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New Serb President Nods To Europe, Runs To Russia

Despite the relative peace in the Balkans over the last decade, nationalism has not taken a holiday since the end of the ethnic wars of the 1990s. The region’s tendency toward xenophobic politics, combined with its history of communist dictatorship, has totally skewed the meaning of words like “moderate” in the former Yugoslavia.

So the election of Tomislav Nikolic as president of Serbia is less than encouraging news from the powder keg of Europe: Niklolic is a former leader of the toxic right-wing Serbian Radical Party, having taken over for indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj. As Reuters reports, Niklolic is now doing much to distance himself and his new Serbian Progressive Party from his earlier positions, assuring European leaders of his new found commitment to a pro-European path for Serbia.

As these honeyed words left his lips, however, Nikolic made arrangements to fly to Moscow for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. His assurances to European diplomats have yet to repress worries over his remarks from 2007, when he said Serbia would be better off as a province of Slavic Russia than as a cosmopolitan member of the EU.

Nikolic’s willingness to play off Brussels and Russia points to the ongoing decline of the EU’s vaunted soft power and to a serious crisis opening up in southeastern Europe. For Serbia, the EU is its main source of investment and trade, but even in a time of deep economic woe, Serbs appear to be considering alternate patrons and relationships. A Serbia increasingly backed by and oriented toward Moscow is not going to be very cooperative on relations with Kosovo.

This potential lack of restraint combined with Nikolic’s not-so-distant ultranationalist associations spell out an ominous next chapter not only for Kosovo, but also Bosnia: with Russia’s backing and perhaps also diplomatic support from a Greece newly estranged from Europe and the US, the near-independent Republika Srpska could move toward Milosevic’s grand plan to unite with Serbia proper.

Cyprus, Turkey, Serbia and Greece are all growing estranged from the EU in various ways. Russia continues to look for ways to challenge the post 1990 order, and smouldering hatreds and grievances throughout the region provide plenty of fuel for new crises.

American foreign policy in the first three years of the Obama administration has been operating on the assumption that Europe’s security problems are essentially solved. Whoever sits in the White House come next January is going to have think harder about the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean than anyone expected just a few months ago.

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  • WigWag

    This is one of the few situations where Russia is probably right. Why shouldn’t there be an independent Republika Srpska if there is an independent Kosovo?

    The position of the United States and Europe on this issue is not only rejected by a substantial portion of the rest of the world, even worse, it’s incoherent.

  • Kenny

    Kosovo is a fiction. It should be dissolved irrespective of Muslim sensitivities.

  • rkka

    “Russia continues to look for ways to challenge the post 1990 order…”

    Not really. The reincorporation of Ukraine by Russia, for instance, has higher poll numbers in Ukraine than it does in Russia, because Russians recognize that Ukraine is an endless pit for subsidies.

    What is going on is that the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy still consider Bill Clinton’s “Okay Boris, here’s what you’ve got to do next. Here’s some more (smelly brown stuff) for your face.” to be an adequate basis for Anglosphere-Russian relations while the Russian government no longer do.

    For instance, the Germans don’t feel challenged. They’re building a fully-instrumented brigade-sized training range for the Russian Army near Nizhny-Novgorod. The French don’t feel challenged. They’re building two 20,000 ton LPHs for the Russian Navy and licensing the design so the Russians can build two more themselves. Russian tanks have French thermal imaging sights on them. The Italians don’t feel challenged. They helped build the Nord Stream gas pipeline and are selling wheeled armored personell carriers to the Russian Army.

    It’s just the Anglosphere that gets its nose bent out of shape about Russia.

    They really need to get over it.

  • rkka

    “The Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation has contracted with the Dusseldorf-based Rheinmetall Group and its Russian partner JSCo Oboronservis to build a major army training centre in Mulino, Russia. Located in the Volga region, by 2014 this simulation-supported training centre, the most advanced system of its kind worldwide, will be able to train 30,000 troops a year. For Rheinmetall the order is worth well over 100 million Euro including further options.

    This contract has special strategic significance for the Rheinmetall Group, representing the German defence industry’s first significant foothold in the Russian market. In light of plans to modernize the equipment of the Russian armed forces, the opportunities for follow-on orders from the Russian Federation are considerable.”

    Looks to me that the Germans don’t fear the Russians challenging the post 1990 order.

    Why should the Anglosphere?

  • Corlyss

    Wouldn’t a visit to Russia be an acknowledgement of the political realities? Russia seems to be a lot more coherent today than the EU. New countries coming into the EU get presented with the bill for spending they didn’t even get to share in. No sane businessman would buy a business that’s on the verge of bankrupcy and collapse if that businessman ran a much smaller weaker company.

  • Cunctator

    When you strip a province that is historically significant from a proud country that believes it has been unjestly treated — and that is what we did by granting independence to Kosovo — you leave a long-lasting problem that can flare up at any time. Yes, it is true that most Serbs do not want to fight another war for Kosovo, even the ultra-nationalists, but many are very angry about the way that issue was “resolved” by the international community. And, there is another country where Kosovo is still discussed at all levels of society, and that is Russia. So, it is entirely understandable why the Serbian leader would look to Russia for support. They speak the same language of outrage and anger.

    I would just add that the way the US government treats the criminal regime (or more accurately, the regime of criminals) in Kosovo is rather extraordinary to follow. With the exception of Habsburg support for the Uskoks in the 16th century, i do not think that there is another case in European history of a gang of criminals obtaining Great Power support in the way that the Pristina gangs have done since 1999.

  • Stephen

    Perhaps someone should send a memo to Senator Kerry.

