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Serbia: Between Empire of Heaven and Empire of Earth Again

Serbia: Between Empire of Heaven and Empire of Earth Again

by: Can Karpat

Tomorrow the Kosovo final status talks enter a brand new phase. For the first time since the war, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia meet in order to present their positions on status of Serbia's breakaway province. There is no reason to believe that while seven purely technical rounds have failed, these new highly political rounds would succeed. Does it mean that the international community has switched to the Plan-B, namely the "Diktat solution"? Is this the beginning of the end for Serbia...

Serbia's choice

"The Downfall of the Serbian Empire" is one of the best known Serbian epic songs, which tells the choice of Knez Lazar on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. "Lazar, glorious Emperor, which is the empire of your choice? Is it the empire of heaven? Is it the empire of the earth?" If Lazar chose the empire of the earth, the Ottoman army would all perish. However, the empire of the earth would be nothing but temporal. If Lazar chose the empire of heaven, he and his men would all die, but ensured their place in heaven. "And the emperor chose the empire of heaven above the empire of the earth". Because the empire of the earth is eternal.

For centuries long this song on Lazar's choice had been a sweet consolation for the Serbs, who had been defeated by the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo. It comforted the Serbian psyche: They were not defeated; they chose to be defeated, for no less than a secure place in heaven.

The Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica should better prepare himself for such a fatidic choice today. When Kosovo will be a lost cause for Serbia, Prime Minister should be able to tell his people that heaven is waiting for them to sooth their wounded pride. This time heaven may not be that spiritual, however, as it was in case of Prince Lazar. EU membership would be Serbia's earthly compensation.

Today the Kosovo final status talks enter a new top-level phase. Kosovo Albanian and Serbian high-level leaders are to meet face-to-face in order to present their positions on the future of Serbia's breakaway province.

The Serbian President Boris Tadic will sit opposite Fatmir Sejdiu, the President of the province that still, though de facto, belongs to Serbia. And Vojislav Kostunica will sit in front of his counterpart Agim Ceku, whom Serbia has been accusing of serious war crimes for years.

One must not be a clairvoyant to guess the outcome of this new second phase: dialogue of the deaf and failure.

The beginning of the end

There is no reason to believe that while seven purely technical rounds have failed, these new highly political rounds would succeed. From now on, the two sides will discuss the future status of Kosovo, and not the peripheral issues like decentralization, the economy or protection of the Serbian cultural heritage and religious sites in the province.

Not even the question of the protection of the Serbian culture in Kosovo, definitely one of the softest issues on the agenda, could be resolved during the seven rounds of talks.

Even the Special Envoy for the Kosovo Future Status Process Martti Ahtisaari stated that he did not expect the talks to generate any concrete results and added that this would likely have to wait until after the next UN General Assembly session in September.

Thus Martti Ahtisaari confirmed the general belief that the talks are only a necessary transition period, which will serve as a confirmation of the failed status talks. As soon as the failure of the second phase of the talks is totally confirmed, the Kosovo case will be transferred to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which will probably impose its decision as an "international Diktat" to the two sides.

The attitude of Russia and China, the two permanent members of the UNSC, will be decisive since all the others are in favour of some form of independence for Kosovo. However, as long as Russia is concerned, the international community receives highly contradictory signals from Moscow.

Until very recently Russia has totally backed the Serbian cause. However, now, Moscow is keen to change its policy on Kosovo in light of the precedent it would set for other regions like, not unexpectedly, Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Moldova's breakaway region of Transdnestria.

The USA and Great Britain insist that a comparison cannot be drawn between Kosovo and Georgia and Moldova. However, sooner or later they will have to assure Russia's vote in the UNSC. And the price of the Russian vote is now well known. Since according to the Western powers Kosovo's independence will be the key to the total pacification of the Balkans, it would be not a big surprise if, at the end of the day, Russia gets at least some kind of assurance for a similar deal for South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdnestria.

The elections of the year

Meanwhile party leaders in Serbia are discussing possible dates for the next general elections. While Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) prefers elections left to next spring, Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS) prefers this autumn. In any case, the elections will be held probably before the Kosovo issue is resolved.

Vojislav Kostunica's minority government is losing blood every day, namely its working majority in Parliament. On the one hand, since the death of their leader, Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) has threatened to withdraw their support from the government if any other forcible extraditions take place. On the other hand, the Europhile-technocrat liberal party G 17 Plus warns the government that they will pull out of the coalition by October if pre-accession talks with the EU are not resumed.

Serbia goes through an extremely difficult year. On 3rd May the EU suspended pre-accession talks with Serbia after Belgrade failed to deliver General Ratko Mladic to The Hague. On 21st Montenegro seceded from its state union with Serbia and became independent. The Presevo Valley, Sandzak and Vojvodina may be the next regions, which would bedevil the political atmosphere in Serbia. And of course, Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) exploits this situation to the extreme. No less than 37 percent of the Serbian people support this party at the public surveys. A particularly sad picture since nothing but the mentality of SRS and alike were responsible for this desperate no-way-back situation in Kosovo in the first place.

Very hard times are waiting for moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica. How will he persuade his voters that he is the reasonable Prince Lazar, and not the treacherous Vuk Brankovic, whose betrayal, so the Serbs like to believe, supposedly condemned the Serbian kingdom to defeat before the Turks in 1389? How will the new epic song look like?

In his open letter on 13th July, Vojislav Kostunica himself made this point clear: "Can such a country, by any measure a democratic one, survive the forcible taking of 15 percent of its territory? What democratically elected government could explain to its voters after such an act that they should continue to believe in the principles of tolerance, liberalism and the sacrosanct will of the people - the values of enlightened Western civilization, in the name of which they toppled an evil, authoritarian regime?"

Unlike DS, DSS and other pro-Western parties, SRS is able to give its supporters very simple and clear messages. And in times of political suffocation people, who lost their confidence even in themselves, often prefer this kind of simple and clear messages. Sad but history can testify to this.

The general elections in Serbia will be by far the most important elections in the Balkans this year. If the two major Serbian parties DS and DSS cannot find a common ground to cooperate, not only Serbia would stray from the path that leads towards democracy, but the Western powers would also have to deal henceforth with negotiators that they never dreamt of in their worst nightmares at the status talks in Vienna.

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