|Published: Friday, 22 September, 2006|
By Douglas Hamilton
BELGRADE: Barring a lucky break, Serbia may face a ‘perfect storm’ in the next two weeks as its government crumbles, its European Union bid falters and its plea to keep Kosovo province fails.
These major problems, all rooted in the wars stoked by the late Slobodan Milosevic from 1991 to 1999, are on a collision course as autumn closes in on a summer that resolved nothing.
At stake is six years of hard-won progress to rehabilitation on a path ambushed by ultranationalists, who treat reformists as sell-outs to a European Union Serbs don’t even need.
Most Serbs want to join the EU. But the EU has warned Serbia that membership talks will not resume this year unless it soon arrests Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.
The liberal G17 Plus party says it can no longer stand by and watch passively as Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, wary of a political backlash, dithers over arresting Mladic.
"For the thousandth time I repeat: we will quit the government and will not support it in parliament if the EU talks do not resume by October first," said G17’s Suzana Grubjesic.
The G17 liberals view Mladic as an albatross around Serbia’s neck. But ultranationalist Radicals and Socialists see him as a hero. Analysts say a G17 defection from Kostunica’s coalition risks letting the anti-Western camp gain power.
The EU will await word early next month from sceptical UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte on whether she thinks Serbia is genuinely trying to catch Mladic, indicted in 1995.
Clapping the general in handcuffs by October would be a very lucky break, but there is no sign whatever of that happening.
Like Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic, who would quit along with G17 colleagues, analyst Milica Delevic-Djilas thinks the EU will give Belgrade a break next month "if there’s the slightest room to keep Serbia on the road to European integration".
But "we’re all tied in knots waiting to see..." she said.
If del Ponte is negative and an EU rebuff triggers a G17 walkout and government collapse, the timing could not be worse.
It would cast Serbs adrift just as they face the likely loss of their Kosovo province, delivering a combination punch to national pride that could swell an anti-Western backlash.
Kosovo has been run by the UN and policed by Nato since the West forced Milosevic to pull his troops out in 1999 to end killing and ethnic cleansing in their anti-insurgency war. Its 90% Albanian majority wants to be free of Serbia.
With no hint of compromise in talks between Serbs and Albanians, UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari was this week discussing with major powers imposing a solution, which could well mean independence by year’s end.
Serbia’s reformist leaders say that is too soon. They need more time for their plan to ease the nation over the loss of this historic homeland in a way that will not drive voters into the revanchist camp and hand power on a platter to the ultras.
Kostunica and his rival President Boris Tadic have closed ranks to seek a reprieve on Kosovo so they can trounce the Radicals in a March 2007 election before its loss is sealed.
There is talk of an election truce, if not a coalition.
Their tactics for seducing nationalists include wrapping themselves in the flag and cosying up to Bosnia’s Serbs, who dream of joining Serbia one day. The idea of letting Bosnian Serbs vote in future Serbian elections was mooted this week.
This show of patriotism and brotherly love may impress sentimental Serbs but it is trying EU members who are tired of Belgrade using the bogey of Serb nationalism to scare them.
Electioneering Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, a frequent guest of Tadic and Kostunica recently, is warning his people might hold an independence referendum if Bosnia’s Muslim majority tries to whittle away the autonomy of their republic, or if Kosovo gets independence.
"If Kosovo gets independence, people in the Bosnian Serb Republic would request the same status (within existing Bosnia borders)," he said this week ahead of an October 1 election.
Backers say Dodik is simply responding to some Bosnian Muslim leaders calling for the abolition of his Serb Republic.
But Bosnia overseer Christian Schwarz-Schilling has now threatened to dismiss him if he persists - a move with highly unpredictable consequences in the prevailing climate. – Reuters