Update No: 136 - (26/09/08)
Put on the spot
There is no doubt that Serbia has been put in a great quandary by contemporary
The Kremlin's claim that Moscow has the right to unilaterally recognize Abkhazia
and South Ossetia (because of the West's recognition of Kosovo) has left Serbia,
a traditional friend of Russia and the supposed victim of that Western action,
in a difficult position, one likely to drive Belgrade further from Moscow and
closer to the West.
Which of the trinity to embrace?
Serbia is clearly being simultaneously driven in three different directions.
First, from a purely ‘logical’ point of view, Belgrade ‘should have
supported the territorial integrity of Georgia,’ a step that would have put it
at odds with Moscow.
Secondly, the Serbian government is pragmatically limited in expressing that
view due to Kremlin promises to help it recover Kosovo and to Moscow's supply of
And thirdly, because Serbia has declared its desire to join the European Union,
it cannot afford to take any position on Georgia, which would so directly
contradict the positions Brussels and Washington have taken, lest it slow its
progress toward integration with the West.
The West or Russia?
More generally, relations between Russia on the one hand and the US, the
European Union and NATO on the other raise questions about the ability of
President Boris Tadic to achieve the policy goals, he has announced. And if
these tensions grow, Serbia will be forced to make a choice, something it has
tried to avoid.
First of all, Serbia both economically and geopolitically cannot be oriented
toward Russia alone, a country with which it does not have common borders and
which is in the process of ‘self-isolating itself’ from the major countries
of the world. In short, right now, Serbia needs Europe more than it needs
As ever more people in Belgrade recognize, Russia now lacks the leverage in
major capitals to do much for Serbia to recover Kosovo, however often Moscow
says otherwise. The Russian veto in the UN Security Council won't do the job,
and many governments prefer not to support the Serbian-Russian tandem.
On the one hand, they have their own political reasons for not doing so, and on
the other, Russia's position is increasingly ‘contradictory – a 'no' to the
independence of Kosovo and a 'yes' to the independence of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, a stand that does not elicit trust from other powers. Russia’s
foreign service must have been aware of the glaring contradictions in their
‘self-determination’ policies for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and their
stance on Kosovo.
Moreover, Moscow's moves in recent days will not help Serbia to insist on its
territorial integrity, neither formally and legally nor in political practice,
whatever Russian officials may say.
Wheels within wheels
Consequently, official Serbia has preferred to maintain diplomatic silence over
the events in the Caucasus. That silence in fact highlights the growing
difficulties in relations between Moscow and Belgrade, problems that were
publicly reflected by the postponement of a visit t o Serbia by foreign envoy,
Sergei Shoigu, and comments in the Serbian media about Russia's predatory
pricing policies for oil.
Moscow has expressed its dissatisfaction that Serbia and also Bosnia and
Herzegovina apparently have sold arms to Georgia. While Belgrade and Sarajevo
deny this, and regardless of whether Russia's claims are true, the fact that
Moscow made such a statement shows that relations are not good.
Clearly, trust between the two sides has broken down, a trend that was
exacerbated by the handing over of Radovan Karadžic to the Hague court,
something that generated considerably more dissatisfaction and anger in Moscow
than in Belgrade, especially given Moscow's failure to hand over to Serbia
people that Belgrade has charged with serious crimes.
There are already many collateral victims of Russian aggression in Georgia and
of the West's response, but the undermining of ‘the historic friendship’
between Moscow and Belgrade is clearly one of the most unexpected, and quite
possibly may prove to be one of the most significant outcomes of the crisis,
particularly if it tips the balance in the Balkans further towards the West.
Difficult times in the West
The Netherlands has blocked a move to unfreeze EU trade ties with Serbia, saying
Belgrade's co-operation over war crimes suspects is not yet adequate. The
Netherlands is demanding that Serbia co-operate fully with the UN war crimes
tribunal in The Hague by capturing two remaining fugitives, notably General
This comes despite the arrest of former Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan
Karadzic in July.
France said a "very big majority" of EU states favoured unfreezing
The following is a perceptive discussion of the critical situation in Serbian
politics right now:-
Is the nationalist right in Serbia losing its strength?
