Rocks and Hard Places: Serbia between Kosovo and EU Challenges
Just returned from a trip to Serbia, John Lampe reported on the accumulating problems and challenges confronting Serbia in the year 2006. Lampe likened the accumulating issues confronting Serbia to a veritable "perfect storm," which will certainly change Serbia's political, social and security profile. The problems confronting Serbia are interlinked. Negotiations on the future status of Kosovo began in February, will resume in March and are expected to continue through the end of this year. At the same time, Serbia actively seeks integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, particularly the EU and NATO, but these are conditional on a series of difficult prerequisites beginning with the arrest and transfer to the Hague of indicted war criminal and former Bosnia Serb military leader, Radko Mladic. In fact, the EU recently requiring that Serbia turned over Mladic to the Hague by April 5, 2006, or else the resumption of Serbia's negotiations with the EU on a stabilization and association agreement will be suspended. In addition to these headaches, Montenegro will be holding a referendum on independence from Serbia on May 21, 2006. For the referendum to pass, 55 percent of voters must support the independence resolution, provided at least 50 percent of eligible voters vote.
Lampe emphasized that Serbia, despite possible reductions in size and influence, still matters. With 7.5 to 8 million people, it is by far the largest state in the western Balkans and as such will have a direct effect on the stability of the whole region. The solutions to the challenges facing Serbia must be made in a way that Serbia can live with; otherwise stability in the region, already quite shaky will be further threatened.
Politically, the Serbian democratic elite remains deeply divided since its two major reform-orientated parties (the Democratic Party [DS] and the Democratic Party of Serbia [DSS]) continue to compete rather than cooperate. At least publicly, prime minister Vojislav Kostunica of the DSS and President Boris Tadic of the DS cannot agree on much. The only point of harmony seems to be their opposition to full independence for Kosovo. This harmony comes from the fear that if Serbia loses both Kosovo and Montenegro, the nationalist, radical right wing will win the next parliamentary elections, which will be held later this year. Some members of the Radical party are trying to pass themselves off as "realistic" radicals with whom the international community can work. Only time will tell and meanwhile according to public opinion polls the Serbian public has a very low opinion of most of its political leaders including the Radicals.
The leadership of the reform parties in Serbia, which include DS, DSS and G-17 Plus, all view the salvation for Serbia through eventual membership in the EU. Public opinion polls show public support for EU membership at 64 percent. Significantly, even the influential Orthodox Church now supports EU membership. Support for membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace currently stands at 70 percent, while support for NATO membership is far lower at only 40 percent, due to lingering memories of NATO's
bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war of 1999. Economically, Serbia faces mixed prospects. On the positive side, unemployment has fallen below 20 percent and direct foreign investment doubled in 2005. On the negative side, criminal networks remain powerful in nearly every sector of the economy, and inflation has begun to accelerate. Serbia continues to confront a significant brain drain, as the young and educated continue to emigrate. And those who remain in Serbia do not leave: of today's Serbian youth, only 30 percent have ever been outside of Serbia and only 3 percent have visited an EU country.
Regarding Kosovo, Lampe gives little importance to Russia's role in the matter, particularly President Vladimir Putin's reservations about Kosovo's independence and the precedent it might set. Moreover, Lampe believes that the pro forma hard line statements by Serb leaders regarding Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo are politically motivated and do not reflect their true feelings. In his view, most of Serbia's current leaders understand the realities of Kosovo and are prepared to bargain behind closed doors. Lampe reported that the Serb leadership seemed generally pleased with Ambassador Kai Eide's UN report, which noted deficiencies remaining in the treatment of Serb minorities in Kosovo. He also said that there was a sense that the United States and the EU must continue to have a role in Kosovo and that a Dayton-like High Representative would be necessary to oversee the treatment of minorities and other critical issues.
Lampe noted that there were strong feelings among Serbian leaders that decentralization in Kosovo is a vital part of a future settlement, which would include giving new competencies to local authorities and thereby provide for "horizontal" (not territorial) links between these isolated areas and Serbia. Lampe speculated that in his view, a possible solution would include what the United States and the Contact Group currently deems to be off the table, that is, the possibility of territorial adjustments within Kosovo. An essential and creditable part of any agreement for the Serbs could involve redrawing the northern border of Kosovo at the Ibar River, through the city of Mitrovica, since the majority of the population in that area are ethnic Serbs. Such a border adjustment together with limited decentralization and international guarantees to protect important Serbian religious and cultural monuments in Kosovo could very well provide the nucleus of a comprise on Kosovo's independence, to which Serbian leaders might be able to agree, however reluctantly.