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Can Serbia Move Beyond Kosovo?

Campaign posters of the President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party are posted over graffiti reading "EU? No thanks!" in Belgrade.
Campaign posters of the President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party are posted over graffiti reading "EU? No thanks!" in Belgrade.
Shortly before he was assassinated in March 2003, Serbia's reform-minded Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic indicated that he wanted to solve the Kosovo problem. But so far, no Serbian leader who came after him has had the vision or the courage to do so.

Instead of seeking a solution that takes into account the desire of 2 million Kosovo Albanians to live in their own country, most Serbian political parties have adopted populist positions aimed solely at marketing themselves. By keeping Kosovo at the top of the domestic political agenda in Serbia, the parties have distracted the public from issues like the failure of reforms, kleptocratic privatization deals, rampant corruption, crime, and falling living standards.

Opposition parties, too, have used Kosovo primarily to attract voters by playing the nationalism card. Recalling the era of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, they insist that Kosovo is the medieval "cradle of Serbs" and that it must be defended by all means, even war.

This pressure from the right has pushed post-Milosevic democratic governments to also engage in populism. This was most striking during the cohabitation between pro-European President and Democratic Party leader Boris Tadic and nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. After Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in February 2008, Kostunica's government turned a blind eye (even tacitly endorsed) the vandalism against Western embassies in Belgrade. Serbian officials ratchet up the rhetoric by claiming that Kosovo independence is tantamount to "the rape of Serbia" and the creation of "a NATO puppet state."

The result has been that the nationalist epic past has become more important than Serbia's possible European future. Enraged nationalists urged the government not to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU because most EU states support Pristina. The nationalist mantra has become: "No trade-off on the most sacred Serbian word [Kosovo] is possible."

Push/Pull With Brussels

Shortly before Kosovo's independence declaration, Kostunica asked EU foreign ministers if they wanted "the whole Serbia as a partner or do they prefer to create a quasi-state on Serbian territory." These were the first indications that Serbia was on a collision course with the EU.

Such shortsightedness continued in March 2008, when Serbia launched on initiative before the United Nations on the partition of Kosovo. Belgrade's proposal envisaged that northern Kosovo (largely populated by ethnic Serbs) would be incorporated into Serbia. But it was already too late: The United States had proposed a similar partition of Kosovo on even more favorable terms for Serbia in the early 1990s, but Belgrade had rejected that offer.

Tadic's Democratic Party was able to form a coalition government in 2008 that was perceived in the West as the most Europe-oriented cabinet since 2000. However, although it says that integration and eventual EU membership are the country's key foreign-policy goals, the current government maintains more or less the same approach to Kosovo, reiterating that Belgrade "will never recognize a unilateral declaration of independence." The government has also ruled out NATO membership for Serbia (although the Democratic Party favored membership when Milosevic was toppled), which has also been interpreted as a tilt toward the right.

And so Belgrade walks a tightrope by using all political, legal, and diplomatic means to assert its claim to Kosovo, while also stepping up efforts to gain EU membership as quickly as possible. Belgrade knows that it must soon answer an EU questionnaire concerning the size of the country's population and the delimitation of its borders, but the ruling elite continues postponing this moment of reckoning.

Going International

Belgrade continues to hope that divisions within the international community can be exploited. Although Russia and China have both supported Serbia for their own reasons, they have not wielded their UN vetoes as Belgrade had hoped. Twenty-two of the EU's 27 members have recognized Kosovo, so the arithmetic there also looks bad for Serbia.

Therefore, Belgrade has been casting around for support among nonaligned countries. And the first initiative in this direction was the draft UN General Assembly resolution seeking an opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of Kosovo's independence declaration.

Although the West pressured Serbia to withdraw the resolution, Belgrade managed to secure its passage. The government celebrated a diplomatic victory, confident that the ICJ would rule the independence declaration violated the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo.

These high expectations were dashed. Two years later, the ICJ issued the nonbinding advisory opinion that Kosovo's independence declaration did not violate international law because there was no specific prohibition against such actions. This threw cold water on the enthusiasm of the authorities in Belgrade, who -- earlier promises to the contrary notwithstanding -- disputed the court's ruling.

Again, Belgrade passed up an opportunity to escape from this dead end. The government hastily drafted a new UN resolution stating that the ICJ ruling did not legitimize the right of Kosovo's Albanians to secede and calling for a new round of negotiations on all issues, including the question of Kosovo's status. Needless to say, Pristina and its Western allies are adamantly opposed.

Even worse, Belgrade sent the document to New York without advising the EU, despite earlier offers from Brussels to help draft the text. In short, the conflict with the EU came out into the open.

Does this mean Belgrade really thinks it can gain EU membership with the support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Organization of African Unity? Or are leaders so wrapped up in their own rhetoric that they truly believe a clash with Brussels might accelerate Serbia's European integration?

It is still possible Belgrade will withdraw this resolution or modify it substantially. But it is also possible that Serbia will stubbornly stay the course no matter what the cost. Either way, it would mark a defeat for Belgrade.

But, paradoxical as it might sound, a defeat could well give Serbia's leaders the cover they need to finally close the Kosovo file. If the present authorities are unable to do this, then a future government will. It is an imperative that is dictated by reality.

Bosko Jaksic is a columnist for the Belgrade-based "Politika" covering foreign and domestic affairs and a regular contributor to the BBC, RFE/RL, Al-Jazeera, and Serbian radio and television. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL