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In the Middle of the Road

April 12, 2008

By David Binder*

Serbia is both blessed and cursed. So, too, are those blessed and cursed that are forced by geography or other circumstance to deal with Serbia. They usually become entrapped.

The reason is obvious. As defined in the last century by Jovan Cvijic, the preeminent Serbian geographer of the Balkans, “We built our house in the middle of the road.”

A cursory glance at the map proves his point. Serbia sits astride not merely the Danube, Europe’s great southeasterly waterway, but also astride the continent’s main land route from north to south. It was the road that Constantine (born near Nis) took in the 4th century on his gradual journey to Byzantium, where he built his great capital. In 1095, some 500 years after Slavs (Serbs) reached the peninsula, members of the first Crusade took that route on their way to the Holy Land. Turk, Hungarian and Austrian invaders used the road. So did the Wehrmacht.

Now the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is again at the door of Serbia’s house in the middle of the ancient Balkan road. Having bombed the house in 1999, killing hundreds of (civilian) occupants, the alliance, obese but still adding weight, is not knocking politely, but rudely hammering.

Neighboring Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are already members. Croatia and Albania were invited in April in Bucharest, where Macedonia’s membership was deferred, due to its nomenclature issue with Greece. And Montenegro will be on the dance ticket soon.

“I do not have a shred of doubt that Serbia’s long-term future lies in Euro-Atlantic integration,” NATO’s secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said March 14, ignoring the fact that Serbia has proclaimed neutrality – thus joining Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland in that relatively rare status.

Odd, isn’t it, that just those four should perform such an un-neutral act as rushing to recognize Kosovo independence? NATO’s rhetoric is but a smoke screen, accompanied lately by siren songs and mantra-like recitals of “Euro-Atlantic Unity.”

That is one of history’s jokes. The alliance was created 56 years ago. Its original purpose, as Lord Ismay, the first NATO secretary general wittily but accurately remarked, was “to keep the Americans in, the Soviets out and the Germans down.”

It succeeded in those aims, but when the Cold War ended NATO floundered for many months like Pirandello’s actors looking for someone to write their script. Along came the crackup of Yugoslavia, with Serbia conveniently playing the role of the bad guy (in a region where there were bad guys from one end of Tito’s creation to the other).

On the principle that the beast of bureaucracy never dies — it just mutates — the alliance was reborn as the eastern talon of the American eagle (the western talon reaching over the Pacific). Its putative enemies are uniformly chosen by the United States, not by NATO’s European members. Now its leaders are eying Africa and South America as future fields.

NATO’s first outside-of-area battlefield, the Balkans, was at least “European” if not “Atlantic.” Along with that came a design, at least back to 1992 — with an eye on Kosovo — to crush and then dismember Serbia. That process is embodied in the creation of Camp Bondsteel, in supporting Pristina’s independence and most recently in President Bush’s plan to send American weapons to the Kosovo government. (One of these days veterans of the KLA could be recruited to fight on one of NATO’s war fronts).

Today NATO is heavily engaged almost as far as can be from “Europe” and “the Atlantic,” in Afghanistan. Amend that: Part of NATO is actually fighting there. But Bundeswehr forces, for example, refuse to go into real combat. In other words, NATO is becoming hollowed out by the refusal of some to click heels and salute at every American command. In February Defense Secretary Gates complained that this could “destroy the alliance.”

One must wonder in a similar vein about the political solidarity and purpose of the European Union – despite its obvious success and might as an economic power. Keep in mind that it began life in 1951 as an economic unit, the European Coal and Steel Community.

Through all of its mutations to its current membership of 27, the EU grouping has never overcome its deep political differences. They persist today whether on creating its own army, on enacting a binding constitution, on membership for Turkey, on Kosovo’s independence and of course, on the question of Serbia’s participation.

In the question of Serbia it is not just the quandary inherent in the fact it sits in the middle of one of Europe’s main roads. There are the problems deriving from the reality that, after the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic (and his subsequent deliverance to the Hague tribunal), and numerous other concessions to world powers, the demonizing of Serbs and discrimination against Serbia has not abated, much less disappeared. Far from that, if anything they have grown more intense, more all-encompassing.

For heaven’s sake! Even during the darkest days of Nazi rule the Germans were granted their Goethe, their Beethoven their Thomas Mann by the rest of the world. In the 19th century Vuk Karadzic was welcomed in Germany and hailed by Goethe and Jacob Grimm. Later Nikola Tesla was welcomed if not hailed in the United States. Today they would probably be denied visas and, if they were champion Serbian athletes, they might be barred from competing.

At least one European official seems to be aware that a road is involved with Serbia’s existence. Speaking in Sarajevo on March 20 Britain’s Europe Minister, Jim Murphy, said “Serbia is at a fork in the road of the nation’s history — the choice is Europe or isolation.” That was of course an allusion to the May 11 parliamentary elections.

That seems a gross exaggeration. In the longer term perhaps one can see the house in the middle of the road in a more nuanced way. NATO may last for awhile, the EU a bit longer.

But I believe Serbia and its house will outlive both groupings. After all, it survived earlier empires.

*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on March 25, 2008. It has been modified very slightly to account for events since that date.

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