The spectre of nationalism in the modern Balkans

The spectre of nationalism in the modern Balkans

Although the history of the Western Balkans has a cyclical quality, one thing has changed. The region’s quarrelsome peoples have been separated politically, which means that many of the challenges of multi-ethnic democratic compromise cease being so acute. Hence the region may prove easier to govern without repression, and the branches of democracy may spread further, than in the communist, imperial or monarchical pasts. This may hold even if nationalism remains part of the popular consciousness of the region.

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By Matthew Parish 

The conditional release by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia of the defendant Vojislav Šešelj ostensibly upon health grounds, ordered on 6 November 2014, lacked juridical finesse. Mr Šešelj was the defendant in the longest-running case before the Court, accused of commanding Serb militias responsible for war crimes in the Bosnian and Croatian wars. He was notorious as much for the conduct of his defence of proceedings before the Court, in which he refused to appoint counsel, delivered political speeches laced with insults and expletives, and published the identities of prosecution witnesses on the internet. The case became an international farce that reached its dénouement in 2013 when one of the Judges had to step down after he wrote a letter, published in the media, indicating his preconceived views of the defendant’s guilt. A new Judge was appointed in his stead, delaying a final judgment date until at the earliest the middle of 2015. Nevertheless according to Florence Hartmann, former press officer at the Court, the judgment has already been written. Presumably it convicts, and the replacement Judge just needs comfort time to reach the same conclusion.

Yet the defendant apparently has terminal cancer. This sent the Court into a panic. It had suffered a public relations catastrophe in 2006, when another high-profile defendant, the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, died during trial amidst accusations about inadequate healthcare while in custody. Fearing a second such calamity, the Court released the Mr Šešelj on its own motion. Bizarrely, it declined to ask the Prosecutor for his opinion. It also refused to ask Serbia, the territory into which he was released, for its opinion. It refused to ask the Defendant for his opinion. The Court imposed release conditions – relating to non-interference with witnesses – that it knew the Defendant might well breach, because he had done so previously. The Court did not impose conditions Serbia might well have wanted, such as an obligation not to engage in political activity pending the conclusion of his trial. The Court stated that Mr Šešelj must return to custody in The Hague upon its request, but immediately after he arrived in Serbia Mr Šešelj declared that he had no intention of ever doing so. Instead he gave a politically toxic series of speeches and public pronouncements that have led to European Parliament condemnation and cancellation of a visit to Serbia by Croatia’s prime minister.

In Mr Šešelj, the ICTY had a significant problem: an outspoken, controversial and dying defendant that could only harm its reputation, especially if (as the Tribunal manifestly feared) he died without judgement being delivered or appeals being exhausted. Hence they elected to pass the problem onto Serbia. Yet for Serbia Mr Šešelj, if anything, is an even greater millstone. The Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, is the former deputy to Mr Šešelj who has remained President of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) throughout his incarceration since 2003. Mr Nikolić and the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksander Vučić, departed the SRS in 2008 to form a new political party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), outside the shadow of Mr Šešelj. Since then they have pursued an agenda that mostly departs from the unrepentant nationalism of Mr Šešelj and have distanced themselves from association with grizzly wartime events. Instead they have pursued a modern market-liberalising agenda including closer links with the European Union and gradual de facto reconciliation with the government of Kosovo. All of this is an anathema to Mr Šešelj, which is presumably why he described the men as his two cancers upon his return to Belgrade.

In his conduct both during and since release from custody, Mr Šešelj has demonstrated himself unable to move on from the political atmosphere that enveloped the region during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Nevertheless Serbia has moved on. There is now a political consensus, amongst the main political parties at least, in favour of reconciliation with the country’s neighbours. The marked changes over the years in the political rhetoric of Mr Nikolić and Mr Vučić reflect that position, as they have reinvented their public personas from nationalists to moderates. The return of Mr Šešelj to political life in Serbia, even if he is terminally ill, can hardly be welcomed by them. However much of a headache he is to the Judges of the ICTY, Mr Šešelj is more of a headache to Serbia’s ruling classes who want to leave his firebrand style of politics far behind them.

The view may have been taken within the international community and the annals of the ICTY that there is little damage Mr Šešelj can truly do to contemporary Serbian politics upon his return, precisely because things have moved on so far. But if that was the Court’s rationale in releasing him to Serbia, it betrayed a misunderstanding of why Serbian politics have developed in a more moderate direction over the last decade. This is not because the nationalist narrative has waned amongst the population in general. Rather it is because the SNS has successfully projected twin narratives: one domestically (tinged with nationalist fervour), and one internationally (promoting a moderating EU accession agenda). The prior government, the Democratic Party led by Boris Tadić, was ejected from power in 2012 not because they were perceived by voters as excessively nationalist: quite the contrary. Rather they were perceived as liberal and elitist, and SNS was able to out-flank them on nationalist issues while maintaining good relations with western countries by disavowing, on an international level at least, their own prior connections with SRS.

