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Serbia: a NATO Success Story

By Elizabeth Pond

Now we know. NATO's first shots fired in anger were not in vain. A dozen years later, the 1999 intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo suddenly seems not only to have ended the Serbian expulsion of ethnic Albanians in the short run, but even to have helped effect a democratic change in Serbia in the long run. This is especially impressive in contrast with today's quagmire in Afghanistan and ambiguity in Iraq. 

As recently as this past spring, the predominant Serb mood still seemed to be a defiant mix of arrogance and perceived victimhood. Yet today, Serbia is finally willing to shed its sense of exceptionalist entitlement in order to integrate with the European Union as a normal European state. The potential for new jobs and economic growth has trumped chauvinism.

Proof came at the end of May, when—after 16 futile years of manhunt in a country the size of South Carolina—Serbian police miraculously ferreted out General Ratko Mladic, who topped the prosecutors' Balkan war-crimes wanted list, at the house of his cousin only 40 miles away from the capital.

The EU had long declared that it would never accept Serbia as a member until Belgrade delivered Mladic for trial at the United Nations tribunal at The Hague on charges of command responsibility for the massacre of 8,000 unarmed Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica in 1995. And when the EU finally canceled ongoing membership talks with Serbia in mid-May over Belgrade's prolonged failure to find the fugitive, Belgrade blinked, located Mladic, and extradited him. The EU's prosaic economic allure triumphed at last over the thrill of inat, a "malevolent, vengeful and obstinate defiance," as Belgrade writer Aleksa Djilas defines this cherished Serb trait.

A decade ago, the arrest of Mladic would surely have mobilized tens of thousands of protesters clad in t-shirts glorifying the Serb commander at Srebrenica. And the arrest might have triggered a new assassination, a repetition of the 2003 murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic after he dared to extradite national hero Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. It could also have ignited a new outburst of anger at the perceived bias of a tribunal whose list of 161 indictees were two-thirds Serb and only one-third Croat, Bosniak, and Albanian. Nevermind that this proportion reflected the brutal Serb occupation of one-third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia in the post-Yugoslav wars, as well as the extraordinary Serb effort to "cleanse" the 80 percent majority Albanians from the province of Kosovo.

Even three years ago, the arrest could easily have led to massive protests and the burning of the US embassy, as happened in 2008, after Kosovo seceded from Serbia. And only weeks before Mladic's arrest, 78 percent of Serbs said they would not report the ex-general's whereabouts if they knew them.

Yet this time around, no violence followed the extradition of the one-time idol. Today young Serbs are more preoccupied with unemployment than with asserting the presumed hegemonic rights of Serbs as the largest ethnic group in the Balkans. President Boris Tadic has already won two cliffhanger elections over ultranationalists and finally co-opted their core party leaders into less militant, more mundane politics. He has kept the issue of EU membership separate from the emotive issue of Kosovar independence through his policies of maintaining a hard line on Kosovo. He extradited the last remaining war-crimes fugitive, Goran Hadzic, to The Hague in July without incident.

Moreover, on Tadic’s watch, in early July, the Serbian government grudgingly reached its first agreement with the three-year-old independent Kosovo it still does not recognize. It will now let the latter's citizens travel in contiguous Serbia on Kosovo identity papers and auto licenses.

In response to the Serb turnaround, the EU has resumed its membership negotiations with Belgrade. Serbia should be next in line for accession after its rival Croatian neighbor. Tadic promises that Serbia would be a good member and not act like Greece—in financial mismanagement, presumably. The country is back on course in its transition from anti-Western exceptionalism (whether Orthodox, non-aligned, or Balkan hegemonic) to a humdrum democratic European identity.

To be sure, stumbling blocks remain. Civil Serbia-Kosovo relations may not be a formal condition for EU accession as the extradition of Mladic was. But the lack of border disputes and friendly relations with neighbors are general prerequisites. And the EU experience with the premature welcome of Cyprus into the club in 2004 with outstanding border issues—and that of Bulgaria and Romania in 2005 with their rampant corruption and crime—makes Brussels wary of admitting more members with oustanding issues.

Despite the breakthrough travel agreement, Serb-Kosovar rancor has already brought about another suspension of EU-guided bilateral talks about further practical cooperation. And a few weeks ago Kosovo, impatient at Belgrade's continued ban on its exports to or through Serbia, sent police to take over two defunct customs posts at the Serbian border. A mob from the majority Serbs in the northern segment of Kosovo—most of whom vote for ultranationalists and many of whom nonetheless cooperate with Albanian smugglers—promptly counterattacked, setting one post alight and killing one Kosovar police officer. Once again NATO—this time in the form of residual peacekeepers—intervened. The current NATO commander separated the hostile ethnic brawlers and installed his own troops in the border posts. The governments in both Serbia and Kosovo condemned the violence.

In retrospect, then, the upshot of NATO's 1999 intervention is empowerment. It helped persuade enough Serbs to vote strongman Milosevic out of office in 2000—and gave Serb reformers the space to enforce that election. It also strengthened the European Union's insistence on human-rights conditionality before admitting new members. It generated, at long last, international backing for the UN Balkans tribunal—which would go on to convict 64 of the accused, give voice to thousands of victims, expand the legal interpretation of international law on war and genocide, and build the Balkan capacity to conduct domestic national war-crimes trials.

