An old Balkans spectre returns at the Olympics

Serbia's new president is reviving the language of break-up and partition.

A spectre is haunting the Balkans. Twenty five years after Slobodan Milosevic launched the nationalist conflicts with a rant in Pristina about the iniquities of the people of Kosovo, the new president of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic, has returned to the theme with the accusation that the government of Kosovo is planning "genocide" against the Serbs who live in the country.
 
The Olympic Games bring the world’s politicians to town and some bring their domestic politics with them. In an extraordinary outburst, Nikolic gave an interview in London in which he accused the internationally supervised government in Pristina of planning to expel the 40,000 Serbs who live in the north of Kosovo.
 
"When you expel 40,000 people, regardless of whether they are women, men, and when you change the ethnic composition of the territory that is genocide. There is a danger that Pristina would be prepared to go that far. The only armed force there, apart from the international community, is Albanian. I am convinced they wouldn't mind doing that immediately."
 
Earlier, Nikolic had said he would walk out of the Olympics if the President of Kosovo, the mild-mannered young woman, Atifete Jahjaga, a Leicester University graduate, took part to watch Kosovo’s only Olympian, a judo star who is in the Albanian team as the IOC refuses to allow non-UN member states to take part. Most of the world’s democracies are among the 93 states that now have diplomatic relations with Kosovo but Russia has organised a diplomatic campaign on behalf of Serbia to block full UN membership for Kosovo.
 
Nikolic has a fondness for the "G" word. His first statement after his election in May was to deny that the cold-blooded organised killing of 8,000 men at Srebrenica could be described as a genocidal crime. Nikolic was a close ally of the ultra-nationalist Serb Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj who is now on  trial for war crimes in the Hague. After Milosevic’s fall, Nikiloc sought to distance himself from his former politics but his outbursts on Srebrenica and Kosovo since his election suggest that the language Milosevic used in 1987 to whip up Serb nationalist passions against Kosovans remains a point of reference for him.
 
The new prime minister of Serbia, Ivica Dacic, was Milosevic’s spokesman and has taken over the leadership of the Serb Socialist Party, once headed by Milosevic. Dacic has talked of a new partition of Kosovo. But the majority of Kosovo’s Serbs live scattered in towns and villages in southern Kosovo. The Serbs who form a more compact majority in the north have been offered a semi-independent autonomy with more power to control police, education, language and continue to keep Serb passports and allow Belgrade to pay for regional civil servants. No other region in Europe has such rights to live apart from the nation within whose borders they reside. The current government in Pristina is under pressure from its opponents who say far too much power and separate rights have been offered to the Serb communities. Belgrade’s refusal to deal with Kosovo is causing a nationalist backlash all over the Western Balkans.
 
But for the Milosevic retreads who have won power in Belgrade on the back of increasing unemployment and poverty, the spirit of 1987 demands that Kosovo has to accept re-partition and other humiliations to placate Serb nationalism. The presence of a contingent of Nato troops will prevent any outbreak of violence and Pristina is focused on inward investment , winning recognition for their young nation and offering the Serbs anything short of breaking apart Kosovo which diplomats think will ead to further demands for new frontiers and partitions elsewhere in the western Balkans.
 
The EU made major concessions to Nikolic’s predecessor, Boris Tadic, in order to nudge Serbia to a compromise on Kosovo so that both countries could advance towards EU membership as Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the Commons. But the new nationalists in power in Belgrade have pocketed these and reverted to old lines. A new strategy for the western Balkans is needed. Milosevic caused the break-up of the former Yugoslavia into seven separate nations. His successors are back with more break-up and partition language. It was a disaster in 1987. It remains bad, sad politics today.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic speaks during a press conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.