Politics & Policy

Losing Belgrade

Russia's gain.

That faint ticking sound you hear may be that of Kosovo, ready to explode. At a time when America’s collective foreign-policy awareness has been directed at events in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Venezuela, it is no wonder that the Balkans have received little media attention.

During the 1990s, however, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that it spawned were front-page material. After several years of relative quiet — emphasis on “relative” — the region appears ready to burn again. Even more tragic is that the American foreign-policy apparatus has shown little interest in taking the steps needed to prevent it.

Kosovo is a Serbian province, but it has a predominantly ethnic Albanian Muslim population. Its leaders are poised to declare independence in the coming weeks, but Serbian Christians consider the soil sacrosanct and many are prepared for a fight. The nationalism may be traced in large part to the Battle of Pristina in 1389, when badly outnumbered Serbians inflicted grievous casualties on invading Ottoman forces in an otherwise-losing battle. The province has been the site of inter-ethnic conflict ever since. More recently, as a result of the 1999 war that featured atrocities on both sides, NATO forced Serbian security forces out of Kosovo, which was then placed under U.N. administration.

The results of this Sunday’s presidential runoff will have significant implications. The contest features the pro-Moscow Serbian Radical party’s candidate, Tomislav Nicolic, who captured nearly 40 percent of the recent first-round voting, and the liberal Democratic-party incumbent and pro-Western reformer, Boris Tadic, who finished second with 35 percent.

Tadic rose to prominence in the wake of the overthrow of dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Since becoming president in 2004, he has pursued friendly relations with the United States and the European Union, and he actively champions the growing business links between Serbia and Israel. Despite the rise of nationalism around him, a re-elected Tadic is more likely to guide his country to full European Union membership, increase its cooperation with the West on anti-terrorism efforts, and bring war criminals still wanted for crimes against Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians to justice.

In contrast, Nikolic, a former speaker of parliament, belongs to a party whose chairman and founder is on trial for war crimes at the Hague. Nikolic served under Milosevic and was a paramilitary in the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia. He has railed against the West and raised the prospect that Serbia could use force to prevent Kosovo from declaring independence. Although both Tadic and Nikolic oppose the province’s secession, the latter has used fiery rhetoric, ominously vowing to “fight like a lion” to keep the province from becoming independent. He has strong ties to the Kremlin and has even gone so far as to promise to invite Russia to construct military bases within miles of the province.

To be sure, in Serbia’s parliamentary system, the presidency is largely a ceremonial office. However, many in Europe fear that the runoff’s outcome will determine whether Serbia is headed toward a peaceful settlement and integration into the European Union or increased tension, if not an outright return to the bloodshed that has long pervaded the region.

The State Department either does not notice the peril of an ultranationalist triumph or downplays its significance. Several days ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a warning in Berlin that “tough decisions” on Kosovo, presumably independence, could not wait any longer. The substance of the language was less troubling than the timing. By choosing the two-week period in between the two votes to utter those words, she stoked us-against-them sentiment in Serbia, which only boosted the Nikolic camp’s fortunes.

While the American position is close to those of Germany and France, it ignores the concerns of other European states, including Spain, Romania, Slovakia, and Cyprus, who fear that Kosovo’s independence may spur secessionism in their own majority-minority regions. As University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman recently pointed out, “rewarding Kosovo’s militant secessionists with independence would undoubtedly embolden such rebellions.”

Moreover, with little support from Washington, Tadic had to seek assistance from Russia, increasingly a foil to U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin responded by backing Serbian concerns on Kosovo, thereby preventing the United Nations Security Council from approving a resolution backing independence. Late last week, Russia received a handsome reward for such support. In what David Sands in the Washington Times described as “cement[ing] Russian energy giant Gazprom’s chokehold over critical supply lines for much of Europe,” Serbian officials inked a deal enabling Gazprom to secure a majority stake in the Serbian state energy monopoly. The agreement reached with Gazprom came despite more lucrative counteroffers from European energy firms.

The U.S.-led military response to the Milosevic-inspired atrocities of the 1990s and its aftermath should not have colored our present-day perspectives. Instead, Washington became a reckless cheerleader for Kosovo’s independence without offering Tadic or other pro-Western politicians anything in return. And, in the process, a resurgent and less than amiable Russia exploited Serbia’s quest for diplomatic support to regain its sphere of influence in the Balkans.

American foreign policy toward Serbia needs an adjustment to ensure that the bilateral relationship does not deteriorate any further. That goal will be challenging enough if Tadic survives. If Nikolic prevails, of course, there may be little left to save.

— Jason Epstein is a consultant in Washington, D.C.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.


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