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
Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left