Lingering nationalism darkens Serbia's future

My smart and ambitious Serbian language teacher in Belgrade last summer spoke for an entire generation of young people in the former Yugoslavia when she unleashed a bitter tirade on the difficulties of obtaining a visa to travel abroad, even to nearby Austria or Italy. "I feel like I'm in a prison," Marija complained, "and I don't even know who to blame!"

Not all of Marija's friends are so unsure. Many, she told me, feel the European Union is blackmailing Serbs by requiring their government to arrest Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic - indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity - before restarting its "stabilization and association agreement" with Belgrade. And some of them, certainly, voted last week for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, or SRS, whose 29 percent showing bested all political parties, and which views Mr. Mladic as a war hero.


The SRS will not lead Serbia, thankfully. Instead, a shaky coalition of two democratic parties will continue to make conciliating overtures to the nationalists on issues such as war crimes, while doing its utmost to ease EU membership stipulations and inch the country in the only direction that can truly lift it from the shadow of Slobodan Milosevic and usher in a post-nationalist era of prosperity, legality and, for Marija and millions like her, access to the broader world.

Times are tough for the Serbs, and as their blunt, informed and pro-Europe Democratic Party leader Boris Tadic told supporters at a New Year's rally, 2007 is going to be tougher still. Aside from the nation's economic woes, corruption and isolation, Montenegro voted last spring for independence and the Union of Serbia and Montenegro lost half its name (and its whole Adriatic coastline). In the coming months, it may also lose Kosovo, a province that is only 10 percent Serb but is considered the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy and culture.


None of these diminishments compares, however, to the setback dealt by Mr. Milosevic's death last March in The Hague. The continued power of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia rests in part on an unfinished reckoning with the past, and when Mr. Milosevic cheated justice, he also cheated his people of the chance to develop some faith in European legal institutions and values. By creating an unimpeachable record of the crimes committed in Bosnia and Kosovo in the name of Greater Serbia, a conclusive trial would have helped lift the veil of ignorance and denial that shrouds so many Serbs. It's a veil, after all, that Mr. Milosevic draped over the country with his repression of the press, universities and other outlets for truth.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, things appear little better. As in Serbia, EU leaders and international tribunal judges have been doing backflips to encourage the kind of democratic reforms and postwar justice that would allow the EU accession of a country whose economy would have made Greece look prosperous when it joined. Yet nationalism is holding sway. Last year, a constitutional reform package aimed at streamlining Bosnia's administrative bureaucracy failed, despite intense pressure from the United States. Bosnian Serbs, moreover, seem determined to hold on to their Serbian republic and institutions such as a separate police force that make it a quasi-state within a state. And ever since Montenegro seceded from Serbia in May, the bombastic Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been threatening an independence referendum for his "entity," something prohibited in the Bosnian constitution.

Almost eight years after NATO planes put a stop to Serb ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, and more than a decade after the genocidal Bosnian conflict, the Yugoslav wars are unfinished business in much of the region, and Balkan stability remains in doubt.

It wasn't always like this, of course. Yugoslavia before the fall of communism and rise of Mr. Milosevic - and despite its volatile mix of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Muslims and others - was the exceptional socialist state that treaded the thin line between political independence from the Soviets and economic dependence on the West. It wasn't wholly free, and there was a prominent north-south divide in terms of modernization and prosperity, but few Yugoslavs I have met have anything but positive memories of the country.

Compared to Slovenia, which has joined the EU, and Croatia, which is on its way thanks to its cooperation with the tribunal, the sense of apathy among ordinary Bosnians and Serbs is profound: They don't trust their political leaders; their professional prospects seem nil without the right connections; and they are trapped by the restrictive visa regime.

Who is to blame? Certainly the Western powers could have done more to root out nationalism after the wars. The compromises that nationalists force upon more progressive politicians keep the EU at bay and people like Marija from seeing Paris. But until enough of her friends recognize this, and start pushing their leaders for an open accounting of the past rather than blaming their predicament on outsiders, the nationalists will continue to trumpet ideals that impede the realities ordinary people deserve.

The EU, as Mr. Tadic and other admirable leaders in the region know, is offering one generous deal. But it's wholly up to them to make the honest and arduous adjustments necessary to take advantage of it.

Paul Miller is associate professor of history at McDaniel College and the International University of Sarajevo. His e-mail is