Toothless Serb syndrome
What started as my response to just one of the comments to my various postings on Kosovo has developed into something longer, so I’ve put it here rather than underneath the comments.
Dan Mattei complains that I have selected only pictures of Serbs who are “ugly, unshaven and had no teeth” in contrast to the photos of “young and beautiful” Albanians.
There are three pictures on the page. One is a crowd scene from too great a distance to make any judgement. One is of an old man with both a cigarette and a tooth pick in his mouth.
It’s true he has a moustache, but to my mind he has a noble, rather handsome look.
Then there is a picture of Gojko Raicvic whom I approached because he was draped in a flag and whose interview I found especially interesting as he is a British citizen.
As far as I remember he was clean-shaven and, as far as I can see, has a full set of teeth. The other chap’s mouth is closed, but there is no reason to think has no teeth.
Beautiful Albanians on the previous posts? Well, it is in the eye of the beholder and I don’t want to insult the bearded gentleman featured on the “mosh pit” post but I doubt that he would be a model agency’s first choice.
Most of the pictures are of crowd scenes but I have to admit there is one of a rather cute little girl. Sorry to be rather long-winded but my point is that Dan believes I and the BBC are biased and so sees something that is not there. As long as it supports a feeling of unfairness and persecution, the reality does not matter.
Sense of victimhood
Many in the West who deal with Serbia see what I shall call “the toothless Serb syndrome” as part of the country’s problem. A sense of victimhood that ignores the facts.
Many argue that much of this is the fault of Serb politicians: they have not admitted that wrong was done in the past and have not prepared people for the loss of Kosovo.
Some might argue that it’s a bit like saying that Winston Churchill didn’t prepare the British people for defeat in World War II.
Still, it’s hard to see, whatever the moral or legal case, how in practical terms Kosovo will ever be, in practical terms, sovereign Serbian territory, or what diplomatic or other measure politicians would pursue to further this aim. The West assumes, somehow, Serbia will come round.
Part of the reason this will be so hard is not simply because many Serbs see Kosovo as an important part of Serbia, but because the meaning of Kosovo is that of loss.
In the nineteenth century, in many different parts of Europe, people singled out a glorious military victory of the past and hung upon its structure the meaning of their nationalism. But for Serbs it was a battle lost.
The defeat at the hands of the Ottomans in 1389 (although several historians claim it was more of a standoff and a more decisive battle had occurred some 30 years earlier) allowed the Serbs to see themselves as beaten but unbowed, victims of betrayal and lack of faith.
This interpretation was strengthened by the recapture in the early twentieth century of Kosovo and its subsequent loss. It is their Grail.
Crown of thorns
There is a striking use of Christian imagery. Kosovo is a “a crown of thorns” or “Serbia’s Golgotha”. As Christ suffered for mankind, Serbia suffered for Christian Europe.
Kosovo is a sacred dream, fleetingly possessed only to gather more weight of meaning each time it is lost; feelings of betrayal and sacrifice stressed by nationalist politicians each time it is snatched away again.
Regained in 1912 lost by 1916. Regained again in 1918. Quasi-independent under Tito, re-claimed for the Serbs by Milosevic. Now lost again.
As the old T-shirt slogan goes: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Whatever the national myth of loss, Western governments legal justifications for independence do seem like a slight of hand, and inspire as much confidence as a three-card trick.
When pressed, diplomats argue: “The Serbs have forfeited the moral right to rule Kosovo.”
This is the real argument, but one thing about it worries me. Who exactly are the Serbs who have morally forfeited the right to rule Kosovo?
Those involved in the Milosevic government? Those who supported him and his policies? What about those like Boris Tadic who opposed him?
It is not surprising Serbs feel sore if they are to be ever tarred with the actions of a government that got its come-uppance a decade ago.
'Get over it'
But many of those who deal with Serbia are impatient. While their words would be a lot more erudite they amount to: “Get over it!”.
One diplomat surprised me with his comparison. He said the Serbian President Boris Tadic is in a similar position to that of the government of the Irish Republic during much of the twentieth century: that Northern Ireland was an intrinsic part of the Republic, was part of the constitution, and to some a holy cause.
But Irish Governments restrained their hand so they didn’t do anything much practical to further this cause, and very gradually, as the mood changed, finally abandoned the claims.
It’s not a comparison that would have occurred to me: the minority in the north, the Catholics, had never been in a position of dominating the province with military might and administrative power.
But it’s striking that a number of top Brits in Kosovo have, accidentally or not, got Northern Irish experience.
The head of planning of the EU mission, Roy Reeve, as well as being our man in Kiev in the past and having a senior position in the international community in Georgia, was Jim Prior’s special adviser when the Hillsborough agreement was being negotiated. And Paul Acda who will be head of Kosovo customs was head of customs in Northern Ireland at one time.
Of course the Republic gave up its claim without any suggestion it was illegitimate, and only in return for some say over the affairs of Northern Ireland, and a very real change in the treatment of the Catholics there. Some would want Serbia to go very much further.
Carla del Ponte
My colleague, the Economist's Charlemagne, has kindly supplied me with the link to a speech by Carla del Ponte in which she sets out why Serbia (and other countries) have to comply with the international war crimes tribunal before they can enter the European Union.
The argument goes like this:
The EU was built not just on reconciliation after World War II but specifically on German remorse. If the majority of Serbs do not feel remorse for their country’s actions in the Balkans War, it would undermine the ethos central to the European Union.
And at the moment, the claims of back-stabbing by politicians and unfair behaviour by victorious powers, and the toothless Serb syndrome itself are more reminiscent of post-World War I Germany, with all that ominously implies.
When I press diplomats about these apparently dismal prospects for Serbia’s future within the EU, they tend to point out that we are talking about something 20 years in the future.
It is exactly the same thing they say when you talk about the objections to Turkish membership. Which does nothing to suggest how Serbia will come to be a beloved member of the European community.
Perhaps Serbia and Turkey should enter the EU at exactly the same moment. And as a true gesture of reconciliation, a grand ceremony should be held on Kosovo Pole, the site of that battle of 1389.
And whatever pictures are beamed into his home in Toronto, Dan, watching the ceremony on the BBC, will see only the happy and toothy grins of the well-shaven and good-looking Serbs.