The Struggle Between the Balkans' Alfa [Fe]Male Leaders

The Struggle Between the Balkans' Alfa [Fe]Male Leaders

By Milos Ciric

It has been an exhausting month for Serbia's indefatigable Aleksandar Vucic, with a pointless trip to Zagreb, a national holiday to oversee – and a Kosovo anniversary to try to spoil.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar in February.
There is a widely accepted misconception about “the ability” of Western Balkan countries “to produce more history than they can handle”.

This mantra is used typically in times of political turbulence [basically all the time] by the region’s political and ever-nationalistic, authoritarian-leaning elites.

In reality, this “surplus of history” is created by our political leaders who, for small political gains, generate unnecessary crises, and then “work hard on resolving” the seemingly unsolvable bilateral problems that they caused in the first place.

At the same time, all of them are prone to declaring themselves “leaders of the region”, while simultaneously being grossly servile in their relations to “big powers”, whether that is the US, the EU, Russia, Turkey or China.

To make things even more comical, they try constantly to play multiple hands with “those who matter in the world of politics”, and are very transparent about “sitting on more chairs at the same time.”

This is most obvious of Serbia’s leadership, which often brags about this at home, representing its incompetence and insignificance on the world stage as “a genuine political talent” – all of which usually results in disciplinary measures from those same big powers, whether they are from the West or the East.

Like all wannabe leaders with their provincial mindsets – much resembling spoiled kids – our leading politicians get angry whenever they don’t get what they imagine they deserve.

It’s very easy to satisfy their immature appetites – pat anyone of them on their back, shake a hand in front of a camera in Washington, Moscow, Ankara or Beijing, and they’ll be happy as puppies.

Additionally, they will represent this as “yet another big victory for our country” at home.

“Home” in this case can be any of the Western Balkan countries, with a big difference that those that constitute “home” – the citizens of the region – haven’t yet seen any meaningful progress in their everyday lives coming from these fruitless games that their politicians are so happy to play.

In their bilateral and multilateral relations, the contest to be the alfa [fe]male leader of the region is permanently open.

The struggle is real; none of our Presidents and Prime Ministers misses any chance to pull off some kind of misdeed whenever there’s an official meeting between them.

February 2018 started with one such get-together, when, after much pointless noise, the Presidents of Serbia and Croatia met in Zagreb.

Before the meeting, the strategy of Serbian President was to put as many of his puppets out there to issue insulting statements about Croatia.

Thus, we had Minister Aleksandar Vulin saying that “a black stain is on Croatia’s face because they insulted the President of Serbia even before his visit”, after Croatia – correctly – tried to get Vucic to apologise for Serbia’s wartime aggression, but “in the turn of events” gave up on the request, showing that they don’t actually care about that as much as they like their constituency to believe.

What added insult to injury was Croatian Prime Minister Plenkovic’s “consultations” about Vucic’s visit with a person charged with commissioning war crimes against Serbs.

That says enough of Croatia’s leaders and their seriousness when it comes to getting Serbia to finally apologise to the victims that Serbian forces killed and tortured during the war in Croatia and move that difficult conversation forward. It’s all for the parade, nothing of substance there.

On the other side of the Danube, we had the Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabic, announcing Vucic’s visit to Zagreb as “yet another attempt by Vucic to reach out to the Croats with an open hand”, which was done “in vain because they don’t accept his open hand of friendship and reconciliation”.

Brnabic said this as if Vucic did not represent [or was part of] the aggressive Serbian forces that caused the wars of the 1990s, and as if “an open hand of friendship and forgiveness” should be offered to him, not by him.

Vucic meanwhile used his ventriloquists to declare “a moratorium on talks about the past”, because, naturally, the Serbian President is “always and only interested in the talks about the future.”

This tune never gets old, and it sounds great, doesn’t it?

It is always a good strategy for Vucic, because, after all, who in their sound mind would want to talk about the past if they were Aleksandar Vucic?

So, after this redundant verbal back and forth, the meeting finally took place.

Based on the reports of the media in Serbia and Croatia – which are reflecting our Presidents’ mindsets – Serbs declared that Vucic had “defeated” the Croats by visiting Zagreb “on his terms”, despite the protests staged in Zagreb against him before his arrival and during his visit.

Putting herself in a sacrificial position, so she could pose as the hospitable host, Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic called the protesters “politically marginal individuals”, enraging Croats, who were then consoled by the fiery statements of the president of the Croatian Parliament and the Prime Minister Plenkovic.

In accordance with this needless uproar, during Vucic’s visit to Croatia, nothing of significance happened – the meeting between presidents was stone-cold, none of the important open questions like finding the missing persons from the war in Croatia even came close to closure, despite the same old talks about it and 20-year-old promises that “in the following period this will be concretely addressed”; there were no actual proposals for long overdue solutions to questions such as reparations for war victims, or any kind of movement forward in dealing with the growing ethnic divisions and hatred between ordinary Serbs and Croats.

