Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Old Enemies, New Friends

Serbia is doing its best to recast itself. Earlier this season Boris Tadic, the president, paid homage to the 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys killed after the town fell to Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. Meanwhile, at Novi Sad in northern Serbia, the tenth annual Exit music festival was held, so called because it is meant to represent the “exit” from Serbian nationalism. It’s obvious that the country is trying to clean up its image in anticipation of joining the great European club.

Actually a strange paradox is at work; for while Serbia is looking to the west it is at the same time looking east to Turkey. Yes, it is an oddity: Serbia and Turkey, two ancient enemies, are reaching out to one another. They both stand at the door of Europe, and while they may not be outcasts they might best be described as orphans. So, making the best of the situation, they have concluded a series of agreements allowing for free trade between the two countries as well as visa free travel. Both, I think, are anticipating a future that may not include membership of the European Union.

If Serbia does not join, or is not allowed to join, it will be because of one thing: Kosovo. This region, which declared its independence in 2008, is a setting for yet another paradox. It contains few people of Serbian ethnic origin though it is still considered not just to be part of Serbian soil but in many ways the most sacred part, the place where the country suffered defeat and martyrdom in the Middle Ages at the hands of – can you guess? –the Turks, bad old enemies, good new friends.

The Serbian government continues to fight a rearguard action against this unilateral act of the Kosovo Albanians through various international agencies, including the UN. The problem is that the independence of Kosovo has been recognised by twenty-two of the EU’s twenty-seven member states which is hardly likely to smooth the Serbian passage. Membership of the EU contains to be the main objective of Serbian foreign policy but the rapprochement with Turkey, and other nations beyond, is clearly being shaped as a line of second defence.

Turkey is back in the Balkans through a Serbian door. History really does have a strange sense of humour.


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  3. I am now firmly of the view that Serbia has to accept that it has lost Kosovo - and in very large part, precisely because of its own bloody and exclusionary actions there, for several decades before the loss was, effectively, formalised. I also think, however regrettably, that at some point the statelet created on genocide that is "Republika Srpska" (truly the dark heart of the Balkans) will, almost inevitably, end up being incorporated in some kind of Greater Serbia, whether under that name, or in effect. The flawed compromise of the Dayton Accords seems to offer no other coherent long term way-out.

    Serbia is by no means the only country whose historic "heartland" (and even to say Kosovo is that is troublesome, in some ways, location of the Patriarchate notwithstanding...) is outside its current borders. Slovenia is an obvious example in the broad neighbourhood (Austrian-controlled Carinithia being its one-time heart), Armenia an even more glaring one (and for citizens of the Republic of Armenia even to reach their national symbol of Mount Ararat is far from straightforward). And if one is to reawaken Serbian irredentism, can Albanian irredentism really be far behind. Farewell, one fears, and not in a happy way, to the particularly artificial "nation state" whose name one dare not mention (at least, if one wishes to maintain reasonable relations with Greece): I allude, of course, to Macedonia

    Truthfully I cannot see any Serbia-Turkey rapprochement lasting too long (although, perhaps, one might have said this of France and Germany in the not too distant past, so who knows?); certainly not if Turkey continues to become more openly Islamic in character, with the (frankly anti-democratic Kemalist) "safeguards of secularity" being weakened more and more, as seems likely. Russia is, of course, the more obvious, ally, perhaps a true, enduring one...

    I do think that your point about both Serbia and Turkey "anticipating a future that may not include membership of the European Union" is spot on, however.

    All of which goes to show, I think, that the enduring boundaries that persist even a largely secularised Europe are those of, or created by, or tied up with, religion.

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  5. Being enemy or friend thing is not like black or white. Sometimes you can fight with good friends, too. Turkish people has no feeling of enemy towards any of the minorities in Ottoman Empire including Serbians, Greeks, Armenians or Jews. Moreover, in Ottoman administration there used to be high class statesmen and even "emperors" from these minorities. That proves everything.

  6. Dominic, I share your opinion about the Republika Srpska. Final rejection of the Serb application to join the EU will almost certainly increase the pressure for some kind of Greater Serbia.

  7. Kunday, I imagine few people in Turkey today have any feelings at all about the Ottoman Empire or its former subject races. History has moved on. In the Balkans, in Serbia in particular, history is not a ghost but a palpable presence.

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  9. The legendary Albanian fertility rate in Kosovo... Those people really understood the meaning of "Make love, not war".