15 March 2002
Zoran Djindjic and Balkan maps
The Economist; London; Feb
(Copyright 2002 The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved.)
Serbia's prime minister is bravely thinking about a humbler kind of country
IN THE coming months, the world will hear a lot about a plan to expand the borders of one European country and ensure its absolute domination by a single ethnic group. The prosecutors of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president whose trial began this week in The Hague, will argue that he was the main advocate of a Greater Serbia that would engulf hunks of neighbouring Bosnia and Croatia. To most people in the West, the implications of such a project, even if the methods had been less brutal, are patently sinister, recalling the Nazis' dream of gathering all German-speakers into a single racially pure Reich.
Indeed, all talk of territorially-defined greatness is repulsive to most West Europeans, particularly to politically-conscious Germans: it runs counter to the assumptions that have underpinned politics in the continent's non-communist half since 1945. Didn't the second world war quash forever the idea that a European country could be deemed successful by bolstering itself with land grabs or by ethnic discrimination?
In fact, a pollster using crafty questions might well find that people in Europe's south-eastern corner, not all them Serb nationalists, are still ambivalent on such matters. After all, territorial conquest and ethnic engineering helped form the Balkans' modern states in the wars of the late 19th and early 20th century, and western powers then seemed happy to egg their various proxies on. Many Balkan historians, not all of them admirers of Mr Milosevic, detect a whiff of hypocrisy in the disdain which people in settled and prosperous parts of Europe now accord to old-fashioned nationalism. They remember, for one thing, the romantic patriotism of those who unified Germany in the 19th century. So if Mr Milosevic had been around a few generations earlier, he would probably have found it easier to win foreign backers for his Greater Serbia project. His biggest mistake was his failure to realise what era he was living in.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that his successor as the most powerful man in Belgrade is uncompromisingly modern, in language and demeanour. Zoran Djindjic, a philosophy teacher with a razor- sharp mind and an oft-stated preference for what he calls "hard reality" over lofty ideals, has been Serbia's prime minister for just over a year. He is more influential though less popular than Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president who presides over the malfunctioning federation between Serbia and its disaffected little partner, Montenegro.
An army officer's son, Mr Djindjic spent his formative years studying in Germany, where he became an admirer of Jurgen Habermas, a philosopher who laid bare the myths of 19th-century nationalism and has called more recently for a European constitution. The Serbian leader's style, from his designer suits to the clipped tones of his newly-acquired English, is full of reminders of his close ties with the German academic establishment at its most enlightened and politically correct.
While Mr Milosevic went out of his way to provoke the world, Mr Djindjic is hyper-conscious of international opinion. He is proudest, to date, of having restored Yugoslavia's relations with the Paris Club of government creditors. While Serbs grumble over soaring utility bills, he basks in the EU's praise for his economic reforms. His promise to continue "co-operation" with the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, meaning that he will extradite more Serbs there when asked, is ruthlessly pragmatic. The fate of a handful of people, he reckons, should not compromise the welfare of millions of Serbs, who will suffer unless their country is fully re-integrated into Europe.
While Mr Milosevic appealed to nationalist sentimentality, Mr Djindjic is rigorously unsentimental. Unlike many Serbs, he is not especially concerned about "losing" Montenegro, where President Milo Djukanovic has promised a referendum on independence as early as April. If Montenegro broke away, Mr Djindjic says, it might harm itself by ignoring its EU friends' advice. But that would not stop Serbia from forging ahead with reform.
Mr Djindjic rightly says that the EU loathes the thought of Montenegro's independence. Spurring the statelet on towards at least autonomy while Mr Milosevic was in power seemed a sensible way to undermine him. But now that power in Belgrade is in benign hands, the West has little desire to see yet another Balkan state emerge, especially one whose independence would be supported, at best, by only slightly more than half its people.
Finding the right place in Europe
Another argument against Montenegrin independence is often heard in Brussels. The UN resolution that ended the Kosovo war in mid-1999 called it part of Yugoslavia, not of Serbia. If Yugoslavia ceased to exist, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians would demand immediate independence. This final break-up of rump Yugoslavia, so the argument goes, might then tear Macedonia apart. And if that happened, would Bosnia hold together?
Mr Djindjic sees some force in these arguments but insists that whatever happens in Montenegro would not inevitably trigger more war. And he disagrees with those who say that Kosovo's status should stay ambiguous indefinitely. That does not appeal to Mr Djindjic's tidy Teutonic mind. He wants Kosovo's future resolved within two or three years. His government, he says, should start by telling Serbs the hard truth that well over 1.5m people there are irreconcilably against being ruled from Belgrade. A debate about what to do should then ensue.
No Serbian politician, not even Mr Djindjic, could ever call for Kosovo's independence tomorrow. But he does say, more boldly than most Serbs, that "all options" should be considered, with due regard for the overriding aim of getting all of the Balkans one day into the EU. "We must find a solution mainly by finding our place in Europe, not by seeking historical rights or national interests." This new Serbian leader talks the language of Germany in the 21st century, not the 19th or any other.