Commentary

Delivering Serbs to the Wolves

The Balkans Wars may be over, but the European Union continues its biased attempt at geopolitical social engineering. As always, the principal victims are ethnic Serbs.

Serbia and Kosovo last month announced an agreement for Belgrade’s de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence. The parties have been squabbling over the pact’s implementation, but the delay likely is merely temporary.

The winners and losers are obvious. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic admitted: “I’m not saying that the agreement is good, but at this stage we could not get anything better.” The EU offered fulsome congratulations to itself for imposing the plan — by threatening to block Serbian accession to the organization. In fact, since intervening in the Balkans roughly two decades ago Europe and the U.S. have followed only one consistent policy: the Serbs always lose. Even if that meant acquiescing to human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing by the West’s allies.

The Balkans was an inadvertent casualty of the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia was an artificial creation out of World War I that united antagonistic ethnic groups. After World War II the threat of Soviet intervention helped hold Yugoslavia together. However, long-time dictator Josip Broz Tito died in 1980 and the Cold War ended a decade later. The country’s disintegration was accelerated by Slobodan Milosevic’s use of Serbian nationalism to gain power.

In 1990 nationalists won elections in various Yugoslav republics, which began declaring independence the following year. Civil war erupted in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Fighting in the latter was particularly vicious. Serb forces were brutal, but no side was innocent of atrocities. The West, however, preferred to see only Serbian crimes, intervening to impose the Dayton accords, which allowed ethnic Muslims and Croats in Bosnia to secede from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, but required ethnic Serbs to remain in Muslim-dominated Bosnia.

Allied policy toward Croatia was particularly grotesque. The West supported the anti-Semitic nationalist Franjo Tudjman, even training Croatian forces that conducted the largest campaign of ethnic cleansing — essentially wiping Serbs out of their historic homeland in Croatia’s Krajina region — until Kosovo. However, Washington and Brussels declined to criticize Zagreb for its atrocities. Years later the region remained scarred by war, dotted with wrecked homes, empty churches, and bullet-marked buildings, courtesy of allied policy.

Kosovo was the final piece of Yugoslavia to separate through war. The historic heartland of Serbian culture, Kosovo was transformed over the years, resulting in an ethnic Albanian majority. During local self-rule the minority ethnic Serb population suffered. When Milosevic reestablished central government control, ethnic Albanians suffered. The result was a violent struggle in which insurgents, described as “terrorists” by one U.S. diplomat, and security forces traded brutalities.

Although Western governments largely ignored mass slaughter in Africa, they declared their shock and horror at the deaths of hundreds of white Europeans. After unsuccessfully attempting to convince Belgrade to voluntarily cede control of Kosovo and give the allies free military access throughout Serbia, NATO launched its first war — against a country that had neither attacked nor threatened to attack any alliance member.

Unsurprisingly, the world’s most powerful military coalition ultimately won, though it took 78 days of bombing. Belgrade yielded control without conceding sovereignty.

Having gone to war to stop killing and reverse ethnic cleansing, NATO stood by as ethnic Albanians kicked out more than 200,000 Serbs, Roma, Jews, and others. In 2004 another round of Albanian-led violence ensued, as mobs destroyed the homes and churches of ethnic Serbs, creating additional refugees. 

Bloody revenge is not unusual after civil wars, but these crimes occurred on the West’s watch. The Council of Europe admitted that the allied intervention had “led to numerous human rights violations and [had] not produced lasting solutions for the underlying problems.” 

Nothing changed with the territory’s new leadership, which emerged from the Kosovo Liberation Army and was dogged by claims of war crimes and criminality. The Council of Europe called the KLA a “mafia-like” organization. Former international prosecutor Carla Del Ponte publicized allegations that the group had murdered civilian captives and sold their organs. The European Union recently launched a new investigation of these charges after five Kosovars were convicted of running an organ-trafficking operation. 

In fact, it took nearly a decade before even the allies believed that Kosovo was entitled to self-government. Nevertheless, there was never any doubt that the Western powers intended to formally separate the area from Serbia. 