Radio Free Europe interview Wednesday, 17 September, 2008
Interview conducted with two prominent Belgrade intellectuals, before the recent
split in the Serbian Radical Party, which nevertheless retains its interest in
relation to longer-term trends
Omar Karabeg (for Radio Free Europe): our interlocutors are the sociologist Božidar
Jakšić and the lecturer in political science Dušan Pavlović, both
from Belgrade. The question posed is: ‘Do you think that the nationalist right
in Serbia is in decline, given their electoral defeat and the failure of the
recently organised rally in support of Radovan Karadžić?’
Dušan Pavlović: I think that it is, and would add that the trend began
somewhat earlier, but was not easy to spot.
Božidar Jakšić: I think we are dealing with a ravaged society and a
disordered state. Let’s put aside groups like Obraz, Dveri and other extreme
organisations and look at the Serbian Academy of Science. I know that there are
many decent people there, yet they have announced the publication of an essay
titled ‘It is our sacred duty to defend Radovan Karadžić’.
The same sort of things happen at the university. There was the shameful speech
made by the Belgrade university rector at the public meeting about Kosovo. This
is the problem. We can call young men causing disturbances hooligans, but what
are we to do with the intellectuals who spread the speech of hatred, xenophobia
and enmity against the whole world.
Omar Karabeg: Do you think that the parties of the nationalist right, above all
the Serbian Radical Party, are now in serious decline?
Dušan Pavlović: We lack reliable public-opinion polls that would indicate
this, but we can nevertheless say that these parties are in decline, because
they have failed to make Radovan Karadžić’s arrest a dominant topic.
Božidar Jakšić: I don’t think that nationalism in Serbia is in decline.
I think it is still very strong, that nationalism is in fact the chief feature
of most political parties in Serbia, not only of the Radicals and extreme
nationalists, and that Serbian political culture is still dominated by
xenophobia, intolerance towards those who think differently, and populism.
Dušan Pavlović: I agree with Mr Jakšić that nationalism is still
very strong in Serbia, but the sources of the nationalist policy and nationalism
are gradually drying up. There have been three dominant symbolic sources during
the past twenty years or so in Serbia that have fed nationalism. These are
relations with the neighbouring states, which have Serb populations, attitudes
towards the Hague tribunal, and particularly Kosovo. All these symbolic sources
have been drying up since the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence. One c an
no longer appeal to them as an instrument of nationalist policy.
Omar Karabeg: Mr Jakšić, do you agree with the assertion that the sources
of nationalism are drying up?
Božidar Jakšić: If one speaks solely of the political level, this view
has a pretty solid foundation. I am thinking, however, of the other, the
socio-anthropological level, where matters stand quite differently. The three
pillars of nationalism to which my eminent colleague Pavlović refers are in
fact three themes that have been used to divert the attention of the Serbian
population and prevent true problems - the low living standard, unemployment,
the lack of perspective among the youth, and the fact that the country produces
little and is not working much - from emerging and becoming the main public
concern. It is far easier to shout about Kosovo than to work and make a car.
That someone has proclaimed a notorious national-socialist party to be
pro-European is their business, but it is not acceptable to those citizens who
still think with their heads.
Dušan Pavlović: I think I would agree with Mr Jakšić that
nationalism remains present in Serbia. What is essential, however, is that it no
longer represents a threat to the democratic institutions. That used to be the
case, but the situation has changed in this regard. Nationalism is now mostly
spouted by young people who, due to their ignorance, are ready to endorse the
nationalist story. The people who know what was happening in this country over
the past twenty years are no longer keen to join in as massively as they used
to. This is why I argue that the sources of nationalism are gradually ebbing,
and that we may soon find ourselves in a situation in which nationalism persists
but is no longer a threat to democracy.
Božidar Jakšić: We live in a country in which members of a state death
squad assassinated the prime minister, in which members of parliament curse the
president and all his ancestors, in which young people are trained to torch
foreign embassies and then simply called hooligans. All this is the work of the
Omar Karabeg: Do you think that the series of defeats suffered by the Radical
Party could lead to internal conflicts and divisions?
