Monday, January 5, 2004

The recent victory by radical nationalists in Serbia’s parliamentary elections signals that Belgrade will likely once again seek to forge a Greater Serbia. Neighboring states and the West need to revise their foreign policies in order to prevent another Balkan war.

The neo-fascist Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, won nearly 30 percent of the vote. More moderate parties, such as the Democratic Party of Serbia and the governing pro-Western Democratic Party, finished a distant second and third place respectively. Although the Radicals did not win enough support to form the next government, their strong showing indicates that Serbian politics will become more nationalistic and anti-Western.

Mr. Seselj ran his party’s campaign from a prison cell in The Hague, Netherlands. He is indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. His Radical Party is based directly on the methods and structure of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. Mr. Seselj is a virulent ultranationalist, who champions the creation of a Greater Serbia and the expulsion of all non-Serbs from Serbian lands.

The Radicals’ strong showing is likely to trigger regional instability, reawakening fears among Serbia’s neighbors of a possible new round of ethnic fighting. Moreover, even if Belgrade’s bickering pro-democracy parties can put aside their differences and form a ruling coalition, the next government will be weak, unstable and most likely short-lived. The result: that Serbia will continue to slide toward deeper political and economic chaos. This will only strengthen support for Mr. Seselj and his policies of national socialism.

Outgoing Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic has equated the widespread anti-Western feeling among many Serbs with Germany’s sense of betrayal after World War I. “Even Hitler came to power through democratic elections,” Mr. Zivkovic rightly points out.

It is vital that Western governments and neighboring countries such as Croatia and Bosnia take immediate action to prevent Mr. Seselj’s Radicals from coming to power in the near future. Washington and Brussels need to make it clear to Belgrade that the West will not tolerate any attempts to alter borders through the use of military force. The Bush administration would be wise to announce to the Serbian electorate that the consequences for resurrecting the project of a Greater Serbia will be very severe: diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and a U.S.-led military response.

The administration should also adopt a policy of containment toward Belgrade. Serbia is the sick man of the Balkans. As in the final days of Weimar Germany, Serbia today is a political and economic basket case. It has also refused to give up its imperial dreams of national expansion and ethnic revanchism. Hence, Washington needs to restrain Belgrade’s growing assertiveness by establishing a strategic regional defensive perimeter.

The first step is to formally recognize Kosovo’s de facto independence from Serbia, while preserving Pristina’s status as an international protectorate backed by NATO and the United Nations. This will give a clear signal to Serbian nationalists that their desire to re-annex the predominantly Albanian province will be resisted by the West. Furthermore, the United States should spearhead an initiative to foster a security alliance between Zagreb and Sarajevo. The reformist governments of Croatia and Bosnia should increase their countries’ military cooperation and publicly pledge to defend one another’s borders in the event of a future attack by Serbian forces.

Most importantly, the Bush administration needs to reach out to Croatia’s new neo-conservative government led by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader. Mr. Sanader, along with his pro-American Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul, have openly called for closer U.S.-Croatia relations. Mr. Sanader is the only major politician in the former Yugoslavia to have supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq. His government also backs Washington’s position on the need to sign a treaty exempting U.S. troops from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

A stable and secure Croatia is pivotal to long-term stability in the region. It was the Croatian army — trained and supported by the United States — that in a 1995 lightening military offensive smashed Slobodan Milosevic’s forces, effectively ending the conflict in Croatia and Bosnia. Croatia’s military is the strongest and most closely aligned to Western standards in Southeastern Europe. Should a regional war break out once again, it is most likely that Croatian troops will serve as the West’s ground forces in any campaign to stop Serbian aggression. The administration should insist that Zagreb’s bid to join NATO be put on the fast track.

Moreover, Mr. Sanader needs to propose a strategic partnership with Washington, in which the United States and Croatia establish a formal military alliance. The benefits for Zagreb would be that such a treaty would act as a significant deterrent against Serbian expansionism. The administration, on the other hand, would gain by having Croatia play the role of the region’s policeman, assuming the brunt of the responsibility for military security and cooperation.

Besides forming a network of strategic allies, Washington also needs to more actively support the pro-democracy reformers in the former Yugoslavia. In particular, Mr. Bush should end the United States’ foolish policy of blindly supporting the ICTY. The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has issued weak indictments against both Serbian and Croatian generals. Serbia’s pro-Western leaders have repeatedly said that Mrs. Del Ponte has done more than any other individual to strengthen the popularity of radical nationalists.

Her bogus indictment of Croatian patriot, Gen. Ante Gotovina, has not only been severely criticized by Hague tribunal experts and senior Bush administration officials, but more importantly it threatens to destabilize Croatia. Most Croatians rightly view Gen. Gotovina as a war hero who is the victim of a politicized witch hunt by Mrs. Del Ponte. She is openly reviled by reformist leaders in the region. The administration should insist that Mrs. Del Ponte be replaced, and the ICTY only focus on a few high-profile cases, leaving the domestic courts to handle the rest.

Mr. Seslj’s stunning rise to political prominence reveals that the Balkans is still a volatile area, susceptible to ideological fanaticism. The West needs to take a bold, pre-emptive approach if it wants to prevent a repeat of the ethnic extremism that plunged the region into bloodshed for much of the last decade. If Western leaders fail to nip in the bud Mr. Seselj’s evil appeals to blood and soil, they will come to regret it.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a historian and a contributing writer for The Washington Times.

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