“Negotiations” were initiated through the United Nations led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. However, the result was predetermined; the process was merely intended to set the terms of Belgrade’s surrender. Serbia refused to play along, however. Albanian Kosovars insisted on independence, with no complaint from the allies. Serbians proposed alternatives short of independence, and were charged with obstruction by the allies. In 2008 Pristina declared independence, which was promptly recognized by Washington and most European states.

There is nothing wrong with independence for Kosovo in principle. The vast majority of Kosovo’s residents wanted nothing more to do with Serbia. However, their desire for independence does not entitle them to rule over ethnic Serbs who want nothing to do with Kosovo.

When faced with ethnic Serbs seeking separation from Kosovo, Western officials professed their opposition to changing boundaries — after successively dismembering Yugoslavia and Serbia. The international Crisis Group noted “concerns about the impact border changes might have in Macedonia and Bosnia,” but there is no principled reason to force ethnic Albanians and Serbs, respectively, to remain in those states either. The West encouraged Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Kosovar Albanians to create their own nations out of polyglot Yugoslavia. To then wail about the instability that might result if Kosovar Serbs were allowed to formally join Serbia was ludicrous.

Roughly 120,000 ethnic Serbs remain in Kosovo. Many are spread throughout Kosovo’s south, but as many as 65,000 are concentrated in four counties around the city of Mitrovica north of the Irba River. These Serbs have steadfastly resisted Pristina’s control, aided by Belgrade. Why are they also not entitled to self-determination, which would allow them to remain in Serbia? Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), who supported Kosovo’s independence, recently opined: “There should be a vote” and if they chose “to become part of Serbia, they should.”

As of March, 99 countries had officially recognized Kosovo. But almost as many have said no, and Russia’s veto has kept Kosovo out of the UN. China and India also are opposed. Even five EU members — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain — number among the recalcitrant.

In 2011 ethnic Serbs violently resisted control by the Kosovo authorities as well as NATO troops and EU personnel acting for Pristina over border crossings into Serbia, leading to negotiations and Belgrade’s agreement to a system of “integrated border management” in late 2011. Only at the end of last year was implementation begun, but northerners then resisted the new regime, which accepted Kosovo’s formal border authority.

The border controversy encouraged the EU, most of whose members also are part of NATO, the aggressor in the 1999 war, to press for “normalization of relations” between Kosovo and Serbia. Germany, which bears unique responsibility for the Balkans bloodshed by offering early recognition of the breakaway Yugoslav states without any agreements for protecting ethnic minorities, took a lead role in this case as well. The carrot/stick was EU membership. Yet even if the June EU summit agreed to negotiations, membership isn’t likely to take effect until 2020.

As before, the results of the EU-led negotiations were predetermined: Belgrade had to offer de facto recognition of Kosovo and abandon any possibility of renegotiating boundaries to protect ethnic Serbs. Explained the International Crisis Group: “For Kosovo officials (and the EU), ‘normalization of relations’ — a main Brussels goal — connotes recognition in all but name. It implies not only improved bilateral ties, something closely resembling a normal state-to-state relationship, but also Serbian agreement to Kosovo’s eventual membership in the UN, the EU, and other international bodies, and cooperation in extending Kosovo institutions to the North.” In short, Belgrade’s surrender. 

Not that everyone viewed the concessions as sufficient. Columbia University’s David Phillips argued that acknowledging minimal Serbian rights of self-determination in this way “validates the violent nationalistic agenda of a ‘greater Serbia’ advanced by Slobodan Milosevic.” Apparently only ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are entitled to self-rule.

After Serbia resisted the EU diktat German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned: “An agreement on negotiations on Serbia joining the EU, which it would like to see this summer, will be significantly delayed if it does not reach a deal with Kosovo.” Indeed, Westerwelle threatened to support Kosovo’s EU application alone. “When one country [Kosovo] delivers results and another doesn’t, the one that is taking steps… must not be held responsible for the lack of good will by the other.” 

Moreover, it is widely suspected that Berlin will insist on formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia before agreeing to the latter’s entry. Serbs have unkindly tied Germany’s current policy to the Nazi occupation during World War II, when German forces cooperated with Croats to oppress Serbs.

