Interesting Times

Spring in the Balkans

News from the Balkans over the past week almost created the impression that this was just another ordinary region in the Empire’s periphery, where local rustics practice entertaining eccentricities and cope with natural disaster. The greatest flood in 100 years along the Danube has attracted a lot of attention, as has the discovery of a "pyramid" in central Bosnia by amateur archaeologists.

The publication of a 250-page report, compiled by Croat and U.S. intelligence and warning that al-Qaeda is recruiting in the Balkans, almost came in under the radar. After all, this wasn’t news; numerous sources have alleged and documented this activity for years, only to be ignored or dismissed as "pro-Serb." There’s Islamic terrorism in the Balkans? Quick, outlaw the term "Islamic terrorism"!

Yes, the region may seem quiet, but the calm is relative and deceiving. Albanians are determined to achieve control of Kosovo, and perhaps beyond. Montenegro’s ruling clique is desperately pushing for secession, with less than a month left before a referendum decides its political future. And in Bosnia, seemingly unimpressive constitutional reforms may open doors to omnipotent government the likes of which even that country has not seen before.

Easter in Kosovo

As beleaguered and besieged Kosovo Serbs gathered in their enclaves to celebrate Easter this Sunday, they could not escape the occupied province’s politics, even on this holiest of Christian holidays. The head of the provisional Albanian government, former KLA leader and Croatian officer Agim Ceku, had asked to attend the service in Gracanica – a request politely but categorically denied by Bishop Artemije.

With the KLA responsible for the fact that the bishop and so many Serbs have become refugees in their own homeland, letting Ceku use Easter as proof of political correctness and "tolerance" toward Serbs would have been grossly inappropriate. But where Ceku failed, the Albanian "president" of Kosovo, Fatmir Sejdiu, succeeded; Bishop Teodosije allowed Sejdiu to visit the monastery Visoki Decani, and one Kosovo Serb leader praised the precedent.

The diametrically opposite decisions of the two bishops mirror the division in Serbia when it comes to Kosovo. Even the leaders of Kosovo Serbs are divided; while Oliver Ivanovic praised Sejdiu’s visit, his colleagues Rada Trajkovic, Marko Jaksic, and Milan Ivanovic claimed that the UN and WHO have been planning to evacuate some 40,000 Serbs from the occupied province once it became independent (and Albanian).

Their claim was denied by both the UN and WHO. However, even the province’s international occupiers agree that Serbs won’t survive long in an independent, Albanian Kosovo:

"The more vulnerable and isolated [Serb] enclaves will be emptied within one to two years. … I give [North] Mitrovica and the other entirely Serbian-populated areas to the north 10 years at the most."

Albanians insist the independence is inevitable, and a chorus of voices in the West backs up that assertion. There are murmurs that Albanians in southeastern Serbia (Presevo, Bujanovac), eager to win special status – or even annexation to the expected independent "Kosova" – are considering resorting to violence again. The game is afoot, and the plot thickens by the day…

Toil and Trouble

Meanwhile, the Western editorial propaganda apparatus has already begun lining up behind the Montenegrin separatist cause. Marcus Tanner, a journalist for The Independent and IWPR and Croat hagiographer, recently offered a sympathetic account of how the poor Montenegrins are "hostages" to Serbia, just like "everyone in the Balkans," and how they are determined to win their "freedom" despite the opposition from Brussels.

In truth, the separatists could not have stayed in power for eight years without generous financial backing from the outside – primarily from Washington. And Brussels may have declared a preference for a joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, but has treated the two as separate nations in practice.

Tanner says the Montenegrin authorities are acting as if the secession were a done deal. However, at least part of it is bravado in face of somewhat different reality. The New York Times‘ Nicholas Wood finds Montenegrins divided on the issue, sometimes down to husbands and wives. And the Italian AKI news service reports that, with the separatists 10 percentage points short of the majority they need, yet another film showing them trying to buy votes has surfaced. Furthermore, the government was outraged when a delegation of pro-union politicians who visited Washington last week was actually received by U.S. officials. Until now, only the separatists enjoyed access in Washington’s circles of power.

With the referendum scheduled for May 21, the next 25 days will be anything but calm.

A Trojan Constitution

On Tuesday afternoon, the joint parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina was supposed to adopt a set of constitutional reforms that, though relatively innocuous, could have major repercussions for the country’s future.

Paradoxically, even as they seek to streamline government for greater efficiency, the reforms actually increase the size of the government and the number of bureaucrats, supposedly only temporarily. And while most changes are minor, they contain the equivalent of the U.S. "commerce clause" that could unleash centralization – "a legislative Trojan horse if ever there was one," as even the pro-reform, pro-Empire Transitions Online described it.

Another irony is that the reforms brought out sharp divisions among the Bosnian Muslims ("Bosniaks"). Wartime Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic emerged from his hideaway in Turkey to organize opposition to the reforms. His "patriotic bloc" consists of demagogues, rejects, and has-beens of Muslim politics over the past decade, and while condemned by the Muslim establishment (including the Islamic clergy), commands great attention in the media.

Silajdzic’s criticism of the reforms plays the crudest nationalist card, claiming that only he and his are defending "Bosnia," and everyone else is plotting to destroy it. To counter it, Muslim politicians have had to trumpet their "patriotic" credentials; that has inevitably meant denouncing the Serbs and Croats. According to Transitions Online:

"For years, the Bosniak leadership has pretended that the issue – how to bring the Serbs and Croats who are alienated from Bosnia back into the political fabric of their country – didn’t exist, or that it was the fault of Serbs and Croats to begin with."

Desperately in need of a "reality check," the Muslims are now reverting to this fiction instead, thanks to Silajdzic’s demagoguery. If the constitutional reforms really result in a bigger, stronger central government, this will not bring peace to Bosnia’s feuding communities. Quite the contrary: it will provide a massive bone of contention and promote more fighting.

The "Chinese" Curse

Robert F. Kennedy once mentioned what he said was a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." With the political winds in the Balkans gathering into a storm, this will certainly be an interesting spring.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.