Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2000, Pages 43-44

Special Report

People Power in the Balkans: Is the Ice of Nationalism Breaking?

By Alan L. Heil Jr.

“The ice is breaking in Bosnia and Herzegovina...The Dayton agreement is only as good as the politicians in power allow it to be. Changing the present agreement is not the answer. Changing the political scene to a more moderate one that is accountable to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina is.”—Ambassador Robert L. Barry, head of mission, Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE), Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 13, 2000

“There is no magic wand on this issue [Kosovo’s final status]. The international community is if anything even more divided on the issue of Kosovo’s future status than it was at the end of the 1999 war—but failure to address this problem will have growing consequences that in the end could cause the entire mission to unravel.”

—Report of the International Crisis Group, Kosovo Report Card, Aug. 28, 2000

“In the Yugoslav election, the choice is starkly drawn. The world has said to the people there: ”˜If you want to join the international community, come on in by rejecting Slobodan Milosevic.’”

James O’Brien, special U.S. presidential adviser for democracy in the Balkans, Institute of Peace briefing, Sept. 20, 2000

November 21st marks the fifth anniversary of the U. S.-brokered Dayton agreement which ended the most devastating of the many Balkans wars of the 1990s. That conflict cost a quarter of a million lives, made more than two million homeless in Bosnia and Croatia, and spawned deep new ethnic hatreds which are slow to heal.

After half a decade, though, there’s some evidence the Balkan iceberg at last is breaking—noisily, haltingly and subject to occasional spates of re-freezing. But conditions are in place for Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia to transform themselves into “normal countries.” Yugoslavia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica, used the word “normal” recently to describe his hope for his nation. With luck and financial aid from the international community, all three war-devastated Balkan countries eventually can join a Europe whole and free.

Their three wartime nationalist leaders who signed the Dayton accord now are history:
• Yugoslavia’s president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic resigned Oct. 7 after his army and police refused to back him against a massive popular uprising following his defeat in late September’s presidential election.
• In Croatia, another corrupt nationalist dictator, President Franjo Tudjman, died last December. Less than a month later, voters swept his ruling party from office in favor of a center-left reform government.
• In Bosnia and Herzegovina, wartime Bosnian Muslim President Alijia Izetbegovic retired Oct. 14, after his ruling nationalist Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) registered substantial losses in April municipal elections.

Nationalism as an ideology is rapidly losing steam in the Balkans—at least in the three countries at the epicenter of the terrible conflicts of 1991 to 1995. After the Serbs and Croats, however, the third largest ethnic group in the region is the Albanians, and nationalist forces within that community appear to be gaining force. Despite the fact that NATO airstrikes 17 months ago cleared Kosovo of Milosevic’s murderous armed forces and paramilitaries, Kosovar Albanians are becoming impatient with the West’s indecision on resolving the future status of the province.

Balkans analysts agree that the most significant change since Dayton, by far, has been the ouster of Milosevic. Since 1989, the Yugoslav leader has mobilized Serbs with virulent nationalist propaganda, re-kindling old fears and hatreds. He planned and executed wars or ethnic cleansing campaigns in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. His name forever will be linked with the mass killings of Muslim and other non-Serb civilians at places like Omarska, Srebrenica and Racak. Because of the immensity of these crimes, the world had rejected the Milosevic regime as any kind of partner in reconstructing the Balkans. Postwar Yugoslavia consists of Serbia, the dominant republic, tiny Montenegro, and Kosovo—the latter officially a part of the federation, but under the control of a transitional international civilian and military leadership.

With the departure of the wartime nationalist leaders, the dynamics in the region have changed significantly:
• Support has diminished for hard-line Christian nationalist elements in Bosnia (Croats mainly in the south and western part of the country near Mostar), and Serbs in the Bosnian Serb Republic). Both depended to a degree on their patrons, Milosevic and Tudjman, for financial and moral support. Tudjman’s nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is struggling to hang on in Bosnia, but is divided into factions after HDZ losses in recent municipal elections. In Bosnia’s Republika Srprska, the nationalist SDS of wartime president and at-large war criminal Radovan Karadzic, now himself barred from politics, remains an important factor. However, some predict that moderate Serb and multiethnic parties invigorated by the turmoil in Belgrade may continue to make gains in Bosnia’s Nov. 11 election.
• The international community has welcomed warmly the changes in leadership in Belgrade and Zagreb. Croatia earlier this year was admitted to NATO’s Partnership for Peace, and the European Union has re-established ties with its new reform leaders, President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan. Similarly, new Yugoslavia President Kostunica was well received at a European Union summit in Biarritz, France, about a week after his inauguration. Some sanctions against Yugoslavia were lifted by both the European body and the United States, and the EU promised a fresh infusion of aid to jump start the new federal government. All of these steps would have been unthinkable under Milosevic.
• After years of relatively easy nationalist victories, elections at last are beginning to change the political landscape. In Bosnia, according to OSCE head of mission Robert Barry, the share of municipalities controlled by nationalist parties declined from 124 to 76, just over half the nationwide total. Bosnia’s multiethnic Social Democrats captured 20 mayoralties in municipal elections, compared with the single mayoral post they held previously. In Croatia, the overwhelming victory of the moderates in both the parliamentary and presidential elections earlier this year displayed the potential of “people power.”

