February 06, 2008

Serbia: The EU’s Red Line

FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica
February 6, 2008 | 1542 GMT


EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on Feb. 6 indefinitely postponed the signing of a partnership deal with Serbia out of concern that the deal would bring about the downfall of Serbia’s government. This has raised the probability that Kosovar independence will be postponed yet again.


EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on Feb. 6 indefinitely postponed the signing of a partnership accord — essentially the first baby step toward EU membership — with Serbia for fear that the deal would bring about the downfall of the Serbian government. The deal was supposed to be formally signed Feb. 7.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica originally supported the deal as part of an influence trade: He agreed to support closer links to the European Union, and his rival in government — President Boris Tadic — agreed to support the sale of national energy firm NIS to the Russian government.

But Kostunica is in a very weak personal position in Belgrade. His party is not the biggest in the Serbian parliament but the fourth-largest. The only way he can keep himself relevant is to constantly shift and juggle his positions. He did an excellent job of maintaining his kingmaker position in the short run by striking deals with Brussels and Moscow simultaneously. However, should those deals actually be implemented and Europe and Russia begin exercising direct influence in Belgrade, Kostunica’s flexibility will be curtailed in the long run. After all, the Russians and Europeans both would rather deal with Serbs who are a little more genuine about their politics.

The desire to preserve his room to maneuver led Kostunica to start rallying against the EU deal on Feb. 4-5, saying that the European Union would construe the association agreement as a trade for the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo. Combine the reliability of the nationalist fervor that this issue can generate — the Serbs see Kosovo as their national heart — with the pulpit Kostunica has because he is prime minister and the deflection of the EU deal was almost a foregone conclusion. (Kosovo also threatens to bring about a broad European-Russian confrontation over Russian influence in Europe.)

On the other side of the coin, the NIS sale also is likely to stall. The Russians are convinced that the deal is done — but then, the Europeans were convinced of the success of their association agreement. Kostunica — and he might get some help from Tadic on this — can simply point to the fact that a firm sale price was never agreed to, leaving NIS in Belgrade’s hands.

Kostunica’s motives and actions aside, this episode also highlights one other critical detail. The European Union backed away from the association deal out of fear that Kostunica’s opposition would crash the government. That government is a coalition of Kostunica’s own and two larger pro-European parties, but the largest party in parliament is actually the pro-Russian Serbian Radical Party. If the European Union is willing to backstep to keep the coalition alive and prevent the Radicals from rising to power, then it is certainly willing to backstep on the much thornier and more consequence-laden issue of Kosovar independence.

Knowledge of this bottom line will be used to great effect in the not-so-distant future — and not only by Kostunica.

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