Yes, it’s laudable that Croatia just became the first new member of the European Union in six years. Yet the really breathtaking news from the Balkans this week is the humdrum fact that Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga attended Croatia’s celebrations in Zagreb. And Belgrade’s top official for Kosovo affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, thanked the Serbs in the northern tip of Kosovo for welcoming Serbia’s forthcoming start of talks to join the EU.
Let me explain. Jahjaga’s presence at the Zagreb fireworks, in the company of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and others, went unnoticed simply because the Serbs have stopped storming out of regional gatherings when Kosovo officials show up. And Vulin’s pointed praise means that the north Kosovo Serbs are being coopted into the brand new Serbia-Kosovo rapprochement—and are not allowed to use violence to oppose it.
In other words, a miracle has happened. The bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s and the centuries-long Serb-Albanian feud have ended in provisional cooperation and not just in armed truce. The ideological ultranationalist politicians who won both parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia for the first time a year ago have become pragmatic ex-ultranationalists in office.
They have stopped claiming hegemony in the Balkans by right of their large population. They no longer insist that their province of Kosovo was unjustified and illegal in seceding after Slobodan Milosevic’s armed forces drove more than half of the 90 percent Albanian population from their homes and killed 10,000 of them. They no longer demonize the EU as an “anti-Serb” power that would compel them give up their patrimony of Kosovo.
Instead, six weeks ago they embraced the idea of eventual Serbian EU membership so ardently that they fulfilled the EU’s main precondition of “normalizing” relations with Kosovo. That was when Aleksandar Vulin resigned his government post in protest. He was head of Belgrade’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija and a passionate patriot for whom the very notion of Serbia without Kosovo was blasphemy. He was a parliamentarian from the largest party, the Progressives, and his trajectory was different from that of his party’s leader, Aleksandar Vucic.
Back in the 1990s Vucic was just as passionate as Vulin. Vucic was a brash young information minister during Milosevic’s suppression of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But Vucic went through a steep learning curve as he became Serbia’s deputy prime minister, defense minister, coordinator of the secret services, and the acknowledged kingpin of the new government 12 months ago.
The Progressives had already come around to wanting EU membership to overcome Serbia’s economic stagnation in the two decades since the 1990s Balkan wars and the loss of population as the best and brightest young people emigrated for lack of jobs. And as he conducted orientation talks in Berlin and Brussels last summer and fall, Vucic became convinced that the only way Serbia could go forward toward Europe—and catch up with rival Croatia—was to make peace with Kosovo.
Toward the end of last year Catherine Ashton, EU foreign-policy chief and facilitator of bilateral Serbia-Kosovo talks, floated a bold idea to achieve this end. How would it be, she asked, if the two foes abandoned their quarrelsome bottom-up attempts to normalize everyday relations and started from the top? Instead of arguing over every comma and asterisk at Gate #1 between north Kosovo and Serbia, couldn’t they just agree on a brief statement of broad principles and let those principles drive normalization on the ground?
The result was a bilateral pact on April 19 that did not make Serbia cross its red line and sign any statement saying it was recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Yet elliptically the pact committed Belgrade to withdraw the shadowy security structures it had maintained since 1999 in the pocket of ethnic Serb majority in the northern tip of Kosovo. Serbia also acknowledged that Kosovo’s laws would henceforth apply in the northern tip as well as in the south and that this would end the wholesale smuggling across the Serbia-Kosovo dividing line.
The Serbs living north of the Ibar River protested immediately and were joined in a march in Belgrade by senior clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who hinted broadly that God might welcome the murder of Serbia’s prime minister in re-enactment of the assassination of Serbia’s first reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in 2003. Both the Socialist prime minister and his Progressive first deputy prime minister Vucic indeed received all-too-credible death threats from remaining unreformed ultranationalists.
Aleksandar Vulin agreed with the marchers that the north Kosovo Serbs had been betrayed and resigned as head of Serbia’s Kosovo office. It took Progressive leader Vucic a month to persuade him to return to his post. In that hiatus Vucic himself faced the mutinous north Kosovo Serbs on their own turf and told his hostile audience to stop refighting the medieval 14th-century battle of Kosovo every day. Their lives too would improve as Serbia joined mainstream Europe, he assured the skeptics.
Since then the EU has given Serbia a target date next January to start membership negotiations and has already circulated its own agenda for the talks. At the same time, it has offered Kosovo a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the lowest rung on the tall ladder to EU membership. Aleksandar Vucic has begun talks with ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia about how best to implement minority rights in Serbia. And Belgrade has begun dismantling its illegal security structures in north Kosovo and is urging Serbs there to drop their previous boycott and take part in Kosovo’s elections in November.
In addition, Serbs in the north, instead of shooting at Kosovo police to keep out alien “occupiers,” have for the first time agreed by consensus with Kosovo officials to appoint a Serb member of the Kosovo Police as their district police chief. And President Nikolic is stressing that Serbs in north Kosovo are taking these conciliatory actions not because of EU fiat, but because they themselves look to the future and “want Serbia to be a modern and regulated country.”
Serbia’s mindset is at last becoming (in Vucic’s word) “normal.” And this stunning transformation has been so quiet that it has gone virtually unnoticed.
The bloody Balkan wars are over.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.
World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond