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Serbia and the Perils of Hard-and-Fast Diplomacy

October 9, 2006


By Nikolas Rajkovic*

In the quest to establish stability and democracy in Serbia, yet another tumultuous chapter is now beginning. In May of this year, the EU suspended Stabilization and Association talks due to the Kostunica government’s failure to arrest and extradite General Ratko Mladic. On October 1st, the Kostunica government fell over the same inability to capture Mladic and renew EU talks.

Further, the International Contact Group on Kosovo has decided that the Serbian province’s final status shall be determined by year’s end, with the most likely outcome being imposed secession and independence. All the while, the right-wing Serbian Radical Party lurks in the domestic foreground: growing in popularity, sipping on a double-cocktail of international malaise and economic hardship, and eyeing the December parliamentary elections in Serbia with optimism.

Typically, the above storyline is narrated as the fault and handiwork of Serbian nationalism. A great number of analysts and policy-makers have made a venerable career casting “Serbian nationalism” as the causal variable for most Balkan ills. Yet, with this most recent chapter, one has to question whether the present tumult has its “cause” in the discursive chestnut of “Greater Serbia” or, rather, in less-scrutinized US and EU foreign policies. In short, while Slobodan Milosevic may be dead and ousted from power, it often seems that US and EU foreign policy is operating as if the late president were still at the helm in Belgrade.

The 6th anniversary of the democratic revolution in Serbia that toppled Milosevic has just passed. With this in mind, it might be time for a critical re-appraisal of existing policy towards Serbia. The present Washington/Brussels consensus of “the harder you squeeze, the better the results’ has reached its end and is likely contributing to Serbia’s present instability and struggle for democratic consolidation. While such an approach may have been appropriate during the Milosevic era, squeezing the Serbian lemon is now proving counter-productive with respect to the democratically-oriented, pro-European leadership of the country today. Pro-democracy leaders in Serbia need to be treated as allies and not as adversaries endangering regional security and democratic stability.

Serbia is entering its most important elections since the fall of Milosevic in 2000, and further international pressure will only play into the hands of Serbia’s resurgent right-wing and risks undoing hard-won progress made over the past six years. Policies ripe for a rethink are those related precisely to Mladic’s capture and Kosovo’s final status.

First, regarding the former issue, it still appears that both US and EU foreign policy toward Serbia hinges on one man. Or, to frame it another way, that democratic consolidation in an entire country, Serbia, and the security of the Balkans as a region is contingent upon the arrest and extradition of a single fugitive. Clearly, one has to question the proportionality, risk and ethics of such a stance. While policy-makers buttress such a position with reference to legalistic norms (e.g. justice and criminal responsibility) and select images of “Srebrenica’, such a discourse creates more questions than it answers. For instance, does the norm of “doing justice’ negate all other norms, such as a stable and democratic Serbia? Or, need the aforementioned norms be mutually exclusive or work at cross-purposes?

The popular contention that legalistic norms stand in some kind of hierarchical priority should strike many as a rather austere political and legal fiction. Surely, if Serbia can demonstrate that it has undertaken reasonable measures to apprehend Mladic, such as Croatia did with respect to then fugitive General Ante Gotovina, then clearly Serbia’s democratic and European progress should not be jeopardized further.

Kosovo’s final status is another case where Western policy is in need of serious reappraisal. US and EU decision-makers have taken the rare and unprecedented step of setting a “deadline’ to resolve a complex ethnic and regional problem. One need only look at conflicts of a similar nature to view the folly of such a doctrine. Imagine the Palestinian question, Cyprus or even Sri Lanka receiving similar final-status “deadlines.’ How Kosovo is any less complicated than the above conflicts escapes sound reason and judgment.

One explanation for such a misreading rests perhaps in what experts deem to be salient “facts’ with respect to the Kosovo problem. Currently, analysis on Kosovo is dominated by a material-rationalist approach, whereby only the quantifiable is considered of tangible significance. For instance, we hear repeatedly how the vast Albanian majority in Kosovo represents a hard “fact,’ while the constitutive place Kosovo occupies within Serbia’s national identity is represented as a lesser, more trivial concern. The alleged experts fail to acknowledge how the intangible (e.g. identity) is very tangible with respect to a lasting solution on Kosovo, which is not unlike the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Fortunately some regional diplomats, such as Greek foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis, have recognized the perils of hard-and-fast solutions and pointed to their fallacious use with respect to the Balkans: “we must not risk achieving a long-lasting viable solution for the sake of meeting a preset, arbitrary deadline.”

Others, however, mostly within the foreign bureaucracies of the great powers, such as US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, do not see a problem at all: “I have yet to hear any argument which demonstrates a delay would bring anything at all.”

Yet the question for the latter camp is whether (a) it is that they have not heard a good argument or (b) they have not heard an argument that is consistent with their predisposition for hard-and-fast solutions.
Addressing the complexities of Balkan and Serbian politics in a sophisticated manner is clearly a messy and difficult enterprise. However, should US and EU diplomacy not embrace such an approach, we will only have a fiction of peace in Kosovo. Poor political fictions produce dire consequences eventually, and by cheating time and detail we may be only making matters worse in the long run.

In conclusion, while hard-and-fast diplomacy may have made a significant contribution to Milosevic’s ouster, that was a policy appropriate to a certain time which is now long past; ironically, its continuation now may only return his disciples to power.

*Nikolas Rajkovic is a political sciences researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

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