Serbia and three Germanies

The West deals with Serbia by straddling victors’ policies toward Germany in 1918 and 1945. It also punishes Serbia for crimes of the 1990s after having let Austria skate for its enthusiastic pro-Nazi behavior in and after 1938. This approach accomplishes little and frustrates everyone involved.  

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By David B. Kanin

Establishing punishment and appeasement as end points of a stochastic policy spectrum does not lead to constructive outcomes.  What happens when a state suffers the label of international villain but simultaneously knows it is – and is known to be – an essential actor in regional security? Belgrade’s strategy has been to reject lectures and perceived insults from the West, maintain measured relations with Moscow and shield itself from big power demands and behaviors.  The result is an ambiguity that has buttressed Serbia’s security position in the Balkans and Europe at large.  

That ambiguity is reinforced by the continuing impact of the rickety regional security system put in place after the implosion of Yugoslavia.  Serbian supported Bosnian Serbs were defeated in Bosnia in 1995 but Slobodan Milosevic skillfully negotiated a Serb national entity in the Dayton Agreement forged later that year. NATO bombing forced the physical separation of Kosovo from Serbia but subsequent diplomacy produced a stunted Kosovar sovereignty still very much in question.  Serbian forces did not win decisive victories in the field but Belgrade’s diplomacy won the peace. 

As a result Serbia retains its independence of action and internal stability.  It plays an important role in driving relationships between national identity and politics that remain unresolved in Bosnia, Montenegro and the disputed state of Kosovo.  A Serbia so important to constructive progress in these places cannot be treated as if it is a defeated actor and culpable criminal obliged to knuckle under to norms and material arrangements imposed on its region by outside powers.   

There is nothing new in this.  The problem of forcing both justice and reconciliation on the defeated enemy in the twentieth century led the victors of 1919 to borrow a little from the post-Napoleonic playbook.  The term “appeasement” had a positive connotation after France came back into the Great Power fold after 1818.  Bonaparte alone faced the punishment of exile — no one held the restored Bourbon monarchy or the French state as a whole responsible for the wars of the previous twenty years.  No concept of war crimes (other than the abhorrence of Revolution) informed Great Power norms or more than marginally complicated the security context.

This was not the case in 1919.  The impulse to punish Germany for the unexpectedly enormous slaughter of the previous four years was written into the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty.  The new democratic German Republic inherited the burden of paying out for the crimes of a Kaiser permitted an unimpeded and comfortable exile.  But within a few years the specter of the Soviet threat and breakdown of the Anglo-French entente led the Western powers to look back at 1815 with greater interest.  The positive conception of appeasement was built into the Locarno agreements of 1925.  At first this seemed a good idea – between then and the assassination of German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann in 1929 Germany did indeed appear to be appeased and functioned as a responsible European actor.

The Depression and rise of Hitler put paid to that and – as analogy lovers so often remind us — Western efforts to appease the new Germany enabled the disasters of 1939-1945.  The Munich Agreement of 1938 became a cocktail part argument boiling down to “Me Tarzan, You Chamberlain.”  As World War II ended Genocide came into being and war crimes trials punished Nazi (and imperial Japanese) notables. The post-war Germanies were laboratories for efforts to reconcile the security implications of sometimes conflicting priorities of international justice, ideological paradigms and pragmatic security policies.  Politicians, bureaucrats and scientists useful to Soviet and Western participants in the unfolding Cold War escaped prosecution and enjoyed status and material gain. 

In the Serbian context it is especially worth keeping in mind what happened to a piece of the Reich that reinvented itself.  Cold War considerations enabled the small Austria and its denizens to ignore their embrace of native son Hitler and cloak themselves in the fabrication that they were his first victims.  Neutrality and a smallness more comfortable now than after World War I serves EU member Austria very nicely to this day.

Serbia cannot be expected to accept contemporary equivalents of a war guilt clause.  As with the Cold War Germanies the separation of Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo from Serbia should not be assumed to be a permanent condition – that is one of many regional security issues still up for grabs.  Whatever happens Serbia, unlike Austria, cannot be put in a geopolitical side pocket. 

Serbia is both small and large, depending on whether the context under discussion is European or Balkan.  On-again-off-again use of the Cold War analogy of two German states when considering Bosnia or Kosovo just confuses things – there is no comparison between the pieces of Germany firmly absorbed into Cold War camps and a Serbian world existing outside ”Europe” and dealing with a more ambiguous than recognized relationship with an aggressive and weakening Russia.  Attempting to appease Belgrade with financial assistance and disingenuous promises of eventual EU membership while chiding it over official and grassroots lionizing of convicted war criminals has not accomplished either justice or enhancement of regional security.  Similarly, approaches from Moscow for solidarity on religious, cultural and historical grounds have had limited impact on an audience aware of the history of unreliable and sometimes dangerous Russian and Soviet policies toward Serbia and the Balkans.  In short, Serbia owes neither allegiance, gratitude nor solidarity to any of the great powers.  There is no need for it to accommodate or fear any of them. 

Serbia lacks the large regional market of the of the former Yugoslavia it dominated after World War I and helped bring down after the Cold War. However, it retains the non-aligned status that Tito put to good use and that President Aleksandar Vucic dusts off when he wants to remind the big powers he is not beholden to them.  At the same time Vucic does not miss opportunities to sidle up to the Westerners when an acute crisis emerges in Bosnia or Kosovo or when a European leader is in need of self-justification.  He adroitly stroked Angela Merkel after her policies toward the overwhelming migrant issue of the mid 2010s brought her enormous domestic and international status came crashing down. More recently, Albin Kurti’s blunt, blundering approach to northern Kosovo has made it easy for Vucic to convince the US and EU that he is the adult in the Balkan room. 

Vucic’s skillful diplomacy has exploited tensions in the West’s appeasement/punishment approach to his country and has enhanced Belgrade’s status as the essential Balkan security actor.  The success of his diplomacy has been magnified by the EU’s failure to extend membership to the other Balkan states currently stuck in its waiting room.  In particular, Montenegro is at least as “ready” to join the club as were Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 but the Eurocrats continue to behave as if the decisions regarding Bucharest and Sofia were not political.  They stick to autopilot assertions that Podgorica’s candidacy will be decided on the basis of standards rather than political and security contingency.  This dissembling in Brussels’ rhetoric further undermines EU credibility and enables Belgrade’s ability to ignore civil society’s ritual denunciations of justice.  Serbia thus has little difficulty portraying itself as honest and indispensable in comparison to Western behavior that is anything but.  

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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