In Death Ground

The warmed-over Cold War continues: this week, Moscow booted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing the agency of unacceptable interference in Russian sovereignty. Washington countered with claims that USAID has promoted only "civil society, democracy [and] human rights" and that "the United States is extremely proud of what USAID has accomplished in Russia over the last 20 years." (CNN)

Meanwhile, something might be happening on the Balkans front, where the Empire has relied on Germany to manage things. On September 7, NATO’s occupation force (KFOR) got a new commander: Maj. Gen. Volker Halbauer, the fourth German in a row to hold the post. When the news of his appointment emerged in August, local media quoted German reports alleging that his predecessor, Gen. Drews, had been too reluctant to use force against the Serb civilians resisting attempts to put them under Albanian rule.

Just a few days later, the self-appointed "International Steering Group" decided to shut down its "International Civilian Office"- a body set up under the moribund Ahtisaari Plan to oversee the "independence" of the occupied province, proclaimed in 2008. The move had no practical consequences, but it allowed the Empire to continue pretending Kosovo was an independent state.

On September 11, Serbia’s Deputy PM Aleksandar Vucic visited Berlin and signed an energy deal with German energy conglomerate RWE. But three days later, a German parliamentary delegation sank any illusions of good will between Berlin and Belgrade, when Andreas Shokenhoff, a leading parliamentarian of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party, reiterated Germany’s position that Serbia would have to recognize Kosovo as an independent state before it could even hope to begin negotiations for possibly joining the EU some day.

The German Ultimatum

Though his reelection in February 2008 was the signal the Empire waited for to declare Kosovo independent, former president Boris Tadic lied his way into power in the parliamentary poll later that year by promising the Serbs "both Kosovo and the EU." He then pursued the policy of gradually capitulating to Empire’s demands, while refusing to surrender outright – judging, correctly, that this could provoke unrest with potentially fatal consequences for his regime and him personally.

Four years later, Tadic had run out of lies – the remaining Serbs in Kosovo rejected his authority, while Brussels and Washington dispensed with promises altogether, demanding unconditional obedience instead. Having stolen the parliamentary election, he nonetheless lost the presidential vote to Tomislav Nikolic, former nationalist reinvented as a "progressive." Nikolic seemed all too willing to continue Tadic’s policy of smiling and nodding while the Empire had its way – but Washington and Berlin had grown too impatient.

Shokenhoff’s statement was hardly shocking by itself; Berlin and Washington and Brussels have been saying things to that effect for years. But between their spin doctors and Tadic’s, the issue had become so obfuscated that Nikolic was able to pretend no problem existed when he visited Brussels in June. This latest statement left no more room for misinterpretations, though: Germany demanded of Serbia to sign a "binding agreement" on establishing "good neighborly relations" with the so-called state of Kosovo. No ifs, ands or buts.

Sun Tzu’s Advice

This entirely predictable attempt to force Nikolic down the path of capitulation from which he could not turn back, however, has also managed to stir Serbia from the EUphoric stupor the previous governments had deliberately induced.

Even as the mainstream media – much of it owned by Germans – relished in outlining the stark choice, implying that even considering rejection of Brussels was unthinkable, the alternative media embraced the newfound clarity with previously unseen energy. When the newspapers mentioned the question – "Kosovo or Europe" – could be put to a referendum, someone responded with a tweet that quickly went viral: "The referendum was in 1389."

A passage in Sun Tzu’s Art of War offers the following advice: "In difficult ground, press on; On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge; In death ground, fight." For years, Serbia’s quisling governments pressed on and pretended to use subterfuge; now it has been forced into death ground. The question now is whether Nikolic, or any of his advisors, have read Sun Tzu.

The Plot Thickens

This is where something doesn’t quite fit, however. Whatever else the Germans may be, they are not stupid. Why would Berlin – or Washington, for that matter – abandon a strategy that has so far produced nothing but success: stringing Serbia along with empty promises, while whittling it slowly down? Why now?

Perhaps they think Nikolic has credibility from his "ultranationalist" days. But that’s a dangerous assumption; he came to power on a wave of popular resentment against Tadic, not personal charisma or fanatical devotion. The Serbs have never been gentle towards the leaders they considered traitors. So why push Nikolic into a situation where he’d have to risk his life – and gain noting in exchange – all of a sudden?

Pieces That Don’t Fit

It is entirely possible that Berlin and Washington feel Serbia is sufficiently weak. Tadic’s Democrats did precisely what Mitt Romney’s recently leaked speech claimed Obama’s Democrats were doing in the US: creating a constituency entirely dependent on government. To support the ever-growing state apparatus, they’d systematically plundered the Serbian economy, while also borrowing heavily. At the same time, eager to please the EU, they further destroyed the domestic tax base by unilaterally implementing the SAA and flooding Serbia with subsidized imports. Now the money is running out, and the new government has to find a source of funding somewhere, or else it won’t be able to pay the dependents – or the police that stand between them and the dependents’ wrath.

The catch, however, is that Nikolic has already found a willing patron – in Moscow. While Vucic was in Germany, Nikolic was in Sochi, talking with his Russian counterpart. Unlike the EU, Russia has money – and the terms it is offering Serbia are far better than the ones offered by Berlin or the IMF.

Insisting on Kosovo makes no sense for the EU, either. Between the economic crisis and the Pristina precedent (which is supposedly not applicable anywhere else solely because the bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington say so), Europe is dealing with separatist issues of its own. Belgium nearly split in two back in 2010, and may still do so at any time. Over a million Catalans recently marched demanding independence from Spain. Corsicans and Basques have been demanding independence for decades. The Scots are planning a referendum in 2014. Even in Germany, there have been noises about Bavaria being better off alone. If Serbia is successfully broken and forced to recognize the separation of Kosovo, this could unleash an avalanche of other secessions.

Germany’s Gambit?

Finally, it is worth noting that Berlin and Moscow have recently bypassed the American "cordon sanitaire" in Eastern Europe to establish an energy partnership. Is that a sign of hostility, or something else? Could it be that Berlin’s ultimatum –much like Rambouillet in 1999, or the Austro-Hungarian note from July 1914 – was meant to be rejected?

That policymakers in Washington operate inside a virtual reality has already been established. Their impressions of Serbia come entirely from their media and NGO agents – people who have repeatedly shown a remarkable willingness to make things up. The current ploy to force Belgrade to submit could be a simple product of misguided reasoning. But it could also be a case of Berlin elegantly sabotaging Washington’s efforts to control Europe and Russia, using the Balkans satellites as pawns and ceding that corner of the continental chessboard to Moscow. After all, in Europe – and especially in the Balkans – nothing is quite what it appears to be.

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.