Serbia: The past holds the future hostage

Serbia: The past holds the future hostage 

Tirana Times -

By Albert Rakipi 

Albanian Institute for International Studies 

If Serbia were indeed a functioning liberal democracy, Foreign Minister Vuk Jermic would have resigned the day after the publication of the International Court of Justice opinion. The ICJ ruled that Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence violates neither international law nor UN Security Counsel resolution 1244, nor the provisional constitutional framework regarding self-governance. The lack of resignation was not only a spectacular failure, but it also backfired on the Serb administration and, in particular, the head of Serbian diplomacy himself. 

Although Serbia’s investment in fighting Kosovo’s independence was based on legal grounds, which were made through the ICJ with the support of all the government as well as the president, it was Jeremic who personified the move. Serbia’s top diplomat was one of the main contributors to the sky-high expectations that led Serb politicians to anticipate an ICJ ruling in their favour . 

This then is an opportunity not only to claim success in diplomacy, but also to put a significant dent in the political future of Jeremic, whose political shares continue to trade high, mainly due to his populist-nationalistic approach towards Kosovo. 

After the spectacular failure of the Serb’s case at the ICJ, in a democratic country, the man or woman responsible for putting the case forward would have resigned, and, if not, he or she would have been forced to resign by the mechanisms of a functioning democracy. 

But to term Serbia a democratic country is a bit of a stretch, since the foreign minister neither resigned nor was fired. This is a clear-cut example of the meaning and function of political life in today’s Serbia. 

This, however, is not anything new to most of those following Serb politics. To say that Serbia today is not a liberal democracy, or, moreover, a functioning democracy is an obvious reality. 

However, this opinion piece serves to argue that the Serbs should adopt a practical and realistic approach to Kosovo, which would necessarily include recognition of Kosovo's independence, as a key step forward in the democratisation of Serbia, which would, in turn, have an immediate, profound and lasting impact throughout the region. 

The political elite currently in power in Serbia, as in all Western Balkan countries, fear fundamental steps which would lead to the democratisation of the hybrid authoritarian/democratic regimes. This fear is based upon the simple reason, as old as politics: the will to stay in power. Does this mean that undertaking a fundamental step, such as recognising Kosovo's independence, which is key to real Serbian democratisation, would lead to the fall of the current government in Serbia? Developments of the past three years, since the proclamation of independence, indicate quite the reverse. The populist approach to Kosovo gives full assurance to the elite in power, as it keeps public support steady, and at the same time, maintains support from the international community, mainly the EU. 

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In May 2007, Foreign Minister Jeremic said that the Serb government would fall if Kosovo was granted independence. In fact, independence had already happened. According to international law, since at least June of 1999, Kosovo was no longer under Serb control. Kosovo was practically a de-facto state: a territory with defined borders, a set population, local and central governments which shared governance with the United Nations. In short, since 1999, Kosovo was almost a de-facto state. The only thing it lacked under international law was international recognition of being an independent country. 

Jermic’s statement that giving Kosovo independence would force the government in Serbia to fall served only to intimidate the West with the prospect of dangerous radicals coming to power in Serbia. 

A year later, in 2008, independence happened legally as well. The Serb government did not fall, and the explanation is fairly simple. Jeremic's predictions were wrong. The ICJ ruling likewise is damning of Jeremic, since the Serb diplomacy worst case scenario happened under his watch. 

Perhaps another explanation is that the preservation of the status quo in Kosovo's quest for independence is that it helps all political parties in Serbia – from the moderates in power to the so-called radicals in opposition. What it does not help is the future of Serbia. 

Since the government did not fall after independence was declared in 2008, and following the failure of the Serb’s case at the ICJ, it is remarkably strange that the radical opposition still does not realise that Kosovo is not an issue that can bring them to power. 

Independent analysts say Kosovo is way down on the list of Serbian society priorities. But the failure of the opposition to include priority elements in its political program keeps the political debate centred on Kosovo and leaves important business undone. 

But the best explanation in both political and philosophical realms for the weak state of democracy in Serbia, as well as for the region as a whole, comes from an observation from Domimique Moisi, who stated that in Europe the people of the Balkans have failed to transcend their past. Overcoming historical legacy would not only lead to a reconciliation process, but also would pave the way for creating substantial and functioning democracies of the type which lead to proper European integration, to which the region's political elites should be dedicated. In the case of Serbia the first step on this path is the recognition of Kosovo's independence. 

The story is simple: the EU was conceived of as, and has proven to be, the vehicle for the epoch-making reconciliation of France and Germany. But, in the first instance, both Germany and France decided to transcend their own pasts and to replace animosity with co-operation. So, as a first step, European countries decided to divide themselves from past conflicts and to apologise to each other. 

Serbia's, Albania's and the rest of the region's eventual membership in the European Union cannot serve as a deus ex machine to transform the hybrid regimes in today’s Ballkans overnight into functioning liberal democracies. The reverse, however, is true, that democratisation of these regimes would aid their bids for EU membership. 

The West, particularly the European Union, may be sending the wrong signals to the elites in the Balkans. For example, in the case of Serbia, exchanging EU membership in exchange for Serbia's recognition of Kosovo is an approach that does not appear to be effective. 

Serb President Tadic says the European Union is Serbia's strategic priority, but it is not the only one. The most combative political figure, as always, is the foreign minister, who has repeatedly stated that Serbia is not ready to accept independence in exchange for membership in the EU. In its current priorities, Serbia is trying to resurrect a Cold War ghost, as was the case with the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, which functioned solely to stop further recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. (In a year or so the 50th anniversary of the movement will be celebrated in Belgrade, where preparations have already began). 

Even with recent failures, such as the most recent decision at the ICJ, Tim Judah, a respected analyst from The Economist, says that Serb diplomacy has shown good results within the country, where President Tadic and his government continue to be very popular.