Ed Note: Andras J. Riedlmayer has been a student of Balkan affairs since his school days. During the Yugoslavian wars of the 90s he became a prime mover in an international effort to reconstitute books and the like destroyed in the war, and in the aftermath traveled extensively in the region researching cultural destruction in support of the war crimes trials at the Hague.
A 1994 print issue of The New Combat featured a piece by AndrÃƒÂ¡s about the war in Bosnia. So, last week, after posting a few distant thoughts about Kosovo’s move for independence, including worries about a resumed shooting war, I asked Andras to clue me in with some particulars. He writes:
Good riddance to Prime Minister Kostunica, who was never a real reformer and whose self-engineered resignation is no loss for Serbian democracy.
Kostunica’s personal popularity and that of his party has been on the decline. He has been trying hard to whip up popular anger over the Kosovo issue and make it his own, but try as he may, as a demagogue Kostunica is at best a poor imitation of Sloba in his prime. The frenzy over Kosovo, the engineered riots in Belgrade, the attacks on foreign embassies, and the toppling of the government are all part of a calculated political gamble. But it’s a gamble that may not pay off if Kostunica fails to deliver on his one promise — that he alone will “save” Kosovo for Serbia.
The beneficiaries of the current political crisis in Serbia are more likely to be the Radicals, who under Seselj’s successor Tomislav Nikolic have been trying to remake their image into something less scary than the neo-fascist party that they are. If the Radicals end up forming the new government — in coalition with Kostunica’s DSS (and Milosevic’s Socialists, et al.), they’ll only be blamed for
(a) having posed as the only party that can stop Kosovo independence, only to be powerless to prevent or reverse it; and
(b) for the economic and political repercussions for Serbia, likely to include political isolation and economic stagnation.
As recently as last month, many Serbs were looking forward to being able to travel to the EU again, as they haven’t been able to do since the 1980s. With Nikolic & Co. running the government in Belgrade, the offer of visa-free travel in the EU and the prospect of increased EU aid and investment is likely to evaporate. Which may finally provide a much needed reality check, both for the Serbian public and for the EU leadership.
As in the 1990s, it’s high time once again for the EU to be disabused of its illusion that the way to “guarantee stability” in the Balkans is by continually rewarding Belgrade for bad behavior. Only last week, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn was still gamely insisting that Serbia should be allowed to continue its EU accession process without having to meet the precondition of arresting and handing over Mladic first — a concession he believes necessary in order to encourage a “silent majority” of pro-EU citizens in Serbia. But in fact EU concessions on matters of principle, such as the surrender of war criminals, will only serve to embolden the Radicals and their allies, who have already announced that they will cut off all cooperation with The Hague once they are in power.
While the short-term political future in Serbia is not looking good, the 1914 scenario is not something even the Radicals take seriously. Even they recognize that Serbia no longer has the wherewithal to credibly threaten its neighbors, as it did at the time of the collapse of Yugoslavia.
At the outset of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Yugoslavia had the fourth largest army in Europe with 180,000 active duty soldiers and more than a million trained reservists. In addition, the special forces of Belgrade’s ministry of the interior were trained and equipped to army standards. Milosevic also had at his disposal the infamous paramilitaries, and territorial defense units, and assorted volunteers and weekend cut-throats. The Yugoslav army of the time was well armed and well equipped with thousands of tanks; a great deal of heavy artillery (the better to shell Sarajevo); modern Soviet-made air defense systems; etc.
Since 2004, Serbia’s army has been busy scrapping the bulk of its obsolescent Soviet-model tanks (made in the 1970s and 80s) and disposing of much of the rest of its surplus armaments and facilities. Most of the air force is gone, as is all of the former Yugoslav navy (Serbia is landlocked since Montenegro went its own way in 2006). At present the Serbian Army (VS) is in the process of reorganizing and reinventing itself as a small, all-professional force of 32,000 — as it gets ready to meet standards for eventual NATO membership. But while the scrapping of the old ironmongery has proceeded on schedule, a lack of funds has delayed the acquisition of new hardware and the training of the new, professional force. Meanwhile, Serbia’s Defense Ministry is having trouble paying the pensions of veterans of the wars of the 1990s and of the large number of newly-demobilized troops. There have been noisy demonstrations of Serb veterans demanding their unpaid army pensions.
In short, today’s Serbian Army (VS) is not the threat that the JNA was two decades ago. Meanwhile the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS), the force that Ratko Mladic commanded in the days of his “triumph” at Srebrenica, has now been successfully merged into the integrated Bosnian army. Unlike Karadzic back then, today Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik has no army of his own to command. It seems the worst that he and his colleagues in Belgrade can do these days is to pull out the stops on the rhetoric … and instruct police to look the other way as drunken teenagers attack foreign diplomatic missions.