Serbia Gets Bushed


As former Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden once said: ‘in diplomacy, words are bullets.’ US President George W Bush’s blunder on Kosovo’s future has already had repercussions.

The West favours Kosovo’s independence, but UN talks on the subject have been slow. ‘In terms of a deadline [for the end of UN talks], there needs to be one it needs to happen,’ Bush said in Rome on 9 June.

The next day, in the Albanian capital, Tirana, where he was given a spectacular hero’s welcome, Bush suddenly realised his mistake. ‘First of all, I don’t think I called for a deadline. I thought I said (timetable),’ the President said, while meeting the Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha. Reminded that he had, indeed, called for a deadline, Bush tried to recover: ‘What exactly did I say? I said œdeadline ? OK Then I meant what I said.’

The Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav KoÅ¡tunica was outraged. He immediately issued a statement declaring that Serbs were ‘rightfully embittered’ by the US President’s remarks. The US ‘has no right to give away Serbia’s territory to Albanians,’ he thundered.

‘America must find another way to show its affection and love for the [Kosovar] Albanians, without offering them Serb territories,’ KoÅ¡tunica told Serbian national television.

Some may wonder why Serb outrage matters. It was, after all, the Serbs under Slobodan MiloÅ¡evià who, in the late 1980s, reduced the autonomy of Kosovo with its Albanian majority, most of whom are Muslims. It was the Serbs who indulged in ethnic cleansing of Yugoslav Muslims during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. And it was Serbs who repeated their ethnic cleansing tactics, this time of Kosovo’s Muslims in the 1990s, which led, ultimately, to their losing control of Kosovo in 1999.

George W Bush in Albania.

The Albanians, who gave Bush a rock star’s welcome in Tirana, remember that history very well. They also remember two other US Presidents, with enormous gratitude: Woodrow Wilson refused to allow Britain, France and Italy to divide Albania among themselves after World War I; and Bill Clinton sent in the forces which ended Serbia’s reign of terror in Kosovo in the 1990s.

But events have moved on. Under Koštunica, Serbia is diligently seeking membership of the European Union. If successful, that venture would require Serbia to live by modern civil standards, something it has spectacularly failed to do in the recent past.

KoÅ¡tunica is regarded as pro-Western in his outlook, however, the dark forces of Serbian ultranationalism have not disappeared. As recently as last month, the Serbian Parliament elected Tomislav Nikolià , the leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party, as its Speaker. This followed a string of physical attacks in Serbia against people who favour Kosovo’s independence, causing Serbia’s pro-Western President, Boris T adià , to warn in April that a return to the days of violence and turmoil that existed under MiloÅ¡evià is still possible.

KoÅ¡tunica finally engineered a new power-sharing deal in the Parliament, which excluded that country’s vicious ultra-nationalists making Nikolià ‘s time as Speaker (8-13 May) the shortest in history. And the EU is optimistic enough to declare that its talks on Serbia’s possible membership should continue despite this.

Then there’s the fact that two Serb military commanders, Ratko Mladià and Radovan Karadžià wanted for war crimes committed in the 1990s during the Bosnian War are still at large. That, too, is an obstacle to Serbia’s bid for EU membership, because they are, undoubtedly, being sheltered by Serbia’s ultra-nationalists.

KoÅ¡tunica’s Government has declared that it is working assiduously towards their arrest, and war crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponti, accepts that, saying she expects a major arrest ‘within three months.’

Meanwhile, the US and Britain are working hard in the UN towards independence for Kosovo despite strong opposition from both Serbia and Russia.

Serbia regards Kosovo as an integral part of its historic heartland, even though ethnically Albanian Muslims now clearly outnumber Serbia’s Orthodox Christians in the area. The UN wants the Serbs and Kosovars to reach agreement on independence amongst themselves, even though that seems, now, to be most unlikely. Progress on the matter has been glacial at best. But the UN’s hopes are not yet dead a vote is scheduled within weeks.

France’s new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed at the recent G8 meeting that those involved in the continuing stand-off over Kosovo be given an extra six months to settle their differences.

KoÅ¡tunica clearly wants to put Serbia’s dark history behind it and lead his nation into the path of peace and prosperity, which EU membership represents.

The US President’s clumsy remarks won’t help. They will also set back already difficult relations between Russia and the West. That country’s prickly President, Vladimir Putin, has shown some unexpected diplomatic skills in recent weeks (especially with regard to the US missile defence threat). But he has also shown that he will not be humiliated.

The Russians have strong blood ties with the Serb nationalists, and Putin would certainly not like to see Serbia, one of Russia’s firmest allies, go West.

If ever skilled diplomacy were needed, this is the time. Nothing is more dangerous, in diplomacy, than loose talk.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.