  • thibaud

    rkka – nothing wrong with a liberal democratic Russia gaining in influence and power. The problem is Putinism, which at home and abroad is synonymous with gangsterism, extortion, bullying, paranoia.

    The other set of problems with Putinism is that, like all authoritarian regimes, it’s far less stable than it appears, and ultimately less reliable.

    The US would have no problems whatsoever with a liberal democratic Russia that respected its neighbors and that refrained from undermining the civilized world’s efforts to keep Iran’s madmen from getting the bomb and Syria’s madmen from slaughtering their own peacefully protesting people.

  • rkka


    “nothing wrong with a liberal democratic Russia gaining in influence and power. The problem is Putinism, which at home and abroad is synonymous with gangsterism, extortion, bullying, paranoia.”

    Considering the parties that gained votes at United Russia’s expense between the 2007 and 2011 Duma elections, I suspect that Putinism is the closest thing to what we would consider “liberal” that we are likely to see in power in Russia any time soon.

    And considering the examples I cited above, the Germans, French, and Italians appear to understand this.

    No, I suspect that what is going on with the Anglosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy is that they are miffed that Russia recovered from her 1990s death spiral by rejecting the “Washington consensus.”

    The AFPE&P make far more noise about the means by which Russia got out of her 1990s death spiral than they ever did about Russia’s 1990s death spiral itself.

  • Cunctator

    rkka – I agree with much of what you wrote above. But I do not think it is just a case of old Anglo-Russian tensions resurfacing. Instead, I see it as a consequence of liberal ideology that assumes you can only work with like-minded countries. Those with different political systems that you might find unattractive or retrograde are, therefore, only acceptable if they show evidence of wanting to reform. In the case of 19th century Russia, we have forgotten that alongside the tensions with Britain over the Straits and Central Asia, London and Petersburg often collaborated to maintain stability in Europe. More familiarity with history by our leaders would help produce better foreign policy.

  • rkka


    The AFPE&P enjoyed their brief ” unipolar moment.”. Yeltsin’s visible submission to them was deeply gratifying.

    Due mostly to their lunatic wars, it is visibly slipping away. Being in denial, the AFPE&P project their frustration at Putin, who, even now, is entirely prepared to cooperate with them, as he cooperates with the French, Germans, and Italians.

    He will not submit, as Yeltsin did.

    And that is the entire problem.

  • thibaud

    90% of the reason that “Russia recovered from her 1990s death spiral” can be found in the oil price curve. Bottomed out in late 1998 and soared through 2008.

    Putin’s economic success, like the success of the Latin American nations in the 1960s and 1970s, is almost entirely due to world commodity prices. The next oil price crash will bring down his government.

  • Corlyss

    “When you strip a province that is historically significant from a proud country that believes it has been unjestly treated — and that is what we did by granting independence to Kosovo — you leave a long-lasting problem that can flare up at any time.”

    Um, how is that different from every two-bit ethnic group in the entire Balkans? There’s a lot of them. They are all jumbled up and spread around in what they call “ancestral lands.” None of them like or get along with the rest of the two-bit ethnic groups in the area absent a Big Boss, which Russia now wants to be, and all of them demand the right to self-rule. All of them are just spoiling for some Big Boss to come restore civilized order, and I’m not talking about the UN.

  • Bosna

    “Why shouldn’t there be an independent Republika Srpska if there is an independent Kosovo?”
    The comparison with Republika Srpska is bunk;

    The RS is not a real country, but an entity created by genocide and ethnic cleansing; anyone who equates it with Kosova is at best an ignoramus and at worst a moral idiot. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that the RS’s leadership be inspired by the Kosova precedent and attempt to secede – such an attempt would inevitably end in failure, and provide an opportunity for the Bosnians and the Western alliance to abolish the RS or at least massively reduce its autonomy vis-a-vis the the central Bosnian state, thereby rescuing Bosnia-Hercegovina from its current crisis and improving the prospects for long-term Balkan stability.

    RS is recognised as one of Bosnia’s two entities in extremely generous borders encompassing 49% of Bosnia’s territory, despite the fact that Serbs had comprised only slightly over half of the pre-war population of this territory, and only 31% of the pre-war population of Bosnia as a whole.

    Secession of the RS from Bosnia would constitute a violation of the terms of the Dayton Accords, therefore nullifying any obligation on the part of the other Bosnian parties and the international community to recognise its existence.

    Those complaining that the Serbs are supposedly being discriminated against by the international community, so far as national self-determination is concerned, should be reminded that the Bosnian Serbs are not being accorded any fewer rights in this respect than the Bosnian Croats, or than the Albanians in Macedonia – indeed, they have been accorded a higher degree of autonomy than either. Furthermore, the right to national self-determination also belongs to the non-Serb inhabitants of the territory of the RS who were expelled during the war; like Bosnia as a whole, the RS belongs to all its peoples, not just the Serbs or any other single ethnic group.

    Indeed, the recognition of the RS in 1995 was made contingent upon its acceptance of additional terms, including that it permit the return of Muslim and Croat refugees to its territory and cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). These terms have not been fulfilled: the RS, whose territory was nearly half Muslim and Croat in 1992, is today still almost entirely ethnically purely Serb, while its record of collaboration with the ICTY is the worst of any state or entity in the region.

  • WigWag

    “The RS is not a real country, but an entity created by genocide and ethnic cleansing…”(Bosna)

    It sounds alot like Kosovo to me; Bosna. Are you seriously trying to tell us that Kosovo is a real nation and that it hasn’t been characterized by the ethnic cleansing of it’s Orthodox population by it’s Muslim population? If that’s your position, it’s you Bosna who is to use your words “at best an ignoramous and at worst a moral idiot.”

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