Serbia votes, the West decides

The people have marked their ballots, yet the region's future is more likely to be decided in New York than Belgrade.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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Serbia looks set for weeks of debilitating coalition-building after the results of parliamentary elections on 21 January. Although Tomislav Nikolić’s ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party won the most votes, under the proportional representation system no party won an outright victory. Many Western diplomats and politicians have tried to depict the election as a decisive confrontation between the dark forces of Balkan primitivism and ‘pro-European’ enlightenment. The reality in Serbia itself was more prosaic, with much of the election being fought around economic questions and technocratic promises of fighting corruption.

These elections were the first since the dissolution of the Union of Serbia-Montenegro in May 2006, itself cobbled together under the auspices of European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Javier Solana in 2003. One of the key issues in the election was the status of the province of Kosovo, still formally part of Serbia but in practice run as a United Nations (UN) protectorate, complete with an internationally-appointed viceroy, since 1999. Although the Serbian constitution of October 2006 declares Kosovo an integral part of Serbia, the UN is expected shortly to publish a report that would redraw Serbia’s borders by advocating some form of semi-sovereign independence for the Albanian-majority province.

It was in 1999 that NATO launched what many still consider to be a ‘good war’ over Kosovo. NATO leaders America and Britain claimed to be intervening to liberate Kosovo from Serb domination. The continuing wrangling over territory in the region, and the West’s ongoing role in shaping politics there, suggests that this ‘good war’ did little to herald a new era of freedom and democracy.

With the parliamentary elections in Serbia, Western powers were hoping to cajole the Serbian electorate into voting for parties that would help the West avoid the unseemly sight of having to dismember Serbia themselves. They would prefer that a Serbian government renounce the province of Kosovo and conceded to a further carving up of the region. This explains why so many international worthies, foreign ministers ‘from Scandinavia to Slovenia’, patronised Belgrade the week before the election, talking about how Serbs should vote ‘for the future and not the past’ – ‘the future’ in this case being pro-Western parties, principally Serbian president Boris Tadić’s Democratic Party (1).

But it is hardly surprising that many Serbs have ended up spurning the instructions issued by Western diplomats and embassies. This most recent round of Western intervention is only the latest attempt in the six years since the overthrow of Milošević in October 2000 to pressure Serbian citizens into doing what the EU and the UN want. The promises of ‘European integration’ sound more hollow each time (2).

The UN demonstrated the extent of its faith in the Serbian electorate in November 2006, when UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari delayed the publication of the UN report on Kosovo’s future. Even though the report’s recommendations are already known in advance (semi-sovereignty for Kosovo), and nobody expects its content to change whatever the results of the election, the UN still felt it best to withhold the details of the report, presumably for fear of inflaming the xenophobic instincts of the Serbian masses.

The US ambassador in Belgrade said Serbian voters should turn their backs on the ‘extremists who would be happy to turn Serbia into an isolated island blinded by nationalism’ (3). Actually, the Western powers have helped to isolate Serbia. Only last year, the EU suspended talks on membership with Belgrade, over the failure to deliver former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In short, Serbia presents too many opportunities to cover up the failures of Western policy in the region, and to bolster the West’s moral authority by claiming the mantle of defending human rights and prosecuting war crimes.

The Western response to the election results was best articulated by Javier Solana. Solana welcomed the results by flagging up the fact that the Radicals did not win the majority of votes: ‘the majority of Serbs voted for forces that are democratic and pro-European.’ (4) But even the most ardent EU election monitor would be hard-pressed to use Solana’s new measure as a way of uncovering the difference in democratic value between votes cast in the same election. What Solana really means is that what counts as democracy is what the EU decides is democratic, and the democrats are those who are anointed by the international community, regardless of who actually receives the votes.

In spite of the election results, the deciding votes that will determine the fate of the region will be cast in neither Serbia nor Kosovo, but in the UN Security Council. The real political horse-trading will not be coalition-building in Belgrade, but diplomatic intrigue in New York. Some analysts are speculating that Russia, as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, will use its power of veto to deny independence to Kosovo, prompting a diplomatic showdown in order to leverage concessions out of America and the EU. Just the possibility of this happening indicates that the real threat of instability emanates not from Serbia, but from the petty rivalries and intrigues of the major powers as they bicker over the fate of the region’s peoples.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations, UCL Press, 2007. Read more about the book here.

(1) Ian Traynor, Integration or isolation? Serbs go to polls with rivals neck and neck, Guardian, 20 January 2007

(2) Tara McCormack, Get Mladić, or else!

(3) Ian Traynor, Nationalists triumph in Serbian elections, Guardian, 22 January 2007

(4) BBC News, Serbian coalition struggle begins, 22 January 2007

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Topics Politics


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