Jan. 29, 2007
On the menu today — frogs. Not the Hungarian variety, which for many years have been passed off as genuine cuisses de grenouille in some of the best restaurants in France. No, these are political frogs and Slavic ones at that. What's more, they are frogs of the mind.
Consider this insight: "If you have to swallow a frog, don't look at it a lot, but swallow it right away. If you have to swallow several frogs, swallow the biggest one first."
The man who said that was Zoran Djindjic, a former prime minister of Serbia.
Now this: "They are just like frogs before a storm! You can't hear anything else for their croaking."
The man who wrote that was Leo Tolstoy, Russia's greatest novelist.
Two views of frogs. But both with a bearing on today's Serbia, a country on the brink it seems of UN-inspired dismemberment and with no real sense of how much recent history it must swallow to rejoin the world around it.
State of denial
A case in point: The elections that were held Jan. 21 for the Serbian parliament.
The party that harvested the largest number of votes is led by a man sitting in jail in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. This is the Serbian Radical Party and its leader is Vojislav Seselj.
The Radicals took 28.7 per cent of the vote. It is a party that shares the ideas of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia who died in prison in The Hague while on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
Those charges related to the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s that led to the shattering of Yugoslavia.
Radical party supporters were active in paramilitary units in the first two of those wars. Seselj once threatened to scoop out the eyes of Croats with a rusty spoon. This, he later said, was a joke.
Where winners lose
Trailing the Radicals were the Democrats with just over 22 per cent of the vote. The Democrats are led by the Serbian president and are overtly pro-European.
In third place was the party of the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica — the Popular Coalition, more nationalist than the Democrats but far less so than the Radicals.
The belief, both inside and outside Serbia, is that the second- and third-place parties will come together in an uneasy coalition, leaving the Radicals in opposition.
The coalition will be uneasy because the leader of the Democrats (the country's president) and the leader of the Popular Coalition (the prime minister) detest each other. But the scent of high office overpowers even the rank odour of personal animosity, at least for a time.
Holding your nose
Now, back to the frogs. There are two very large ones for Serbian leaders to swallow if they want their country to get on with its life. They are, first, Kosovo, the discontented province, and then Ratko Mladic, the Serb military leader who has been on the run for over a decade.
For the better part of seven years Serbian politicians have spent their time refusing the advice offered by Djindjic: They have turned up their noses at these political cuisses de grenouille.
Mladic has been particularly hard to swallow. The military leader of Republika Srbska, the Serbian enclave in Bosnia, he is wanted in The Hague for war crimes but has been protected, European officials say, by people in today's Serbian army and secret services.
Kosovo is an even bigger frog. It remains a province of Serbia but 90 per cent of its population is Albanian and they want independence. Since the NATO air war against Serbia and Milosevic in 1999 it has been an international protectorate, policed by 16,000 NATO soldiers.
In the wake of the Serbian elections, an international mediator, the UN's Martti Ahtisaari, is expected to unveil a plan for Kosovo later this week that will call for the province to be granted some form of conditional independence. The assumption is that it would be free to seek official recognition from other states while remaining a European protectorate.
Brotherhood of Slavs
In the Serbian election campaign, Kosovo was barely mentioned. That was because no party wants to see the province given independence.
The Radical program, drafted by leader Seselj in his prison cell, even calls for the use of force to block independence. It also calls on Serbia to invoke its "brotherly ties" with Russia, one of the six-country contact group overseeing the situation, to block any UN plan with a Security Council veto.
Which bring us to the second quote about frogs.
Alert readers of Russian novels will know that in Tolstoy's masterpiece, Anna Karenina, after Anna throws herself under a train, her lover, Vronsky, does penance by going off to war — to fight for Serbia against the Ottoman Empire.
This was a people's war, not ordered by the Russian government but launched on a wave of Slavic solidarity. As for the frogs croaking before the storm, they were Russian newspaper editors, croaking unanimously in favour of helping Russia's southern Slav brothers.
More than a century and a quarter after those events, the brotherly ties remain strong. Vladimir Putin's government may well veto any independence deal, if only because it doesn't want precedents that might encourage citizens in its restive southern republics, such as Chechnya.
And so the frogs sit on the table. But no Serbian leader seems ready to open his or her mouth, and the country remains as isolated and as far from the European Union as ever.
As for Djindjic, the young modernizer who helped topple Milosevic and who wanted his country to swallow all sorts of unpalatable frogs in a quick march into Europe, he was assassinated in 2003.
And no frogs wept.