The Presidents of Serbia and Croatia willingly wasted another chance to send a clear message to their respective citizens that Croats and Serbs should live in good neighbourly relations; not a word of substance was spoken nor a concrete plan proposed about minority rights in both countries; no youth exchange programs; no plans for joint initiatives – nothing.

All of this despite the fact that these very topics were part of a recently published EU “strategy for the Western Balkans.”

But we know better than Brussels who we are talking about here – except on paper, no tangible plan of action was important either to Vucic, or to Grabar-Kitarovic, or Plenkovic.

The “who overpowered whom” was again the name of the game.

There was no arbitrator to declare a winner, since “the game” is in our politicians’ heads – which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have far-reaching consequences for our lives; Croats escorted Vucic with a victor’s grin on their face, while Vucic made his triumphal return to Belgrade, and that was it.

Vucic came back from Zagreb, exhausted, to host the celebration of Serbia’s Statehood day, on February 15th, which is also an important religious holiday for the Serbian Orthodox Church.

What better way to celebrate Serbia’s national holiday than inviting Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik [again!] to stand by Vucic’s side during the ceremony in the town of Orasac where the Serbian uprising against the Ottomans in the 19th century began.

Using this anti-Muslim, fertile ground, where “the Serbs’ glorious fight against the Turks began”, Dodik gave a statement that “Serbs have two motherlands – Serbia and Republika Srpska.”

Vucic seemed tired but nevertheless talked about things of national interest – overlying his plans for the future of the nation and giving directions to Serbian women about what to do with their body parts.

“We are not seeing enough new births, while many Serbs are leaving the county”, he said, which is, naturally, “unacceptable.”

By the way, who are “we”, exactly?

What it all meant was clear; as Vucic put it, “our fight against the disappearance of Serbian nation” was a message sent to underemployed, underpaid and discriminated female citizens of Serbia to shut up and make more Serbs.

At the same time, despite the belief that Vucic is a man of stone who can “withstand everything”, another celebration took place, which was particularly horrid for him.

Namely, Kosovo celebrated its 10th anniversary as an independent state, about which I wrote here earlier.

The anti-Albanian, anti-Kosovo campaign in Serbian media was underway for weeks before Kosovo’s Independence day, adding to the decades-long vilification of Kosovars.

However, the media and political elites thought the Serbian public was in desperate need of something more explosive to mark the “unlawfully” and “self-proclaimed independence” of “the so-called Republic of Kosovo.”

Who better to call to fulfill this sacred purpose than Chief of Serbian diplomacy, Ivica Dacic?

Hence, Dacic, Slobodan Milosevic’s best apprentice, firmly took the spotlight.

Along with his usual repertoire about Kosovo being the cradle and centre of Serbian national essence, he ludicrously cried about how Barbados had “violated international law” by recognising Kosovo, the 116th UN member state to do so [out of 193], on the day before the celebration in Pristina began.

To make things even more humiliating for Serbia, nasty Barbados was in the group of countries whose citizens Serbia recently relieved of the obligation to get a visa in order to visit Serbia.

And this decision of the Serbian Government came into effect – of all days – on February 18th, Kosovo’s Independence Day.

If all of this wasn’t completely insignificant, it would probably be hilarious to connect these dots.

Besides condemning the once friendly Caribbean island of Barbados, Dacic issued his well-worn litany of statements about “Serbs’ rights being threatened by leaders of UCK [Kosovo Liberation Army] who lead the so-called Republic of Kosovo” and similar inflammatory assertions.

At the same time, the citizens of Kosovo sang and danced in Pristina’s central Skenderbeg Square during a concert given by the internationally best known Kosovar of all, the singer Rita Ora.

Members of Kosovo’s political elite haven’t missed the chance to bow to basically everyone who recognises Kosovo as an independent state.

Overly humble “thank you” notes were publicly expressed to everyone, from the US, which was the first state to recognise Kosovo’s independence in 2008, to Barbados, being the latest country to do so.

On the other hand, Ramush Haradinaj’s government vowed to “continue talks” with Serbia and promised to its citizens a “bright future” in the “European families of nations.”

In both Serbia’s and Kosovo’s public spheres, there were scoundrels voicing “possible partition plans”, “the exchange of territories” and other fairy tales that usually serve to calm down the Serbs, but are, and should be, as far away from realization as possible.

Anyone who even mentions “the partition” of the unitary republic of Kosovo is venomous for the Kosovo’s future, keeping the spark that could put the region back in flames lit.

Those voices, coming from whichever side, should be unambiguously dismissed.

