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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Far from being a leftwing radical, Jeremy Corbyn is slouching towards Milibandism

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto.

A pair of boxing gloves hangs in the office of Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency – not because the diminutive left-winger faces a fight to keep his party relevant, let alone in government (some surveys show him in fifth place), but because of his affection for Muhammad Ali, whose poster adorns one of the walls of his sophisticated, modern office. During his against-the-odds run for the Socialists’ presidential nomination, he likened himself to Jeremy Corbyn, as did his opponents. Though the comparison added a note of optimism to his long-shot bid, now that he is ensconced at the top of his party it is Corbyn, rather than Hamon, who is flattered by the comparison.

A casual observer of Hamon’s open-plan headquarters in Château d’Eau, a gentrify­ing area near the centre of Paris, might mistake it for the home of a tech start-up rather than that of a party that is more than a century old. Someone visiting Corbyn’s offices at Norman Shaw South in the Palace of Westminster, or the Labour Party’s headquarters a few minutes down the road, would have no such difficulties.

Although the demolition of its Miliband-era offices forced the move to the new digs, Labour’s organisational structures and campaigning approach remain firmly rooted in the world that Ed Miliband built. The offices of the leader of the opposition, too, are little changed since Miliband vacated them.

It’s not only the buildings that have a Miliband-era look to them. Labour’s policies do, too. For all that Corbyn is battered in the right-wing press for his “hard-left” past, his present is mired in the programme of his predecessor.

Most of the Corbynite agenda can be found in the pages of Britain Can Be Better, the party’s 2015 manifesto. A pledge to ban zero-hours contracts appears on page 27. A commitment to undo the Conservatives’ reforms to the National Health Service is on page 34, and a pledge to ensure parity of esteem for physical and mental health treatment is on the following page.

To address Britain’s housing crisis, the party leader has pledged to build 200,000 homes, the same commitment as Miliband and Theresa May made. On immigration, meanwhile, Labour remains mired in its Miliband-era rut: desperate to avoid upsetting the half of its coalition that likes immigration or the half that opposes it, the party settles for offending both with an incoherent mess.

Corbyn’s Labour has a more expansive ­fiscal rule allowing it to spend more on infrastructure than the Labour of Miliband and Ed Balls would have done but, on taxation, the party has moved significantly since the era of Balls – to the right.

The promise of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was “a new kind of politics”. Corbyn’s claim to be to the left of what came before him rests largely on his career before becoming leader and his rhetoric, rather than the programme that he has advanced since becoming leader.

Here, Corbyn’s allies point to the oppo­sition of much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Hamon, too, has to navigate a political elite that mostly backed his defeated opponent Manuel Valls, but has carved out a distinctive policy platform offering a universal basic income and pledging to legalise both cannabis and euthanasia.

The Labour leader’s office, meanwhile, can no longer claim to be understaffed. Ed Miliband had a staff of 25. Corbyn has one of 28, with four posts still to be filled. Although Miliband’s journey ended in electoral defeat, his leadership was at least an incubator for ideas about the future of the party, admittedly sometimes to the extent that his office more closely resembled a seminar room than a platform to seize power in a general election. There are serious thinkers in the current leader’s office, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Corbyn has proved to be a more adept player of the game of Labour politics than his opponents as far as retaining the leadership is concerned, and yet he cannot be said to have been a success in terms of transforming the Labour Party. A minister from the Tony Blair years describes Corbyn’s victory as a necessary “course correction” from the excesses of the latter years of New Labour and the arid unity of the Miliband era, but the truth is that Labour’s plane remains on the same trajectory that it was on when Corbyn took the controls.

Beyond the leader’s office, Labour’s left flank has shrunk under Corbyn. Fourteen of the 35 Labour MPs who signed Corbyn’s nomination papers could be described as sharing his politics. Today, the Corbynite caucus numbers just 13, as the late Michael Meacher, an eloquent supporter of Corbynism, has been succeeded in Oldham by Jim McMahon, a rising hope of the party’s right. If Clive Lewis, who is still regarded as the left’s best asset by many activists but is currently on the outside as far as the leadership is concerned, is counted out, the Corbynite caucus goes down to 12.

The struggles of Labour’s French cousins and, indeed, of most centre-left parties everywhere – the centre left has won just seven elections in the EU since the financial crash – show that the party’s problems do not begin or end with Corbyn. But, two years in, it is difficult to see which of those problems are improving under him and easy to identify the ones that are getting worse.

On the periphery of the Corbyn project, there is worthwhile work being done on the digital economy and the party’s structure; the latter has not been the subject of deep thinking since 1997. Yet those green shoots are likely to remain neglected until the leader’s successor, whoever that may be, inherits, just as Corbyn did from Miliband, a party that is weaker at Westminster than it was when he or she found it. And that, regrettably, is the optimistic scenario.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition