The Balkans spare no effort when making political surprises. This most recent surprise comes from Belgrade and sounds encouraging, but it is too early to say if it will bring more or less stability to the region.
Serbia’s new president, Tomislav Nikolic, last Tuesday stated, “I don’t think I will ever be president in Pristina, neither [will] the president of the interim authorities in Pristina ever be president in Kosovska Mitrovica.” For people unfamiliar with the complicated issues of the Balkans, the statement should be clarified: Following the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia,” all previous Serbian presidents, being less nationalist than Nikolic, have never dared to say they are not the heads of state in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, as well as in other parts of Serbia proper. He refers to Kosovo’s actual president, Atifeta Jahjaga, as the “president of the interim authorities in Pristina.” Nikolic abides by Serbia’s policy of not recognizing Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Due to this he calls the Pristina government “the interim authorities,” just as Israelis say “authority” for the proclaimed Palestinian state. Kosovska Mitrovica is a city in Kosovo’s northern corner where about 65,000 Serbs inhabit four municipalities and consider it their hometown. They have their own institutions that function independently from the Pristina government, but are at the same time dependent upon Serbia’s political and material help.
The former Serbian president, Boris Tadic, and head of the Democratic Party recognized the reality of Kosovo’s independence a few days before Nikolic by shaking hands with Hashim Thaci, the prime minister of Kosovo. They shook hands in the popular Croatian resort of Dubrovnik at the meeting of regional leaders from seven southeastern European countries that was boycotted by other Belgrade officials who had so far avoided offering any official acknowledgment of the Kosovo regime. Tadic, who lost the May presidential election to Nikolic, had also previously avoided any direct contact with senior Kosovo politicians. Thus, his handshake with Thaci had no more significant political weight but sparked anger in both Serbia and Kosovo.
Tadic at the Dubrovnik summit
For Serbia’s prime minister-designate, Ivica Dacic, Tadic’s presence at the Dubrovnik summit was enigmatic, and he asked the former pro-Western Serbian leader to clarify his policies now that he had become an opposition official. Tadic and Dacic were political partners, until recently, but now, after ditching his alliance with Tadic, Dacic joined Nikolic, trying to form a new government with nationalists. Kosovo opposition politician Arben Gashi said the Tadic-Thaci meeting violated Kosovo’s constitution, which states a Kosovo official can only meet counterparts that recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Another opposition leader, Glauk Konjfuca, said, “This shows the current government is ready to meet the same Serb politicians that are the main reason Kosovo remains [ethnically] divided.” Replying to critics from both sides, Tadic stressed, “Concerning my handshake with Prime Minister Thaci, there is nothing historic about it,” adding: “But it’s good that the representatives of the Albanian and Serbian nations are meeting. We have a problem between us that we need to solve.”
Tadic was right, the Serbian and Albanian nations should meet. He would have probably met with Thaci even if he hadn’t lost the presidential election. And Nikolic has enough reasons to state that Serbia should reach a consensus regarding Kosovo (“on what Kosovo is”) and the problem of the Serb community there. Listening to his statements that he will meet with Kosovar President Jahjaga “when the time comes for it,” it is hard to believe it is the same man that was a staunch opponent to any compromise regarding “Serbia’s province.”
There are a few motives behind the new Serbian president’s full commitment to European integration and the evolution of his previous attitude towards Kosovo, and not only Kosovo, but the whole area of Greater Serbia that was, in his words, “his unrealized dream.”
First, Kosovo’s independence is a reality. A clear reality that can demonstrate some abstract meanings: It is a fact, an indisputable reality. The International Steering Group (ISG), which oversees its independence, has announced Kosovo will gain full sovereignty in September, almost four years after breaking away from Serbia. The 25-nation ISG that includes several EU states, as well as the US and Turkey, had announced that the Balkan territory had made such progress that “supervised independence” could be lifted. Monday’s decision effectively means the end of international administration and supervision of Kosovo, but a NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force) peacekeeping force or European rule of law mission EULEX will probably remain in place.
