Stabilizing Serbia

June 4, 2007 Topic: Civil SocietyDemocracySociety Region: Balkan PeninsulaEurope Tags: Kosovo

Stabilizing Serbia

As world leaders prepare to gather in Germany for the G-8 summit, Serbia and Kosovo are bound to be high on the agenda.

The following article is derived from "Notes from the Balkans" by Gordon N. Bardos, which will appear in the upcoming Jul./Aug. 2007 (No. 90) issue of The National Interest.

ANY AMERICAN policymaker who has bemoaned the fact that Washington is a one-crisis-at-a-time town should have some sympathy for the problems confronting Belgrade politicians. As a result of Montenegro's declaration of independence, Serbia has involuntarily become an independent country, and a decision which grants Kosovo some form of independence will reduce its territory by a further 15 percent. Meanwhile, the EU has suspended talks with Belgrade because of its failure to apprehend Hague indictee Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general held to be most responsible for the Srebrenica massacres in July 1995. And these are just the "big" problems; others, such as reforming the judicial and security sectors, providing for the largest refugee population in Europe, rebuilding an economy in which unemployment hovers at 30 percent-and which needs another decade to raise per capita GDP to 1989 levels-also remain to be solved.

In addition, trouble is brewing in the Sandzak region-a mainly Muslim area straddling the Serbia-Montenegro border and adjoining Bosnia to the north and Kosovo to the south. All the elements needed for a potential crisis are currently present in the Sandzak: increasingly violent conflicts within rival Sandzak Muslim political elites, an economic depression and a low but still palpable amount of ethnic tension between Muslims and Serbs in the area-all exacerbated by the small but highly visible presence of local Wahhabists, indoctrinated and financed by outside patrons.

Given these realities, what is noteworthy is not that reform in post-Milosevic Serbia has been slow, but that the post-Milosevic reform effort is making any progress at all. In many ways, however, the coming years will be the most severe test of Serbia's nascent democratic institutions, which is why there is an urgent need to rethink current U.S. and EU policy towards the country.

For the past several years, much of Washington's and Brussels's relations with Serbia-such as negotiations with the EU over a Stabilization and Association Agreement or Serbia's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace-have been reduced to the fate of one man: Mladic. But while the morality of insisting on Mladic's arrest is unassailable, the consequences of freezing Serbia's Euro-Atlantic integration efforts because of one individual have become detrimental to long-term stability in the Balkans. As one op-ed contributor in The New York Times asked, "How important is Mladic's arrest balanced against the integration of eight million people in a region that badly needs stability?"1

In similar instances, Washington and Brussels have both shown greater understanding for the wider strategic issues at stake. In October 2005, the EU gave Croatia a green light to proceed with accession talks only days after International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte announced her disappointment with the Croatian government's lack of cooperation in the case of fugitive Hague indictee Ante Gotovina. Similarly, the ICTY is allowing another indicted war criminal, former-Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, to await trial from his home in Kosovo (despite the fact that Haradinaj has reportedly been intimidating and harassing potential witnesses against him) because of the belief that Haradinaj can reign in extremists in Kosovo. In both cases, larger strategic concerns have required that some unpleasant compromises be made between the just and the good. Washington, Brussels and the ICTY now confront the same situation with regard to Mladic. Fortunately, Washington made a good move in this direction at NATO's November summit in Riga when it agreed to invite Serbia (along with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro) to join the Partnership for Peace. The EU now needs to show similar pragmatism in supporting democratic forces in Serbia by restarting accession talks with Serbia as soon as possible.

Serbia's neighbors certainly understand the importance of such pragmatism. As Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku recently noted, "[T]he international community needs to find a way to stimulate democratic Serbia while sidelining the radicals." Sidelining the "radicals" in this case most especially means that Washington should reconsider its policy of avoiding all dealings with the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague. The SRS is known for its extremist rhetoric and little else, but in a country with so many refugees and a devastated economy they can count on the support of anywhere between 30-35 percent of the electorate. The SRS is not monolithic: It has extreme and moderate factions, and initiating even low-level contacts with the party will move the moderates into a more responsible, mainstream direction and marginalize the extremists, which will be of considerable benefit to domestic Serbian politics.

Stabilizing Serbia-and, by extension, southeastern Europe as a whole-requires a new approach to dealing with Belgrade. Just like generals fighting the last war, however, far too many policymakers in Washington and some European capitals have yet to recognize that Slobodan Milosevic is dead. The challenge is no longer to contain a malevolent dictator but to foster an international environment that will guarantee the success of the democratic transition in the strategically most important country in the Balkans. The assassination of former-Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 should be a tragic reminder of the dangers post-Milosevic political forces face.

Gordon N. Bardos is Assistant Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He recently returned from a fact-finding visit to the region.