Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito finally died in 1980. His funeral saw the then greatest-ever gathering of world leaders. They wondered to themselves: ‘Will this rickety non-aligned communist Balkan state led by a weird eight-person collective Presidency manage to keep going without Tito’s brutish centralising grip?’
I appeared on the steps of the British Embassy in Belgrade in early 1981 to start my first diplomatic posting, to meet some diplomatic excitement. There were ‘disturbances’ in Kosovo, the southern autonomous province within Serbia. Disturbances? Within a communist state that Western governments supported as a ‘pillar of stability in the Balkans’? Crikey. Was it all unravelling?
Belgrade imposed a state of emergency and crushed the disturbances. But the Yugo-unravelling had begun, even if it took a decade to break out into open conflict.
Some 40 years and many war-crimes later Yugoslavia has gone, replaced by seven smaller republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo.
All but Kosovo are members of the United Nations. That’s because Kosovo’s status is tangled up in much wider international issues of principle. Serbia has not recognised Kosovo’s right unilaterally to secede from Serbia and its independence as a sovereign state. Belgrade is supported in this by Russia, China, India, Brazil and plenty of other states (including, to the European Union’s intense embarrassment, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece and Spain).
A wearying deadlock has developed. Serbia blocks Kosovo from joining the United Nations, while (in effect) Kosovo blocks Serbia from getting far with its EU membership aspirations.
Earlier this year a major push by the European Union was made to cut a new deal that amounted to Serbia and Kosovo mutually accepting each other as independent states, roughly based on the way East Germany and West Germany co-existed after their 1972 Basic Treaty.
A key clause in the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo provides that “Serbia will not oppose Kosovo’s membership in any international organization.” That looks important. Belgrade finally stops blocking Kosovo’s membership of the United Nations?
As we cynical veterans of such things expected, within weeks if not days sharp new problems have arisen. Was this important new agreement in fact agreed? Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić was quick to point out that whatever he may have said to accept the plan, he had not in fact signed anything that might amount to Serbia accepting Kosovo’s independence: “I have excruciating pain in my right hand, I can only sign with my right hand and that pain is expected to continue for the next four years.”
Likewise the agreement provides for Kosovo granting ‘an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo’. But who decides what’s ‘appropriate’? And what does it all mean on the ground? A defiant and angry Serb majority continue to push back hard against Kosovo’s attempts to assert control in the key northern areas.
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Back in 1984 or thereabouts I met Dobrica Ćosić, then a highly respected semi-dissident writer with a Serb nationalist reputation. Ćosić insisted that demographics were running heavily against Serbia in Kosovo. Birth-rates among Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking population were far higher than the Serbs’ birth-rates. Eventual loss of control was inevitable: “Chop off the leg to save the body!”
Now the demographic trends are even more strongly in favour of the Albanian-speakers. Serbia like so many other former communist countries in Europe, is right at the top of global tables for projected population decline between 2020 and 2050.
It’s morbidly interesting to ponder why communism has had such devastating long-term effects in Europe. But as things now stand for Serbia at least, a vicious circle of pessimism links political uncertainty to poor economic prospects to low birth-rates to outward migration. Kosovo too is now experiencing some population decline, as many of its younger people look for opportunities elsewhere in Europe. But Kosovo’s median age is about 30, while Serbia’s is 43. Serbia has more pensioners than working-age people. That’s not a sustainable economic model.
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Perhaps the core problem here is that it’s close to impossible to run a modern state sensibly if there is existential tension over its borders. What basic principle should prevail? ‘Self-determination’? Studied pragmatism based on creating new states from former internal administrative borders? Or even some cynical border-tweaks and local population swaps?
Western policy for former Yugoslavia has been a mess of contradictions. In Bosnia the three communities (Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats) have been told to live together peacefully or else. But just down the road Kosovo and Montenegro have been allowed if not encouraged to break away from Serbia. This lack of common-sense consistency for different parts of what was in living memory a single state makes it very hard to persuade the truculent local populations that things are being handled fairly or are set to improve.
It is all horribly complicated - and horribly simple. Kosovo either is a UN member-state or it isn’t. World opinion is divided on the legal and political merits of Kosovo’s ambitions to join the United Nations. It’s not impossible that even if Belgrade at long last did signal an unambiguous willingness to let that happen, many other countries might still oppose Kosovo’s UN membership on the grounds that the features of Kosovo’s break from Serbia had set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements within their own borders.
Back in real life, any Serbia leader who signs away Kosovo so that it can join the United Nations is highly likely to be assassinated. The European Union and Washington foolishly join forces in ruling out any options for territorial adjustments (ie some local ‘population swaps’) along the Kosovo/Serbia border that might give Kosovo most of what it wants while affording Belgrade some sort of face-saving deal. The deadlock continues.
And then there’s inat. This is a Balkan word that has no English counterpart (the American word orneriness - cantankerous contrariness – edges timidly in the right direction). Inat has connotations of radical vainglorious defiance even when (or especially when) that defiance has painful if not ruinous consequences for the person doing the defying.
When you look at all the problems of the former Yugoslavia space with inat firmly in mind, things become much clearer:
“Now listen! You told us yesterday that you agreed to let Kosovo join any international organisation. But today you’re saying that that didn’t count, as you didn’t sign the deal?? That’s appalling. Absurd! Everything will get worse for you and your country!”
“It can’t be helped. Inat!”