Day: June 11, 2015

Future Serbia

I’ve run into some flak for hosting Serbian Prime Minister Vučić at SAIS last week. Some people think providing an opportunity for someone to speak at a university represents a political endorsement of his views, past and present.

Certainly Vučić has said things in the past that I find odious, most notably this from July 1995:

one hundred Muslims would be killed for every dead Serb


I haven’t forgotten. But it is a mistake to harp too hard and too long on the past. My interest in hearing Prime Minister Vučić, and providing him a forum in which he could be heard by others, stemmed from the need to understand his vision of Serbia’s future. I’m not interested in settling scores but in bending the arc of history in a good direction.

What Vučić offered was a glimpse of a possible future Serbia, one that makes a strategic choice for Europe and gives up on the non-aligned balancing act it has performed since the end of World War II. In my book, that would be a welcome development.

Non-alignment lost its real meaning 25 years ago. All the other countries of the Balkans have already opted for Brussels, leaving Serbia surrounded by EU and NATO members and aspirants. Many maintain good bilateral relations with Russia, even while joining in Ukraine-related sanctions. Serbia hasn’t done that, despite its candidacy for EU membership.

The question is what would encourage and enable Serbia to take the necessary steps away from its traditional “non-aligned” stance. Here are some ideas worth consideration.

Internal reform

Serbia has progressed in many respects since the Milosevic era and is now in a position to claim that it is on the road towards democracy and to attracting foreign investment on a commercial basis. But it remains laggard in two key areas: media freedom and rule of law. It needs to up its game in both.

The media issue is not formal censorship but rather informal pressures and even self-censorship, often exercised through politically-appointed editors and fear of losing contracts for valuable government advertizing. In addition, politicians in Serbia frequently attack the medium, not only the message. This cows many outlets into submission–memories of what happened to media moguls who resisted Milosevic’s dominance are still fresh. The media need to be far freer to criticize without fear of retaliation.

Rule of law in Serbia suffers two ailments: slowness and lack of independence. Commercial disputes can drag on for decades. Tycoons and war criminals are too often protected from prosecution. One of the prime suspects in the murder of the Bytyqi brothers, American Kosovars killed in 1999 by Serb security forces, is a member of the prime minister’s political party and serves on its executive board. The courts need to be liberated and encouraged to pursue malfeasance wherever it occurs, provided they follow proper procedures. Read more

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No easy answers

Lots of people were asking yesterday about President Obama’s decision to send more trainers and equipment to Iraq, mainly for Sunni fighters. Here is more or less what I’ve been saying:

Q. Why is the US sending troops to Iraq at this time?

A. They are sending more troops because the current effort is not succeeding. The Islamic State has lost some territory in the past year, but it has also gained territory and appears no closer to defeat than it was a year ago. Beefing up the training and equipment, in particular for Sunnis, is a move in the right direction, even if it is not likely the last one.

Q. What does this represents in terms of strategy?

A. In terms of strategy, not much. The objective is the same—to defeat ISIS—and this is a marginal addition of resources with which to try to do it. I don’t see any big shift in strategy with this decision.

Q. How is that going to help, if any, the fight against ISIS?

A. The key here is to try to get more Sunni tribal members into the fight. If and when the Sunni population wants to be rid of ISIS in a serious way, it will happen.

But that also depends on what the Sunni population can expect if they join the fight. Will they gain political and economic weight in Baghdad or in their own provinces? Will they be treated properly by the Iraqi authorities and adequate provision made for stabilizing and reconstructing their communities? There are no clear answers to these questions yet. The military dimension is not the only one that counts.

Q. Do you think the US is doing enough to help the Iraqis in their fight? If not, what more should the US does?

A. Most military experts think an important missing link is people on the ground to “spot,” that is target, the air strikes, which have been relatively few due in part to fear of collateral damage. But putting Americans into that role risks their lives and would raise questions about whether the effort is sustainable. Training Iraqis to perform that function risks its use to settle scores.

Like many other issues in the Middle East these days, there are no easy answers.

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