Serbia's Choice


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5-Year Member
May 5, 2007

By Peter Zeihan

More than 15 weeks after Serbia's Jan. 21 national elections, time is running out for the various parties in parliament to form a majority coalition. Most Serb politicians do not see this as a problem. Serbian national pride is about to be crushed by Kosovo's imminent and inevitable independence, and no party is anxious to take part in the government, whose first act will be perceived as giving the province away. As such, the May 14 deadline for forming a government quite likely will slip on by, and such failure to act will open up a new election season.

Such an election season will be a continuation of the past four years of de facto Serb policies: denial. But this time such stubbornness could end with the demise of Serbia itself.

The Kosovo Impasse

It was not always like this.

The winner of most parliamentary seats in the 2003 elections was the Serbian Radical Party, a nationalist party that during the 1990s was the rabid junior partner in Slobodan Milosevic's ruling Socialist-Radical coalition. But this did not result in an isolationist government. In 2003, Milosevic was in The Hague for war crimes and most people in Belgrade felt the country was about to turn a corner and begin economically reintegrating with the rest of Europe. That impetus led the country's fractious pro-Western political parties to form a broad coalition in an attempt to bring Serbia in from the cold.


In 2007, the Radicals again won a majority of seats -- but this time around that feeling of imminent progress is nowhere to be found. After 18 years of ostracism from European culture, Serbs as a rule are impoverished, humiliated and demoralized. The international community appears poised to impose a final status on Kosovo that translates into de facto independence -- a devastating result to nearly a decade of diplomatic wrangling.

In 2003 there was a common feeling that, by putting aside their differences, the leading parties could push on to a brighter future; in 2007 no one wants to put aside their differences to become the government that oversees Kosovo's separation. The most likely result will be a fresh electoral season lasting about three months -- followed by the toughest decision a culture has to make: whether to swallow the collective pride and live on, or wallow in righteous indignation and risk dissolution.

Regardless of what one thinks of the rationale for the 1999 Kosovo war between Belgrade and NATO, pretty much everyone agrees on this: it not only hived off Kosovo from Serbia proper, but also definitively ended the Yugoslav wars. Those wars that raged first in Slovenia and later, and more infamously and furiously, in Croatia, Bosnia and ultimately Kosovo, claimed in excess of 300,000 lives and were the darkest chapter in European history since World War II. Most consider the Serbs -- primarily because of the actions of former Serb leader President Milosevic -- responsible for the majority of the carnage, but there is certainly plenty of blame to pass around.

After the Kosovo war the question became, what to do with Kosovo? The Europeans -- who only recently in historical terms had suppressed their own separatist regions -- were not prepared to allow yet another breakaway state in the Balkans. The Russians were furious that NATO had carried out the war without explicit U.N. Security Council (UNSC) approval. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration was belt-deep in its own concerns.

So the answer could be summed up in a single word: stall. Officially, the plan was to see whether a way could be found for the Serbs of Serbia and the Albanians of Kosovo to once again coexist under the roof of a single state. As the months turned into years the Kosovar Albanians' nothing-but stance hardened to match the Serbs' anything-but position on Kosovo independence.

Dealing with the Inevitable
But right from the beginning the writing was on the wall. NATO had, in essence, been lured into fighting the Kosovar Albanians' war of independence for them. Thus, shy of a direct pullout of NATO forces that would leave Belgrade's payback-desiring security forces responsible for Kosovo, there is nothing that can reverse the reality on the ground. U.N. Special Envoy to Kosovo Martti Ahtisaari said as much in his recommendations for Kosovo's future to the UNSC.

Since the beginning of 2006 the world has been largely marking time on the issue, waiting for the Serbs to prepare for Kosovo's inevitable independence. Considering that the Serbs do not want that day to come, however, their preparations -- institutional, political or cultural -- have been nonexistent. A decision and vote on a new constitution sans Montenegro were dragged on for months. The subsequent election campaign came and went, generating a stalemate in parliament that now appears intractable without new elections.

