Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Unrealistic Abstractions of Realpolitik in the Balkans

Foreign policy analyst Nikolas K. Gvosdev published a troubling article at the website for Foreign Affairs magazine:

Unfreezing Kosovo: Reconsidering Boundaries in the Balkans

Briefly, Gvosdev argues that regional stability in the Balkans and security and economic development in Kosovo are impossible as long as Serbia--the "linchpin state of the western Balkans" as he tellingly describes it--is unreconciled to the independence of Kosovo under its current borders. He insists that the "issue" of independence (which apparently will not be resolved until Serbia gets its way) must be "delinked" from the "issue" of boundaries. In short, the West must agree to an ethnic partition of Kosovo.

The article isn't, on the surface anyway, the work of an overt supporter of ethnic partition. The tone is reasonable, and one might even take heart from Gvosdev's assertion that one of the negative consequences of the current situation is that nationalists are able to attack pro-reform and pro-Western parties by championing the “fate of Kosovo.” This seems to indicate that Gvosdev is no friend to the nationalist project, and wishes to see liberal, secular political forces win out in Serbia proper.

The problem with his analysis isn't simply in what he says, however (more on what he does say later). Namely, the context to the current state of affairs; i.e., the recent history of Kosovo within the old Yugoslavia and then under control of Milosevic's Serbia. This is not to say that the incidents he does address--the riots and other acts of violence aimed at Kosovo's Serbian minority--are not issues of genuine concern. Nor do I wish to suggest that relations between Pristina and Belgrade should be forever frozen in a pattern of atrocity one-upmanship. Milosevic is gone, Serb forces are no longer threatening the ethnic Albanian majority, and Kosovo and Serbia are still and will forever remain neighbors, mutually interested in securing peace and stability in the region.

However, his analysis is curiously myopic--Gvosdev seems completely unaware that events in Kosovo resonate throughout the former Yugoslavia. There is not a word about Bosnia in this article. Anyone familiar with the history of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s is well aware of the connection between events in Kosovo and Bosnia. To suggest that ethnic partition of Kosovo in order to placate nationalists in Belgrade is the path the greater security and peace in the region is to betray a shocking ignorance or indifference to the region's recent history.

Gvosdev gives some examples of agreements which he believes provide possible frameworks on how to proceed. He is very concerned not only with the Serbian-majority north, which he points out is not under Pristina's control (for reasons he does not dwell on), but also on some of the ethnic Serb enclaves in the south, and the many Serb Orthodox religious sites which are currently under the protection of NATO (and therefore also not under Pristinas' control--see how neatly this works?). Therefore, he suggests that a possible "solution" would be to pattern an autonomy agreement based on the Lateran Treaty, the agreement by which fascist Italy established the Vatican City as a sovereign nation capable of shielding serial child rapists from prosecution in their home countries. Gvosdev blandly portrays this pact, by which Mussolini courted favor with a right-wing, authoritarian church previously not inclined to look favorably on his radical regime, as merely a resolution of territorial beef between the church and the Italian state.

He also points out that both Poland and Armenia were promised independence before border had been settled--given that those two nations did not have long-standing fixed borders because of their history (any historical atlas of Europe will demonstrate this--go from map to map throughout history, and you'll note that Poland, sadly, never had the same borders for very long, due to aggression by its neighbors), Gvosdev might have a hard time ignoring that Kosovo has a long history as a well-defined geopolitical entity, but using a common Balkan revisionist tactic he claims that the borders were nothing but arbitrary administrative boundaries established by the Tito regime.

And this is the only time Gvosdev even acknowledges that there are other "disputed" boundaries in the Balkans. He dismisses these concerns by pointing out that Pristina doesn't control these areas, anyway--which means that hopefully nobody will ask him for his advice regarding the Russian occupation of significant areas of Georgia, for example. Gvosdev may not realize it, but he is arguing in favor of might making right--get enough militia on the ground able to bully the government into backing down, and viola--instant redrawing of the map.

