Western resolve in dealing with virulent Serbian nationalism continues to rankle human rights groups and embarrass European leaders as Serbia – which still harbors two war criminals charged with genocide in Bosnia – Friday takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe, a postwar body whose chief aim is to protect human rights and exemplify democratic principles.
The ironies of Serbia taking a symbolic leadership role in the council are compounded by mounting worry in Washington and Europe about a rightward shift in Serbian politics following the election this week of a pro-Russian ultranationalist as parliament speaker. The shift could signal a new revanchism on the eve of a UN Security Council vote leading to the independence of the country's majority-Albanian province of Kosovo, the mythic heartland of Serbia's proud identity.
Serbia is at a "crossroads," stated an EU commissioner, Olli Rehn, who described the election of Radical Party chief Tomislav Nikolic to Serbia's No. 2 spot as "a worrying sign."
As president of the Council, Serbia runs the European Court of Human Rights, and will issue statements on rights violations, treatment of prisoners, and norms regarding freedom and democratic reform.
Human rights groups protest Serbia's presidency, arguing that Belgrade is, at a minimum, out of compliance with standards like the 1948 Geneva Convention, since it knowingly harbors Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s.
"It's ludicrous," says Quentin Hoare, director of the Bosnian Institute in London. "I know the democratic forces in Serbia are small, and I'm all for Serbian integration into Europe. But to allow Serbia in without compliance with democratic norms – is actually destabilizing."
Serbia entered the Strasbourg-based Council in 2003 as part of an effort to integrate the upstart Balkan state into the European mainstream after years of ethnic aggression under the "Greater Serbia" policies of former President Slobodan Milosevic. Serbia was absolved of genocide in a controversial ruling by the International Court of Justice early this year. But the court ruled in addition that Belgrade's failure to arrest Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic is a breach of the 1948 treaty.
Credibility concerns raised
Serbia takes over the Council presidency from San Marino, under an alphabetical formula for rotation. The Council is not part of the EU. It was founded with 10 states in 1949 as a forum for civil and humanitarian reforms, but now has 46 members. It denied membership to Belarus for "lack of respect" for human rights.
"The real story is how this makes a mockery of the founding assumptions of the Council of Europe," says John Packer of Human Rights Internet in Ottawa. "The question is what is Serbia doing in the Council of Europe, let alone as president? How can the foreign minister of Serbia tell you how to run a democracy? This undercuts any credibility."
Mr. Nikolic, the new parliamentary speaker in Belgrade, is acting head of the Serbian Radical Party while its leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in The Hague for war crimes. Both Mr. Seselj and Nikolic were strong allies of Mr. Milosevic and the Serb policy of "ethnic cleansing" and have championed a pro-Slavic alliance with Orthodox Russia.
This Wednesday, a day after he was elected speaker, Nikolic advocated a new alliance with Moscow and to "find a way to bring together nations that will stand up against the hegemony of America and of the European Union."
In response, the Council of Europe voted on the same day to cancel the ceremony in Belgrade Saturday for its new president and instructed Serbia not to hoist the European flag in front of the assembly in Belgrade, as planned.
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, speaking from Berlin, said, "We were very disappointed with the reemergence of the Radicals."
Kosovo: a trigger for nationalism
Kosovo has long been the trigger point for Serbian nationalism, even after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign ended Belgrade's control of what nationalists call "the sacred soil" of Kosovo, and even though few Serbs still live in a region now overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Albanians.
Mr. Burns announced this week that he expected a vote in the UN Security Council later this month on a version of a Kosovo independence plan drawn up by Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish president.
Burns told reporters that Russia would for the first time begin to work with the rest of the Security Council on a new draft that would not openly declare the independence of Kosovo – but would end the current UN authority adopted after the 1999 war and allow the EU and NATO to take administrative and security control. That would set the stage for later independence, once political, social, and civil standards were met for the Serb minority.
"We are in favor of the Russian proposals," Burns said this week. "Russia should be part of the process of building a peaceful Balkans."