Serb Politics, Kosovo and the Moscow-Washington Divide

When things do not go right, playing middleman can lead to Monday morning quarterbacking. In the recently completed Serb presidential election, prime minister Vojislav Kostunica refused to back Boris Tadic or Tomislav Nikolic. The pre-election forecast was for a close race. There is good reason to believe that Kostunica’s endorsement of Nikolic would likely have been a difference maker. The final tally was within five percentage points. Tactically, Kostunica played it safe by remaining neutral. Prior to the vote, his endorsement was not a given to succeed. Had Kostunica’s candidate lost, his (Kostunica’s) power base could suffer. As is, Kostunica remains an alternative to Tadic and Nikolic. Such maneuvering has resulted in Serbs having an increased cynicism of their leaders.

Of late, Kostunica resigned as prime minister in protest to the reelected president Tadic’s desire to seek European Union (EU) membership with Kosovo still in limbo. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May. Anti-Serb/pro-EU elements dismiss this debate on the belief that Serbia has nowhere to go, but an EU direction. On the other hand, how intelligent is going against Serbia and propping an economically downtrodden, high profile criminal presence in Kosovo? Keep in mind that not all EU nations have endorsed Kosovo’s independence. Following the 1999  NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), an American military beachhead in Kosovo (Camp Bondsteel) was established. This should have no correlation with opposing present day Serbia (likewise with the other reasons  discussed in my last Counterpunch article). Serbia is an historically pro-Western nation, which shares similar Western concerns on matters like Islamic extremism. Serbia was screwed regardless of who won its presidency. A Nikolic victory would tag Serbia as “fascist” and not deserving of Kosovo. On the other hand, Tadic’s victory was taken by some as a greater Serb willingness to part with Kosovo. Many Serbs seem to have been spooked into not voting for Nikolic, out of fear of  receiving greater wrath from the West. That apprehension has its limits, as shown by the ongoing Serb opposition to Kosovo’s independence.

Despite taking a pounding (bombs, ethnic cleansing campaigns, sanctions, threats, heavily skewed media and public relations onslaughts) the Serbs continue to maintain a noticeable level of resilience. This has kept down any Serb government attempt to go against its population’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence. These comments should not be viewed as an oversight of Serb wrongs. Rather, they suggest a more thorough accounting of the former Yugoslav turmoil.

For consistency and factual sake, there should be reluctance to put the fascist tag on Nikolic’s still influential Radical Party. Harping on past instances has been selectively applied. Those quick to label the Radical Party as fascist are typically not willing to do so with other. They include the sugar coating of the late  Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic (a World War II era Hanschar SS supporter and author of a rather ethno-religiously divisive Islamic Declaration in 1970) and the repackaged Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leaders in Pristina. Nikolic and the Radical Party have had support from Serbia’s ethnic Roma and Slovak communities. The Radical Party mayor of Novi Sad denounced a recent wave of foreign (as in from outside of Serbia and non-Serb in ethnic origin) neo-Nazi violence in his city. About a quarter of Novi Sad’s population are non-ethnic Serbs. On the matter of getting along with different ethnic groups, the repackaged KLA have had a comparatively poor record.

Tadic appears to some as a continuation of the late Zoran Djindjic. Someone willing to lean towards core Western positions, but unable to go full swing. This has to do with the tremendous biases in the West against Serbia. Nikolic reflects a more Russian direction than Tadic (more on this point in a bit). Nikolic and the Radical Party are said to be not as corrupt as the Tadic wing. Nevertheless, Nikolic’s effectiveness as a politician has been questioned.

