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Steven E. Meyer: Is the Internal Dialogue Healthy for Serbia? Maybe!

So far, Serbia has been mostly defensive. It is time to put together an intelligent, forward-looking plan. If Belgrade does not do this, the best Serbs can hope for is a long-term "frozen conflict," which will mean more stagnation and suffering for the Serbs in Kosovo. In reality, the EU does not care what the final status looks like as long as it is done peacefully and is acceptable to both sides
By Steven E. Meyer, former CIA deputy chief for the Balkans
Datum: 31/08/2017

Steven E. Meyer: Is the Internal Dialogue Healthy for Serbia? Maybe!

FOTO TANJUG / JAROSLAV PAP

Earlier this month President Aleksandar Vucic announced an "internal dialogue" to discuss the future of Kosovo. Vucic is pushing the idea of a dialogue for two reasons. First, after four years of discussion, it is clear that the Brussels process has failed. There is no genuine incentive for either side to make concessions. Second, in the wake of this failure, the government is floundering-it does not know what to do next or where to turn in trying to formulate a policy on Kosovo. Belgrade is torn between its refusal to recognize the independence and sovereignty of Kosovo and its willingness to sacrifice Kosovo on the EU altar. Fifteen years of trying to find a mutually acceptable solution have produced nothing of consequence. So, will the dialogue be good for Serbia? That will depend on what the government does with the results of the dialogue.

There certainly has been a robust response from many participants-mostly from "internal" sources, but also some external sources. For example, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has offered a "delimitation" plan. So far, the Foreign Minister has offered few details, but he has suggested that he wants to see the proposed Association of Serbian Municipalities in the south of Kosovo as well as the north, the establishment of independent monastic communities and changes in the law concerning financial compensation for private and state property. In essence, Dacic is arguing for a separation between the Serb and Kosovar Albanian communities. Ironically, it sounds as though the Foreign Minister is moving toward the partition plan that I have been recommending for more than 15 years. A key to any "delimitation" plan would be the cooperation of the Kosovar Albanians. Unfortunately, relations between Serbs and Albanian are so strained that any cooperation is currently unthinkable. This is especially true after Dacic and Vlora Citaku, the Kosovar Ambassador to the U.S., recently had an unnecessary and angry exchange at the U.N. It is well past time for both sides to stop the acrimonious and derogatory comments and begin to act as statesmen.

Although Dacic's "delimitation" proposal so far has not presented many details, at least he is headed in a sane and logical direction. The same cannot be said about some other proposals being offered during the "internal dialogue." Indeed, some ideas are simply bizarre conspiracy theories. Marko Djuric, Head of the Serbian Government's Office for Kosovo and Metohija, argues that the Western powers are trying to get rid of the United Nations Mission to Kosovo (UNMIK) because UNMIK is an "unpleasant witness" to violations of international law perpetrated presumably by Kosovar Albanians. In the same vein, Aleksandar Gajic from the Institute for European Studies argues that "big powers need to keep the Balkans on a leash" as a way to control the region for the West's own interests. Gajic does not say what those interests are, but he does say that the West wants to maintain their "dominant position in the Balkans. Political analysts Dejan Vuk Stankovic seems to agree when he says the West wants "internal political war" in the Balkans because this makes it easier for the West to "defend their goals."

Rasim Ljajic, Serbia's Minister for Trade, Telecommunications and Tourism, has taken the discussion in a different direction, although he also looks to the West with a combination of fear, approval, guidance and protection. He latches onto the supposition that Kosovo has become a "frozen conflict" and this is intolerable for Serbia. His solution is to request "substantial concessions" from the West in exchange for Serbian support for continuing and expanding a process of "normalization," including agreeing to support Kosovo's efforts to join international organizations. If "normalization" goes well after five years an international conference should be convened to determine the final status of Kosovo. According to Ljajic, this conference would include representatives from the EU, the U.S. and Russia along with representatives from the Balkans.

