Monday, November 06, 2006

Dealing With Serbia; Kosovo may soon become Europe's newest independent nation. But it will be a painful birth, especially in Belgrade.

BYLINE: By Michael Meyer


LENGTH: 681 words

Serbia is crafting a new constitution, and a troubling document it is. The preamble establishes Cyrillic as the nation's official alphabet, notwithstanding substantial minorities of Albanians, Hungarians and Muslims. It declares that "Serbia is the homeland of the Serbs," an eerie echo of the ethnic nationalism that brought the former Yugoslavia to grief. Most unsettling, it claims Kosovo as a "constituent part of Serbia's territory," never to be relinquished.And yet, Belgrade clearly does not want most of the people living there. The electoral list of citizens eligible to vote in a popular referendum on the document, last weekend, excluded all the province's majority Albanians. Meanwhile, the otherwise relatively liberal government in Belgrade has been indulging in some veiled military swagger, darkly asserting its right to "defend its borders," presumably with force, wherever they might lie--even as it professed no desire to actually control Kosovo itself.Is another Balkan crisis brewing? Will Serbia trip yet again on its long, slow slog toward Europe? No. What's playing out is a delicate political game, complicated by an explosion of classic Serbian schizophrenia. U.N. negotiations on the future of Kosovo, wrapping up in Vienna, will soon recommend some form of independence. It's not "if" but "when," says Daniel Serwer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "The big question is how to get the Serbs to accept it." Insiders at the talks originally expected the U.N. Security Council to seal their verdict by the end of the year, despite Russian resistance. But last week, top U.S. and European diplomats were in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, telling Albanians that they might have to wait a bit. Serbia, they explained, needs more time to get its collective head around the divorce.A recent poll by the Center for Free Elections and Democracy in Belgrade tells why. According to its numbers, 58 percent of Serbs want to hold on to Kosovo--even though only 12 percent believe they can. Political leaders also see the handwriting on the wall. Rationally, they know Kosovo is long gone. Politically, they don't want to be tarred forever in the country's notoriously obsessive historical consciousness as the ones who "lost Kosovo. "They want the decision to be imposed on them," says a U.S. diplomat close to the negotiations.But not too fast. National elections look likely to be called in December or early next year. Publicly, moderate political leaders, including Serbian President Boris Tadic, oppose Kosovo's independence and extol the new constitution as an emphatic vote against it. Privately, many of these same politicians are prepared to accept it as the price of Serbia's eventual integration into the European Union. But if independence comes too quickly, they fear, it will play to the electoral advantage of their more extremist opponents--specifically the Serbian Radical Party of indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselji, who would not think twice about wrenching the nation from its tentatively westward path.In this stage-battle for public perception, Serbia's moderates play King Canutes, sweeping back a rising tide, the new constitution as their broom. Those looking on from outside should not be alarmed. That malodorous preamble will be snuffed out as soon as Kosovo is cut loose. Meanwhile, it's Serbia's safety valve. This is not to say there's no real danger. Were power to indeed shift toward Serbia's radicals, the play-acting could turn genuinely ugly. Serbia might well be caught up in another irredentist, nationalist surge.It's also possible the international community will blow it. If negotiators recommend full and internationally recognized independence, the question is whether the Russians can be persuaded to put forgo a veto in the Security Council. Or the United Nations may well opt for something less: an end to its protectorate, say, leaving Kosovo to seek international recognition on its own. In that case, warns Serwer, "Kosovo could end up in limbo." That would do no one any good--Kosovo, Serbia or the West.

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