This second miscalculation gives Aleksandar Vucic a lot of work to do.
By David B. Kanin
Milan Radoicic’s botched raid against Kosovo was a colossal blunder. Images of a Serbian gunman holding a gun on a Serbian Orthodox monk and Radoicic himself at the monastery he ran to after his people were routed by Kosovo’s police did nothing to help Belgrade and local Serbs explain why such an escapade was taking place. In a stroke Vucic’s carefully constructed diplomatic advantage over Albin Kurti was shattered. Sure, Vucic could play to his nationalist flank with ritual complaints about alleged Kosovar brutality and demands that the internationals take control of the situation. He could declare a day of mourning for the killed Serbian attackers. He could even script an admission by Radoicic that he was solely responsible for the attack. But at the end of the day Radoicic and Belgrade? find themselves blamed – appropriately – with having escalated a tense situation and (worse) of having acted stupidly.
For now, Vucic still is in a backing-and-filing stage. He is raising dark threats to indict Kosovars he claims murdered captured Serb attackers. Vucic made sure to meet right away with the Russian Ambassador and Hungary’s Viktor Orban to remind the West that he can tilt toward Moscow if the US and EU do too good a job figuring out how and why the Serbs made the mess in Banjska. At the same time he has pulled some troops from the border with Kosovo even while claiming to have stood up to US pressure on the issue. Vucic has given interviews to Western news agencies making the case that Serbs in Kosovo face unrelenting persecution – and so it is understandable if a few of them fight back. While sharing a podium the Serbian military’s chief of staff said his forces would enter Kosovo if ordered while the Defense Minister said Serbia would continue to honor UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (and so would not send troops into Kosovo).
Radoicic has been questioned and put under house arrest but it remains unclear whether he will be thrown under the bus. Vucic also has to figure out how to reconstruct the formal and informal system by which Belgrade controls northern Kosovo. There have been a number of informal/criminal bosses running smuggling and other operations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2008 and so Radoicic could be easily replaced. The bigger problem for Belgrade is that the failed raid (or whatever it was intended to be) appears from press reporting to have disgusted and disoriented many local Serbs.
This may heighten Vucic’s sense of urgency regarding the proposed Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), keystone to the 2013 agreement between Belgrade and Pristina so central to Serbian interests. Vucic now has even more reason to press for that entity’s creation and to ensure that local Serbs loyal to Belgrade control it.
Focus on the ASM will help the Serbian President will get his feet under him. He will attempt to distract an easily distracted West by resuscitating the general belief Kurti and Pristina had been at fault for the embarrassing Western failure to force through a much over-hyped and vaguely drafted Franco-German proposal for an agreement on what is loosely called “normalization.” He already is reminding the West that Serbia has followed through on the terms of the deal Vucic made with Kurti’s predecessors in 2013 while Kurti refuses to form the ASM.
Vucic likely will get help from the EU as he attempts to restore his pre-Bansjka diplomatic advantage. Its foreign policy Chief Josep Borrell condemned the attack but also called on both sides to avoid further escalation, thus making it sound like both sides were equally responsible for the tense situation. EU Balkan maven Miroslav Lajcak demanded a resumption of the floundering dialogue. It is no secret in Brussels that a great deal of credibility is at stake regarding the Franco-German proposal. It also is no secret Washington and Brussels are quite unhappy with Kurti for resisting creation of a Serbian entity inside Kosovo that would boost the ability of Kosovo Serbs and their supporters in Belgrade to undermine Kosovar sovereignty no matter the legal limitations on its authorities.
Vucic is facing more trouble at home than from the predictable Westerners. With elections coming up he has to deal with energized nationalists who will demand he match his rhetorical defense of Serbian interests with actions designed to make sure there is no progress toward a new deal with Pristina involving a retreat from Belgrade’s efforts to forestall Kosovo’s membership in international organizations. It is possible he will have to give Aleksandar Vulin (Moscow’s man in Belgrade) and other hardliners more significant portfolios in the next Serbian government.
At the same time, the Banjska fiasco could revive efforts by Serbia’s long-suffering pro-Western politicians and civic activists to take advantage of an earlier error in judgment for which Vucic cannot avoid personal blame. Last May Serbia was rocked by two mass school shootings. Local authorities and the then Interior Minister enraged parents with their poorly thought-through comments and actions. Vucic was slow to visit the schools. He and other government figures initially attempted to blame the events on the influence of Western social violence. This, plus his “war on terror” rhetoric did nothing to assuage citizens’ concerns that he was insensitive to the social problems they worried were behind the murder.
Pro-Western politicians issued their usual calls for mass demonstrations against the government and, as has happened before, large numbers did hit the streets. This time, however, it was clear protests were not limited to civic activists and their closest supporters but also included many ordinary citizens who were horrified by the killing of children and angry with government tone deafness. Vucic resigned as head of his political party and reshuffled the government. He also agreed to Opposition demands to hold early elections – they currently are scheduled for December.
The street protests have continued but before Banjska had lost international attention. They appeared once again to lack the critical mass needed to pose a serious challenge to Vucic’s rule. It remains unclear whether pro-
Western politicians with a track record of incompetence and lack of public credibility can tie together government failures at home and at Banjska and improve on chronically abysmal electoral performances. But there is at least a slight chance Vucic will have more problems at the polls now than at any time since 2012.
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.