Balkan Pressure Cooker

SARAJEVO — A string of recent events has turned up the heat in this part of the world. With the final status of Kosovo still in the balance, we find ourselves on the heels of a series of important developments that should be viewed within a wider Balkan political context, in addition to the impact they could have on Kosovo.

The latest came May 7 in Belgrade, as Serbian Parliament tapped Tomislav Nikolic, a.k.a. “The Undertaker,” to be its new speaker — the country’s third most powerful post. Nikolic, 55, is deputy head of Serbia’s Radical Party, which took 37 percent in the country’s January 2007 elections and is widely considered the most intensely nationalistic of Serbia’s various political fronts. (The Radical Party’s official chief, Vojislav Seselj, is in The Hague on trial for war crimes committed during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.)

My last dispatch noted the effect that the Radical Party’s strong showing in the January elections could have on Kosovo’s ongoing bid for independence. In short, if Kosovo is allowed to secede, the Radical Party will most likely respond by a) pushing parliament to deny Kosovo’s legitimacy (at least in terms of political rhetoric) by forever calling it an occupied territory of Serbia, and b) by using the development as a justification for a political push to absorb into Serbian sovereign territory an area known as the Republic of Srpska. The RS is currently part of Bosnia, though it is populated largely by ethnic Serbs.

A related side-development on the Kosovo issue recently found Richard Holbrooke, the man who ended the Bosnian war with the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, claiming that the United States might recognize Kosovo, should a deadlock over its fate occur at the United Nations — for instance if Russia, in a show of support for Serbia, moves to veto a possible call by the United Nations for Kosovo’s independence. Holbrooke’s remarks prompted a biting reaction from some. Namely, Carl Bilt, the Swedish Foreign Minister and a veteran European Union diplomat to the Balkans, accused him of “playing with fire.”

Another key event, meanwhile, came at the end of April, when Ivica Racan, the “political father” of modern-day Croatia, died of brain cancer. Racan was long a voice of moderation in Croatia’s political landscape. In marking his passing, Stratfor, the global news publication of Strategic Forcasting Inc., offered this notably apt summary of the region’s current political situation:

Tensions in the Balkans are rising on two major fronts: Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia is still without a government after months of political wrangling – and with a deadline to form a government quickly approaching (May 14). This deadline comes as Serbia’s secessionist region of Kosovo says it will gain (or unilaterally declare) its controversial independence by the end of May. The entire international community has been watching Kosovo and Serbia in an attempt to prevent any destabilization – especially of the ethnic cleansing kind – of the Balkans in the process. The problem is that while the world has focused on Serbia and Kosovo, it has ignored a quickly rising problem in Serbia’s neighbor, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United Nations and European Union have been pulling resources – everything from negotiators to security forces – from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Kosovo, leaving all the different Bosnian ethnicities to fight it out without much supervision. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb leader and nationalist Milorad Dodik has been consolidating power in Bosnia – not only in the Serbian autonomous region of Republika Srpska, of which he is prime minister, but on the federal level as well – so much that he has been called an up-and-coming Milosevic replacement.

Another event, which should be read as related to, if not inexorably entangled with the abovementioned, occurred in February, when the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body of the United Nations, delivered the final verdict in a lawsuit filed by Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbia and Montenegro for genocide. The ICJ held that even though genocide was committed in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, Serbia was not responsible for it. The ruling infuriated many Bosnians, who continue to ask: Just who did it then?

Bosnian genocide victims were further angered by a subsequent report published in the New York Times, which maintained that the ICJ had ruled without seeing the full wartime archive from Serbia.

Damir Cosic is a Sarajevo-based economist and occasional contributor to World Politics Review.

More World Politics Review