Politically in the middle of Tadic and Nikolic, Kostunica is generally acknowledged as the least corrupt of major Serb leaders. He has received flack for going against earlier statements. His supporters point to Kostunica’s limits of political authority. It was Djindjic and not Kostunica, who handed Slobodan Milosevic over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Kostunica preferred trying Milosevic in Serbia on the reasonable basis that the ICTY has carried on like a NATO kangaroo court. Kostunica’s support for the Serb-Montenegrin union changed out of necessity. The Milo Djukanovic led Montenegrin government became taxing for many Serbs. In a union arrangement with the larger (ten plus  million inhabited) Serbia, Djukanovic sought equal parity for the smaller (under one million populated) Montenegro. On Montenegro, the “enough is enough” attitude prevailed in the Serb political establishment.

Within varying degrees of difference, Tadic, Nikolic and Kostunica all support the idea of Serbia having relatively close relations with the West and Russia. The faulty decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence makes such a policy difficult. Whereas Montenegro is a former Yugoslav republic with a pre-World War I history as an individual nation, Kosovo has been internationally recognized as a part of Serbia. Unlike Montenegro, Kosovo has never been an independent nation.

The Kosovo-is-over-90-per-centAlbanian talking point against Serbia overlooks that this demographic development is recent (within the past 100 years) and caused in part by anti-Serb ethnic cleansing campaigns and migration from Albania into Kosovo (much of it illegal). When looked at in totality, it is unreasonable to nonchalantly write off Serb claims to Kosovo. At issue, is validating the part of the whole becoming separate. In addition to George Szamuely’s recent  Counterpunch article, there is other convincing analysis contradicting the claim that Kosovo is the “special case” for independence. Just what is so wrong about recognizing Kosovo as an irrevocably autonomous part of Serbia, with the former having complete United Nations (UN) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) representation? Soviet era Ukraine and Belarus were full UN members and non- nations Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands have that same standing in the IOC.

In comparison, the position of those recognizing Kosovo’s independence looks hypocritical and flawed in a Bismarckian sense. Is it not better to try being on the best of terms with Albanians and Serbs, as opposed to unfairly disrespecting the latter, who constitute a significant force in the Balkans? Practically, Russia has the better stance on the disputed former Communist bloc territories. By not recognizing the independence of any of the disputed former Communist bloc territories, Moscow has not fully alienated Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Serbia, while maintaining an honest broker’s role with the contested lands of Pridnestrovie (Trans-Dniester), South Ossetia, Abkhazia  and Nagorno Karabakh. The Albanian nationalist opposition to Russia’s Kosovo policy is fortified by those governments hypocritically supporting independence for the disputed former Yugoslav territory.

Among many Serbs, Russia is genuinely liked. This liking includes elements questioning whether Russia is strong enough to offset the anti-Serb biases in the West. When observing this matter, one should take into consideration that other nations besides Russia are in sympathy with the Serb position. Vis-a-vis the EU, the West itself is by no means monolithic on the issue of Kosovo.

There are murmurs of some Serb officials receiving kickbacks from Russian business interests in exchange for approving deals. At the same time, a number of Serb institutes and media outlets are under the heavy $$$ sway of Western venues, who want Serbia to be something which a good number of Serbs oppose – I.e., a subservient state to foreign interests not necessarily in sync with their views. The kind of situation that many Russians oppose in their country.

This reminds one of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest. There is truth in the view that other such tycoons could have been arrested in Russia. The non-arrest of those individuals having to do with perceived loyalty to the state and-or degree of corruption. Just how bad is this scenario? A corrupt patriotically inclined oligarch is not the same threat as one that hobnobs with foreign aims going against the nation’s best interests. Khodorkovsky aligned himself with the International Crisis Group, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and individuals not known for being particularly agreeable with mainstream Russian views. Around the time of Khodorkovsky’s arrest, the not so Russia friendly New York Times had a lengthy front page feature article about how Khodorkovsky planned on selling his dubiously acquired business assets abroad; holdings in the economically substantive energy sector. Khodorkovsky anticipated using his increased wealth to influence Russian politics. In this instance, Russia would essentially lessen its ability to run its key economic strength and have a kind of banana republic political structure.

Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. He can be reached at