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Belgrade Claims Kosovo Diplomacy Coup

New government hopes its handling of the crisis has turned the West against Albanians.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia’s new government under Vojislav Kostunica has successfully marshalled public anger over the Kosovo crisis, defusing a situation that threatened to radicalise public opinion and give rise to nationalist passions, analysts say.


Defying predictions that the multi-party minority administration would quickly succumb to its internal strains, Kostunica’s team handled the inflammatory news from Kosovo with a sense of purpose that has surprised even its supporters.


After first reports of clashes broke on Serbian radio and TV in the night of March 17-18, about ten hours after violence against the Kosovo Serbs erupted, there was, however, a threat of political radicalisation and even the new government’s collapse.


As large crowds staged violent protests in Belgrade and Nis, in southern Serbia, setting fire to two mosques, the situation seemed to be slipping out of control.


While the public first blamed the new interior minister Dragan Jocic for his slow response, the government soon regained the initiative, condemning the burning of the mosques in Serbia in strong terms.


Appeals from some government officials that Serbia-Montenegro’s army should even force its way back into Kosovo, regardless of the position of the international community which runs the province, were soon eclipsed by vigorous statements from the government that avoided an escalation of the crisis.


Defence Minister Boris Tadic said it was unacceptable for crowds of thugs to shape Serbia’s image abroad. Their only answer to the violence against Kosovo Serbs was to torch other places of worship, he remarked.


“Warmongers, bearing no responsibility for the actions of the state and who keep on calling for military intervention - to the detriment of our security interests and in violation of UN Resolution 1244 - must be silenced,” he said.


Claiming the crisis could not be solved without international aid, the Serbian government on March 17 called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.


The next day, Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic and Kostunica’s advisor, Slobodan Samardzic, flew to New York and Washington to urge the international community to prevent a pogrom of Kosovo’s remaining Serbs and condemn ethnic Albanian extremists.


At home, Belgrade urged all the parties in parliament on March 18 to rally round a platform that Kosovo could not be defended militarily, but only politically.


According to political analyst Obrad Kesic, the Belgrade authorities have passed their first big test in Kosovo.


“The government has shown its maturity and successfully tackled its first serious challenge,” he said, adding that ministers had succeeded surprisingly well in forging a political consensus.


A benchmark of the government’s success in winning over influential nationalist circles and persuading them to support a peaceful resolution to the crisis was the involvement of Amfilohije Radovic, Bishop of Montenegro.


Though best known in public for his strong Serb nationalist views, the Orthodox bishop appeared in front of the burning mosque in Belgrade to urge the angry crowd not to torch it.


Although his appeal fell on deaf ears, his words triggered a chain reaction from within nationalist circles, most of whom then strongly condemned the attack on the Belgrade mosque.


Even the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, Serbia’s biggest opposition party, condemned the attack, instead of trying to ride a wave of public protest and toppling the administration, as many at first expected.


By integrating the influential Radicals into the political mainstream, Kostunica has ensured that no party has been in a position to score political points.


Serbia was also rewarded with international condemnation of the Kosovo Albanian extremists.


Peter Schieder, President of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, sent an open letter to Kosovo’s prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, rebuking him for failing to clearly condemn violence in the province.


“The absence of clear and unambiguous condemnation by the Albanian leadership of the violence against the Serbs in Kosovo is a disgrace,” Schieder said.


On March 19, NATO’s commander for Southeast Europe, Gregory Johnson, tellingly described the violence in Kosovo as “ethnic cleansing”; this term became notorious in the 1990s in connection with Serbian attacks on Muslims and Croats in Bosnia.


France, which has contributed the largest contingent of troops to KFOR, also condemned the violence against the Kosovo Serbs.


The chorus of foreign support has created an impression in Serbia that Kostunica’s government has succeeded in changing international perceptions not only of Kosovo but of Serbia, too.


Political analyst Zoran Lutovac says it has largely wiped out earlier unfavourable foreign reactions to the new government, based on its decision to rely on the support of Slobodan Milosevic’s old Socialist party in parliament.


“We need to be reminded that Serbia's image suffered after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the election in December and the formation of a new government with the help of the Socialist Party of Serbia,” he said.


Political analyst Dusan Janjic says the government is on a winning course in terms of diplomacy, focusing on “full cooperation with the international community and on negotiations”.


The success of Serbia’s diplomatic offensive has already led to a more robust response to violence on the part of the international forces in Kosovo.


Belgrade is counting on reaping political gains from this policy. In particular, it hopes the international community will now seriously consider a partition of Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, staving off Serbia’s nightmare scenario of a united, independent Kosovo, ruled by Albanians.


Kostunica is known to support such a plan. Soon after his appointment as prime minister last month, he called for Kosovo to be broken up into cantons and Serbs to be given control over Serbian enclaves.


Talk of “decentralisation” and “cantons” is seen as Serbian code language for partition – a term Belgrade knows the international community dislikes.


“If the process of decentralisation in Kosovo and putting in place the mechanisms needed to protect the Serb community get underway, this would mark serious progress,” said Janjic.


A breakthrough on cantonisation is not necessarily imminent. But if it did occur, it would greatly bolster the government's standing, given the public’s deep conviction that Serbia must not allow Kosovo to become an independent state dominated by the Albanian majority.


Kesic believes if the Serbian government can contain ethnic violence in Albanian-majority areas in southern Serbia, the West may back off altogether from recognition of Kosovo’s independence.


He says the West may then tell the Kosovo Albanians, “ ‘You burnt down all the churches and drove out all the Serbs from Kosovo while the Serbs managed to preserve a multi-ethnic society in south Serbia – there’s something wrong here’.”


That may be optimistic, but there is a conviction in Serbia that independence for Kosovo, which the international community has run as a de facto protectorate since 1999, can at least be postponed.


But if the nationalist radicalisation of Serbian society has been prevented in the short term, government supporters are aware this could all change if the public’s optimistic expectations are not fulfilled.


If Kosovo once again slips out the government’s grasp, the resulting dénouement may cause a fresh deterioration of the situation in Serbia and the first victim to fall prey to such a turn of events could be the Serbian government itself.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the weekly Evropa.


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