Thursday, March 09, 2006

Europe diary: Hard choices for Serbia

9 March 2006

In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reports on a difficult year for Serbia as it courts the EU, Montenegro makes moves to break away, and international pressure grows for Kosovan independence.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Ana Mladic grave
In Mladic's footsteps: His daughter's grave in Belgrade
I am sitting, rather ghoulishly, on a bench beside a grave in a suburb of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. In the bright winter sunshine, gusts of wind carry a sudden fall of snow from the fir trees growing in the cemetery. The silence is only broken by the occasional caw of a crow. Black marble tombstones descend the hillside, row upon row, many of them etched with simple, but evocative, line drawings of those buried. These are family graves and sometimes, beneath the picture of a couple, one set of dates shows only the year of birth as the husband or wife still lives on.

But on the stone I am looking at there is just a name in Cyrillic and dates. Ana Mladic killed herself when she was 23. It is said that her father, the fugitive accused of war crimes, has on occasions broken cover to sit where I am. It is the government's failure to capture him that threatens to stop talks designed to lead to Serbia joining the European Union.

Serbia faces an incredibly difficult year, with a succession of events that may be seen by some Serbs as blows to their sense of self. Either the delaying of talks planned for early April or the capture of Mladic will make some unhappy. The next blow could be the referendum in Montenegro. The government there wants to leave the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the last scrap of the federation that once made up Yugoslavia.


Montenegro is place of wild beauty. The fringes of Lake Skadar are flood plains, twisted trees and reeds growing out of the water. When I visit it is a cold, grey day and the smooth surface of the lake isn't the deep glorious blue of the picture on the cover of my guide book. Instead, standing on a mountain road writing a radio script I struggle to find an adequate description of the strange hue it has that day and give up. Later my producer, who I suspect would rather be known as a blunt no-nonsense type, reveals a poetic soul when she say it is the colour of old jade.

Lake Skadar (picture: Unesco)
Lake Skadar on a good day (picture: Unesco)
By the lake, amid a homely jumble of dried herbs and hats covering the walls, the Pelican Restaurant serves up amazing little anchovy-like fish in a lemony oily sauce. The man who catches the fish and arranges the wild flowers on the table keeps out of the way in the kitchen. His wife, a sensible looking woman in thick glasses, is the cook and refuses to reveal her recipe to me.

She is almost as reluctant to talk directly about the coming referendum, saying that she will vote, but it's private and she will opt for what is best for the prosperity of the country. Finally after much prodding she talks about the current relative prosperity of Slovenia, already a member of the EU, and Croatia, a candidate country. She says suddenly: "If we'd known 15 years ago what we know now, perhaps we'd have broken away then, like them."

Many Montenegrins see the sins of Serbia as a drag on their ambition to join the European mainstream.


Perhaps many Serbs will not be stricken with horror if Montenegro becomes Europe's newest nation state after May. But Kosovo may be a different story. Talks on its status begin soon and there will be a definite result by the autumn. Many in the international community (is that the same as what used to be called "The Great Powers"?) want full independence.

Radical Party demonstration
The Radical Party could be this year's big winner
The Serbian foreign minister, a great fan of what he calls "the Europeanisation" of Serbia and a former opponent of Milosevic, has a daily and forceful reminder of how the international community feels about that province when he goes into his office every morning. Opposite the foreign ministry, the military headquarters still stands but the top six floors are smashed up and buckled by Nato missiles fired seven years ago. But he tells me that an independent Kosovo would be a painful humiliation, a disaster for Europe and the region which Serbia could not allow, although he admits it could not prevent it either.

As I write, I have yet to meet with members of the Radical Party, but I wonder if this hard-right group will be the beneficiary of this year's humiliations. I can almost see the shrug down the phone as a diplomat from another country that was once part of Yugoslavia tells me: "They are paying now for Milosevic - it's time to pay."


J R R Tolkien
Tolkien's grim vision: Better suited to fiction than politics
The foreign minister is equally impassioned that Serbia was the victim of a criminal regime and victims should not suffer the punishment due to an assailant. It is perhaps fitting that the cameraman, the poetic producer and I have a lengthy discussion one evening about the Lord of the Rings, for those who covered the wars here called the region Mordor...

But what has always disturbed me about Tolkien's classic is the lack possibility of redemption for those born within Mordor's boundaries. There is no such thing as a good Orc. I only hope the "Great Powers" know that while this may be unsophisticated in fiction it is plain stupid in real world politics. Some Serbs, and some others, behaved like demons incarnate in the last decade. Now many feel their whole country and race has been demonised.


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