Let us repeat – there’s no such thing as “a peaceful exchange of territories in the Western Balkans.”

Never was, and never will be.

Who doesn’t understand that, be it the Serbian right-wing nationalists or some of the high ranking but clearly poorly educated members of the EU administration, should be either immediately educated or excluded from the public discussion about “the future relations between Serbia and Kosovo”, as well as from the ongoing but now slowed-down “Brussels dialogue” between Kosovo and Serbia.

What has to happen in order so we can go on with our lives in peace – and what has to happen sooner rather than later – is Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, while Kosovo should be unfaltering in keeping its hard-fought independence viable and its country together.

After ten years, the task is, as some of Kosovo’s authors and politicians have rightly said, to stop fighting for recognition, but to start creating the country of Kosovars [Albanians, Serbs, and others] and work on improving the desperately poor quality of Kosovo’s people’s lives.

It’s improbable that this will happen under the current Kosovo government, which, like all other Western Balkan governments, is taking an easier road travelled – participating in futile political clashes both internally and externally, which result in no palpable gains for the citizens they represent.

Back in Serbia, Vucic’s February headaches seemed never-ending.

He has claimed many times that he works 15 hours a day, but in February, he must have been working over-overtime.

His party is in the middle of an election campaign that it must win – for Belgrade’s City Council, which is scheduled for early March.

Luckily for him, his opponents, the Serbian opposition parties, movements and groups, are fighting more between themselves, than making their cases against his lackeys who currently run Belgrade.

He promised that he would not appear during the campaign [nobody knows why he felt a need to say such an obvious lie] as we all witness his everyday comments about the elections; his name leads the election list of his party; he never misses the chance to mention Belgrade elections; his ever-presence in the media is intact.

Not winning the Belgrade election with more than 50 per cent of votes is absurdly portrayed by his opponents as “a clear blow to his tyranny”, and is declared as the major goal of Vucic’s opponents.

This, however, talks volumes about them, not about him.

We are in desperate need of a better opposition to Vucic because the current opposition parties have repeatedly proven dangerously ineffective ever since he first took power back in 2012.

Despite that, Vucic feels like he has to prove something again, which is never a good sign. He is running for yet another of his “first mandates”, now leading the campaign to continue running the Belgrade City Government, which his party has already run for years.

Every new election, be it on national, local or on the level of local community centre somewhere in Serbia, is another chance for Vucic to reboot and start over again from scratch.

He and his party are in the business of successfully representing themselves as the eternal opposition to “those before them who ruined the country” despite the fact that we are entering the sixth consecutive year since his abusive use of all the political centres of power in the country began.

He does this by successfully manipulating citizens through his many supporters in the media who represent him and his party as “a new hope”, and as a chance for “a fresh start.”

By playing us all with this propagandist method, Vucic’s biggest wish is constantly being fulfilled: the public eye considers him and his party as a political option which forever seeks their first term in any office, which allows them to blame those “who ruled before them” for “the situation in the country” – while they continue to misuse practically all the power there is in our society. Clever, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, in Bosnia, the separatist Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska decided it was an excellent idea to announce his candidacy for the Serbian seat on three-member Presidency of Bosnia.

He also said his decision was “definitive”, that “his victory is inevitable” and that he “doesn’t plan to work from Sarajevo”, but, when elected, to communicate with other members of Bosnia’s highest political body through a video link.

His decision to run for Bosnian presidency, naturally, was announced after his visit to Belgrade and talks with Vucic.

And what kind of another cozy meet-up between Dodik and Vucic would that be if presents were not involved.

The bromance between the two Serbian strongmen this time around was crowned by Dodik presenting Vucic with an “Order of the Republika Srpska”, a medal [gold, of course] given for special merits in developing and strengthening cooperation and relations between Serbia and Srpska.

Let us quickly review just one of Dodik’s proclaimed destructive goals if he is indeed elected to the Presidency of Bosnia: for example, he wants to cut Bosnian army from 16,000 troops to 3,500.

At the same time, reports are immerging about alleged illegal and heavily armed paramilitary groups that reportedly are flourishing in Republika Srpska, trained, and in other ways allegedly aided and abetted by Russia and Serbia.

In addition, Republika Srpska’s police force has been recently updated with more than 2,500 new armaments.

I hope that everybody reading this is already aware of Dodik’s aspirations when it comes to the future of Bosnia: he doesn’t want Bosnia to have a future, often calling it “an impossible country”, and working hard on its dissolution for years.

So what can other be expected from him if he gets elected to the Bosnian presidency except, at best, political gridlock, and at worst, the full frontal attack on the unity of Bosnia, with a clear intention of pumping more air into Republika Srpska’s plans for separation.

