January 21, 2014
Sir Winston Churchill once remarked that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume”, not knowing of course what amount of devasting history they would produce at the end of the 20th century. Ever since the end of the shooting war, however, the former Yugoslavian countries saw an impressive peace process that is set to be complemented by another milestone as the EU opens the negotiations on Serbia’s accession on January 21st.
In World War I, Serbia fought on the part of the winning Triple Entente. According to the Treaty of Versailles and against its actual desire for a homogenous Serbian Kingdom, Belgrade was given the multiethnic Kingdom of Yugoslavia which included Serbs, Slovenians, Croats, Montenegrins, muslim Bosniacs, Albanian Kosovars and Hungarian Vojvodinans.
Stuck together by a strong hand – first the king, later dictator Josip Borz Tito – the tensions between the ethnics and central power in Belgrade rose continuously, until ultimately the multiethnic state could not withstand the pressure anymore and ended up in a brutal war in the 1990s with the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the last genocide on European ground, as its darkest hour.
Former Yugoslavia ended up in seven successor states with their arms at rest. But to this day many of the conflicts have not been compounded. Nationalism, especially in Serbia and Croatia, remain ubiquitous. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a deeply divided and de facto ungovernable state.
What’s more, the situation in Kosovo remains tensed. Both Serbia and the Kosovo reached an agreement, brokered by EU’s Catherine Ashton, in 2013. After all, local elections in November 2013 failed due to the resistance by the Serbs in Northern Kosovo.
Kosovo also will tip the scale for Serbia during the accession negotiations. Progress in that effort will depend on Serb willingness to keep its part of the bargain. That requires Belgrade that to this day claims the Kosovo as its own territory to pass laws that apply for Serbia only. Furthermore the negotiations with the EU must not endanger the convergence of both countries. To that end, all Kosovo relevant subjects will be dealt with in a separate chapter at the very end of the negotiations.
And even though it is not on the agenda today, many observers believe that at the latest than the question of Serbias recognition of Kosovos independence will reappear. To this day that is a taboo in the nationalistically driven political debate in Serbia.
After all the nationalism in Serbia remains deep-seated. That has become evident again with the current debate on Christopher Clarks study on the outbreak of the First World War, “The Sleepwalkers”. Clark is not explicitly dealing with the question of war guilt. However he focuses on Serbian history in the decades in advence of the war, the radicalisation and the cruel behaviour of the Serbian army in both Balkan wars.
That was enough for a great many of public figures, including the president and the prime minister, to publicly deny the allegations of Serbia’s war guilt. Even the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Emir Kusturica announce a documentary to deal with that question.
Today, the only way to rein in those forms of nationalism and to guarantee progress in the peace process, is the European perspective and the prospect of EU membership for Serbia and the other countries involved.
During the war in the 1990s the Union was standing apart while a brutal war was going right next door. Ever since the end of the war, however, the EU has become the most important actor in the establishment of peace on the Western Balkan – both with hard power (its engagement in the administration and peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo) and soft power (the prospect of European integration).
With Slovenia and Croatia, two successor states have already become members of the EU – Montenegro, now Serbia and presumably soon Macedonia are on their way. The full integration of former Yugoslavia will probably last for many years to come. After the German-French friendship, the overcoming of the dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece as well as the Iron Curtain, the last major task of the EU as a peace project. It is the only way to guarantee a peaceful and cooperative co-existence of the former Yugoslavian successor states.