The EU’s mix of sanctimony and hypocrisy is a flagrant case of “self-determination for me but not for thee.” Noted columnist Nebojsa Malic: “Belgium nearly split in two back in 2010, and may still do so at any time. Over a million Catalans recently marched demanding independence from Spain. Corsicans and Basques have been demanding independence for decades. The Scots are planning a referendum in 2014. Even in Germany, there have been noises about Bavaria being better off alone.” So why should ethnic-Serbs be forced to remain in Albanian-dominated Kosovo?

However, consistency never has mattered much in Brussels, or Washington for that matter.

Serbia finally agreed to EU demands. The resulting pact offers Serbian Kosovars limited autonomy over education, health care, and urban planning, as well as representation among judges and police. In return, Belgrade formally accepts Pristina’s overall control north of the Irba and ends Serbia’s support for local ethnic Serb institutions. The ethnic-Albanian leadership was ecstatic. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci declared that “The agreement is de jure, legal recognition by Serbia, which will open the way for Kosovo to join international organizations.” Full recognition seems inevitable. 

To those who argued that Serbia received substance for sacrificing symbolism, Malic observed, “all Serbia had was the symbolism.” The West used military force to amputate Kosovo from Serbia. However, observed Malic, “to actually make the seizure of Kosovo legitimate” Belgrade’s consent is necessary. The reward for doing so is EU membership and economic benefits, essentially a pay-off for which “Belgrade will be required to declare the rape consensual after the fact.” EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton declared that “People need to feel this is being done for them, not to them.” But for the last 20 years the West has consistently “done to” ethnic Serbs, wherever they lived.

Of course, the decision to surrender is up to Belgrade. Serbia obviously has tired of unremitting pressure from the EU and America. Last year Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said that he would sacrifice the EU “if they ask us to renounced a part of our territory: I’m referring to Kosovo.” But those sentiments obviously are not longer operative. Explained Vucic: “I could list many reasons to oppose the agreement but there is an important point in its favor. It is the only way for Serbia to survive, to exist and remain united in the search for a path to a better future.”

However, Belgrade’s consent doesn’t guarantee passive acquiescence in the north. Thousands of ethnic Serbs rallied in Mitrovica protesting the agreement. They also organized a demonstration in Belgrade. The pact was reviled as “surrender” and “betrayal.” In 2011, noted the International Crisis Group, local Serbs beat back “heavily-armed police units” from Pristina. They might resist again. If so, is NATO prepared to shoot local residents to support Pristina’s rule? NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that “NATO will continue to ensure a safe and secure environment throughout Kosovo.” But “safe and secure” for whom? Unfortunately, NATO has been more concerned about the authority of ethnic Albanians than the rights of ethnic Serbs.

Some Kosovars point to the status of ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo Valley. One Kosovo legislator argued: “If Belgrade wants more for the North, we need to see [more] on the ground in Presevo. Those standards of human and minority rights that Serbia applies in Presevo we will apply in the North.” That’s a reasonable request, but fairness suggests starting with the status of Serbs who are threatened with forcible detachment from their country. The Presevo ethnic Albanians want to change the status quo. The Kosovo Serbs have had the status quo changed against their wishes.

The Balkans has been one big foreign policy failure. The region never was of geopolitical significance to America, which should have left Europe to act as it wished. Most European leaders seemed to share Otto von Bismarck’s view that the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, so Washington had no reason to get involved.

Europe relied on the U.S. military to dismantle a nation while forcing disfavored ethnic minorities to remain under oppressive rule. When the inevitable human rights abuses, including ethnic cleansing, occurred, Brussels joined Washington in standing mute. Now the West responds with ostentatious hypocrisy when the Serb Kosovars seek to win the same rights as Albanian Kosovars.

It’s too late to remedy the geopolitical and humanitarian messes that have resulted. But if the Europeans desire a stable solution, they should encourage genuine negotiations among the new Balkans nations, Serbia, and remaining disaffected minorities. Reasonable border changes are the only means to ensure peace. Continuing to suppress the legitimate aspirations of ethnic Serbs throughout the Balkans risks renewed conflict.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.