Independent Only in Name

The clip lasts less than a minute (1). Donald Trump is presiding at a White House signing ceremony on 4 September. He sits behind a huge desk, surrounded by gilt-framed photographs and telephones. Flanking him, behind two small, bare tables, are Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovar counterpart Avdullah Hoti. Trump is clearly revelling in playing the peacemaker, having managed to pressure two countries which had been at war to reach an accord in a region where the EU previously called the shots. He is all the more pleased with himself, even thinking he deserves the Nobel peace prize, as it was Democratic president Bill Clinton who around 20 years ago bombed Serbia.

Then suddenly Trumps declares, ‘Serbia’s committed to opening a commercial office in Jerusalem this month and to move its embassy to Jerusalem in July.’ President Vučić seems surprised by this off-topic announcement; he’s here to sign a bilateral trade agreement with Kosovo. He glances at the document in front of him, then turns to his advisors, looking concerned. Too late: it turns out Binyamin Netanyahu has already sent his congratulations.

President Vučić, doing this favour for Trump and his evangelical voters, who are determined to see Palestine colonised, is almost immediately criticised by the EU for going against its express Middle East policy despite Serbia’s long quest to join the EU. A European official publicly mocks Vučić’s panicked expression when Trump made his Israel announcement. Palestine’s ambassador to Belgrade expresses anger, and Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman shares an unflattering photo from the meeting in which the Serb leader sits in front of Trump in his majesty, like a dunce called before the headmaster.

Three days later, Vučić must ‘clarify’ his position on the Middle East: ‘Serbia has not opened this chapter yet. But we are doing our best to align with EU declarations as much as it is possible. But we do follow our own interests.’

Easier said than done. Vučić is a far-right Serbian nationalist who does not miss the former Yugoslavia (2). But, unlike him, old Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Tito, was a significant figure on the international stage. And Kosovo may have ended its subordinate relationship with Serbia, but only by becoming a US colony. That’s the common dilemma for nationalists: when they sever ties with countries that are geographically and culturally close, the ‘independence’ they gain often comes at the price of subordination to distant powers that regard them with contempt. They have to engage in constant flattery: autocrats in their own little states, but vassals whenever they leave them.

Notes.

(2See Jean-Arnault Dérens and Laurent Geslin, ‘Serbia’s strongman tightens his grip’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2020.

Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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