A “New Phase” in the Balkans[i]

The scandal which erupted after the recent Guardian interview with Noam Chomsky – that “exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre” (Chomsky) – is not, at least at first glance, completely unexpected: the Balkans, we can say with some pride, are back in style. Once again, we can partake of journalists’ uninformed inanities about Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and other “permanent focalpoints of crisis” (Frankfurter Alemagne Zeitung), areas in which, on the edges of Europe, “insanity giggles” (Kundera), over in the distance, on a “doorstep of Europe” (Tony Blair), in the “black hole of our own Middle East” (Il Manifesto) where, in the autumn of European nationalism, peoples “imprisoned by history” (The Times) still await their “debalkanization” (La Republika).

The influential Italian politicalo magazine Limes, deprived of the gentle auto-irony that sometimes follows imperialist jargon, posed a key question: “who will debalkanize the Balkans?”. Maybe, just maybe, are the peoples of the Balkans themselves capable of the Herculean task? Or does their historical slumber not permit them to do so? After Paddy Ashdown, that postcolonial Harry Potter, abandons this dark “region marked by unseen evils” (Berlin Zeitung), who will protect the Balkan peoples from the black magic of ethnic hatred? Is it perhaps smarter that this peninsula, like Saramago’s stone raft, be simply cut off from the Europe to which it doesn’t, in any case, belong? To the sorrow and misfortune of the Balkan peoples, Western politicians, journalists and “Balkan experts” have still not given up on their civilizing mission in this exotic locale. In his last address to the US Congress, Nicholas Burns brought out the past and future of US politics on the Balkans. He spoke mainly of Bosnia, which must immediately be given “greater stability”, and Kosovo, which may, perhaps, “be ready for some form of conditional independence”. In any case, it is absolutely necessary, according to Burns, to create a “new image of the Balkans”. The new historical image of the Balkans originated in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars in which the “international community” participated from the very beginning by bankrolling “democratic” opposition parties, which were in fact rabidly nationalistic, thereby lending legitimacy to violent secessionist movements, and by arming the ethno-nationalist paramilitaries which would eventually come to constitute new armed forces. What do the Balkans look like today? They are a patchwork of nation-state remnants, such as Slovenia; the vassals of the international community, like Croatia and Serbia & Montenegro; and the three protectorates under military watch – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia (the latter facing the serious risk of a new civil war, potentially even more brutal than the one that ended in 2002). When it comes to the protectorates, the “international community” has, to date, had two paradoxical solutions: in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the imposition of a “multiethnic at any cost” approach, while in Kosovo, preparations are under way for a “monoethnic independence”, at least partially due to the fact that after the occupation of this Serbian province ensued a year-long ethnic cleansing in the opposite direction – of which we hear almost nothing in the Western press – in which nearly all the non-Albanian inhabitants were exiled and over 150 monasteries destroyed. But how do we explain the newly photogenic Bosnia and Kosovo? Perhaps it’s best to start with Bosnia which one Russian journalist, correctly it would appear to me, calls the “model for Kosovo”. In the Balkans, “success is a real rarity”, writes Jonathan Steel, apparently relieved of the burden of the concerned European. Especially in Bosnia, which is more a ” patchwork than a real state” (Politika Daily). Two so-called entities – the muslim-Croatian federation and Republika Srpska – have remained practically “irreconcilable enemies”. This “Balkan colony of the international community” is made up of 10 cantons, 14 parliaments and 145 ministries. Sound complicated? The peoples of Bosnia themselves remain perplexed more than 10 years after they were forced to accept this somewhat bizarre arrangement. Government administration accounts for 70% of the national budget. Social services and pensions must be paid out of the remaining funds even as the official unemployment rate in Bosnia hovers above 40%. What follows from this state of affairs? Empty government coffers and corruption so widespread that it is not “part of the system but is the system”. An American diplomat with enviable cultural sensitivity, partial to invoking picturesque historical parallels, has said that, “Bosnia looks like the Wild West of our movies”. He’s right. To date, more than two billion euros of international “donations” and “development aid” have vanished in Bosnia. Bosnia is an epicenter for arms and drug smuggling and trafficking in women, where local and especially international politicians collaborate with local criminals. Organized crime is the sole remaining domain of a multiethnic Bosnia. Bosnia has been transformed into a protectorate-laboratory in which the “international community” observes how to transform “failed states”- from Kosovo to Iraq- into stable and obedient ones. Paddy Ashdown, our postcolonial Harry Potter, remains at the head of “Dayton’s Bosnia”. In January, however, Ashdown will be replaced as colonial governor, or to put it more formally, as the High Representative for Bosnia, by former German telecommunications minister Christian Schwarz-Schilling. Schwarz-Schilling already has nine years of experience as a samurai-diplomat of the international community. He announced himself with racist, anti-Serb statements. According to the Berlin Zeitung, Ashdown, “a former member of the British Royal Navy accustomed to battling in close quarters, is leaving because he was unable to win substantial support during his mandate.” He has been “criticized by Serbs, Croats and Muslims as an arrogant colonial ruler.”