The return of Mr Šešelj to domestic Serbian politics, even if it turns out to be brief, threatens to spoil this delicate dance. All modern Western Balkan countries embrace essentially the same political contradiction: their underlying nationalist political sentiments have not evaporated substantially since the conclusion of war. Insufficient time has passed to achieve that. Nevertheless they face an immediate political future in which poverty and economic distress are more pressing concerns than nationalist competition with other ethnic groups. While the European Union has lost interest for now in the Western Balkans amidst its own economic travails, in the medium term all countries in the region remaining outside the Union aspire genuinely to membership. They perceive it as a realistic prospect given the accession of Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. Every government must therefore temper its political rhetoric to accommodate EU terms, even if it simultaneously makes diplomatic overtures towards other powers (as Serbia does with Russia). The principal EU stricture is abandonment of nationalist discourse during a period about which the EU harbours its own historical traumas due to its ineffectiveness in preventing bloodshed so close to its borders.

Mr Šešelj makes it difficult for Serbia’s current leaders to do this. He is the embodiment of the nationalist rhetoric the EU insists that Serbia abandon. Yet he retains a primitive level of popularity for precisely this reason. He threatens to damage Mr Nikolić and Mr Vučić because they cannot support his nationalist outbursts lest they damage Serbia’s relationship with the EU, but they cannot distance themselves from him lest they damage their relationship with the electorate. Only the absence of an effective opposition prevents the damage Mr Šešelj does to them being worse. He represents a dark corner of Serbian – and regional – politics – about which no contemporary politician can speak. The EU should leave things that way.

Hence in returning Mr Šešelj to Serbian politics, the ICTY has carelessly thrown in a grenade. He may be too hot for them to handle, but he is too hot for Serb politicians to handle as well. Hence we have observed a predictable downward spiral since his release: incendiary statements, diplomatic fury and international denunciation. Messrs Nikolić and Vučić have adopted what is probably the wisest course reasonably open to them: trying to ignore Mr Šešelj, and saying as little as possible about his pronouncements.

The political secret of the Western Balkans is that the status quo reached at the end of the Balkan wars is being quietly observed by everyone. Bosnia and Herzegovina was partitioned along ethnic lines with the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, and Croatia’s pre-war borders were preserved. Kosovo became a de facto independent state upon initiation of international administration in 1999. Serbia was dismembered but its rump was left in peace. None of these events, which reflected the outcome of military conflict, will be changed any time soon. In the intervening period, politicians in the region must not say anything about these matters lest they fall into a trap of international condemnation on the one hand or domestic ire on the other. The international community should, at the least, be understanding of the predicament domestic politicians in the region face. Nobody can compel a political dialogue of multi-ethnic compromise and tolerance: not overnight, and possibly not ever. The most that can be achieved is to preserve a mood of awkward political silence amidst hoped-for gradual changes in popular attitudes, cultivated by economic reform.

Those changes in attitude towards the events of the 1990s Balkans wars may never take place. The region has been mired in a cyclical history of inter-ethnic resentment for centuries, and the notion that the cultural attitudes underlying this can be rapidly expunged by a concentrated dose of democracy or pan-Europeanism seems unlikely. Tito’s Yugoslavia embraced a forcible doctrine of “Brotherhood and Unity”, which entailed political persecution or even imprisonment for politicians promoting nationalist agendas. The EU’s prohibition on nationalist discourse within the Western Balkans, on pain of international condemnation, might be construed in a similar vein. The likes of Šešelj will not be tolerated.

That may well be wise policy in a volatile region, just as Tito adjudged. Suppression may be more effective than liberal toleration. But if that is right, the international community is engaged in irresponsible hypocrisy by releasing Mr Šešelj into the politically charged environment of modern Serbia without adequate safeguards of his political impotence. The Serbian government cannot control Mr Šešelj’s public outbursts any more than could the ICTY. The European Union should not castigate Serbia for this failure.

Although the history of the Western Balkans has a cyclical quality, one thing has changed. The region’s quarrelsome peoples have been separated politically, which means that many of the challenges of multi-ethnic democratic compromise cease being so acute. For the most part Serbs’ and Croats’ animosity one for the other is now of marginal political relevance because each has its own country in which the other group is only a small minority. Hence the region may prove easier to govern without repression, and the branches of democracy may spread further, than in the communist, imperial or monarchical pasts. This may hold even if nationalism remains part of the popular consciousness of the region. For now, it is too early to say whether there has been a sea change in nationalist political consciousness since the end of the Balkan wars. But those familiar with the region may suspect not.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group. He is the author of over a hundred articles and two books on international law and international relations. In April 2013 Matthew was named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland by Bilan magazine. He is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

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