Finally, what is so depressing about this article is that Gvosdev doesn't even realize that he is suggesting that the best way to defuse nationalist agitation is to give nationalists exactly what they want, or at least to make compromises on their terms. This is ethnic partition, no matter how one dresses it up, and it also is a validation of the premise that Serb nationalist demands have a legitimacy which cannot be fundamentally challenged, only modified. Ultimately, this sort of solution can only fuel more instability in Bosnia (and possibly the Sandzak as well), while his belief that this would actually increase the leverage that liberal and pro-democratic forces in Serbia wield seems naive to me.

Ironically, there was another story recently which suggests that Gvosdev has ignored a much less craven method of ensuring stability in the region--insisting on an acceptance of curent boundaries and a willingness to work within current national structures. Recently, the government in Turkey was able to get the governments of Serbia and Bosnia to sit down and pledge to work together. Predicatably, hardliners in the Republika Srpska were not pleased to see Belgrade dealing directly with Sarajevo without going through Banja Luka first. I suspect Gvosdev might be disappointed as well:

Serbia, BiH optimistic about new chapter in ties


Anonymous said...

I assume you'll take a great deal of issue with this, opposing relativisation a great deal more than you appear to support recognition. I challenge you to 'review' this without using the issue of whether the conflict in Yugoslavia was a 'civil war' or not, as Bancroft describes it, and without accusing anyone of being a Serb 'apologist'.

Kirk Johnson said...

I don't know who Anonymous is--hard to respect someone who feels the need to hunt down comments online he/she objects to yet cannot be bothered to identify themself--nor is it quite clear what 'point' he/she is 'making', nor is clear why he/she would assume that this brief article by Bancroft should 'shock' me. But...well, here it is.

Owen said...

Kirk, I can't see why Anonymous would want to waste your time with Ian Bancroft's article.

Fortunately Bancroft's constipated revisionism is almost too impenetrable for anyone who does understand the code to bother with. Anonymous tries to slip past the first issue, Bancroft's attempt to close the situation down to a "civil war". But he leaves us with Bancroft's acceptance of the Serbian warrant for Ganic at face value, despite the hollowness of its substance and the wilful artfulness of using it to divert attention from the opening of the trial of Radovan Karadzic. Easy enough to recognise that the Ganic warrant is massively less substantial than the Karadzic indictment.

Bancroft wants all the individual victims to be recognised. Certainly. But the warrant has been based on suspect information that has previously been investigated, leaving Ganic free to go about his business with very little judicial concern that his continued liberty involved impunity.

The cowardly blusterer Karadzic, in the meanwhile, responsible for tens of thousands more deaths than anyone has ever attempted to lay at Ganic's door, has spent the same time hiding himself from justice as Dr Dabic.

It might have been rather more honest for Bancroft to spend as much time on Karadzic as he did on Ganic and the Kosovo organ-harvesting rumours (now back-burnered by th EULEX investigative team for lack of substantiating evidence - ).

But why expect that when Ian Bancroft is a Serb lobbyist? And why not call him a Serb apologist? If the cap fits, Anonymous should allow it to be worn.

Bancroft's Belgrade-based "charity" TransConflict among its various other activities provides a platform for the perverse views of the genocide denier Darko Trifunovic, author of the notorious first official Republika Srpska report on Srebrenica "Report on Case Srebrenica", described by Paddy Ashdown (whom Bancroft routinely rubbishes) as "so far from the truth as to be almost not worth dignifying with a response."

Bancroft advances the Serb case of shared responsibility with his sideways-expressed views, routinely published by the Guardian's pimp-vehicle "Comment is Free". If you haven't got the energy, Kirk, I'm certainly happy to describe Bancroft as a Serb apologist. Anyone who reads a few of his offerings will pretty soon get the drift.

Owen said...

Kirk, a look at the comments under Bancroft's latest article at Comment is Free suggests that he and TransConflict are well and truly rumbled: