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Kosovo Tirade Reveals Tension In Belgrade

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic at a July 2011 press conference in Belgrade.

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic at a July 2011 press conference in Belgrade.

Ivica Dacic isn't playing nice. The Serbian Interior Minister sounded a decidedly undiplomatic tone on Monday at the Belgrade Economic Summit in an exchange with a high-ranking Austrian diplomat over Serbia's relations with its neighbor, Kosovo, and Serbia's path to EU integration.

Belgrade has been told repeatedly that it must normalize its relations with Kosovo if it hopes to speed up accession to the European Union. But in an open forum with Wolfgang Waldner, Austria's state secretary for European and international affairs, Dacic provided the bluntest verbal expression yet of Serbia's policy of challenging Kosovo's territorial integrity, even at the cost of damaging Serbian-EU relations.

"This is what Kosovo's reality is, mister," Dacic said. "You talk about the reality of independence, but there is also the other reality, that there are two Kosovos, the Albanian one and the Serb one." Dacic was an early proponent within the Serbian government of a division of Kosovo into two separate ethnic spheres.

What got Dacic going was Waldner's remark that getting the date for the start of Serbia's EU membership talks would depend on sorting out "territorial conflict with neighboring countries". Waldner also said that a Serbia-proposed change in borders -- which would see Serbia absorbing the Serb-controlled and Belgrade-dependent northern part of Kosovo -- was out of the question.

"Have you ever said that the partition of Serbia is not an option?" Dacic asked. "The Albanians didn't want to live in Serbia and I recognize their right to this. But the Serbs also don't want to live in an independent Kosovo and I expect from you, as a democrat, to recognize their right too," Dacic said to cheers and applause from the Serbian audience.

A Change in the Political Winds

Belgrade's newfound aggressiveness signals a deepseated nervousness in the cabinet of Serbian President Boris Tadic ahead of general elections in mid-2012. During elections three years ago, the lure of EU integration proved a recipe for electoral success. But the ascendance of populist and nationalist strains in the Serbian electorate has no doubt changed Tadic's political calculus.

The shift in atmosphere also explains Belgrade's hardline position in a crisis that has erupted in the last few weeks, after Kosovo Serbs blocked border stations only recently taken over Kosovo and EU police and customs officials with the help of NATO peacekeepers. Veteran opposition figure Vuk Draskovic has accused Tadic's government of giving the public a false account of last week's violent episode at one of the border crossings, when it claimed that NATO troops were to blame for an incident in which shots were fired and in which four peacekeepers and seven local Serbs were injured.

Dacic's Russian Nod

Back at the Belgrade Economic Summit, one of those who probably applauded Dacic must have been happier than the other participants when the minister mentioned his name before lashing out at Austria's Waldner.

"The ambassador of the Russian Federation does not have to react now, I will do it," Dacic said.

Ambassador Aleksandar Konuzin surely felt vindicated after a storm of criticism he received for his own 15-minute outburst at a security forum in Belgrade three weeks ago, when he criticized Serbian politicians and intellectuals for leaving it to Russia to defend Serbia's interests abroad and at home.

-- Nedim Dervisbegovic

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