The West must not just abandon the Balkans to Russia’s embrace6 April 2018 | 04:33 | The Guardian
This proposal, made by the youth wing of Milošević’s Socialist party (now back in government in Belgrade), tells us much about the state of politics in Serbia and the wider Balkans. To the west, Milošević – who died in 2006 while on trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague – was a war criminal; to many Serbs he was not only that but also the man who oversaw a collapse in living standards, the isolation of Serbia and the loss of swaths of territory that had once been majority Serb.
Honouring the man appears to make little sense. But a substantial proportion of Serbs now see him as a positive symbol of rejection of the west and the championing of Serbia’s national interests.
I knew Milošević better than most foreigners did – I met him many, many times during negotiations to end the war in Bosnia and prevent it in Kosovo – and there is no doubt the man had charm and charisma. But it would be hard for any objective analyst to say that the results he achieved for his country and the region deserved his immortalisation in bronze. What’s going on?
There is now a clear fault line running from Belgrade to Sarajevo to Skopje – and indeed beyond, to Budapest and Warsaw. The new division is between those who believe their best hope for peace and prosperity lies in joining the rules-based, international organisations of the European Union and Nato, and those who base their hopes on the pursuit of narrow national interest and a romantic interpretation of the past.
This latter group bridles at the endless demands the EU makes on accession states, and prefers the elasticism of the Moscow model – governments headed by strong men, supported by more strong men, where the corruption is reasonably discreet and the people are kept stupefied by a drip-feed of chauvinism.
Understandably, Moscow has an interest in promoting the interests of this second group. Russia makes little secret of the fact that it will do what it takes to ensure the Orthodox Christian countries of former Yugoslavia do not join Nato but remain as a wedge between Greece and its Nato allies to the north. This is what lay behind the alleged attempt to assassinate Milo Djukanović, former president and prime minister of Montenegro, to prevent him leading his little country into Nato in 2016; behind the equally crude attempts to prevent Zoran Zaev from taking power from the pro-Russian nationalists in Macedonia in 2017; and also behind the endless courting of Milorad Dodik, the nationalist president of the Serbian bit of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, who appears to spend more time in Moscow taking tea with Putin than in Banja Luka, his seat of government.
Washington and London are making a mistake in abandoning this part of Europe and putting earlier achievements at risk. Even the White House, hardly a hotbed of anti-Russian prejudice, said on 14 March: “Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit western democratic institutions and processes.”
Milošević’s legacy value to Moscow lies not in his disastrous and discredited leadership of his country but in his perceived status as someone who stood up to the west (even though those who knew him understood that few Balkan politicians were as pro-American and anti-Russian as Milošević). That is why a statue in the heart of Belgrade would be a poke in the eye to Serbia’s pro-EU forces and a rallying point for Moscow’s supporters. It is no surprise that the leading advocate of the statue is Serbia’s current foreign minister and former spokesman of Milošević, Ivica Dačić, a notably russophile member of the Serbian cabinet and a man his Russian counterpart saw fit, on a recent visit to Belgrade, to decorate with the Russian Order of Friendship. Dačić’s response was a renewed commitment never to join in sanctions against Russia or to seek membership of Nato.
By contrast to this warm, backslapping, no-strings bromance between Russia and Serbia, the west appears scarcely present in the former Yugoslavia. EU membership is held out as a constantly receding chimera that will solve the problems of the candidate countries’ economic problems of low growth, high unemployment and high youth emigration. The EU’s constant demands for the candidates to make painful and difficult political and economic changes in return for jam tomorrow wins few friends. And beyond this the EU does not appear to have any plan for the region, seemingly abandoning it to the warm embrace of Russia.
It is a testament to the region’s sense of European identity that, despite the playing field being steeply tilted against them, the outward-looking, liberal forces are able to make progress. In Macedonia the charismatic Zaev is gaining increasing support for his progressive, anti-nationalist message of reconciliation with Greece, membership of Nato and the EU and equality for all citizens. And in Dačić’s own party, Saša Antić promotes a vision of a youthful, progressive Serbia enjoying the closest possible relationship with the west, a vision that won him friends amongst Britain’s parliamentarians when he visited the UK last month.
One cannot help wondering how these forces would fare if countries like the UK and US were less preoccupied with domestic problems and could find the time and resources to offer them support. When I served in Belgrade in the 1990s, we helped keep the flame of democracy alive during the region’s darkest hours precisely because we committed the necessary resources. Washington and London are making a mistake in abandoning this part of Europe and putting that earlier investment and those achievements at risk. It would be bizarre if a man who represents everything we were working to change was now, thanks to our neglect, immortalised in a bronze statue.
*Ivor Roberts is a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia
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