And perhaps most importantly, it is nudging Serbia to claim a European identity on its way to ultimate EU membership.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user jim.greenhill]


Anonymous's picture
What success story?

When the Kosovo War was a success, I am curious how bad a situation should be before Elizabeth Pond declares it a failure. For Mrs. Pond everything that went wrong in the last two decades is the fault of the Serbs, their stubborn "inat" and their ambition for hegemony in the Balkans. Even after 400,000 people have been permanently driven from Croatia and over 200,000 from Kosovo she refuses to see that Serb aggression in the wars was driven by realistic fears that should have been paid attention to by our Western mediators. The statement by Silajdzic in Bosnia some time ago that if Serbs don't like how they are treated in Bosnia they are free to leave but not allowed to take their land with them doesn't register with her as problematic. In fact it is a type of statement that is common in the run-up to ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately Western politicians condoned the statement. A look at any internet forum discussion on Bosnia nowadays will show how that has poisoned the inter-ethnic debate. On Kosovo Mrs. Pond fails to note that it had been agreed before the "technical" negotiations that as long as the negotiations last no side would try to unilaterally change the situation on the ground. The Kosovo Albanians have clearly broken that agreement. Mrs. Pond fails also to note that the both the Serbian "trade embargo" and the "lawlessness" in Kosovo's North are a direct result of Kosovo Albanian stubbornness. Kosovo insisted on using a customs stamp with symbols of independence. And Kosovo refused any compromise on justice in Northern Kosovo. The result has been some smuggling in Kosovo's North, but for the rest the situation is more peaceful and less lawless than in the Albanian controlled part of Kosovo. Kosovo's cities have been cleansed of their Serbs and other minorities. Over 200,000 minorities from Kosovo still are refugees. The remaining Serbs in Southern Kosovo live in the relative safety of mono-ethnic enclaves. But their need to depend on faraway Serb cities for urban services and the ongoing discrimination in Kosovo make their long term survival dubious. Young people are leaving en masse. For the anti-Serb pogrom of 2004 virtually nobody has been punished. Yet when the Serbs in North Kosovo - many of whom have fled from elsewhere in Kosovo - protest against Albanian attempts to rob them of their autonomy Mrs. Pond discards them as "radicals" and refuses even to consider that they might have a point. Somehow Mrs. Pond seems to have failed to notice that the Serbian government not only condemned the burning down of the border posts but also the unilateral Albanian actions and the way KFOR general Bühler has shed off his neutrality and become an active supporter of Kosovo's government against its Serb minority. It seems not unlikely that this NATO success story will generate yet another stream of refugees.

Anonymous's picture
NATO bombing didn't affect

NATO bombing didn't affect change, it was economic pressure and the EU. If anything NATO bombing radicalized the population further and prolonged nationalistic policies in the country (which were otherwise eroding in the late 90s).

Anonymous's picture

As a NATO mouthpiece read this article with a pinch of salt. Propaganda at it's worst. 1) There was no ethnic cleansing in Kosovo before the NATO bombing. No operation horseshoe. Provocations by the KLA, yes. All indepenedent reports confirm this. Population movements began only AFTER NATO bombing started. 2) Those escaping Srebrenica were not unarmed civilians. They were members of the 28th Muslim Infantry division that had been attacking unarmed Serbian civilians around Srebrenica under Naser Oric for years. All independently verified and confirmed by those on the ground at the time. There is no way this 8000 number can be verified. Serbia has been the victim of NATO bias and aggression and is only now starting to recover. Swingeing sanctions, bombing and the rest for supposed crimes dreamt up to justify intervention, while those guilty of real crimes(organ harvesting, destruction of cultural heritage, ethnic cleansing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution etc. in Kosovo, the KLA, walk around unpunished. NATO justice. What a joke. Please stop this nonsense Ms. Pond, it is becoming ridiculous. Serbia has paid a high enough price for any crimes it committed during the recent wars.

Anonymous's picture
This is a Pathetic Article

"NATO's 1999 intervention is empowerment" you mean deliberating bombing the Serbian TV Station, Deliberating Bombing the Civil Train with Civilians on it, you mean Deliberating Bombing Serbian Bridges, Schools, and Residential Areas. Elizabeth Pond, you are pathetic Anti-Christian, warmonger. Trying to justified NATO illegal Bombing of a Sovereign State. How would Jesus Christ receive you, when you spread such hatefulness and cheap propaganda. When the ICC puts both senior and junior Bush, Clinton, Hungry Kissinger, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tony Blair, and John Howard, on trial, for MURDERING MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AMOUNG THEM-SELFS then the world would be in a much better place, Elizabeth. What wait, oh no Elizabeth we can’t put these Anglo Saxon, Free-Masons and / or Zionists on Trial, that’s the way that Kangaroo Legal System was created. You’re a Joke Elizabeth

Anonymous's picture
Serbia needs to move away from fascist ideology

The Serbian government and people need to move away from the failed fascist and ultranationalist policies of the recent past. Voting fascist parties into office resulted in four lost wars and the Bosnian Genocide. Hundreds of thousands were killed, maimed, tortured, abused, and left without a home. All this just so that Serb fascist parties and leaders could hold on to power and pursue their vision of creating an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbian State. This policy has to stop! The Serbian people's support for such policies has to stop! It's time for Serbia to embrace modernity and tolerance and to move more actively towards becoming a normal state that can integrate into the European family of nations.
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