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NO 131-132

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INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE 2 > Helsinki Charter No. 131-132 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 131-132

September - October 2009

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Serbia Under the Berlin Wall

By Sonja Biserko


The period of two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall is relevant enough to analyze the trends and processes that are still on. In the midst of global turmoil, ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration dangerously signaled the obstacles in the way of a new world order. After all those wars, crimes, genocide and massive ethnic cleansing in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and ensuing trials before the ICTY and national courts, it is time for Serbia to start dealing seriously with the causes and context that have made all that possible and generated it. The international community, the same as international and domestic courts, has been avoiding to cope with interpretation of the conflicts and analyze their context. And that is what, actually, preconditions genuine overcoming of the past and settlement of crucial problems in the West Balkans, the status of Bosnia above all. Today it is obvious that Bosnia cannot "survive" if built on the outcomes of the war. The Dayton Peace Agreement has to enshrine other criteria as well, including moral ones, for Bosnia to become a functional state.

Metaphorically, Serbia had erected its own wall before the Berlin wall came down. It was the only socialist country with a warring agenda. The Yugoslav federation, therefore, could not have dissolved peacefully like USSR or Czechoslovakia. Back in 1970s Serbia began preparing the terrain for the post-Tito era. Its goal was to centralize Yugoslavia anew - the country with elements of confederalism under its 1974 Constitution. That was a constitutional frame within which Yugoslavia could survive under the condition that the demands for democratization coming from all republics were met.

Serbia was actually dissatisfied with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It supported the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev (1991) as it saw him as a leader undermining Russia's global power. The part of the Serb elite assembled around the national project expected Russia to side up with Serbia and help it realize its aspirations vis-a-vis Yugoslavia. After USSR's dissolution Russia was no more capable of playing a major role in the settlement of the Yugoslav crisis, despite its membership of the Contact Group.

Disintegration of USSR overshadowed developments in Yugoslavia. This made it possible for Slobodan Milosevic to attain his goals in a relatively short time. He did not manage to overmaster the whole of Yugoslavia but, with a helping hand from the YPA, he did chart quickly the borders of the Great Serbia. Milosevic's Yugoslav crusade did not end with his ouster. The process has been continued by other means till this very day - true, under pretty different international circumstances. However, the prolonged settlement of the Yugoslav crisis mirrored, in a way, the international community's - EU's in the first place - gaucherie in these new circumstances.

Kosovo's independence marked the last stage of ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration. At long last, the avenues of stabilization and progress are open - under the condition that the region and, above all, Serbia recognize the new realities. In 1991, The Hague Conference put forth the most appropriate solutions for the then Yugoslavia. Serbia turned them down, whereas EU missed the opportunity to back its own proposal. Now, two decades later, EU resumed its original offer - a valuable one because it cements republican borders of ex-Yugoslavia. Otherwise, the entire territory could be tailored endlessly.

It is not only necessary to put an end to "state issues," but also to understand the whys of ex-Yugoslavia's bloodshed. Many books have been written on the topic and many will still be. The future of the entire region rather hinges on proper understanding of two phenomena: Yugoslavia and communism. Both have been sidetracked and negated with new states emerging in the Balkans. All national elites either ignore or negate this part of their common legacy. Anti-fascist legacy was annulled in Serbia despite the fact that it had singled out Yugoslavia for its authentic anti-fascist movement. New, liberal ideas have not been born out of this renouncement. On the contrary, the entire region, Serbia in particular, resumed the regressive ideas predominant before and during the World War II.

The opposition in ex-Yugoslavia was not democratic but nationalistic and anti-communist. Hiding behind the shield of anti-communism, it derogated Yugoslav society's potential for pluralism. This particularly refers to Serbia where the so-called Praxis opposition of 1968 still predominates - the opposition with strong Bolshevik and dogmatic character. And, of course, there is the nationalistic opposition. Serbia has not abandoned this matrix yet.

Recently, Eric Hobsbaum said that difficult times were in store for the countries of South East Europe, because the Balkans "is still endemically burdened with the legacy of wars, corruption and crime." It is hard to foresee developments in the Balkans in the present constellation of the global crises that has notably affected the countries isolated from main currents of globalization. Back in 2001, Harold James asserted with good reason that the pace of changes in the world - along with the uncertainties and insecurity accompanying them - were playing into the hands of conservativism and extreme promotion of interests of some nations and states, while choking new and rational visions for social development and future of the mankind. And all that made a fertile soil for the deep-rooted anti-Western sentiments of many Balkan societies, though some of them were on the threshold of EU accession.

Speaking of Serbia, there are two parallel trends: while being consolidated with the assistance of EU and US, Serbia persists on its state project. The global crisis laid bare Serbia's bankruptcy and the fact that it could not recover without the support from EU and international institutions. That surely sobered it up in a positive way. On the other hand, most of its elites - even though the process of Yugoslavia's dissolution had come to an end - have not given up the idea about unification of all Serbs. Dobrica Cosic used to say that Serbs were forced to find a state-political mode for solving their national question. As early as 1990s he spoke about a federation of all Serb lands. This strategy affects Bosnia first through radicalization of Milorad Dodik.

