Monday sees the first round of the Serbian presidential elections – and they could well prove vital for the future of Europe. If power shifts we could all, to coin a phrase, end up exponentially screwed.
But surely, you might think, pro-Western sitting President Boris TadiÄ‡ is going to keep his job? After all, since he got the gig in 2004 he’s been working hard to ensure that Serbia acts a little more civilised, helped to oversee Montenegran independence with little apparent ill-humour, hosted the Council of Europe’s meeting of ministers, last summer was awarded the European Prize for Political Culture (sweetly donating the prize money to a hospital in Kosovo), and has repeatedly declared his hope that one day Serbia will be able to join the EU. Yes, he may be against Kosovan independence, which has miffed some international observers, but that’s because he hopes for reconciliation with that much put-upon province, not to finish the job started by Slobodan MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡. At the same time, Serbia’s economy’s been growing by around 6% a year under his tenure, and its GDP has doubled since 2003 – unemployment may still be high at around 20%, but it’s an improving situation.
Sounds like he’s doing pretty well, right? After seeing his country devastated by nationalist and religious violence, what better route than democratic liberal internationalism, encouraging economic growth, and increasing ties to the country’s biggest trading partner (the EU)? What Serb could possibly contemplate voting for anyone else – especially anyone tainted by association with the violence of the recent past – when that way lies a return to violence, hatred and economic disaster?
But the thing is, the Balkans seem to have a high proportion of idiots.
What else can explain the fact that Tomislav NikoliÄ‡ – a former Vice President under MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡, a man who’s only running for President because his party’s proper leader is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Hague – looks to have a very good chance of winning? (And this isn’t the first time – in the 2004 elections, NikoliÄ‡ beat TadiÄ‡ in the first round…)
To add to all that, some suspect NikoliÄ‡ of being involved in the assassination of pro-Western Serbian Prime Minister Zoran ÄinÄ‘iÄ‡ (TadiÄ‡’s predecessor as leader of the Democratic Party) in March 2003, and there have been several calls for him to be prosecuted for war crimes due to suspected involvement in the massacre of villagers in Antin, Croatia, in August 1991 (a massacre NikoliÄ‡ himself claims never happened).
Oh, and NikoliÄ‡’s preferred option for Serbia’s future? To join with those bastions of human rights Russia and Belarus to form a post-communist superpower. (Not as mad an idea as you might think: over the last decade or so Russia and Belarus – Europe’s last dictatorship, and a country so fond of Soviet times that its secret police are still called the KGB – have held numerous largely unreported discussions about just such a move.)
With the Kosovo situation as uncertain as it’s been since the crisis of 1999 with the victory of former ethnic Albanian guerrilla leader Hashim ThaÃ§i in the elections there two months ago, a tight election result in Serbia on Monday could – if the second round fails to provide a clear winner – very easily spark more of the protests and violence for which the region has become known.
While 2000’s pro-democracy anti-MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡ protests were both non-violent and successful (and in turn inspired similar movements in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus), the popularity of NikoliÄ‡ amongst Serbia’s fascists could easily lead to serious trouble.
If NikoliÄ‡ wins, of course, the situation would naturally be infinitely worse. With ThaÃ§i elected in Kosovo and NikoliÄ‡ in Serbia, we’d have the most obvious indication yet that the Kosovo question is boiling down to a clash between the perpetrators of the late-90s genocide and its victims. (A couple of days ago, ThaÃ§i addressed the UN (despite Serbian protests) declaring Kosovo’s readiness for statehood; the same day, TadiÄ‡ (desperately trying to prove his nationalist credentials ahead of the elections) warned that Serbia was prepared to “act” to protect Kosovo’s Serbian minority.)
A clash over Kosovan independence would present the EU with one of its toughest challenges yet.
First, there’s the memory of how the EU singularly failed to act to prevent the Yugoslavian civil wars (so much for the EU bringing peace and stability to Europe…) – and then, of course, the even worse crime of dithering during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, leading to a delay in intervention that enabled MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡ and his cohorts to slaughter thousands of ethnic Albanians and Muslims throughout the region.
And then, of course, there’s the real problem – as so often these days – Russia.
Yep, Putin (who has repeatedly expressed his disapproval of Kosovan independence and promised that Russia will block such a move in the UN – probably thanks to the precedent Kosovo’s independence could set) is backing NikoliÄ‡ – all part of a fresh Balkan power play that, surprise surprise, revolves not just around sticking two fingers up at the US and EU (both of whom support Kosovo’s right to self-determination), but also energy supplies.
On Friday, a new pipeline deal between Russia and Bulgaria was announced – a gas pipeline planned to pass through Serbia on its way to the EU. A pipeline due to be run by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Who’s boss just happens to be, erm… Putin’s designated heir and (almost certainly) Russia’s next President, Dmitry Medvedev. To secure the pipeline deal (potentially worth a lot to Serbia’s energy-poor economy) Russia is insisting that the country sell a 51% stake in its state-owned energy company NIS for a knock-down price – to a Gazprom subsidiary…
This pipeline deal – if a more pro-Russian Serbian President happened to take charge to usher it through – would in turn effectively ruin the chances of the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline ever taking off.
Designed as a way to break Russia’s ever-tightening grip on EU energy supplies, Nabucco is planned to open up access to gas from Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Egypt and Syria – all via a route that avoids Russian territories, and thus the threat of supplies being cut off on a whim, as happened to Ukraine two years ago (and as was threatened again in the run-up to the Ukrainian elections back in October). With the Russian-backed pipeline running on a similar route via Turkey, people who know more about this than I seem to think that, like the Highlander, there can be only one.
So, even ignoring the possible instability and potential renewed violence that a nationalist/NikoliÄ‡ victory could bring to the Balkans; even ignoring the possible ramifications that could in turn have for the stability of the Caucasus; even ignoring the inevitable clash between the US, EU and Russia over Kosovo in the UN as and when moves towards independence become more concrete… the outcome of these Serbian presidential elections could well decide whether Russia manages to tighten its hold on Europe’s energy supplies, and thus its whole economy. Even, potentially, whether Russia is able to hold the EU to ransom in precisely the way it has Ukraine, using its near-monopoly to affect everything from trade agreements and foreign policy to elections.
And don’t think Britain’s safe from this thanks to North Sea gas. Yields there are not only falling rapidly (by 10% in 2004 and a further 12% in 2005), meaning we are increasingly having to look abroad for supplies (Britain has already become a net importer of oil in the last couple of years), but also Russia and Gazprom – the holders of the world’s largest natural gas reserves – are already targeting the UK market.
This is a situation that, if the Nabucco pipeline is scuppered by a Russo-Serbian deal, can only get worse. As I say, depending on the outcome of the Serbian elections, we could end up exponentially screwed.