Mar 21st 2010 | From The Economist online
BRDO castle, in the middle of Slovenia, has played host to a number of important events in recent Balkan history. In 1980, Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader, suffered a stroke there and died soon afterwards. In April 1991, the leaders of the six constituent Yugoslav republics met at the castle in a vain attempt to avert their doomed country’s descent into violence. This weekend their successors reconvened, along with the prime ministers of Kosovo and Albania, to show the world—or rather the European Union—how committed they are to good neighbourly relations.
The happy occasion was to be blessed by Herman Van Rompuy, the new president of the European Council, and Miguel Ángel Moratinos, foreign minister of Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. But proceedings were torpedoed by a last-minute decision by Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president, to boycott the meeting because of the presence, on equal terms, of Kosovo. Brave faces all round could not hide the failure.
The summit was the result of a warming of relations between Slovenia and Croatia. After spending much of the last year squabbling over a maritime border, the two countries agreed, in November, to put the case to arbitration. Today, says Danilo Turk, Slovenia’s president, “there is almost an explosion of happiness between Croatia and Slovenia.” What better way to celebrate this lovefest than for the two countries to invite the leaders of all the other former Yugoslav states, and Albania, to commit publicly to work towards their common future in the EU?
The sticking point, as so often, was Kosovo. Ever since the former Serbian province declared independence in February 2008, Serbia, which regards Kosovo as its historic heart, has been fighting to keep its independence from becoming diplomatic fact. Helped by powerful states like Russia and China, and, within the EU, Spain, Serbia has kept Kosovo out of the UN and many other international organisations. It has also brought the case of Kosovo’s declaration of independence to the International Court of Justice in The Hague; a ruling is expected later this year.
The two countries have nevertheless adopted a relatively grown-up attitude towards meeting together, give or take the odd tantrum. One successful format involves ensuring that delegates do not use national nameplates, allowing them to sit in the same room together. Balkan-watchers hoped that a similar pragmatism would prevail in Brdo.
The problem was the high profile of the summit. Brdo presented Mr Tadic with a dismal choice. Had he attended, Serbs at home would have seen images of him sitting around a small table with Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, with the implication that the pair were talking as equals. But staying away would have only enhanced Serbia's international image as a recalcitrant regional bully that refuses to accept the reality of Kosovo's independence. In the end Mr Tadic decided that domestic needs trumped statesmanship, and stayed at home. Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Moratinos then pulled out themselves, fatally undermining the meeting.
By wrecking the Brdo summit, Mr Tadic won a battle, but he cannot win the war. Smarting from its humiliation, Slovenia’s government may choose to take revenge by slowing the EU’s integration process with Serbia. Later this year, a major EU-Balkans summit is planned in Sarajevo, and the EU is increasing pressure on the states of the region to improve their mutual relations. If Serbia stays away again, the consequences could be grave. Many powerful voices in the EU, including Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats, want to see a long pause in enlargement for “digestion” once the EU takes in Iceland and Croatia, possibly in 2012. They won't mind a bit if Mr Tadic insists on putting Kosovo before Europe. If that happens, Serbia, which long ago lost Kosovo, may lose the EU.