A shift change at the beginning of the year holds more than symbolic meaning: in 2006, the whole country is due for reorganization at the behest of the NATO leadership and according to the plans set by their “Balkan experts”. It’s two so-called entities, the Muslim-Croatian federation and Republika Srpska, are to be fused into one central state. This step is obviously tied into independence for Kosovo, which is explained as the wish of the “overwhelming majority of the Albanian population of Kosovo to form an independent state”. The idea is very simple: if the Serbian part of Bosnia, as an entity with state-like characteristics, is dissolved, then Kosovo can be granted independence without fear that Republika Srpska will do what the “overwhelming majority of its population” wants – join Serbia & Montenegro. Before we go on to Kosovo, however, it would be useful to briefly pause on the question of the Bosnian constitution. This document, at first glance, reflects a desire for the establishment of what in conventional political theory is sometimes called a “normal state” (the medical equivalent would be a “normal cancer”). But, just as in the case of the famous Dayton constitution the new text at issue was not only launched but also written outside of Bosnia. In fact, is the new constitution, from not only the perspective of conventional liberal political theory, but also in the historical context of Bosnia, without any engagement of the Bosnian people?

In other words, according to the diagnoses of Balkan experts, the people of Bosnia lack the requisite political capacity necessary to be credible on the question of their own constitution. Moreover, the design of the new constitution presupposes a situation in which, at a basic level, decisions are made in Washington and Brussels and carried out according to the political will of Brussels and the “high representative of the international community” who has the responsibility to instruct the Balkan tribes in the political culture. [ii] The truth is that “it is time to rethink the way in which Bosnia is organized” but it is equally true that this project requires abolishing the insulting colonial institution of the high representative and his dictatorial authority and giving decision-making power over the constitution, number of entities and the cantons – the entire political process – and all else to those who actually live in Bosnia. I’ve already mentioned that the development of the new Bosnian constitutional Frankenstein is linked to the “new phase” now beginning in Kosovo. The “new phase” is a phrase used by Kofi Anan, warning of the “necessity of beginning a new phase in the Kosovo political process”. Kosovo, which is usually mentioned in the Western press only when some newsworthy violence erupts, is again a topic of diplomatic concern. The so-called status talks begin this month with an announcement first made by Washington’s undersecretary of state, a task which fell to the US after a series of unusual coincidences. The UN has nominated a special negotiator, as has the EU.