EU's role in Balkan developments has always been essential - today and in the past twenty years. Together with US, EU has played a major part in the resolution of Yugoslav conflict since early 1990s but also in transition processes in all the newly emerged states. There were two levels of their transition - first, the establishment of states and, second, transition itself. Regional cooperation as a component of EU accession predominates but so does the process of nation and state-building too. The latter has not been completed yet.

Wars have slowed down nation-building. And now, Serbia's refusal to acknowledge regional realities further protracts it in Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Unfortunately, the radical Serb nationalism is still in action regardless of war consequences and EU and US' twenty-year endeavor to stabilize the region. Radical nationalism not only lives on territorial aspirations but also prevents the establishment of a modern Serb state.

Serb nationalists have scored a considerable success: they have imposed ethnic principle as a crucial criterion for settlement of all territorial disputes. They have not only rounded off all Serb territories by war but also ethnically consolidated them, and are now just waiting for favorable circumstances for unification. Over two decades - in the shadow of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo - they have also ethnically consolidated Serbia proper. Serbia's right-wing nationalistic radicalism, xenophobia and hatred for the "other" have boiled down minorities to a minimum and are still reducing their percentage in overall population. As it has attained almost all its goals, now Serbia's elite takes it impermissible to miss a unique historical opportunity for final "liberation of Bosnia" and rounding off Serb ethnic space even at the cost of disintegration of Serbia proper. In his major book "History of Serbia from 19th to 20th Century" German historian Holm Zundhausen lucidly concludes, "Serbia's history would have taken a different course had its elites been interested in consolidation of the state and society rather than in territorial expansion. Serbia could have been a highly developed country but that was sacrificed in the name of a lofty idea, which took it hundred years back."

Serb elite's attitude towards borders keeps regional tension alive and stands in the way of regional integration, EU's major precondition for accession. In the past months EU and US have been obviously trying to close the Serb question and thus the Balkan question too. Negotiations on Bosnia's future are in process and, in parallel, EULEX is spreading throughout the territory of Kosovo. Serbia has been "remunerated" with prospects for EU and NATO accession - a remuneration strongly opposed by elite circles.

Crimes, genocide and massive ethnic cleansing, as well as the still open question of borders, deeply changed all the societies in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, Bosnian in particular.

Regional disintegration was followed by renewed authoritarianism, nationalism and reallocation of resources through privatization processes. It was also marked by national homogenization and massive expulsion of minorities, which remained a predominant policy of the newly established states. One nation became dominant in all of them. Against all odds, however, the region retained its multiethnic character. Democratization process does not hinge on national homogeneity, as insisted by some authors, but also on the region's political culture based on populism, collectivism and egalitarianism. Predominance of collectivism is evident in the denial of liberal democracy, market economy in the first place. National diversity could be seen as obstructive in the first stage of democratization. However, the point is in the resistance to the Western model of democracy.

Unformed or very weak societies are the biggest problem for democratization. The concept of a civil society in just in embryo - and not only the regime but also forces outside it strongly oppose it. The concept of human rights culture is seen as an implant taken over from Anglo-Saxon societies or a new form of imperialism that chokes national identities. In this context, expectations that post-communist transition could not but lead towards the transfer of power from the state to individuals are exaggerated. More attention needs to be paid to regional tradition and value system - i.e. regional potential for democratization. Institutions standing for democratization policies are not sufficient guarantees. Educational systems and value systems throughout the region must undergo changes. Most of regional elites would still see liberal values implying individual responsibility as something unacceptable.

In the long run, integration of the region into EU could suppress nationalism and open the door to liberalization and economic cooperation. However, Serbia's fragility threatens with fragmentation and destabilization of the country. Only speedier integration into Euro-Atlantic structures could avoid such a scenario. Therefore, the debate "NATO: yes or no" comes at the right moment. Croatia's and Albania's membership of NATO is a new strategic challenge for Serbia - for it fundamentally changes its closest neighborhood. Should it fail to opt for NATO membership in near future and should it fail to meet the preconditions for EU candidacy, Serbia would become an isolated island but neutralized enough not to further destabilize its neighbors.

The debate on the draft statute of Vojvodina in the Serbian parliament indicated political consciousness of Serbia's elites. It laid bare the whys of ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration: non-acceptance of a modern state, now of Serbia as such. Though the statute was "pushed through" the parliament the fact remains that Serbia is divided over the issue, which will crucially determine the pace of its movement towards EU.

A speedier pace towards EU necessitates that Serbia changes its attitude towards Kosovo and Bosnia, cooperation with the tribunal in The Hague and its own territorial arrangement in near future. Any hesitation whatsoever only diminishes its prospects for inner stabilization. For, the time runs, the same as Serbia's chances for turning into an equal factor of international relations at long last.

However, it is not enough just to hope that the Balkans would make a breakthrough. Europe itself needs to establish a political community and get transformed. It needs to move towards a plural society. This could encourage citizens of the Balkans, too. A pluralistic Europe is a challenge to be answered only by responsible regional elites capable of critical and creative thinking and action.

US Vice-President Joseph Biden's tour of the region demonstrated US strategy for stability of the Balkans. The map of the Balkans would have been different today - probably closer to Cosic's ideas about its rearrangement - were it not for US involvement. At the same time, after two decades of its conflict with the world and US in particular, the visit provided Serbia with an opportunity to finally normalize its relations with the leading global power, recognize the values that have been considerably undermined by the global crisis and turn into a constructive and creative factor of international relations.


NO 131-132

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