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
Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).