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Serbia’s stern diplomatic rearguard action over Kosovo

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Charles Crawford

Charles Crawford retired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2007. He was HM Ambassador in Sarajevo (1996-1998), in Belgrade (2001-2003) and most recently in Poland (2003-2007). He is a founder member of ADRg Ambassadors and his personal website is www.charlescrawford.biz

Serbia’s stern diplomatic rearguard action over Kosovo

By Charles Crawford World Last updated: June 13th, 2012

45 Comments Comment on this article

The UN General Assembly

An unusual and interesting vote has taken place at the United Nations, to decide who will be president of the UN General Assembly for 2012/2013. Serbia’s youthful Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, aged just 36, has won a tight race, beating Lithuanian UN ambassador Dalius Cekuolis by 99 – 85 votes, despite intense lobbying for Cekuolis from Washington and other Western capitals.

That largely symbolic position rotates between five UN “regional groups”. In this case it was the Eastern European Group’s turn. The EEG is an anomalous cluster of 23 more or less European countries previously under Communist rule. It includes, of course, Russia.

The position had been uncontested since 1991, the different regional groupings deciding for themselves in turn which unopposed candidate to put forward. This time it was different. Lithuania’s candidate had expected to get the group’s nomination, but Jeremic entered the running. Lithuania accused Russia of pushing Jeremic into the contest to punish Lithuania for insisting that the end of the Second World War had brought freedom to western Europe, but for Lithuania only Soviet occupation and new oppression. A wider new Russian political power-play to re-affirm influence at the UN and elsewhere? Probably.

Jeremic is an able and ambitious operator. Armed with a degree in physics from Cambridge and a Masters from the Harvard Kennedy School, he was a leader in the student opposition to Milosevic – I remember him well from those halcyon days. He quickly rose through the ranks of advisers to different Serbian ministers and was appointed Serbia’s foreign minister in 2007, where he has made a name for himself by lobbying feverishly round the planet against the recognition of Kosovo.

Jeremic’s insistence that Kosovo is not independent – even though many countries have recognised it – has met with mixed success. The number of recognitions creeps up towards half the world’s states. It now stands at 91 countries, with Brunei and Chad joining the throng in recent weeks. Jeremic pushed hard for the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Kosovo in 2010 that was widely seen as an embarrassing defeat for Serbia’s position.

Nonetheless many of the world’s largest countries (China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia) stand firmly behind Belgrade, and show no signs of shifting position. Jeremic’s votes at the UN will have come mainly from states that have enjoyed watching the broader European camp at the UN stand disunited and that for one reason or the other wanted to give the “Western” view of world affairs poke in the eye.

Jeremic has played craftily on Serbia’s “Yugoslav” credentials to drum up support. During the Cold War Yugoslavia’s communist leader Tito helped build up the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states that proclaimed themselves independent of “bloc politics” but usually sided with a Soviet approach to human rights and freedom. This policy gave Belgrade a massive international profile: Tito’s funeral in 1980 saw the then largest ever gathering of world leaders.

You’ll be surprised (or not) to hear that the NAM still lingers on, long after the world of “blocs” has given way to today’s messy “multi-polarity”. After Milosevic fell, Serbia left the group to signify that it was indeed now ‘aligned’ with mainstream Western and European democratic processes, but it has kept an active observer status. Last year Serbia spent money it can ill afford hosting a NAM party to celebrate a non-event, the 50th anniversary of the NAM’s first summit meeting in Belgrade. Jeremic has used networking events like this to press hard Serbia’s case against Kosovo.

In short, to defend its Kosovo position Serbia draws on a long tradition of nimble, cynical diplomacy in Belgrade, striking positions that are both “European” and “non-aligned” simultaneously. This idea of being non-aligned (keeping open options for unexpected unfathomable improvizacija) goes deep into the political culture in Serbia. I recall my final conversation with Serbia’s Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 just a couple of days before he was murdered. He said that Serbia would do everything it needed to do to tick the boxes for EU membership – and only then decide whether to join!

Djindjic’s point echoed a good Balkan joke. A customs officer dies and ends up outside the Gates of Heaven. St Peter mulls the options: “You were appallingly corrupt and dishonest, but you did love your family and support some good causes – should I let you into Heaven, or send you to Hell?” The quick reply comes back: “If it’s OK with you, I’ll stay on the border.”

Meanwhile the election of the more nationalist/populist Tomislav Nikolic as Serbia’s President has given a mandate to the defiant tendency in Serbia’s political spectrum. It has not taken long for Nikolic to park himself on the existential border between ‘Europe and ‘Russia’ by making warm noises in Moscow and stirring up angry concern elsewhere in the region and in many Western capitals by ducking and weaving on whether the Srebrenica massacre was genocide.

This sets things up nicely for 2015 when Serbia chairs the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for the first time. Serbia was acceptable for that significant leadership position only because it ran on a joint ticket with Switzerland (OSCE Chair in 2014) and so in effect agreed not to use its 2015 position to make things even more difficult for Europe on the Kosovo question.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, Serbia faces the reality that most EU states have recognised Kosovo and that without some sort of political settlement it will not achieve EU membership. But Serbia also knows (as does Kosovo) that Kosovo is going nowhere important without full international recognition. Deep in the undergrowth of diplomacy fierce battles rumble on to decide whether Kosovo makes it eg into the Eurovision Song Contest and European and global sporting bodies. Determined opposition led by Russia usually swings things Belgrade’s way. Serbia is a 100 per cent internationally recognised state with levers to pull. Kosovo isn’t

Underpinning all this is the hard fact that Russia (with China) can block any move by the UN Security Council to propose Kosovo as a full UN member, and without that top-level acknowledgement of statehood many sporting and other international organisations prefer to avoid the problem.

With Vuk Jeremic presiding over the UN General Assembly in 2013 and then Serbia’s OSCE Chairmanship to follow, Kosovo can see its sluggish progress towards full recognition going even slower for a good while to come. Time to heave a sigh and cut a messy deal with Belgrade?



Written by Mika

13. juna 2012. u 23:46

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