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At Last, Good News from the Balkans

Sara Terry
Bosnian Muslim widows during a prayer for the dead at the July 2001 groundbreaking of the Srebrenica-Potocˇari memorial site, dedicated to the thousands of Muslim men and boys who were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995; photographs by Sara Terry fr

If you only want bad news from the Balkans, it is easy enough to find. You can read the next few lines and then read something else. Bosnia is on the brink of war again. Kosovo’s independence is “a failure.” Serbs are scheming, unredeemable extreme nationalists, and organized crime is everywhere. In the last few years I have come to understand that many people outside the region actually want to believe the worst: they want black and white when, like everywhere else, real life is a shade of gray. I am not arguing that, fourteen years after the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars and almost two years since Kosovo declared independence, serious problems do not exist. It is just that in many respects things are not as bad as commonly believed.

Here is a small example. A few weeks ago in Brussels there was an EU meeting with ministers of the interior and justice from the western Balkans. Just before it began the Serbian minister, Ivica Dacic, refused to participate because his counterpart from Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, had removed the nameplate at her place that described Kosovo under its pre-independence designation, UNMIK. That is the acronym of the old UN mission there, which now, to all intents and purposes, exists only to provide, where required, a nameplate for Kosovo in international meetings.

After a brief exchange it was agreed that nobody would have a nameplate and so the meeting began. Did the Serbian minister, who during the Balkan wars was a chief spokesman of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial for war crimes in 2006, refuse to participate if Kosovo was present? Did the news agencies decree “tension rising” in the Balkans? Was the border between Serbia and Kosovo closed? Of course not. But most outsiders are not aware that Kosovo and Serbia and all the other parties who not so long ago were engaged in slaughtering one another now work together frequently. On December 22, after being judged eligible by enough countries, Serbia formally applied for membership in the EU. Three days earlier, in a move that will affect many ordinary people, visas for most European countries, which were imposed when Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s, were abolished for Serbs, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. They will likely be lifted for Albanians and Bosnians sometime in 2010.


Kosovo was (or is, depending on your point of view) a province of Serbia; its population is overwhelmingly Albanian. After Yugoslavia disintegrated, Kosovo remained part of Serbia until conflict broke out there in 1998, and was followed the next year by seventy-eight days of NATO bombing. After that, Serbian security forces pulled out and Serbia’s administration of Kosovo was replaced, initially by UNMIK and eventually by Kosovo’s own elected bodies in which the remaining minority population of Serbs sometimes participated and sometimes did not. Since declaring independence, Kosovo has been recognized by sixty-five countries, but not of course by Serbia, whose refusal to grant recognition is supported by Russia, China, Spain, and many other countries.

Nobody knows exactly how many people live in Kosovo. Serbian officials, like Oliver Ivanovic, believe there are about 1.7 million Albanians and 115,000 Serbs. Albanians, like demographer Mimoza Dushi, believe there are as many as 2.5 million Albanians. Perhaps a third or more of the Serbs live in the north of Kosovo above the river Ibar, in the divided city of Mitrovica and in the almost solidly Serbian region north of there that abuts southern Serbia. The rest live in enclaves scattered across the rest of Kosovo. For years the enclaves lived in terror and were protected by foreign troops.

Now that has changed. Serbs and Albanians don’t have that much to do with each other but they coexist. Since independence the Serbs in the enclaves have lived rather as if they were on Serbian islands and the Kosovo Albanians have more or less ignored them. Kosovo’s Serbs, on the instructions of Belgrade, have spurned offers of Kosovo’s public services, like schools and health care, and so these are paid for by Serbia. By contrast Serbian policemen, after resigning from the Kosovo police forces on Serbia’s orders, later were permitted by Belgrade to return to the ranks. Quite simply, despite some violent tussles near Mitrovica, no one has the will for a fight.

In fact, when it comes to fighting to regain Kosovo, the pro-European government of Serbian President Boris Tadic has taken a radically new position for the Balkans. He and his colleagues in government tend to mimic Churchillian language about never surrendering; but nowadays, when they say “fight,” they mean “see you in court.”

This has proved a shrewd strategy. When Kosovo declared independence, Vojislav Kostunica, then prime minister of Serbia, proposed that Serbia launch cases at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague against the US and the EU member states that recognized Kosovo. At that point Kostunica was in a coalition government with the Democratic Party of President Tadic. The members of his team were aghast. Their main goal was, and is, to join the EU, not to declare diplomatic war on its most important members. The Kostunica government collapsed and after the tightly fought parliamentary elections that followed, Tadic’s Democrats took control of the government. They then launched their plan. They would ask the General Assembly of the United Nations to ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s secession. Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister, said to me that when he put forward the idea to a senior American official, he laughed in his face. But in October 2008 the General Assembly voted to accept Serbia’s proposal.