Dušan Pavlović: It is to be expected that Šešelj’s return will lead to
a sharpening of conflicts within the party, because I believe he will insist
that the party should become even more nationalist and extreme, should return to
the discourse of division between traitors and patriots. This could cause
conflicts within the party, because it is clear that this would not be
Božidar Jakšić: I see the Radical Party more as a falange than a party. I
myself do not share the view that Šešelj’s eventual return will make much
odds. The falange will remain a falange and, provided there is progress and
democratic advance, it will be reduced to something that exists in all
Dušan Pavlović: One must not forget that Šeselj has been in jail for the
past five years, which means that he has a distorted sense of reality. When he
returns to Serbia with a different sense of reality than that of the people who
live here, the conflict will I think be inevitable.
Omar Karabeg: Will the new government deal more decisively with
ultra-nationalist organisations such as ‘St. Justin the Philosopher’, Obraz
and Dveri than the previous one of Koštunica did?
Dušan Pavlović: I think it will not, primarily because it believes, which
is realistic, that the ultra-nationalist groups are quite marginal, and that
there is no need to move the whole state machinery to deal with a group of
extremists. It would be quite different if they were to turn to violence.
Omar Karabeg: How strong in your view is the nationalist intelligentsia?
Dušan Pavlović: I think it is pretty strong. It is present in culture, at
the university, and one could name the faculties where it is pretty dominant.
But the nationalist intelligentsia is today less influential than it was in 1988
and 1989. The influence of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science today is
nothing like it was in the second half of the 1980s. The people who work there
have no or very little influence in the scholarly community, at least in the
part to which I belong and with which I am in contact.
Omar Karabeg: Could the nationalist intelligentsia mobilise public opinion once
again on the issue of Kosovo?
Dušan Pavlović: Yes, I think it could. If there is another escalation of
violence against Serbs in Kosovo of the kind that occurred on 17 March 2004, the
atmosphere could change here and the nationalists would have a chance to stage a
comeback. I think that the nationalists hope for something terrible to happen in
Kosovo, which would once again raise the temperature in Serbia. But I think that
the chances of something like that happening are small.
Božidar Jakšić: I think that the nationalists will not be able once again
to mobilise the people on the issue of Kosovo. I am pretty sure of this. The
Albanian political elite has learnt some lessons, and it would not be bad for
the Serbian political elite also to learn20some lessons and to treat its
Albanian, Bosnian and Croatian neighbours with greater respect. Opening bridges
towards the Albanians would be much better policy for the Serbian side than to
let the former minister for Kosovo lead the way with his hostile statements
about the Kosovo Albanians.
Omar Karabeg: Has Boris Tadić’s Democratic Party in your view taken over
elements of the nationalist right’s programme in order to widen its electoral
Dušan Pavlović: Yes. Tadić’s strategy, which has proved rather
successful, was to play a double game. On the one hand, the Democratic Party
stressed its pro-European side and pressed for continuation of the reforms
inaugurated by Zoran Đinđić’s government, while on the other
hand, ever since 2004 when Tadić became its leader, this party has often
adopted nationalist rhetoric. Boris Tadić has successfully appealed to both
parts of the electoral body: the pro-European and reform-minded citizenry that
wish Serbia to join the European Union, and the part that inclines more towards
nationalism, which is conservative and suspicious of the European Union.
Omar Karabeg: Finally, do you think that Serbia has definitely and for good
chosen the European road?
Dušan Pavlović: I think one can say that at the last elections in May
Serbia opted for the European road, and that after many years of hesitation it
is moving more decisively towards the European Union. This is shown also by the
change in the policy of the Socialist Party. This party had conducted its
electoral campaign in a way that hardly differed from those of the Radical Party
or the Democratic Party of Serbia, but then, a few weeks after the elections, it
changed completely its political programme and entered into a coalition with a
pro-European party. This proves that even the nationalists, when they see what
is happening in the country and what policy will prevail in the next five or ten
years are ready to give up the old nationalist policy and accept something new.
Briefly and to the point, then, I think that Serbia is heading towards the
European Union and that there will be no turning back.
Božidar Jakšić: Serbia, in my view, remains undecided. It is still
roaming around. This is due not only to the inability of its political, cultural
and economic elites to respond to the challenges of the time, but also because
of the European forces’ incompetent policy towards Serbia. I cannot forget the
grave statements by various European politicians about Milošević being a
factor of peace in the Balkans and similar nonsense. We witness similar gaffes
even today. Serbia’s wandering around will continue, I fear, for a good many
years to come.
Translated from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website, 16 August 2008.