Monday, May 05, 2008

All eyes on Serbia

Well, some eyes on Serbia and not nearly as many as Serbia thinks or hopes. Next Sunday will see the parliamentary election and, in theory at least, the results will decide whether the country continues to look more or less to the West or turns inward again, isolating itself from its neighbours beyond the odd snarl across the border.

The threat the Serb nationalists issue from time to time is that if the EU continues to be nasty to Serbia, the country will turn eastward to Russia and China. On the whole, it is not clear what that might mean, especially when it comes to China. Will there be investments from that country? And if so, into what? That gas pipe that Russia has been negotiating has not been built yet and, in any case, its purpose is not to supply China but Europe.

Aid? Unlikely. That is not the way China does business, being considerably more hard-headed than the “selfish, capitalist” West that turns mushy when it comes to developing countries at whatever stage of development they are, playing on guilt feelings.

Russia is not going to help Serbia all that much. She did little in the eighties and will not start to get involved in Balkan politics too much now. Incoming President Medvedev may have a greater appetite for foreign adventure than outgoing President, soon to be Prime Minister, Putin but so far we have seen no evidence of that.

What Russia has done is to sign an agreement with President Tadic and Prime Minister Kostunica for the construction of part of the proposed South Stream pipeline. Russia is anxious to see that agreement be finalized, election or no election.

From a certain point of view, Serbia is important to Russia but, from the same point of view, so are Bulgaria, Italy, Austria and Hungary. In other words, Russia’s desire to consolidate her control over the supply of gas to Western Europe is what motivates that country and its biggest industrial conglomerate, Gazprom. (Incidentally, one wonders whether outgoing President Putin will become chairman of Gazprom, as it has been mooted.)

On Friday the International Herald Tribune carried an article about Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the Radical Party, generally described as far-right, though such terminology has little meaning outside Western Europe. The Trib also published an excellent picture of the “charismatic”, as they describe him, Mr Nikolic.

Mr Nikolic’s predecessor, as leader of the ultra-nationalist party (I think we can describe it as such) was Vojislav Seselj, until he turned himself in to the UN tribunal to face war crimes charges. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction among Mr Seselj’s supporters because of what was perceived to be undue pressure put on him by the Serbian government.

Mr Nikolic has ruled out the idea of war to regain Kosovo, a decision that has a good deal to do with the fact that Kosovo is under NATO’s protection and also with the other fact that there will be no military help from Russia, no matter what was said in the heat of the moment when Kosovo declared its de jure independence.

Kosovo has been a diplomatic failure for Russia (and, of course, for Serbia) in a completely unnecessary way. If the negotiations had been conducted slightly differently and if Serbia had been genuinely prepared to negotiate, this messy situation might not have occurred.

Actually, the most interesting comments by Mr Nikolic are about the late unlamented (except by a few supporters around the world) President Miloševič.
The problem with Milosevic, Nikolic says, is that he never finished what he started.

"All the wars Milosevic started, he gave up," Nikolic said. "His biggest mistake is that he was not a person who would take things to the end. I have the popularity that Milosevic had, and my votes come from some of the same people. But we got crazy from his politics. I can't be called another Milosevic."
There were very good reasons why those wars were not finished but fighting them well-nigh finished off the Serbian people. It is hard to understand what Mr Nikolic would have preferred.

Mr Nikolic, whose party is the largest in the parliament and who has an excellent chance of becoming a prime minister, having failed repeatedly in his attempts to become president, seems to be serving up a mixture of nationalism and social control, popular in many parts of post-Communist Eastern and South-East Europe, where moorings disappeared in the nineties.

At the same time he is insisting that Western investors and, above all Western aid-givers have nothing to fear. Serbia will not change under his government. She will co-operate with the Hague tribunal and will continue their efforts to join the European Union – a long-term project, despite the recently signed Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA).

The problem is that the United States and the European Union might cut their aid if Mr Nikolic is elected, though according to some commentators, Vojislav Kostunica will be more of a nuisance for Europe.
But while Serbian liberals portray Nikolic as a radical demagogue, some Western diplomats say he poses less of a threat to Western interests than does Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, who helped lead the revolution that overthrew Milosevic but has now adopted nationalist rhetoric.

"Kostunica is a 19th-century, anti-Western, romantic nationalist," said one senior Western diplomat, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the domestic politics of another country. "Mr. Nikolic is more pragmatic."
A fellow blogger, whose previous professional involvement means that he has forgotten more about the Balkans than I ever knew, told me that I should not underestimate the readiness of Serbs to be “different”. Perish the thought, I replied. How could one underestimate something like that?

The problem is that the EU cannot afford another member that is “different”. We already have Greece that is an ally often in name only but one that relies heavily on subsidies from the European Union.

The situation with the Balkan countries throws up once again the basic problem with that much vaunted common foreign policy – it has no idea what to do about the EU’s neighbours because it is not based on any common interest. All it can do is assimilate those neighbours as well as it can manage and all relations must revolve round the possibility of membership rather than agreements on various matters.

Having assimilated one lot the EU comes up against another set of neighbours and the same problems arise. Once again the only discussion is whether those countries can become members and if so how soon. If not, there is no real plan as to how to deal with them. This militates, for instance, against any such thing as a European policy towards Russia, though the member states, by and large have no individual policies either.

Entirely unsuitable countries become members of the EU, adding to the tensions within while the Commission, its officials and the budding external service struggles with ideas as to what to do with even less suitable countries that lie on the periphery.

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