Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Serbian Surprise

Ron Haviv/AP Photo
Kosovar Albanians fleeing Serbian forces in Montenegro, Yugoslavia, in the winter of 1999

An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo. Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Serbian government has maintained that it will never recognize the right of its former province to secede, but will fight through diplomacy and through the United Nations to get it back. And it continued to maintain that position even after the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in July that there is nothing in international law that prohibits Kosovo from declaring independence. Now, to the surprise of everyone—including me—the Serbian government has agreed to hold compromise talks with Kosovo.

Despite the setback of the Hague Court opinion, which appeared to foreclose any possibility of continuing to argue that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was illegal, the Serbian government had initially announced that it was going back to the United Nations with a new resolution to defy the decision of the International Court of Justice and state once again Serbia’s position that a unilateral declaration of independence is an unacceptable way to solve territorial questions.

As could be expected, the supporters of Kosovo’s independence were exasperated. The foreign ministers of Germany and United Kingdom came to Belgrade to explain to the government there that this was a futile policy, that sooner or later they would have to sit down and have a serious talk with Kosovo Albanians regarding the status of the majority Serbs living in northern Kosovo, the Serbian Orthodox monasteries scattered in isolated enclaves elsewhere in the breakaway province, and scores of other problems bordering states are bound to have. But then—and here was the surprise—the government of Serbian President Boris Tadić agreed to introduce a compromise resolution calling for talks with Pristina, without bringing up the question of its legitimacy as a state. It praised the readiness of the European Union to ease the process of dialogue between the two sides and underlined that such talks would in themselves lead to peace, security and stability in the region.

Serbian nationalists were caught off guard and said what one expected them to say: This was a historical betrayal perpetuated by a puppet government serving the interests of Washington and Brussels, which has now placed the country in the position of a vassal by agreeing to the creation of a secessionist state on sacred Serbian soil. Since when has it become okay, they demanded to know, for ethnic groups and regions to secede with the help of foreign armies and bombers? Who gave the right to these international hypocrites, like the Americans, who are still committing crimes the world over, or like the Germans who were slaughtering millions a few decades ago, to pass judgment on Serbia and Kosovo and arbitrate their dispute? And so forth. In the meantime, the government in Belgrade kept maintaining that it has no intention of officially recognizing Kosovo, and I don’t believe that the European Union will insist it does, since the EU knows that such a move would be political suicide for any Serbian government in the foreseeable future.

Still, what made this coalition government, which has plenty of hard-line nationalists in its ranks, including its usually inflexible foreign minister, Vuk Jeremić, compromise? (In a recent interview, Jeremić said that “Kosovo is our Jerusalem.”) As many observers have long noted, one of the peculiarities of Serbian politicians is that they are rarely persuaded by appeals to reason. They take great pleasure in being inflexible and will proudly point to instances in their history when in defense of their rights they refused to yield even to overwhelming power. This is ordinarily an admirable characteristic in a people, but not when it comes to a cause that was lost decades ago.

Did reason prevail, and the recognition that the current Kosovo policy hurts long term Serbian interests? I have no idea. It must have been made very clear to the Serbs that if they continued to take every opportunity to make a nuisance of themselves, their chance of joining the European Union would be zero. Of course, that would have been perfectly fine with the nationalists who are happiest when Serbia is isolated and hated by the West, but not with others who remember the policies pursued by Milosevic, which led to pointless conflicts with neighbors and so many self-inflicted and catastrophic defeats for which Serbs have no one but themselves to blame.

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