Day 29: American Democrats and Serbian Radicals

radical-party-hqToday was a day of contrasts. I had two interviews: the first with the American democracy promotion NGO, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the second with the singularly most powerful political party in Serbia, the nationalist Radicals. The two organizations could not have expressed more different perspectives on the world, Serbian politics, and Kosovo.

The NDI office is located just off of Strahinijca Bana near Studentski Trg; a neighborhood with which I have become quite familiar over the course of my stay. I was a bit early, so I stopped at a restaurant to grab a cup of Turkish Coffee and read a collection of essays on archaeology in Kosovo and Metohija. I plan to finish it up before my meeting with the director of the Center for Protection of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija tomorrow morning. Hopefully that way I will be able to ask intelligent questions of my host.

I was unsure of what to expect of my meeting with the NDI staff. Their mandate is to help “small d democratic parties” engage in institution building, campaigning, and follow-through, and to promote open political expression of liberal democratic values. To this end, they have working relationships with several minor parties such as G17 Plus and the Liberal Democratic Party as well as Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS). Because they are a non-partisan capacity building organization, they do not officially take nor advance positions on Serbia’s major political issues including Kosovo. Nonetheless, they were able to give me some interesting insight into how they feel the issue of Kosovo is used in political circles. They were also happy to share their thoughts on the progress of the internalization and institutionalization of democratic norms in Serbia since the fall of Milosevic.

One of the largest problems in Serbian society, my hosts claimed, is its failure to come to terms with their role in the wars in the Balkans. A lack of serious introspection, in no small part because of the NATO bombings in 1999 and continued feelings that the international community is not giving Serbs a fair hearing, is setting back the pace of democratic progress in this country. I think Serbs are more aware of their country’s dark legacy than my hosts were willing to admit, although they are likely correct in terms of the lack of individual professions of guilt. In a neighborhood where no other country has made an effort to apologize for their own war crimes, this lack of progress is hardly surprising.

A bit like the pollster I met yesterday, my hosts had the impression that Kosovo is used largely as an instrument of political manipulation or distraction. Likening the issue of Kosovo to the American South following the Civil War, he believes that Serbs wave the “bloody shirt” whenever they want to distract the polity from other more pressing issues. This becomes a bit of a problem because whenever Kosovo is on the agenda, very little else gets accomplished. He therefore had praise for the present government that he feels has successfully “parked” the issue of Kosovo by turning the decision regarding its status over to the ICJ. This is a way for the government to buy time while passions over the province settle. It has also allowed them to attempt to push forward on EU integration, although he admitted the only tangible benefit so far has been the visa liberalization package proposed last week by Javier Solana.

In particular, they feel that the visa liberalization will give Serbs greater confidence in the European Union and lead to more openness to greater democratization. With the EU “straightjacket” in place, the government will also be forced to deal with important internal reforms such as cleaning up corruption, building social security, and providing better economic regulation. Ultimately, it is the parking of Kosovo that they believe has helped Serbia progress as far as it has on integration. Serbia needs is a “soft landing” on Kosovo, and the ICJ process is integral to that effort. Namely it allows the government to claim it is making doing something about Kosovo while advancing other objectives.

I asked them what they felt about Serbs internalization of democratic norms. They responded that although this is still a work in progress, people are beginning a slow learning process particularly in terms of freely expressing political opinions. While the impression has grown that little gets done under democracy, this has produced more frustration with the Serbian system rather than democracy itself. In short, they do no feel the country is in much risk of backsliding to a Milosevic-type autocracy. In terms of the institutionalization of democratic norms, they feel the country has made slow, but steady and meaningful progress. While they believe Tadic is somewhat of a benevolent dictator that is good for the country, the next step is for the National Assembly to assert its constitutional prerogatives and independence from the executive. This will be greatly helped by the parliament being granted its own budget and the ability to administer it independent from the ruling party hierarchy.

After finishing my meeting at NDI, I caught a bus to Zemun to the Radical Party headquarters (pictured above). Located off the main road on Magistratski trg next to the suburb’s imposing Viennese  courthouse. I was met inside by a heavily tattooed security guard who called upstairs for me to see if I could be admitted. A young man came down the stairs to welcome me up to the office. Once there, I sat with a very burly guy behind a computer desk, who was at one time a personal bodyguard for the party’s president, Vojislav Šešelj. He is been sitting in the Hague since 2003 accused of war crimes during the Bosnian War, although the prosecutors have had great difficulty pressing their case.

Eventually I was welcomed into the office of a Radical MP who spoke impeccable English and apparently had some free time. At the beginning of our conversation he asserted that Kosovo is Serbia. He justified this through three claims. First, the historical claim: the bulk of Serbian history, he argued, has been in some way tied to Kosovo, particularly the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Second, the spiritual claim: the Orthodox church is a powerful undercurrent in Serbian society and the sheer number of monasteries, churches, and holy places in Kosovo make it the place from where the greatest part of the nation’s spirituality is drawn. Third and finally, the political/territorial claim: Kosovo has been a part of modern Serbia since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and up until the end of the 19th Century, Serbs were an overwhelming majority in the province.

Moreover, he believes Kosovo’s large natural reserves of coal are a resource with which the state should not easily part. His ultimate point here was that although the historical and religious claims are the most important to Serbs, the economic value of the province should not be dismissed. In the eyes of the international community, he believes historical and religious justifications are treated as ridiculous so there is a need to advance concrete claims as well. However, he insisted that even if Kosovo was a barren dessert with nothing of economic worth contained within it, it would still be more important to Serbs than the most bountiful lands on Earth. In the end, he feels that if Serbs make it easy for themselves to lose Kosovo, they will lose it. If they refuse to accept this outcome, there is hope.