Dodik’s policies are fatally toxic for the future of Bosnia on any given day, but for him to be a member of the body that leads the country would probably be the definitive blow to post-Dayton Bosnia, with unpredictable consequences.

If this happens, the blame game will start, during which the EU should not be overlooked.

Brussels, as the main peacekeeper in the region, has done practically nothing to restrain Dodik for years now, despite the sanctions introduced by the US.

Dodik, Serbia and Russia are openly joining forces in regularly staging protests against NATO exercises and its presence in the region, and putting on collaborative military exercises of their own.

When Brussels finally wakes up and smells the gunpowder, it might be too late.

And now, it’s time for some good news: Kosovo and Montenegro finally reached a deal on a 2015 border agreement between the two countries, which is an important step toward Kosovo’s citizens gaining visa-free travel to the EU countries.

For those unaware of this, a newsflash: Kosovars live in effective isolation in the middle of Europe, struggling to get out even to Montenegro, much resembling Serbian citizens who were practically under a travel ban before the EU lifted the visa regime for Serbian citizens back in 2009.

Demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro is a rare positive regional development for several reasons – firstly because the borders are finally settling in this part of the Balkans, which would make them theoretically harder to change in the future, and secondly, this truly annoys Russia, which desperately tries to undermine Montenegro’s statehood and is causing upsets in the region by increasing its presence.

Russia’s biggest hope in the region was and forever will be – Serbia – whose officials and right-wing supporters in the media are ricocheting toxic statements on a daily basis against everyone who “attacks our Russian friends”.

The inextricable knot between Russia, Serbia and Republika Srpska, which Vucic carefully maintains, is getting more stronger as days go by.

The latest: February ended with the visit of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who came to Serbia to celebrate the 180th anniversary of diplomatic relations between two countries.

For this special occasion, an unprecedented thing happened: the Serbian and Russian Chiefs of Diplomacy, Lavrov and Dacic, penned a joint article that was published across the front page of Serbian daily “Politika.”

In their collaborative op-ed, the two men included a lot of historical references, conveniently falsified and sugarcoated, and a lot of promises – never to break the strong bonds of friendship between the two nations, etc.

In times in which we witness the blossoming of Russia-sponsored fake news media outlets, which are spreading pro-Putin and anti-Western propaganda in Serbia, which overlaps to Republika Srpska and the rest of the region, one has to wonder – is Russia in it to win it through Serbia, and has the Serbian political leaders, indeed, already made their decision – keep the EU close, get the money and occasionally check the right EU’s administrative boxes by saying nice things like “we will work with Croatia / Kosovo / Bosnia / Montenegro / Macedonia in dealing with all the open questions and resolving them once and for all” – while at the same time allowing Russia to spread its claws in this part of the world under disguise of “historically brotherly relations between two countries.”

Conveniently, the month ended with a Russia-sponsored event when the Russian embassy in Serbia celebrated “The Fatherland Defenders’ Day.”

Serbian media outlets reported in a festive tone that yet another present-giving event between powerful men had happened: “Foreign Minister of Serbia Ivica Dacic was honored by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a Russian Medal of friendship, while for the first time in history, the Russian hymn was sung in Serbian, and the Russian choir sang the Serbian anthem translated in Russian.”

Guests in the attendance on this occasion are also worth noting.

Guests in the attendance on this occasion are also worth noting. Clapping their hands in unity under the Russian flags were Nebojsa Stefanovic, Vucic’s most trustful associate and Serbian Minister of Interior, accompanied by several other ministers; Marko Djuric, director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija; Ljubisa Dikovic, the Army Chief of Staff; two of the many right-wing opposition leaders Vuk Jeremic and Bosko Obradovic; “The prince” Aleksandar Karadjordjevic; Vojisav Seselj, president of Serbian Radical Party, and – of course – Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, who, sadly, this time around hasn’t been awarded.

But – one should never lose hope – we’re at the doorstep of March, which is the most politically potent propaganda month due to a lot of anniversaries and “nationally sensitive” dates in all Balkan countries, so there will be plenty opportunities for Dodik to shine.

The future of the region seems to belong to him and those like him anyway, since the so-called “Western centers of power” are still making the same old mistakes – spending their time on writing strategies for the Western Balkans that nobody reads, accepting false promises from our leaders, but never fully following up on their realization.

On the other hand, Russia doesn’t lose any time at all. They don’t have any written strategies, at least not published ones, but instead are seriously engaging in a lot of tangible actions that have the malicious potential to produce major crises with sweeping consequences.

Milos Ciric is a Serbian politologist, educator, writer, and human rights activist. He holds MA degree in Cultural policy from the University of Arts, Belgrade and Lumière University Lyon 2, France, and MA degree in Media Studies from The New School University, New York.

The opinions expressed in the comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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