words and deeds. Perhaps Serbia and the Serbs, particularly its bright well educated youth, can really feel that the past is behind them and that they are valued members of Europe and that they can be permitted to dream without any noisy interruptions.

Julian Harston previously served as the representative of the Secretary-General in Belgrade, Serbia, and is one of the world’s leading practitioners of peacekeeping. Julian is now an independent consultant on international peace and security matters  and lectures on a regular basis at the Belgrade Diplomatic and Security Academy. Julian is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

This article was originally published as an op-ed piece in the Serbian daily Politika.

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

 What is the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation?



25 Responses

  1. Mirel

    A long article for something that everyone knows.
    Serbia as their ally Syria are Russian puppet.
    Lets see Balkan.All countries are pro West except Serbia who si pro Russia.Serbian people themselves call Russia as Mother Russia.

    What u see in Balkan countries is Western Ambasadors are critical to Serbia,but you “forget” to mention that Russian,Iranian,Venezuelian,Angolian etc ambasadors are critical to every country in Balkan except Serbia which according to them is paradise on Earth.

    Is all about geopolitics.
    Serbia is on the side of Allies in both Wars because Russia was.If Russia was on the other side (with Germans) Serbia would have follow them.
    Serbia is a little Russia in Balkan and this is the truth.
    So as long as Serbia will be Russian puppet it will difficult to enter the Western Club.

    The same goes for the rest of Balkan countries which are Western allies,they never will be wellcomed in any accociation headed by Russia or China.

  2. Mirel

    In the other words regardless what West will do,Serbia will stick with Russia.Thats why the West is becoming more and more critical and sometimes openly against Serbia.

    The same goes for the rest of Balkan countries such as Slovenia,Croatia,Bulgaria,Albania etc.They will never trust Russia and China.And if you see or listen to Russia or China’s ambasadors they are very critical to slovanians,croatians,bulgarians or albanians and their respective gonverments.

  3. Vladimir Pandurov

    “In the other words regardless what West will do,Serbia will stick with Russia.” This is untrue and biased. For more than 10 years of difficult transion, ICTY pressures and Kosovo issues – more than 50-75% of Serbian population constantly supported Serbian euro integration process (according to the official opinion polls).

    1. julian harston

      The term megaphone diplomacy was I believe first used by Paddy Ashdown in this context. I gave him due credit in my draft, but it seems to have got lost in the wash. Apologies.

      Julian Harston,

  4. PEN

    A thoughtful piece by one who has rubbed shoulders with his subject. I believe that Serbia has an emotional attachment to Russian culture, history, and religion for obvious reasons. That does not necessarily mean the Serbs want to adopt Russian attitudes to civic responsibility, insularity, or a sense of eastern despotism far removed from Western society. Serbia’s young look west not east. But they have been cruelly punished by the West by being prevented up until fairly recently from travelling and embarking on educational and cultural interaction. By being stigmatised they were driven into the arms of Moscow and China. I don’t feel that is where they naturally belong, and nether do they. Furthermore, and in response to mirel’s caustic comment, to say that Serbia sided with the Allies during both world wars because the Russians did is demonstrating ignorance and malice on a gargantuan scale. Serbia fought the Germans twice through principle and not expediency, unlike many of her less scrupulous Balkan neighbours (and that includes the Albanians mirel) On both occasions the Russians were far away fighting for their own survival.

  5. Fadil


    Don’t forget also voting of Serbia against resolution, which condemned human rights violation and torture in Islamic republic of Iran. Serbia voted in favor of Iran.

  6. Maurice

    I was going to comment but I’m too afraid I’ll be attacked by Mirel and Fadil, so I’ll just keep quiet. You did some great work in UNMIK Julian and this is a great article. Albiet the three grammer mistakes. :)

  7. Tom in Lazybrook

    You complained that Serbia is being somehow treated differently than Bulgaria. In the interest of fairness, I’ll tell you exactly how Serbia is BEHAVING differently than Bulgaria. First, Gay pride takes place in Sofia and in Bucharest. In Serbia, Gay Pride is always cancelled and the police refuse to prosecute/jail those responsible for violent attacks on the Gay community there. It wasn’t just two years ago. It was last year and will be next year too. When people are violently attacked the police do not prosecute. The person “convicted” of setting off riots at the 2010 Gay Pride Parade remains at liberty (instead of in jail) and continues to agitate for violence against Gays. When a lesbian woman was brutally attacked and nearly killed for wearing a rainbow colored shirt, the police let the attacker go without punishment. When a Serbian national living in the United States nearly murdered a Gay person, the Serbian embassy, in direct and complete contravention of every diplomatic norm, helped this person escape the USA and an appropriate punishment. The police union of Serbia openly calls for the repression of free speech by minorities. The Interior Ministry refuses to do their jobs. By the time of Parada Ponosa 2013, they will have had 3 YEARS to prepare. I have no confidence that they have done anything to ensure the right of Serbian gays to protest publically on the streets of their national capital. Anti-Gay groups are allowed to congregate in Central Belgrade, its only fair if Gays have the right to the same venue, if only once a year.
    At least in Bulgaria, the government doesn’t allow violence and rioting to result in a victory. In Serbia, the police/prosecutors/Interior Ministry appear to be enabling, if not supporting those committing and advocating violence against LGBT Serbians. So, if you are wondering about the difference between Serbia and Bulgaria’s treatment, I’ve provided you with several examples of how Serbia and Bulgaria’s BEHAVIOR has been different. It’d be nice if you’d either correct your article, or at least allow this comment to provide more clarity towards your implication that Serbia treats its Gay population the same as Bulgaria. They don’t.
    Croatia had to allow Gay Pride (and protect the marchers) in Split prior to EU accession. Serbia will need to protect the public free speech and protest rights of LGBT persons before it sees EU membership. There’s no double standard here. The implication that there is one is misguided.

  8. julian

    Thanks Maurice.
    Alas you need a scottish education, not an English one in order not to make grammer mistakes……………

  9. A.M.

    Serbia is a European country and a young democracy in transition, Syria is not. Serbs share historical and religious sentiments with Russia, but their future is in the EU. However, the EU and the US keep on pressuring Serbia, so of course, many Serbs feel discouraged. Comparing Serbia and Syria – other than having the two countries SOUND similar, has absolutely no grounds. Serbia today is a relatively normal European country, Syria is a dictatorship in a civil war. Serbia is mainly Christian, Syria is mainly Muslim. Serbia is in Europe, Syria is in the Middle East. Enough said. Serbia can be compared to some other countries who have recently joined the EU, or will join it soon. That would be a fairly interesting ground for comparison. But Serbia and Syria… nothing in common at all for comparison, and thus this article makes no sense and is a waste of everyone’s time. Thank you.

  10. Lt Rinas

    Julian, I find the comparation of SFRY and Syria more appropriate. I can hardly link Serbia and Syria. If you could elaborate…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons