Serbia's Elections

Rethinking Europe’s Policy Toward Serbia

Serbs went to the polls on Dec. 28 to elect a new Parliament in one of the most fragile and influential pieces of the Balkan puzzle. They did it on a beautiful sunny day, with complete liberty and security and, as far as an onsite group of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe was able to establish, without any serious incidents besides the usual, election-day anecdotes. Voters faced a choice of 19 distinct slates. Four of the lists included candidates under indictment at The Hague as war criminals.

Once again, the result is that, to the surprise of Europe’s diplomatic and political elites, a fundamental principle of democracy has been proved—the simple truth of the ballot box: The citizens, when they vote, do as they truly want to do. Voters elect on the basis of their own interests and feelings, rather than heeding the global vision of foreign chancelleries that perhaps have helped them to attain that right to decide for themselves.

The result: The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party of  Vojislav Seselj, under indictment at The Hague, has won nearly 28 percent of the votes and some 82 of 250 seats. Added to the 22 seats gained by the Serbian Socialist Party of [former Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic, they form a bloc that, though too small to govern, constitutes a formidable “minority bloc” that will make it almost impossible to tackle any of the serious reforms that the country needs.

In Belgrade, the opinions that have been expressed these days criticizing the outcome have sounded like an insult to the intelligence of hundreds of thousands of voters, as always occurs when those from afar criticize what a people freely decide. Of course, there are reasons to be concerned with this outcome. Of course, it contributes nothing to the economic and social development of Serbia and its integration into Europe. All that is true. But I am convinced that, as Europeans interested in closing this lamentable chapter and seeing a Balkans stable and at peace, we need to concentrate our energies on revising our own strategy instead of limiting ourselves to useless pontificating about what the Serbs should or should not do when they go to the polls.

Certainly, the primary responsibility for this step backward in the difficult Serbian transition must be found in the parties that call themselves reformist or pro-European. Until now, they have all been incapable of generating enthusiasm among citizens to show the least bit of courage in tackling the fight against corruption and essential economic reforms.

All this is true. It is likewise true that the Serbian people refuse to face their past even as forensic scientists remain in their country to examine the DNA of dozens of corpses of Albanians brought from Kosovo in army trucks. So then, how does one deal with it? By issuing historical and moral judgments against an entire people or, more simply, by helping them to get out of their hole in an effective and pragmatic manner? One gets the impression that in certain European chancelleries, and in the reports of a certain European commissioner with direct responsibilities in the matter, there is an excess of pompous moralizing and a lack of realistic and pragmatic vision that would contribute to crafting a sensible and effective European policy.

I fear wading into the stormy waters of political incorrectness, but it is time to ask sincerely whether the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY) is acting as it should. Something is not going well when almost 100 percent of Serbs actually despise that institution and consider it merely a political instrument of NATO or of the West. Not even the reformists support it: Those who go so far as to defend publicly the need to cooperate with the ICTFY base their arguments on little more than compliance with the law.

Not only is it patently reprehensible that the ICTFY thus far has proved to be the best platform for spreading political propaganda that Milosevic and Seselj could ever dream of having. It has allowed both of them to direct their election campaigns from their respective jail cells in a truly incomprehensible fashion. But even more, the former president has spent months addressing his followers rather than the tribunal present in the courtroom when he defends himself in sessions that are rebroadcast by television to the country’s most distant corners.

To this, one can add more evidence that demands serious reflection: the intolerable length of the process; the new indictments against high-ranking military officers just a few days before the elections, seen by all as a political rather than a judicial decision; the excessive public presence of ICTFY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte in the mass media with her denunciations of the country’s authorities—all of which contribute to the general impression that the ICTFY is more a Western political tool than an authentic court of justice.

I am not defending that thesis. And I do not ignore that the cooperation of the outgoing government with the tribunal has, indeed, been inadequate or that it has even protected criminals such as Gen. [Ratko] Mladic. (Yet it seems difficult to explain here why the [Serbian] authorities are criticized daily for not handing over Mladic, while [former Bosnian Serb leader] Radovan Karadzic has remained at large for years without being apprehended, eluding NATO forces in United Nations-controlled Bosnia-Herzegovina.) Is it really impossible to get things done more swiftly? And can the perception be corrected that the ICTFY is not pursuing with equal vigor charges of crimes committed by the Albanians?

It is also appropriate to consider the reason for the sense of humiliation perceived throughout Serbia in the face of the actions and various E.U. policy statements. There are many real grounds for grievance, justified or not. It is not uncommon for second- and third-tier European functionaries attending political meetings in Belgrade to display an air of arrogance and pre-emptory moralizing, bordering on contempt for the interlocutor, which only contributes to weakening precisely [Serbia’s] most moderate elements.

In the same way, it becomes difficult to explain that in Kosovo, in that very same Kosovo that we direct and govern, the Serb minority today still lacks the most elementary guarantees of its rights. (It will surprise no one that those who voted in that province, under NATO escort, voted for Seselj!) Another example is worth reflecting on: Shortly before the elections, the Diplomatic Club of Belgrade put on a series of presentations for various candidate slates. E.U. ambassadors, meeting under the Italian presidency, boycotted the appearance by the Radical Party candidate, which ultimately had to be canceled. That same party today represents the largest parliamentary power of the nation. Was that gesture necessary?

In politics and foreign policy, the perception of the reality is the reality. Although it is painful to accept, some  who speak in our name in Europe have contributed to the strengthening of radical ultranationalism. External pressure on a country, especially when exerted with a great deal of noise in the media, may have some effect when directed at dictatorial regimes. But it is sterile and counterproductive when it is attempted on societies that can elect their leaders by democratic means. That is Serbia today, with all of its limitations and its flaws. One must trust that someone will learn the lesson before it is too late.