Ivor Roberts: The threat of a Balkan flare-up has not gone away

Victory for the pro-Western Boris Tadic won't mean an end to Serbian defiance

Share
Related Topics

The Serbs have a word for it. Inat. It is defined in my dictionary as spite, malice or grudge, but that doesn't really do it justice. The scholar Dragan Milovic called it "proud defiance, stubbornness and self-preservation – sometimes to the detriment of everyone else or even oneself".

I suspect that, despite the temporary warm glow and relief in the chanceries of Europe from the narrow win by the pro-Western Boris Tadic over his ultra-nationalist Radical candidate Tomislav Nikolic (whose party leader is the absentee, in The Hague, warlord Vojislav Seselj), we shall see much evidence of inat in the weeks to come.

A win for the nationalist Nikolic would have been seen as an egregious example of it, a dangerous turn by the Serbs away from Europe and the West and a return to the nationalism of the 1990s, bolstered by the support of a resurgent Russia.

Yet in truth it is too early for the foreign ministries of Europe and the US to celebrate. The big issue of Kosovo, with its capacity to destabilise the region, has not gone away, and those ministries have consistently misread the Serbs over Kosovo. They believe that offering the prospect of eventual EU membership would sufficiently sweeten the pill of soon-to-be-declared Kosovo independence (while it will be widely recognised in the West, it won't extend to the UN where a Russian veto will prevent a Kosovo seat being created) as to reconcile Serbs to giving up Kosovo.

But although Tadic has won, his freedom to manoeuvre on Kosovo is severely limited. The president is effectively less powerful than the prime minister, and no politician in Serbia can afford to shrug off the loss of Kosovo. The democratic nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, refused to support either candidate in the second round run-off, despite being in coalition in parliament with Tadic's Democratic Party, a coalition committed to a robust but so far unannounced package of measures to be implemented if Kosovo declares independence.

As to what they are, one can only speculate, but they seem likely to involve suspension or downgrading of diplomatic relations with those countries like the UK which recognise Kosovo, a trade embargo on Kosovo itself, other than the largely Serb area north of the Ibar river adjacent to Serbia proper, and the setting up of parallel institutions and a physical presence in what will become a Serb statelet in Kosovo. In other words, a form of de facto partition.

The West will claim that this is illegal and against the UN Security Council Resolution of 1999 setting up a UN administration in Kosovo as part of Serbia. The Serbs will respond that recognition of an independent Kosovo without a new Security Council Resolution is itself illegal and a partition of Serbia itself.

Will the region erupt into violence again? Probably not. But one spark in the Balkans has proved sufficient to ignite a conflagration in the past, and as recently as March 2004, events on the ground in Kosovo looked capable of overwhelming the 18,000 international forces there when several Serbs were killed and dozens of Serbian houses and churches were destroyed.

The pro-Western forces in Serbia will be severely weakened by any perceived loss of Kosovo, and the tensions between Kostunica and Tadic in handling the confrontation with the West may stretch to breaking point. In the event of the collapse of the present governing coalition, the Radicals, despite their loss of the presidential elections, would almost certainly reinforce their present position as the largest single party at subsequent parliamentary elections and would use their mandate, in coalition with Milosevic's Socialist Party, to step up the level of confrontation with the West.

The West needs to provide some serious gains for the pro-Western parties. Re-thinking their opposition to the partition of Kosovo might be a useful start. Opening up a European perspective for Serbia in the near, rather than distant, future would be another.

As it was, only last week, because the butcher of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic, is perceived to be hiding in Serbia, the EU refused to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the first step on the path to EU membership, with Serbia.

At the moment the pro-Westerners in Belgrade have too little to show for following the path of western liberalism since the fall of Milosevic seven years ago. Inat, the Serbian cult of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, may well lead to a prolonged period of confrontation. And Russia, which has just signed an energy agreement with Serbia, will relish having a dependent ally in a strategically vital position in a still disturbed region.

The author is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former ambassador to Yugoslavia

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - OTE £40,000

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Contracts / Sales Administrator

£19500 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Knowledge of and ability to use...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to the super rich

Terence Blacker
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence