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Comment: Tadic in Kosovo

A visit to Kosovo by Serbia’s president was a missed opportunity to heal old wounds.

The visit to Kosovo this week by Serbian president Boris Tadic provoked strong reactions around the region, with Kosovars of all ages taking to the streets in protest and political leaders expressing words of bitter discontent.

From what we saw during the two days of Tadic’s visit, we can see no long-term positive impetus generated by it, neither for Kosovar Albanians, other non-Serbs nor the local Serb community.

In fact, this visit will most probably prove to be harmful even for Tadic himself. For what it’s worth, the experiences of Tadic’s predecessors convincingly show that passionate campaigning among Kosovo Serbs by Belgrade leaders can in fact have devastating effects. Even when it provides a temporary boost in the polls, the long-term consequences outweigh any benefits of such hazardous political marketing.

For many months now, Tadic’s international interlocutors had to listen to his complaints about an earlier appeal to visit Kosovo. Considering how often he repeated his grievance-like request one would have thought that he had a lot to say and something substantial to offer. It would be logical, some believed, to assume that perhaps he had a message to deliver, not only to the hardcore Serb constituency but to a wider audience.

After all, he was asking for permission to visit a place where most of the inhabitants were, until recently, victims at the hands of the state that Tadic now represents.

Unfortunately, from what we could see and hear during his visit, there was nothing promising, encouraging or new to be heard. There was nothing not already seen and heard from other Serbian leaders.

Tadic’s first gesture in Kosovo was to go around waving a Serbian flag, an act he later repeated at his other stopping points, where the first words he uttered when meeting local Serbs were, “This is Serbia.” As perceived by the majority of people living in a place that Tadic was laying a claim to, his words and gestures were a thinly disguised message of hate. They displayed a complete lack of remorse for what was done in the past and an appalling lack of realism about the future.

With his actions Tadic has cemented an already strong conviction among the majority of Kosovars concerning Serbia’s post-Milosevic regimes. Namely, that since October 2000 things might have changed in Serbia internally, and that new leaders seem to be pleasant counterparts for their international audience, but as far as Kosovars are concerned there is no remorse for what was done in Kosovo by Serbia and on its behalf.

Sadly, the consequences of Tadic’s visit are manifold.

This trip has further fueled ethnic tensions and sent a very threatening signal to Kosovars.

In addition, it gave a message of encouragement to those among the local Serb leadership who defy international and local institutions in Kosovo. It also supported their belief that their only conceivable protection lies in the return of Serbia’s presence and rule, and fed their reluctance to be part of a genuine local engagement with provisional institutions of self-government and with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

It has also shown bad faith towards those who endorsed Tadic’s visit and harboured hope that he would improve rather than aggravate relations.

Tadic’s visit will most probably prove to be damaging for him, as well. After all, it is never to wise to entrap yourself in pompous statements and promises about matters that are beyond your control. If it were up to Tadic and all of his predecessors together, Kosovo would be ruled by Belgrade. Heads of states would be able to display the Serbian flag throughout Kosovo wherever they wanted, and not only when permitted by UNMIK and when escorted by the Kosovo police.

Tadic might not like the realities in Kosovo, but there is not much that he can do to change it against the will of the majority.

After the bitter events of March 2004, some local Serb leaders privately expressed what seemed to me a very accurate observation. “Until now,” they said, “we have looked only towards the international community for protection and assistance. Now, we realise that without leaders of the majority neither security nor any of other major interests of the local Serb population can be achieved.”

For the benefit of those he was visiting, it would have been so much better if similar reasoning had been detectable in Tadic’s statements too. Unfortunately, he missed the chance to leave that impression.

Ilir Dugolli is a fellow at Yale University. He previously served as the principal advisor to the first post-war Kosovo prime minister.

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