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The Balkans

A Powder keg

By Ivan Torov


Skepticism does not necessarily reflect weakness. On the other hand, optimism – even when prospects are not exactly bright – can be an insurmountable barrier preventing one from seeing beyond the end of one’s nose or one’s own backyard. This could summarize realities in the Balkans at the turn of the year: realities that in many ways tell a very different story than a plenitude of delusions and stereotypes. The phenomenon permeates all the analyses of regional developments – from Slovenia to Greece – so much that their authors practically advocate two diametrically opposite stands: some claim that the tragic history of the Balkans will never repeat itself, while the other face us with a rather embarrassing dilemma of whether this is the year 2012 or 1992.

The nightmare of ugly, everyday incidents, disputes, overt or covert hotbeds of crisis or even unsettled historical, territorial and national accounts threaten with a conflict that could take the story of the Balkan “powder keg” back to where it was in late 19th and early and late 20th century. It is only thanks to the fact that national political oligarchies fear a boomerang effect of their further high-wire acts and that EU is still balled up with its own antagonisms that developments can still be controlled in a way. It remains to be seen how long this fear and cautiousness will be in play.

In any case, the Balkans hardly looks like a region that managed to establish a balance after dramatic developments, ex-Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the first place. The international community’s expectations – above all the expectations of EU and US – that everything would get back to normal in the course of time and that Balkan nationalisms would surrender to some new, democratic and pro-European political groups have faded out as years went by. They believed that prospects of EU and Euro-Atlantic integrations were motives strong enough to restrain regional nationalisms and establish a new and diametrically opposite order of things. It turned out, however, that “local” nationalisms adjusted themselves much better to new circumstances (without giving up their plans) than Brussels and Washington managed to push the region forward. Without a more subtle and well-thought-out action old nationalisms resurrected after a relatively long period of stalling – some in their original form and some masked in democracy and pro-Europeanism. Some see this resurrection as an alibi for complete impoverishment, domination of crime and corruption, economic and social agony, while to others it associates the collapse of European policy in the Balkans. To all appearances, they are all right.

Probably one example in Serbia (though not the only one) illustrates what happens when states are left to forces of nature. After the last change at the helm of the state – when political parties that left a lasting mark on the tragic 1990s were given the chance to once again lead the nation – Serbia found itself in confusion in a wink. For a couple of months only the new head of state, progressist Tomislav Nikolic, managed to annihilate or at least relativize everything his predecessor, Boris Tadic, accomplished at regional level and against all odds. His statements about Vukovar, Srebrenica, the Montenegrin nation and some other “phenomena” of ex-Yugoslavia’s warring and nationalistic past promptly froze relations with Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Subsequent acquittals of generals Gotovina and Markac just fed the flames of fragile relations between the two countries. The comeback of Progressists (former Radicals) and Socialists marked the beginning of aggressive resurrection of Serb nationalism. Almost overnight the entire governmental structure became a prey to formal and informal nationalistic circles. Stories about global and regional anti-Serb complots began circulating again, while extreme nationalistic groups took over the mission of reeducating parts of the nation, civil sector and the media. European Union once again became “the middle of nowhere,” while Russia a lord and protector. Nationalistic rhetoric is restored, “patriots” and “traitors” are among us again along with advocacy against any further communication with EU, Republika Srpska becomes a model of “just struggle for Serbdom,” “Ustashi,” “Turks” and “Shiptars” are again to blame for everything, flags of the nations “we loath” are again in flames, ethnic and other minority groups are again on the carpet, and Vojvodina becomes almost everyone’s target – from the Constitutional Court, through the government and the parliament to extreme-right groups of “hooligans.”

Though the new regime’s contribution to the renewed, right-wing climate in Serbia is undeniable, one must admit that for the time being allied Progressists and Socialists manage to have the process of European integration under some kind of control and, in this context, pursue Belgrade-Prishtina talks. Aware of the fact that Kosovo is lost forever and would never again be a part of Serbia, the regime decided that continued course towards EU could be the only chance to get some concessions in and about Kosovo, Kosovo North in the first place. Brussels’ latest decision to give Serbia a “time frame” for the beginning of accession negotiations under the condition that it improves its relations with Kosovo within it only indicates that Serbia has to dismiss its quasi-state institutions in Kosovo North and accepted somewhat modified Ahtisaari plan.

This decision subjects the government to a test: it must clearly demonstrate whether and to what extent it is ready to put an end to the Kosovo story despite the hue and cry from extreme nationalists and their appeal to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of all agreements reached so far. Generally accepted opinion that for the sake of peace in Kosovo the European Commission would not exactly care about the way Nikolic, Dacic, Vucic and Dinkic rule certainly plays into the hands of the Dacic cabinet.

If this decision Brussels has made somewhat relaxed the situation in and about Kosovo, another step it took – to again deny Macedonia the date for the beginning of accession negotiations because it would be vetoed by Greece – threatens with another hotbed of instability in the Balkans. European Union is to blame for being lenient to Greece’s ultimatum. The situation is the more so alarming since Bulgaria sided with Greece, wanting Macedonia to adjust its history to its own.

And that’s not the end of the story: events accompanying recent marking of Albania’s independence day and statements by Sali Berisha, Hashim Thaci and some other Albanian leaders revived the ideas about the Greater Albania, the one incorporating Western Macedonia, Kosovo, and parts of South Serbia, Montenegro and Greece. The fact that one hundred years after the Balkan wars Macedonia again resembles a Balkan “apple of discord,” plus Brussels’ decision of this December, further threaten Macedonia’s stability, relations between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in the first place. Growingly impatient Macedonian Albanians are announcing their “own course towards Europe.” According to many analysts, this course of theirs completely corresponds with Albanian leaders’ recent statements about the Greater Albania.

The fact that recent EU decisions actually froze “for a period of time” Southeast European countries’ movement towards it (they are all on the waiting list except for Montenegro) leads to the bleak conclusion about the end of the policy for enlargement. Though the administration in Brussels does it best to message Balkan states that they should continue their reforms, it is hardly possible not to be under the impression that in fact EU is at loss. It lives in delusion that the Balkans is more or less stable from now on and that it will take the region off the agenda once the Kosovo file is closed. However, acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj showed it how wrong it is: they proved how little it takes for political and nationalistic passions to bubble in these areas.

As things stand now, Brussels has no valid reason whatsoever to be satisfied: Serbia has taken a dramatic, right-wing turn, Macedonia is in the cul-de-sac and blackmailed by Greece, Bulgaria and Albanian nationalists as of late, Bosnia-Herzegovina is falling apart, while Republika Srpska obstructs everything that might end its years-long paralysis. This is how the Balkans looks today and this is how it may look tomorrow.



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