Next my host turned to the injustices his party perceives Serbia has suffered at the hands of the international community. Under Tito’s Yugoslavia, the constitution dictated that three national communities, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes were entitled to sovereignty and self-determination to the exclusion of the country’s other minorities, namely Bosnian Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. But when Slovenia moved to secede in 1991,  the Badinter Commission organized by the nascent European Community, made a ruling that individual republics of Yugoslavia should be recognized if they declared independence to the exclusion of ethnic self-determination claims. From here, a legal precedent was established that helped enable the legal dissolution of Yugoslavia. Yet when Kosovo Albanians demanded independence before 1999 and then declared independence in 2008, the international community chose a new guideline for independence: ethnic self-determination. Now when Serbs in Kosovo have suggested that they too should be entitled to self-determination, the international community has reversed course again to support the principle of territorial integrity. In short, my host feels that there has been a triple (inconsistent) precedent set, each time against Serbia. These feelings of injustice are only multiplied by the impression that Serbs alone have been forced to take the blame for the three-sided Bosnian civil war in the 1990s.

In the name of brevity and relevance, I will skip the portion of our discussion about Vojislav Šešelj in which my host laid out the charges against him at the ICTY, and the inability of the prosecutors to press the case against him. Notably, 71 separate witnesses have been called and appeared to testify against him. He had been sitting in the Hague from February 2003, and his trial did not begin again until November 2007. The trial was suspended in February 2009 after one witness claimed they felt intimidated, and new proceedings will be initiated by 2010 projected to be finished by 2012. Assuming this is when the trial concludes, he will have been imprisoned for nine years with little clear evidence of his guilty. This is in sharp contrast to the show trials of prominent KLA leaders at the Hague in which few witnesses appeared to testify and many more were intimidated into silence or were mysteriously killed. Chalk up another mark for Serb feelings of injustice.

The real surprise for me in the interview came when I asked my host what was the worst possible solution to Kosovo that his party would accept. He began with a fairly predictable reply: Kosovo must be a part of Serbia and they will accept no other outcome. Moreover, the Radicals are sharply opposed to regional autonomy in Kosovo or Vojvodina feeling that these moves are a dangerous move toward the breakup of the country. While they do favor political and administrative decentralization, they believe this localization of political representation and accountability should not be extended to the actual diffusion of state sovereignty. Then came the real surprise: he said that the Radical Party remained committed to the unification of the whole of the Serbian people in a single sovereign state.

Although the Radical representative I met two weeks ago in Novi Sad supported a similar position, I figured this represented a minority of Radicals. Rather, it appears that this is indeed part of the party platform. Asking about the status of the Republika Srpska, he stated that the whole of Bosnia is the rightful territory of Serbia as Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims) are mostly Serbs by ethnicity divided only by religion. He believes the same claims should extend to Montenegro, which is also Serb by ethnicity, and many parts of Croatia including the Krajina, ethnically cleansed of Serbs in the mid-90s, and regions in which Serbs who were forced to adopt Catholicism by the Vatican several generations ago are believed to reside. Macedonia, by contrast, should be given a choice as, although many Macedonians have Serbian origins, their country is an amalgamation of multiple ethnicities. My host maintains that the fragmentation of the Balkans is part of an international strategy, whether intentional or unconscious, to partition the region in order to sustain easily colonized and controlled semi-sovereign subunits. While he believes that all these territories, Kosovo included, should be a part of Serbia under the unified banner of the Serb nation, he recognizes that such a state would still have many ethnic minorities, Albanians included.

Pushing further, I wanted to get a sense of exactly what criteria he believed qualified territories in the Balkans for Serbian sovereignty. Was it ethnic self-determination? Was it historical precedent? Was it to recreate Dusan’s empire? As he clarified, it seemed that the self-determination claim was most important where Serbs (or people of Serb origin) currently live or from where they have been recently ethnically cleansed. Yet when it came to Kosovo, it seemed that it was still a special case. At times he argued that Kosovo is Serbia because of international law, but in the end he argued that the province also had a special status through its emotional and historical connection to the Serbian people. This particular kind of historical link to territory was not expressed with respect to any other portion of “ideal” Serbia where self-determination instead took precedence. In some ways, this is a rather inconsistent position but at the same time it does highlight my base argument: that the claim to Kosovo is qualitatively different for Serbs than their claims (or lack thereof) are to any other place in the Balkans.

The final part of our discussion turned around the Radical Party position on European Union integration. Unlike their estranged “Progressive” cousins, the Radicals reject the idea of EU integration as a supranational usurpation of legitimate national rights and a relinquishment of state power to an unaccountable faceless bureaucracy controlled by the (economically or militarily) powerful. In terms of Kosovo, it is the fear of his party that with each engagement with the EU, Serbia gives up more rights in the southern province. When it acknowledges that Kosovo has a special status in free trade agreements, visa liberalizations, or otherwise, it makes it that much easier for Kosovo to be independent and for the world to fully declare a fait accompli.

Leaving their offices after a long interview, my host gave me what amounted to a Radical Party gift bag. Inside was a book by the party’s president, some assorted leaflets, and a flag of the party that can be hung from one’s car antenna. Whatever one may say about the Radicals, none of the other parties I have met so far gave me a goody bag.🙂 Catching a bus back to Stari Beograd, I got back to the hostel and have spent the last two hours writing this post. It has been a very very full day. Tomorrow will be more of the same. No rest for the weary!

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