Tag Archives: Croatia

Western Balkans in 2010: small improvements and big scandals

The Western Balkans, as a region in transition, are prone to bouts of activity, and are rarely out of the news. The past year was no exception. Several events stood out – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in July 2010, expressing its opinion that this move was not against international law; former Croatian president Ivo Sanader was accused of corruption; the current Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hasim Thaci, was implicated in an illegal organ smuggling racket in a Council of Europe report, whilst Kosovo held its first elections since independence; Schengen visas were waived for Bosnia and Albania and Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, resigned.  Some minor but significant events also took place: Serbia and Turkey signed a visa waiver agreement and in Serbia itself, a spate of arrests and anti-corruption investigations against high profile public figures took place, and the government officially approached the INTERPOL to seek assistance with two remaining war crimes suspects, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. At the same time, the leading Serbian daily, Politika, opened up the debate on pros and cons of Serbia’s NATO membership.

With the exception of fraud and smuggling allegations, the developments in the region have been, on the whole, positive. Importantly, they indicate that important changes are taking place in the formerly war-torn and unstable region, and most of those are geared towards Euro-Atlantic integration. The prospect of EU membership particularly, has long been a catalyst for change in the Western Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina where it is deemed to be the only common goal of a still ethnically divided population. But, as events of 2010 indicate, changes in the region are starting to take place much faster than they used to. Serbia, for example, has been criticised for its slow, reluctant and often non-existent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but in the space of two years, has achieved a much more positive progress report from chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.  Serbia, for its part, has finally taken the process of EU integration seriously, complying with its war crimes conditionality in a much more serious (if not altogether productive) way.

Similarly, the commitment and readiness of Croatia and Serbia at tackling corruption is a strong indicator that politics in both countries are finally maturing and are approaching something that we may expect in a stable, European democracy.  For decades, corruption across the Balkans has been endemic, reaching the highest echelons of power. The sudden flurry of activity at tackling corruption amongst the business elite marks a very important change in the governance of the region. Thanks to a serious commitment a transparency and democracy, the region in general, but Serbia in particular, is finally demonstrating that it is starting to overcome its legacies of conflict and Communism.

Of course, not all developments in the past year have been positive as the case of Kosovo demonstrates. The elections of 12 December 2010 are still marred by accusation voting irregularities, and it is believed that only two Serbs out of an estimated 60,000 in Kosovo’s disputed northern territory, turned out to vote. Only days later, a Council of Europe report dealing with the grotesque case of organ smuggling (implicating Serbs from Kosovo), raised serious allegations against the current Prime Minister Hasim Thaci. The report raised tensions between Serbia and Kosovo – Thaci denied all allegations, whilst the Serbian leaders and media responded angrily to the report and threatened to suspend any future Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. However, only days later, the Serbian President Boris Tadic responded in  a much more measured way that the dialogue will continue. The report will be considered in detail by the Council of Europe in January 2011.

Despite this, the region has demonstrated that, it is perfectly capable of working together to solve its main obstacles of EU integration. Cooperation between states has certainly improved as has the political will to tackle corruption. This bodes well for 2011. Although the road to EU membership has been long and does not look like it will end any time soon, the prospect of candidacy has spurred on some real changes in the region this year, demonstrating that when the political elite is mature and understands the importance of change, huge leaps can be made in cooperation and improved relations in a relatively short time.

This trend of small improvements spurned on by prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration, looks set to continue in the next year. The case of Hasim Thaci will continue to mar regional politics until it is finally resolved,  but if Kosovo demonstrates real commitment to the case and takes it as seriously as Croatia has the Sanader case, then the prospects are positive, demonstrating that Kosovo is well on its way to becoming a serious player in regional politics. If, however, Kosovo authorities dispute the case before its ultimate conclusion, this will only agitate Serbia and Republika Srpska (Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina), potentially also drawing in others into the argument and threatening to undo all the current progress on regional cooperation.

Serbia, Croatia and the Question of Reconcilliation

On 4 November 2010, Serbian President Boris Tadic paid a historic visit to Croatia. More specifically, Tadic visited Vukovar, the infamous site of battle in the Croatian war of 1991-1995. During his visit, Tadic became the first Serbian leader to publicly and officially apologise for the murder of 260 Croats by Serb forces in 1991. Tadic stated he wished to ‘share words of apology, to express our sympathy, to create the possibility for Serbs and Croats…to turn a new page in history.;

Tadic’s visit was deemed to be so monumental that it was broadcast by all major news agencies, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Associated Press. European leaders heaped praise on Tadic’s apology, and observers commented that this could be the long-awaited start of a difficult reconciliation process between the two countries.

In Serbia however, Tadic’s apology has received a mixed reaction. Mainstream media outlets and internet commentators have been quick to point out that ‘other’ sides have not responded in a satisfactory manner to the war crimes committed against Serb civilians in 1991-1995, and as a result, Tadic should not extend any apologies in this regard.

Tadic’s apology follows the Serbian Parliament’s April 2010 ‘Declaration on Srebrenica’, a much discussed piece of legislature condemning the Srebrenica massacre – the first such act that Serbia has delivered unequivocally. Prior to this, official Serbia has been slow to recognize acts of war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, save for visits to the Srebrenica commemoration and an apology to Bosnian Muslims by President Tadic (which had no parliamentary backing), and a handful of attempts by liberally minded MPs to push through legislation.  There have been suggestions that Serbia’s recent attempts at transitional justice, as well as the 2008 arrest of long time fugitive and Hague indictee Radovan Karadzic, have only been carried out as a result of international pressure and Serbia’s EU integration hopes. With this, there is also an implications that Serbia is a country ‘stuck in the past’ and unable to move on from its nationalist legacy, which may be true for some more extreme political parties, but applied to Serbia as a whole, this oversimplifies a very complex process of reconciliation.

Furthermore, as most scholars on reconciliation and transitional justice would point out, the process of understanding atrocities of the past and bringing the perpetrators to justice involves all sectors of the society. Hence, legislation and presidential apologies are not enough to kick-start a process of reconciliation, which must also take place within the civil society. However, considering Serbia’s difficulties with the question of war crimes and reconciliation in general, and its previous reluctance to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in particular, the recent declaration and apology do mean a lot.

Since the assassination of reform-oriented prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Serbia has lacked a leader with both vision and capability of taking forward the war crimes question. President Tadic, who has for a long time lacked influence and power needed to not only arrest fugitive war criminals but also to open the war crimes debate, has finally been able to use his position to influence the course of reconciliation.   Although all sectors of civil society do need to be in broad agreement about the aims of reconciliation for this to be a meaningful process, the Serbian civil society at last has a leading figure for this exercise.  This kind of reconciliation may at the moment be motivated by EU integration, but as long as political leaders in the country are keeping the war crimes question visible and active in Serbia, this is not an altogether detrimental process.