Serbia's Step Forward

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

THE OUTCOME of a presidential election in Serbia on Sunday has opened the possibility that the United States and its European allies might be able to take some long-delayed steps toward stabilizing the volatile Balkan region, site of a decade of bloody wars during the 1990s. The vote was partly a referendum on how Serbia should respond to the imminent declaration of independence by the province of Kosovo, which was freed from Serbia nine years ago by a U.S.-led NATO military campaign. Incumbent President Boris Tadic said that Serbia should continue to move toward integration with the European Union even if leading European governments recognize Kosovo, as they are planning to do. His opponent said Serbia should turn its back on the West and cast its lot with Russia, which has been aggressively nurturing Serbia's poisonous nationalism.

Luckily for the Balkans and for Europe, Serbs chose the path of Western integration; Mr. Tadic won. The president hopes to sign an agreement on expanded cooperation with the European Union, allowing more trade, visa-free travel and the prospect of eventual E.U. membership for Serbia. Though Mr. Tadic and the Serbian government will loudly protest Kosovo's independence declaration, that long-overdue event is now less likely to lead to violence.

That doesn't mean Serbia's path will be easy: Every step the former Yugoslav republic takes toward joining the liberal democracies is tortured. Mr. Tadic still must overcome the resistance of his party's coalition partner in parliament, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a nationalist hard-liner who has also called for a rupture with Europe over Kosovo. Moscow will surely continue its effort to detach Serbia from Europe and make it a vassal state; last month, the Russian state energy monopoly Gazprom bought a controlling interest in Serbia's entire oil and gas industry.

Mr. Tadic and his liberal allies have a tendency to ask Western leaders to appease the nationalists, such as by putting off Kosovo's independence or by dropping demands for the extradition of war criminals. Now that he has a clear mandate from voters, Mr. Tadic ought to insist on his own agenda -- for example, by demanding that Mr. Kostunica either support an agreement with the European Union or resign and face the voters himself. The West can help by working to ensure that the ethnic Serbian minority in Kosovo is secure and treated fairly once independence is declared. Both the European Union and NATO should aim to integrate Serbia as well as Kosovo and their neighbors -- Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro -- as quickly as possible. When Serbia chooses the West over nationalist isolation, it should receive a favorable response.

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