Wary steps across the Balkans’ lingering divisions

By Harry van Versendaal

A number of good-will gestures by former Balkan war foes have created grounds for optimism about the future of Europe’s dodgiest neighborhood, but some analysts express caution about the region’s true prospects for reconciliation.

Some of the recent initiatives coming from Serbia and Croatia, the two regional heavyweights, have been impressive by the standards of this conflict-ridden area. Following a push by Serbia president Boris Tadic, the country’s parliament last month passed a landmark resolution condemning the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by Bosnian Serb forces in fields near the UN safe heaven of Srebrenica, seen as Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust. Although falling short of branding the events a genocide, the motion said Belgrade should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

Croatia followed suit as its president, Ivo Josipovic, expressed regret about his country’s involvement in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.

“There is significant development in the region in the direction of going back to normalcy, stability and peace,” says Ivan Vejvoda, head of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a non-governmental organization promoting good governance in southeast Europe.

“More has happened than people realize because the western Balkans are not in the news any more, because nothing dramatic is happening, thank God,” he says. Vejvoda likes to talk about the growth in business, trade, and mutual investment, about academic and cultural exchanges, pop culture, and reality shows attracting men and women from across the region. MTV Adria, a pan-Adriatic version of the popular network, broadcasts music from the different Balkan nations. There are more Serbian tourists visiting the Croatian coast as they did in the days of Yugoslavia, and Slovenian tourists can be seen strolling in the towns of Serbia. “The proverbial kind of approach says that in the Balkans people are quick to flare up and get into conflict but conversely they’re also very quick to calm down,” he says.

Political drive

Much of the credit for the recent rapprochement must go to the two presidents, Tadic and Josipovic, who have met three times in less than a month. “They are people who have not been involved in any way in the conflicts of the 1990s, they are people of similar character, and they both come from social democratic parties,” says Vejvoda, whose think tank organized one of the meetings.

Both presidents have pledged to withdraw the mutual genocide charges filed with the International Court of Justice over atrocities committed during the 1991-1995 war and reach an out-of-court settlement.

There is no doubt that a fair number of outstanding issues remain between the two countries: resolving the border dispute, the matter of returnees, the question of internally displaced people who came to Croatia from Serbia, and the issue of missing persons. But both sides, says Vejvoda, recognize that maintaining the status quo will benefit no one. “This new approach signals that they both want to address these issues directly and to start resolving them because this will facilitate further the strengthening of ties and because it will be conducive to European Union membership,” he says.

EU carrot

Most Balkan observers are ready to admit that little would have happened without the carrot of EU accession. “I doubt that the process would have been as bold or as relatively quick if not for the allure of EU membership,” says Svetozar Rajak, a historian at the London School of Economics.

Croatia, whose accession talks were blocked last year by Slovenia over a maritime border dispute, hopes to conclude negotiations with the EU this year so as to join the 27-member bloc in 2012. Josipovic has pledged that should Croatia join the union it will not veto Serbian membership, still a remote prospect.

But some analysts warn that Balkan governments should not rely too much on Europe. Croatian historian and politician Ivo Banac, for one, questions the extent to which Brussels is committed to the process. “Unfortunately, the EU is no longer serious about almost anything, least of all about Balkan issues,” he says.

Banac, sometimes described as “the political conscience of modern Croatia,” is skeptical about the process of Balkan reconciliation. “Neither the Serbian parliamentary resolution on Srebrenica nor President Josipovic’s statements in the Bosnian parliament go to the length of expected expressions of regret,” he says. He believes there can be little progress before the two states tackle the issue of Bosnia.

Bosnia, a dysfunctional ensemble of a state created by the Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war is made up of a Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and a Muslim-Croat Federation. The survival of Bosnia, already tormented by a toxic mix of de facto partition, corruption and populism, is further strained as the Bosnian Serb premier keeps flirting with the motherland across the border. Milorad Dodik this week warned that Bosnian Serbs will never accept that Srebrenica was genocide, saying the alleged death toll is “inexact.”

All that of course helps keep Bosnia away from the EU. Belgrade and Zagreb, however, are not without blame for the situation. “Serbia and Croatia created the conditions for Bosnia’s partition and collapse. All the consequences for its future arise from this fact, although this has not yet been acknowledged, much less publicly renounced,” says Banac.

“Unfinished space”

And, of course, there is Kosovo. Ever since the former Serbian province declared independence two years ago, Serbia has gone to lengths to prevent its international recognition. Belgrade considers Kosovo, the site of a historic defeat to the invading Ottoman army in 1389, its historic heart. It has also brought the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and a much-delayed ruling is expected later this year. It could also be a far-reaching one. “The future fate of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence will also have an impact on the international system as a whole,” says Rajak, and it is no coincidence that Serbia has found some powerful allies to support its cause – namely Russia, China and EU member Spain, all states preoccupied with their own uneasy minorities.

Banac insists that Bosnia is the main sticking point to stability and that Kosovo is merely “Serbia’s chip in this much larger game.” Serbia insists on its sovereignty over Kosovo, he says, not because it believes that it will ever gain control over the whole of Kosovo, but because it hopes it will get the Serb-dominated Mitrovica area in the north of the province. “Serbia hopes that this ‘mini partition’ of Kosovo will set a precedent for the ‘maxi partition’ of Bosnia. The ‘unfinished space’ of the Balkans remains a source of conflict.”

As always, burying the ghosts of the past will take a lot more than official apologies.

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