Does that mean that one phase has already ended? As a reminder, the first phase of the “democratic project in Kosovo” encompassed no more and no less than the “development of democracy”, “economic prosperity” and “recognition of the rights of minorities”. Moreover, under the oversight of the NATO council and the UN, the current situation, already one of permanent post-conflict but especially in the aftermath of the attacks on the non-Albanian residents last March, has become increasingly unlivable. The disputes can be summarized formulaically: as long as what Belgrade offers to Kosovo Albanians is “some more than autonomy but less than independence” while Kosovo politicians insist on “more than autonomy, not less than independence”, the “international community’s” “compromise solution” for this “immature political ambience” is preparation for “independence without autonomy”. Anan has nominated the diplomat and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari as special envoy during the Kosovo negotiations. This nomination comes as no surprise. Few players on the international political scene have such a frighteningly efficient reputation as this former diplomat. Namibia, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Eritrea, and finally Aceh: Ahtisaari has always stuck his fingers into peaceful initiatives. Now it’s Kosovo’s turn. By founding the Crisis Management Institute in Helsinki, Ahtisaari sought to create a monopoly on peaceful conflict resolution: where the “international community” lights a fire, Ahtisaari arrives to extinguish it. All you need to do is call him. This Finnish firemans’ greatest success was the peaceful settlement in Aceh. If a “lasting compromise” in Kosovo is reached next year the Nobel Peace Prize will certainly not evade his humanitarian grasp, especially as he was already a frontrunner candidate this year.[iii] Undersecretary Burns is also visibly worried about stability. Speaking to the US Senate, he opined that NATO will use force if any of the parties to the Kosovo status negotiations employ the threat of violence as a political tactic. In Burns’s thinking, the talks may well “bring about independence”. The Kosovo Albanians shouldn’t rush to begin independence day celebrations just yet though, explained the undersecretary and Balkan expert with a schoolteacher’s concern: “They need to prove that they are worthy”.

When we compare Burns to his colleague however, former US special envoy for the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, the cowboy-undersecretary begins to look like a poster-boy for political correctness. Holbrooke, famous for his declaration that the “Serbs are shit people”, on the occasion of the same Senate outing, said, with now celebrated candor, that Belgrade will have to find a way to let go of Kosovo. To that he added that the province’s independence will inevitably lead to the dissolution of Serbia and Montenegro’s linkage. Among other things, both Burns and Holbrooke have supported a referendum on independence for Montenegro.

To Serbia, in exchange for Kosovo, a territory to which the people of this “primitive country” are somehow inexplicably “historically tied”, they have offered an institutional promise: the magical delight of membership in European-Atlantic alliances. That is to say, as Burns emphasized, nations which contain within a “great territorial conflict” cannot be participants in this kind of integration. In the Balkans, this practice is well-known: in the 90s, local criminals promised security to storeowners in exchange for a cut of the profits. The Kosovo negotiations, carried out by Serbian and Albanian political “elites” and unfolding under strong pressure from the “international community”, may well, as a result, conclude with the termination of 1999’s UN Resolution 1244 under which Kosovo “must remain a part of Yugoslavia”. That means that for the first time since the end of the Yugoslav wars, a new Balkan border will be drawn along ethnic lines. We will have to wait and see what sort of an explosive charge this latest gambit by the “international community” holds. It may be quick and it will be fiery, in which case Anan may, in some fatal sense, turn out to be right: a “new phase” in the Balkans is indeed beginning.

*Andrej Grubacic is a historian and social critic from the Balkans. He can be reached at Zapata@mutualaid.org.

[iI wish to thank my dear friend Irina Ciric for her useful comments and for help with editing this article.

[ii] As British historian David Chandler correctly argues, “Bosnia requires a state, government and constitution which are the product of the Bosnian people’s engagement, interest and determination and I am not certain that this American suggested highest legal acts is the best solution. I think that the Americans are solving their own problems, not Bosnia’s, because the Americans and all the others involved in the work of the office of the High Representative for Bosnia try to avoid responsibility and blame for the state of affairs in Bosnia, for the terrible economic situation, and especially for the desire of the youth to leave the country and their alienation from the political process”.

[iii] Ahtisaari’s deputy is Austrian diplomat Albert Roan, also an expert in “Balkan stabilization”. In an interview with Austrian magazine Die Presse, Roan gave an overview of his mission to “Europe’s stone raft”: “We have to admit that the Europe of the 1990s betrayed the Balkans. We were unable to prevent war or extinguish crises. Europe did not exactly distinguish itself, but now we have a singular opportunity to once and for all stabilize the Balkans and the entire region, bringing the Balkans closer to the EU. Different obstacles stand in our way – Kosovo, the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro, the Bosnian situation. Its imperative that its protectorate regime be transformed into a normal governing state.” In Kosovo, “we have the opposite interests. We have to try to include the interests of the majority Albanian population in Kosovo, the Serbian population of Kosovo and Belgrade, and the interest of the international community in stability in the Balkans. The solution must not cause conflict. The problem arises if one side insists absolutely on its wishes. Then it will be difficult. One must be compromising. The solution must be lasting. It must be a guarantee of stability”.

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