The plan was intended to halt the number of countries recognizing Kosovo and also to take the issue out of domestic politics because the government could be seen to be doing something, albeit not something that threatened violence. It has been partially successful. Kosovo is not an issue in Serbian domestic politics anymore. As for recognition by foreign governments, most states that have not yet recognized Kosovo have decided to wait for the conclusion of the Hague court, which began deliberating on the issue at the beginning of December. Never before have all five permanent members of the Security Council presented their views to the court on the same case. Twenty-four others did the same, including some with secessionist problems of their own, such as Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and Spain. Many countries are in a mess. Russia, for example, recognizes Serbia’s territorial integrity but not Georgia’s; while most EU states and the US recognize Kosovo’s right to self-determination but not that of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, which have seceded from Georgia and are recognized by Russia as independent states.

In all likelihood the judges will be divided or give an unclear answer because the law on self-determination and secession is unclear. Like its advisory opinion condemning Israel’s separation wall, the court’s decision on Kosovo will probably have little effect, at least in the short term. What many have utterly failed to understand, though, is that Serbia has taken the issue to court as a way to rid itself of Kosovo, not to see its flag fly over Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, once again. After all, what could Serbia do if it was suddenly compelled to try to rule over two million implacably hostile Albanians who would rather fight again than see the independence they have long yearned for suddenly snatched away?

Of course Serbian leaders don’t say this in public, but in private it is another story. At some point in the future, after the ICJ has issued its opinion, they will propose to the Kosovo Albanians to exchange the Serbian-inhabited north of Kosovo for an area of Serbia inhabited by Albanians called the Pre evo Valley. Then Serbia and Kosovo would recognize one another, and—so Serbian leaders hope—the matter would be settled once and for all. As if life were that simple.

The problem with this plan concerns not the Serb or Albanian populations in question, but the neighboring Macedonians and nearby Bosnians. Horrified Western officials, who have already been outsmarted by the Serbs with the court case in The Hague, say that if they allow the borders of Kosovo to be redrawn, what is to stop Bosnia from falling apart? And what about Macedonia with its one quarter Albanian population? The Serbian plan is pure fantasy, a Western diplomat told me.

When I asked Albanians in Pristina about the Serbian plan, they all replied ferociously that they would never consider it, but I had the distinct impression that, for many, this answer had been suggested to them by Americans and others. After all, Albanians would stand to gain by it.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Kosovo have other priorities—most of which seem boring compared to winning the struggle for formal independence. They are creating jobs and ridding themselves of the habit of waiting for guidance from American diplomats and other Western officials rather than making difficult decisions by themselves. Since no one knows how many people live in Kosovo, no one knows the real, high rate of unemployment. But the need to create jobs was underlined in late October when sixteen Kosovo Albanians, illegal migrants, heading for what they hoped would be better lives in Germany and Switzerland, drowned when the boat they were in capsized on the river Tisza between Serbia and Hungary.


Unlike Kosovo, Serbia has received large sums—over 13.3 billion euros, to be precise—in foreign direct investment since 2000, although the flow has inevitably slowed since the global financial crisis. On the other hand, Serbia has also experienced a major political earthquake in the last year that seems to have been largely unnoticed by people who don’t live there or follow its political life closely.

For years the great bogey man of Serbian politics was the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, who is currently on trial at the UN’s war crimes tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity including murder and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. After he was indicted and voluntarily turned himself over to The Hague for trial in 2003, the party was led by Tomislav Nikolic, whose nickname is the “gravedigger,” because many years ago he had a job that included running cemeteries. In the 1990s the Radicals were war-mongering, hard-line Serbian nationalists. But over the past decade, after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, more people voted for them because they were the only credible opposition to the ruling Democratic Party than out of any desire to go to war again for Greater Serbia.

As the years passed, though, the gap between formal party leader Seselj’s take on reality—as viewed from the perspective of the 1990s and from his cell on the Dutch seaside—and Nikolic’s own became too great for Nikolic to bear. Irritated because the party’s vote was increasing, not thanks to Seselj but in spite of him, and because Seselj treated him like an errand boy, Nikolic decided in 2008 to quit. When he did so, he took most of the party leadership with him to found a new party, the Serbian Progressive Party.

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