Moscow also is playing its diplomatic cards to delay the inevitable, up to and including brandishing its UNSC veto -- albeit more for its own reasons than for anything to do with Serbia or Kosovo. For at least the past century Moscow has promoted itself as the protector of Europe's Slavs in general and the Serbs in particular (even though for most of this time the majority Slavs have enjoyed more rights and a better standard of living than most Russians). The logic gives Moscow leverage in regions that have slipped beyond the levers of more traditional economic or military influence, and the tactic always provides good bargaining chips. In this case the Russians want to keep Western attention riveted as far from Russia's borders as possible until President Vladimir Putin can manage his transfer of power.

Sick of all these delays, the Kosovar leadership has proclaimed that it will declare independence by the end of the month. It is a bold and risky move -- but eminently achievable.

Statements out of the United States, NATO and the European Union over the past week can be boiled down to this: Russia should not stand in the way of Kosovar independence unless Moscow is prepared to take the blame for subsequent violence. The logic might be a bit backward -- no Serb-Kosovar split could be expected to be completely clean -- but the underlying point is direct: Kosovo will go its own way, and soon.

The Agonizing Choice
Though the global press will be focusing on the awkward emergence of the world's soon-to-be-newest state, the events of true importance will be evolving back in Belgrade. Against the backdrop of a forced divestiture of Kosovo, the Serbs will be in yet another election campaign. At this point predicting the outcome of such a campaign is impossible, but two things must be kept in mind.

First, the nationalists are phenomenally well-positioned. In the race that ended Jan. 21, the Radicals came in first with 80 seats; their campaign capitalized on fears that Kosovo was about to be taken away. With Kosovo being actively and formally ripped away from Belgrade, the Radicals in these next elections are almost certain to produce a stronger showing -- and could even garner a majority. Even now their power is rising: on May 8 an old Milosevic stalwart, Tomislav Nikolic, was selected to serve as the parliamentary speaker -- one step away from the presidency.

Second, for all practical purposes Serbia does not currently have a government, so it is impossible for Serbia as a state to make any decisions as to which path to take. But regardless of the result of the upcoming elections, Serbia must make a painful choice: It can tap its ample connections to Serb populations in Kosovo, Montenegro and, above all, the Serb-populated portions of Bosnia and push for a Serb resurgence -- trying to bring all the Serbs of the region into a single state. It can fight for Serbian heritage and pride and attempt to create a Greater Serbia. And, from a much weakened position it can trigger an outright war with a West that is larger, closer and more militarily capable than the West it stood against in 1995.

As a regional power, Belgrade is finished. From a Yugoslav height of 24 million people, rump Serbia only contains about 8 million. As Belgrade wallows in righteous indignation, roughly 10 percent of the Serb population has left in search of a brighter future elsewhere. Once the star of the region, Serbia has now fallen behind not only Hungary and Greece, but European laggards Bulgaria and Romania in terms of power, population, economic strength and even standard of living.

Fighting is always an option, but any decision by Belgrade to engage in hostilities in the Balkans now would bring about a conflict that -- at best -- would result in another lost decade (which is not to say the Serbians could not cause one colossal mess -- the damage in perennially unstable Bosnia next door could be particularly catastrophic). Serbia has lost ground, literally, on all of its recent conflicts, and its viability as a state would be called into question if it were to lose ground again. Pursuing such a self-destructive course seems foolish, but more than one culture in Europe's past has faded into history for refusing to acknowledge the inevitable.

Alternatively, the Serbs could abandon their claim to their ancestral homeland of Kosovo. They could silently allow themselves to be reduced to a rump state and stand humiliated and defeated in front of the world for the fifth time in the past 15 years. In essence, they can swallow their wounded pride, accept their crushing defeat and walk away from the past into a future heavily shaped by an institution that defeated them in war.