Nation & World

Serbian foreign minister talks about Kosovo, other issues

5 min read

He was just a teenager when rumblings in the Balkans forced the world to rethink the idea that, after 1945, Europe would study war no more.

Today Vuk Jeremic´ of the Republic of Serbia is, at 32, one of the youngest foreign ministers on the planet. Last week he was back at his alma mater (M.P.A. ’03) to describe his own political odyssey and to face some tough questions about his country’s foreign policy agenda. He made his government’s case for keeping the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo within Serbia, and warned that if the issue is not handled properly, it could bring back “division and strife and hatred” in the Balkans.

In his presentation at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Jeremic´ defended the efforts of the new coalition government, in office since May 15, to bring Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to justice at The Hague: “I think we’re doing a good job,” he said. He added that the government would be pursuing these two men, indicted for war crimes, even if this weren’t being asked by the European Union (EU) as a condition for Serbian membership. “I’m sure the U.S. is trying very hard to apprehend Osama bin Laden, too,” he added.

The really tough issue, though, was Kosovo. He noted a couple of times that the NATO peace agreement with the late Slobodan Milosevic after the 1999 intervention over Kosovo explicitly allowed Serbia to keep the province. “If independence was not imposed on a pariah Serbia, there’s no way you can explain why it should be imposed on a democratic Serbia.”

That NATO bombing campaign precipitated Jeremic´’s own involvement in the democratic opposition movement, as he saw what damage the Serbian government was exposing its own people to. “I could no longer abide the Milosevic regime,” he said.

He was asked why Belgrade let Montenegro leave Serbia after a popular referendum had endorsed independence, but had resisted Kosovo’s desire to do the same thing after an even stronger vote there for independence.

He spoke briefly of the cultural and emotional significance of Kosovo, of its “deeper meaning to the Serbian polity,” and of its role as the “heartland of Serbian territory.” But he also answered the question in more strictly legal — some might say legalistic — terms. Montenegro, he explained, had been a republic within the former Yugoslavia, and hence could be allowed to leave; not so Kosovo.

In working on a solution for Kosovo, he said, “We have to make sure that no one loses.” He suggested that “absolute positions” are not called for and that what was needed was a negotiated solution that both Belgrade and Pristina can live with. Independence for Kosovo would be “nothing other than the forcible partition of Serbia,” he also said.

But with independence for Kosovo seen as the “default position,” as he put it, if no other deal is worked out by a Dec. 10 deadline that is part of a United Nations process, “What incentive does Kosovo have to negotiate in good faith?”

Jeremic´ presented himself and his government colleagues as the white-hat alternative to the anti-democratic nationalists in Serbian politics. “Our citizens ask us, ‘Was the 1999 intervention against Serbia itself — or the Milosevic regime?’ … Why make Serbian democracy pay for the mistakes of the Milosevic regime?”

If the democratic government can’t answer that question, he implied, the political heirs of Milosevic could lure Serbians off the democratic path, “could say to them that Europe is not the way forward, and America is not our friend.”

It was clear, though, that Jeremic´ sees the way forward leading through EU membership — for all the countries of the western Balkans. In this fractious region, “we’ve all got to succeed at the same time,” he argued. “This is why we propose to the EU that they provide a clear road map for the whole region … so that all the countries of the western Balkans have candidate status in the EU.”

The session was marked by the presence of a man who wasn’t there — Jeremic´’s patron and mentor, the democratic reformist Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic. Jeremic´ spoke five years almost to the day after Djindjic had addressed the forum, on Friday, Sept. 20, 2001. But Djindjic was assassinated in March 2003, as Jeremic´ was completing his studies at Harvard. The judge who presided over the subsequent trial called it “a political murder with an aim to destabilize the state.”

Jeremic´’s Harvard degree was a master’s in public administration and international development; he came to the University as a Kokkalis Fellow. His original plan after graduation had been to serve Djindjic’s government as a development adviser. The assassination made him feel that development would have to wait, and that his own forward path lay in working with Boris Tadic, the reformist defense minister, now president, who brought Djindjic’s assassins to justice; 12 people were ultimately convicted of the murder.

Jeremic´ described Djindjic as the man who “planted the trees of hope for Serbia.” His assassins were “warmongers” who wanted “to keep the future from us,” he added. “But democratic Serbia did not die.”

Jeremic´ was given a standing ovation, and he promised, “I’ll be back.”