Balkans smouldering again

The Balkans are back in the news again – Kosovo is set to declare independence, Serbian paramilitaries are threatening to ‘protect’ the province, in Bosnia people are said to be stockpiling food in fear of a resurgence of violence.

I recently went to Serbia soon after a fairly prolonged trip to Iraq and Afghanistan and it is stating the obvious to say there is a vast difference between the mayhem in those two countries and the situation in southern Europe.

Despite some fairly bellicose statements from opposing parties the chances of a widespread conflict of the type which led to the break-up of Yugoslavia seem remote and the region is vastly different from what it was during the fighting in the 1990s.

It remains the case, nevertheless, that the tensions and resentments which fuelled the war at the time have not disappeared and are once again coming to the fore with paramilitaries starting to arm themselves in Serbia and Kosovo and police in Macedonia clashing with an Albanian group which was found to have enough weaponry to equip a battalion, including anti-aircraft missiles.

The Serb sense of victimhood is much in evidence in Belgrade among officials and the public alike. This view holds that Serbia has acquiesced to the demands of the international community, handing over Milosevic and others wanted for war crimes to the international court in the Hague, accepting ‘unfair’ terms over the break-up of Yugoslavia, and carrying out internal reforms.

But, goes the refrain, “every time Serbia fulfils a demand from the West, another one appears”.
The handing over of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain pre-conditions for Serbia being allowed into the EU. The Serbs however will have you believe that there is now another condition for joining the club: that they must be prepared to lose Kosovo.

But Kosovo is also a political card for the politicians in Belgrade. According to the moderates, allowing Hashim Thaci, the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader who is likely to be the next head of the Kosovar government, to declare independence will drive Serbian voters into the arms of the nationalists.

So, the message to western Europe and the US is either stop the unilateral declaration of independence or pay the consequences.

Furthermore, the renewed interest shown in the Balkans by the Russians, part of President Putin’s recent combative stance towards the West, has given the Serbs a boost of confidence.

Boris Tadic, the ultra-smooth ‘pro-Western’ president who looks more like a US congressman than an old-style Balkan leader, told me and a group of other journalists from Western publications: “Our information is that Ratko Mladic was in Serbia in the middle of 2002. After that he disappeared and we don’t know where he is. If we knew where he and other fugitives were we would arrest them.”

This was all said straight-faced despite Mladic being sighted in Serbia just over 18 months ago and just a few hours after Carla del Ponte, the chief UN war crimes prosecutor, had apparently railed at him over supposed protection continuing to be given to Mladic by elements in the Serbian political and military establishments.

The Serbian government had announced a bounty of a million Euros (£700,000) for Mladic and officials had said they were confident of tracking him down.

This led to Ms del Ponte forecasting an arrest “within weeks” and she was now looking a bit foolish. Asked about one possible solution to the Kosovo crisis – dividing the province among the Serbs and Albanians – the president gave the standard Belgrade line: “What you are asking for is not dividing Kosovo, but dividing Serbia, because the fact remains that Kosovo is part of Serbia. We will not accept that is not the case.”

The various factions in the Balkans blame each other for undermining the peace accords at the end of the war in former Yugoslavia. But there is also the common complaint that the international community has done little to buttress political and economic progress.

The fact that the Balkans has benefited from millions in international funding with Bosnia, for instance, receiving more in economic aid than Afghanistan, is ignored.

But there is little doubt that the West, distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan, has not been particularly focused on the region and failed to see signs of cracks appearing.

There are signs this will now change. Two senior American security officials, much in evidence in Baghdad, have just been to Belgrade and Pristina.

I met David Slinn, the former British representative in Kosovo who went on to become ambassador to North Korea, in Lashkar Gar a few weeks ago. The redoubtable Slinn had been sent along with a much augmented team to show how seriously the UK government was taking its task in Helmand. He is moving on to another job soon – back to Kosovo.