August 6, 2003 | Commentary on Europe
The Serbs are at it again. Once again they are playing their role as the perpetual victims of Europe, complaining about unfair treatment by the international community and whining about the injustice of it all. If the Serbian mentality was supposed to have changed since the ouster and war crimes indictment of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic, this was not evident from the recent visit of Serbian government leaders to Washington.
It is now just three years since the NATO alliance bombed Serbia to end the wars of aggression waged by the Serbs against their Balkan neighbors throughout the 1990s. This was a bloody and at times horrendously brutal conflict which raged as the Balkan country of Yugoslavia broke apart to form the countries that are today Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro. Serbia, the dominant and largest republic of Yugoslavia, was forced to let the others slip from its control, but did so only after military defeat.
Undaunted by the horrors it has perpetrated, Serbia now wants to reclaim its leading role in the Balkans. While it took the Germans over two decades after World War II to raise their heads enough to start playing a role in Europe, the Serbs are already demanding international recognition and foreign aid.
Over dinner, brandy and cigars at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic expressed their frustration with the government of the United States and the leaders of the EU and NATO.
"There are three things Serbs cannot stand," said Mr. Zivkovic." An independent Kosovo, NATO and the United States." This comes from a country that wants the help of the U.S. government to get into the EU and into the Partnership for Peace, a U.S.-led military grouping.
From the perspective of Foreign Minister Svilanovic, the failure of Serbia to make progress on integration into international organization can be blamed primarily on Washington and Brussels. After meetings with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, he accused both of "a lack of courage" in pushing Serbia's case.
As for leaders in the EU, Mr. Svilanovic proudly tells he had berated Javier Solava and Chris Patten, the EU's primary representatives on foreign policy, for the "mess" that the EU is in and its failure to deal with the real problems of Europe, which are in his view Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. No doubt these gents appreciated the lecture.
The Serbs are particularly indignant that they have not received the international aid they expected. On this, they blame the fact that they have not rebuild the damaged bridges in Belgrade -- nor even their own ministry of defense.
Now, both the U.S. government and the EU have welcomed Serbia's new leadership, which inherited the mantled from the previous reform-minded Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was tragically assassinated this spring. From the perspective of Washington and Brussels, however, there are some very specific and major obstacles to Serbia's rehabilitation.
One is the demand that the Serbs hand over Gen. Ratko Mladic for prosecution as a war criminal in The Hague. He is one of the architects of the awful ethnic cleansing campaign that took place in Bosnia in the early 1990s against the country's Muslim population. Mr. Zivkovic's new line is that his government has no knowledge of the whereabouts of said general, though there is a "95 percent chance" that he is no longer in Serbia -- a claim about which American officials are deeply skeptical.
Another rather amazing obstacle is that the Serbs are actually suing eight NATO countries, including the United States, for bombing Belgrade in 1999. These countries are all members of the Partnership for Peace, which the Serbs are trying to join. The present government has refused drop the suit, initiated by Milosevic, apparently hoping to use it as a bargaining chip in exchange for a genocide case brought against the Serbian people by Croatia and Bosnia. You probably have to be Serbian to believe you can make progress under these circumstances.
All of which is a huge shame. The war-torn Balkans is the final piece of the European continent that needs to build peace and economic stability. Eastern and Central Europe are well on their way to joining the EU and NATO. Serbia could be an important part of this project, but until the Serbs experience a change of attitude about their past and their present, they will cut themselves off from their future.
Helle Dale is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.