There are, I think, two major problems with this proposal. First, after five years of "normalization" Serbia would have lost what little leverage it has because the process of "normalization" would continue to give more competence for state functions (education, judicial, communications, etc.) to Kosovo and remove them from Serbia's domain. And, this really would amount to de facto recognition of Kosovo's independence by Serbia. In other words, the five year period will allow Pristina to consolidate control and power in Kosovo-and Belgrade will be complicit in that. Second, the international conference Ljajic proposes almost certainly would end in deadlock and failure because the U.S. and Russia would advocate diametrically opposite solutions for Kosovo. The Minister seems to forget how outside powers have been primarily responsible for the mess the Balkans faces today. An international conference could be a good idea, but it must exclude the major powers.

The assessments of Djuric, Gajic and Ljajic rest on the same tired mantra that Serbia has clung to since the end of the Cold War. To the conspiratorial Balkan mind the West constantly plots to control the Balkans because the region is of considerable interest and importance to Western countries. As difficult as it might be to accept, the Balkans are not very important for Western countries. Certainly, Yugoslavia was important to the West during the Cold War. But, once communism collapsed, the Cold War seemed to end and Yugoslavia fell apart, the Balkans became much less important for Western interests. The great exception to this, of course, was during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But, once those wars ended the decline of the Balkans as a point of interest for the West declined rapidly. In effect, as soon as President Clinton left office the Balkans started to become less important for the U.S. Since the Balkans are part of Europe, of course, they are more important for Europeans than for Americans. Nonetheless, no one in the Balkans should be under an illusion-the Balkans are not the primary interests of most other European countries.

The constant assumption in the Balkans is that the region is of significant interest to the West is simply not true. There is no grand plot to eliminate UNMIK or keep the Balkans on a leash as ways to control them. For leaders, scholars and other to continue to believe that there are such Western conspiracies is a matter of self-delusion. To believe these conspiracies is a way for Serbs to blame others for their problems and avoid responsibility for their own destiny. It certainly is true that throughout history many outside powers have controlled the Balkans and that helps explain the propensity of Balkan leaders to look for scapegoats and avoid responsibility. This problem became worse during and immediately after the wars of the 1990s when the West attempted to "fix the Balkans and instead made conditions much worse. Despite the long history of oppression from the outside and the psychological repercussions it has caused, there no longer is a valid political, economic or security reason to defer to the West.

Even Kosovar Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj has joined the discussion. When Albanians jump into Serbian issues it usually is for two reasons: to annoy and harass Serbs and to push their case for sovereignty. They have been very successful in the first goal. With each attack from Albanian leaders, Serb politicians respond with predictable outrage. For now, they have been only moderately successful in the send goal. But if the Serbian government is unable to gain control of the situation, Pristina-with Tirana's backing-eventually will become more successful. Hjoxhaj declared the "internal dialogue" "meaningless," rejected Dacic's "delimitation" scheme and said there should be no more technical talks. He argued again for a "final push" for statehood for Kosovo, including U.N. membership. He declared that "borders are fixed" and changes in borders would lead to a "domino effect." That claim, of course, is self-serving and not necessarily true. In fact, if the demand by Kosovar Albanians for an independent, sovereign state is fully realized this would change Serbia's borders. There have been border changes over the past 20 years without a "domino effect" and there is no reason borders cannot change if handled properly.

So, is the "internal dialogue" worth the effort? Only if Belgrade breaks free of its fear of confronting the Kosovo issue head-on. Only if Belgrade takes the initiative. Only if Belgrade stops bowing to EU pressure and decides what policy Serbia should have. So far, Serbia has been mostly defensive. It is time to put together an intelligent, forward-looking plan. If Belgrade does not do this, the best Serbs can hope for is a long-term "frozen conflict," which will mean more stagnation and suffering for the Serbs in Kosovo. In reality, the EU does not care what the final status looks like as long as it is done peacefully and is acceptable to both sides.


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