Second, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon, visiting Belgrade a week ago, said, clearer than any other American or Western official, that Serbia “was not expected to recognize Kosovo at this point, but it would have to come to terms with the reality of a democratic, sovereign, independent and multi-ethnic Kosovo within its current borders.” In other words, ideas of a possible division of Kosovo should be abandoned, and even though Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo might not be expected “at this point,” then in some better circumstances. Nikolic was told similar things in Brussels, where he went in the middle of June. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last Wednesday in Pristina that all Kosovo’s issues should be solved through dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and not by violence. “We need a political process that will lead to full integration of the north into Kosovo society,” he said.
Some people might say these were the same messages that the Western officials were sending to Serbia when Tadic was its president as well. It will soon be a year since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shocking visit to Belgrade, where she bluntly told Serbia to give up control of northern Kosovo if it wants to join the EU. With Nikolic it should be done more clearly. Only a few years ago he announced that he would like “Serbia to become a Russian province.” He advocated in the Serbian parliament in 2007 making Serbia part of a Belarus-Russia super state, saying that together they would “stand up against the hegemony of America and the European Union.”
Third, the declining and worsening economic situation in the country is an even more urgent reason why Nikolic is leaving his previous nationalistic rhetoric than the US and European suspicions about Serbia’s future foreign policy. He does it because he has perhaps started to understand the real relationships in the world and to realize that he can’t avoid the Western requests for giving concessions to Kosovo if he wants to get economic help as well.
Serbia and the EU
Irena Ristic, a political scientist and researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, Belgrade, wrote recently: “Having in mind that during the last decade the biggest investment in Serbia came from the EU and the United States, and that the EU through its diverse funds for social and economic development remains by far the biggest donor in Serbia, it is obvious that Serbia’s exit strategy is directly related to good relations with the EU and further EU integration. Consequently, it would be politically very costly for Nikolic and a government led by his party to isolate Serbia, to bind it closer to Russia, to distance it from the EU.”
Finally, a deeper personal motivation lay behind Nikolic’s changing attitude toward Kosovo and the world. He has great political ambitions, but so far he was serving others and was a permanent deputy. His misfortune was that those “others” were nationalist “butchers of the Balkans.” Three times he ran for and lost the Serbian presidency, and now, finally becoming number one and the head of state, he is searching for the right way to stay in power and secure a second mandate as well.
It is human to try and keep power once it is achieved, but the relationship of the president of Serbia with a country other than Kosovo will truly determine the success or failure of his policies. It is Bosnia and Herzegovina that was also a part of President Nikolic’s “unrealized dreams” of a Greater Serbia. He should confirm Serbia’s declared support to Bosnian territorial integrity and sovereignty before all by clarifying its policy towards the destabilizing and secessionist behavior of the leadership of the Republika Srpska entity. He had a chance last week to show a positive sign during the 17-year commemorations of the Srebrenica genocide, carried out by the people he has strongly supported. As he did with Kosovo, leaving an idea that he might be a president in Pristina, he could make an initial human gesture -- to renounce his own statement given soon after becoming the new Serbian president that “there was no genocide in Srebrenica, that it was a big crime committed by some Serbs who must be found and punished.” His predecessor Tadic challenged him by suggesting that he visit Srebrenica, as he has done, but Nikolic declined.
Commemorating Srebrenica has become not only a symbol of paying tribute to the victims of the worst crime on European soil since World War II, but a sign of the relationship towards the sovereignty and territorial unity of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. In that sense, we Bosnians have looked to foreign attendants at each year’s burial of the remains of Srebrenica genocide victims with special attention. For example, Roland Gilles, the French ambassador to Bosnia, participated in the 500-kilometer International Memorial Bicycle Rally from the western Bosnian town of Bihac to Srebrenica.
In a similar manner we read messages of foreign dignitaries sent on that occasion. They can also be read as messages to all those, like Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Serbian President Nikolic, who deny the Srebrenica genocide.
US President Barack Obama said the United States rejects efforts to distort the scope of the atrocity in Srebrenica, rationalize the motivations behind it, blame the victims and deny the indisputable fact that it was genocide. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We must never forget the act of genocide that was committed in Srebrenica, nor should it ever be denied.” And Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed out in his message that “Turkey will never forget the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and will not allow others to forget it.”
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.