Saturday 24 March 2012

Serbian Symbolism

Henry Norman

Boris Tadic meeting with the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy in Brussels. The Council of the European Union.

Moving forward
As the Minister for Europe David Lindington remarked, ‘Serbia has come a long way in the past 20 years.’ When you think that it is just over a decade since the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, then this certainly appears to be true. The days of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing are now resigned to the textbooks of history, with Serbia looking forward to its rightful place amongst the family of European nations. Indeed, this is what could be inferred from the announcement of Serbia’s EU candidate status on March 1st, 2012.
The announcement comes after the capture of both Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić by the Serbian authorities in May and July of 2011. For many this was the symbolic end of the atrocities. With the perpetrators of the bloodiest European conflict  since WWII captured, a chance for justice to be seen and heard was offered across the war-torn Balkan states (lest we forget the charade trial of Milosevic).
Considerable efforts have been made by the Serbian government in order to speed up the democratization process. In 2007, the Stabilization and Association Agreement was signed in an effort to take firm action on the political, economic and human rights problems that affect Serbia. Furthermore, according to the 2010 EU progress report, ‘significant progress was achieved’ with regards to the issue of organized crime, an issue of major concern in Serbia.
And yet the 2011 Human Rights Watch report of Serbia found that there is, amongst others, widespread intolerance shown to the Roma population and intimidation of the press. One can only place faith in the normative power of the EU, the allure of membership and the attention paid to meeting the chapters of the acquis in tackling such urgent issues.
Kosovo on the horizon
Field Survey carried out on 1031 interviewee’s which clearly shows Kosovo being the number one cause for concern amongst the Serbian population.
However, perhaps one issue more so than any other is of more political concern to Serbia’s successful membership.
The above survey merely demonstrates the fact that the issue of Kosovo is not going to disappear any time soon and such predictions were indeed found to be validated. Coupled with the fact that the majority of EU countries now recognise Kosovar independence, Germany’s refusal to support Serbia’s candidature back in December demonstrates the EU’s inflexibility on the issue. This all spells a membership process of untold diplomatic pressure considering that Tadic has made it clear that Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo.
Asterisks and Footnotes
But could we be witnessing a gentle thaw in Serb-Kosovar relations?

The literal symbol of Serbia beginning to realise it has at least appear to kowtow somewhat over the issue is shown by an unassuming asterisk placed after ‘Kosovo.’ It directs the reader to a footnote clearly (but discretely) affirming that, "This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence".

Reading between the lines, this seeks to upset no-one as the Security Council resolution 1244 makes no mention of an independent Kosovo whilst the ICJ ruled that Kosovar independence broke no international law. Whilst some could disregard this move forward as nothing more than phony symbolism, it at least allows meetings to take place in what has before been a case of officials storming out of delegations due to disagreements over Kosovo’s very right to sit at the table.
Whilst some would see such progress as no progress at all, it is important to remember that we are still in the early stages of the Serbian membership process. An article in The Economist put it best, ‘it is like saying buying a ticket to get on a train does not get you closer to your destination.’ In other words, let the immense normative power of the EU do its job.
Admittedly the EU is currently in a bit of quagmire but no-one can realistically believe that Serbia will do better on its own. Benefits such as access to the world’s largest internal market are especially alluring given the current state of affairs. According to most reports, Serbia has an ageing population, high unemployment, overreliance on the state and high levels of corruption.
It is not only Serbia that would benefit from processes of institutionalization, but also the EU. Once again, the symbolism of a once war-torn region beginning to unite under common ideals, as set forth by the EU charter, is enormously valuable for an institution currently suffering from bad publicity due to the Eurozone crisis.
UK Position
A group of ‘Toniblers’ at Tony Blairs visit to Pristina in July 2010.  Kushtrim Ternava
According to the Minister for Europe, David Lindington, ‘further improvement in its [Serbia] relations with Kosovo is a priority from the UK perspective.’  What ‘further improvement’ amounts to is not quantified, but presumably Lindington wants Serbia to recognise Kosovar independence (just as the UK did soon after Kosovo announced independence on 17 February, 2008).

 Adding further tension to Anglo-Serb relations is the fact that if one walks the streets of Kosovo, you may even bump into a few thirteen-year old children called ‘Tonibler’ in homage to a leader they see as their hero. This is compounded by the fact that two-years earlier, Serbs had taken to the streets of London in protest to what they saw as British hypocrisy.  Why, they shouted, was it that they supported Kosovar independence but not at the same time willing to make similar concessions to the republicans of Northern Ireland?

Putting this aside however, it is important that the UK continue to support both Serbian membership whilst maintaining its support for Kosovar independence. After all it is all they can do.
The UK has a lot of history in the Balkans, with most of it being forged in the past twenty-years. Also keep in mind the UK’s recent involvement in Libya which, as many have commented, share strong parallels with NATOs involvement in Kosovo, for example both involved the use of air-strikes in response to a humanitarian crisis.

The point of this comparison is that if Serbian membership of the EU leads to a chain of Europeanization across the region and a thaw in the tensions with Kosovo, hopefully this can serve as an example, and hope for the future, that intervention can work. It is a powerful symbol for the transformation of once brutal regimes, which is why the UK should welcome the recent announcement of Serbian candidature.

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