In football, as in politics, Serbia still doesn't get it

Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, the country still can't come to terms with modernity.

What is wrong with Serbia? Last night it seemed as if all the work of UEFA at Euro 2012 to make football free of racism was undone. Serbs fans chanted monkey sounds at the black English player, Danny Rose. As they left the pitch, after the England Under-21 team's 1-0 victory, Serb players and team officials attacked the English visitors.

The England captain Jordan Henderson said, "There was a lot of racist abuse out there from the stands and a lot going on after the game, which is hard to take for the players." Stones and coins were thrown at the England players in addition to the racist abuse.

The facts seem indisputable, but in Serbia facts are what you want them to be. The Serb team’s technical director, Savo Milosevic, came into England’s dressing rom and apologised for "any behaviour that was unsavoury," Stuart Pearce, the England manager, said after the game. Now, in an on-so-Serbian piece of chutzpah, the Serb FA are calling for an investigation into the England team and denying that any racist incidents took place.

It is up to UEFA to decide whether they are serious about their campaign against racism. They worked closely with Rafael Pankowski, who is not only Poland’s leading writer on the far-right but also founder of a Polish and Europe-wide NGO dedicated to removing the racism and anti-Semitism that has disfigured European contests well into the 21st century, despite the large number of black players in club and national teams. UEFA stadium billboards kept flashing up anti-racism messages in June in a sign that Europe acknowledged there was a problem. Now the Serbs have set this work back a decade. UEFA should take swift action. If Rangers in Scotland can be relegated two divisions for getting their financial affairs out of order, Serbian club and national teams should be suspended from all UEFA competitions for the rest of this season. Harsh and cruel, maybe, but unless UEFA is prepared to stand up against racism in football, the Serbs who abused the black English player will walk cocky and tall that they can turn a football stadium into a source of race hate.

But is it any accident that the incident, and the Serb FA’s refusal to condemn it, happened in the week that the most prominent living Serb, Radovan Karadžić, told the International Tribunal at the Hague that he had nothing to apologise for over the actions carried out in Sarajevo or Srebrenica? At Srebrenica, 8,000 plastic handcuffs were prepared to tie the hands of the European Muslims selected to be killed by Serbs to teach others a lesson. The precise number of bullets, and catering vehicles for the executioners were brought to the site, where Serb excavators had carefully dug trenches for the bodies to fall into after they had been shot.

In 1970, Willy Brandt famously knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto to make as public and symbolic an apology as he could for the German crimes against Poles and Jews. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand held hands at Verdun as they too said "never again". Today, as Karadzic struts his stuff in the Hague, the elected prime minister of Serbia, Ivica Dačić, a former aide of Slobodan Milošević, refuses to shake the hand of the prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi. Belgrade refuses to recognise the existence of Kosovo as a legitimate nation state, even though nearly 100 nations and nearly all the world’s major democracies have established diplomatic relations with it. In another example of chutzpah, worthy of the Serb FA, Dačić said recently that Kosovo should be partitioned with a good chunk of its territory handed over to Serbia. There are regions of Serbia peopled by Albanians close to Kosovo, but the general rule in the Balkans is no more ethnic division.

But just as the Serb FA leaders feel they can flout the UEFA rules against racism, so too do Serb political leaders treat the European-wide agreement against further Balkans partition with contempt. Stefan Fuele, the amiable, soft-spoken EU Commissioner for enlargement, rebuked Dačić, and EU officials are tearing their hair out at the failure of Belgrade to declare a truce with Kosovo, deal with the elected Pristina government, and help move both countries onto an EU membership road, as William Hague has urged.

It is 25 years since Serbia’s most famous Milošević launched the disintegration of Yugoslavia with an aggressive nationalist speech in the heart of Kosovo. Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, it seems it will take a little longer before Serbia’s ruling elites, whether in football or politics, come to terms with modernity.

Denis MacShane was minister for the Balkans from 2001-2005. He is author of Why Kosovo Still Matters (Haus 2011) @denismacshane and

Andros Townsend (C) of England separates his team-mate Danny Rose (L) and Sasa Markovic of Serbia as they argue after the Under 21 European Championship match between the two sides. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.