In regional terms, citizen power reached unprecedented heights in late September, when voters in Serbia overwhelmingly elected Kostunica—or, as one expert put it, overwhelmingly rejected Milosevic, climaxed when more than a half a million citizens flocked into Belgrade Oct. 5 to protest Milosevic’s attempt to annul the election, and the police and army refused to intervene.

In the Balkans, however, unpredictability is as common as cigarette smoke. The flames of Albanian nationalism could take on new life if Kostunica does not soon address the plight of some 1,000 Kosovar Albanians kidnapped by Milosevic’s forces and taken to Serbian prisons at the end of last year’s war. Moreover, Kosovar Albanians—including nationalist leader and former KLA political operative Hashem Thaci—are fearful that the West’s rush to Belgrade’s new reform government will siphon off needed resources and reconstruction in Kosovo.

Pressure to determine Kosovo’s future also is expected to increase. The international community now shows no inclination to grant the province independence from Yugoslavia and Serbia; on the other hand, Kosovar Albanians (who number 9 out of 10 of the province’s 2 million inhabitants since the flight of Kosovar Serbs), say they’ll never again be ruled by Serbs. The Balkans could become unstable very quickly if Kosovar hard-liners decide to defy NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR), if Kostunica tries to return Serb troops to the province as provided in a U. N. resolution, or should factional fighting erupt within Kosovo’s Albanian community itself.

War Criminals at Large

Then there is the question of indicted war criminals still at large in Bosnia (about 20 publicly indicted at last count) and in Serbia. Milosevic, though deposed from the presidency, is still a free man, determined to remain active in politics and trump president Kostunica’s control of federal Yugoslavia by manipulating some levers of power in Serbia’s republican government. Jim Hooper, head of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group, noted at a recent U. S. Institute of Peace forum: “The sooner you can start to move war criminals to The Hague from Serbia, the more you remove those opposed to Kostunica in Belgrade.” He and others at the forum noted that Kostunica has urgent tasks on the homefront if he is to consolidate his power. Prosecuting war criminals, Kosovo, and resolving Serbia-Montenegro tensions are further down on Kostunica’s list, they said.

Beyond politics, there is the pitifully low standard of living and high unemployment which have fueled citizen power, arguably in all three countries: Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. People in the Balkans today, no less than those in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe a decade ago, want change and have registered that at the ballot box. They expect an improvement in their standard of living, and the new governments must deliver. Unemployment has been in double-digit percentages in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia since the costly wars of the mid-1990s. Branko Milanovic of Serbia’s G17 movement and a World Bank economist says Serbia’s triple-digit inflation is worse than Germany’s in the early 1920s. Under Milosevic’s rule, Yugoslavia’s gross domestic product has declined 40 to 50 percent in the past decade, Milanovic added.

According to the International Crisis Group, key tasks for the international community in Kosovo are:
• to set up self-governing institutions (the Oct. 28 municipal elections are a start);
• to adopt a more aggressive posture in protecting Serbs and other threatened minorities;
• to state publicly that KFOR will not allow Serb military and police personnel to return to Kosovo;
• to eliminate armed groups of Kosovars which operate underground in the province;
• to establish sound, functioning police, judicial and banking systems and other elements of checks and balances in a free enterprise economy; and
• to make clear to Kosovar Albanians that how the issue of final status is resolved depends on how they handle self-rule in such areas as minority rights and good relations with neighbors.

Kosovars, for their part, are fearful that because of the slow pace of forming government institutions, they have no official representatives to present their views to the Kostunica government should talks on the future status of the province begin soon. They feel that the Albanian majority in Kosovo should be directly involved, not solely international community or U.N. representatives speaking on their behalf.

Although Bosnia continues to suffer from official corruption and a lack of cooperation between (Muslim) Bosniak, Serb and Croat politicians, there recently have been some signs of a breaking nationalist iceberg in that country. In the five years since Dayton, Bosnia has experienced two rather striking events. One is the return this year of a record estimated 20,000 displaced persons and refugees to areas in which they are a minority. The other is the formation, for the Sydney Olympics, of a joint national team consisting of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs—and production of nationally televised live broadcasts by producers of all three communities.

Alan L. Heil Jr. retired as deputy director of the Voice of America in 1998 and has traveled four times to the Balkans since then. He served recently as an OSCE short-term supervisor for the Kosovo municipal elections.


Moderate Party Wins Kosovo Municipal Election

In Kosovo, the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) won, by a landslide vote, Oct. 28 elections for municipal assemblies. In the first free elections ever held in the province the LDK, led by Ibrahim Rugova, defeated the more militant Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) by a margin of 57 percent to 27 percent, according to nearly complete official returns. The remainder of the vote was split among smaller parties, including the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), which won about 8 percent of the vote, mainly in the western part of the province.

The LDK captured control of 20 or more muncipal assemblies in Kosovo, assemblies which had been dominated mainly by former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army under Hashem Thaci. The PDK retained control of some half-dozen municipalities. Three of the districts, in Serb-dominated areas, did not vote in the elections. There may be a subsequent poll there, or, alternatively, Bernard Kouchner, chief of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), may appoint Serb municipal council members.

Since last summer, temporary municipal governing bodies in Kosovo have been dominated primarily by Kosovo Liberation Army appointees. They now will be replaced by assembly members chosen in the internationally-supervised polling. Many in the Kosovar Albanian community have appealed for province-wide elections sometime in 2001.