The European Union is right to give Serbia small rewards now—and to withhold big rewards until Serbs begin to emulate the Germans’ post-Nazi evolution. American critics who brand this month’s initialing of a low-level EU-Belgrade agreement as appeasement are wrong. Here’s why.
The EU’s forthcoming assumption of tutelage of Kosovo will be the most ambitious attempt at common European foreign and defense policy to date. What the Europeans are about to do—after almost two years of adamant Serbian refusal to turn today’s de facto United Nations protectorate in Kosovo into a de facto EU protectorate—is to force this change on Belgrade.
Shifting to what the Europeans call “supervised independence,” what the Kosovar Albanians call only “independence,” and what the Serbs will still call formal (if unexercised) Serbian sovereignty over their erstwhile province, is set to occur at an international conference in January. The United States and then 25 or even 26 of the EU’s 27 member states will recognize the new Kosovar status as the Pristina Assembly passes the legislation it has already promised to pass guaranteeing the rights of the small Serb minority in the new state.
The West’s standpoint—in this the Americans and Europeans are united—is that the government of strongman Slobodan Milosevic forfeited forever Belgrade’s right to govern both Bosnia and Kosovo when Serb forces murdered close to 8000 unarmed Bosniaks at Srebrenica in 1995 and expelled more than half of Kosovo’s 90-percent Albanian population from their homes in 1999. The violent ethnic cleansing in the province triggered NATO intervention, the forced retreat of all Serb armed forces from Kosovo, and establishment of today’s UN administration there under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The intent now is for the West to reinterpret 1244 in a way that will facilitate the transition to EU oversight without requiring a new Security Council resolution that would be subject to a Russian veto.
Where the Europeans differ from Washington, however, is in wanting to avoid fueling any stab-in-the-back myth among resentful Serbs comparable to the myth that arose in Germany after its defeat in 1918 and helped bring Hitler to power. The Europeans see the Serbs as especially prone to such self-pity and thirst for revenge in their self-identification as both the rightful Balkan hegemons but also the special victims in Balkan history. Some language of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia and of ultranationalists in the largest Serb party, the Radicals, reflects this double vision.
Here the contrast with the post-World War II Germans comes in. Initially, many Germans conveniently forgot the popular support for Hitler, blamed all the crimes on the Fuehrer, and exonerated themselves. Yet a younger generation of Germans successfully challenged such defensiveness and moved their countrymen to redefine self-interest away from lethal chauvinism to post-nationalist European cooperation. In the past half-century the Germans have not only paid some $100 billion to victims as token recompense. They have also accepted a much broader moral responsibility for Nazi atrocities, even though by now most of them are too young to have been implicated in them.
Today many Serbs argue, in the vein of Germans in the early 1950s, that recent Serb atrocities in ex-Yugoslavia were all Milosevic’s fault, and that they should not be punished for his acts. Only a few, mostly younger Serbs, argue explicitly that they must follow the German example in accepting responsibility (as distinct from personal guilt) for that barbarity.
The Serbs’ imminent “loss” of Kosovo could make such reorientation more difficult, however. If the Serb political class will soon be forced to admit that it has lost Kosovo, asks one German diplomat, “what could make it easier for the Serbs so they do not have to commit suicide?…We should do everything to avoid creating martyrs to weep over for many years to come.”
Part of the EU’s answer to this conundrum has been to emphasize its offer of eventual EU membership to Belgrade by initialing that first small step of a Stabilization and Association Agreement that has aroused American criticism. (The actual signing of the SAA still awaits Serbian extradition of Ratko Mladic, the commanding Serb general at Srebrenica, to the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.) The hope is that the fait accompli of Kosovo’s “supervised independence,” followed by a period of non-confrontation with Serbia, might then enable a young Serb generation to imitate that postwar German generation and move past ultranationalism to more sensible Europeanization and globalization.
This is not appeasement. It’s prudence.
Elizabeth Pond was the founding editor of the transatlantic edition of Internationale Politik and a correspondent for US newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance (2003) and Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style (2006).
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Marco Overhaus on Twelve Years after Dayton: Europe and the Western Balkans
- Antonio Cassese advocates a Confederation for Kosovo
- Nikolas Gvosdev asks Will Kosovo End the Transatlantic Honeymoon?
- Ulf Gartzke on Kosovo: The Next Transatlantic Clash?