Ban's magical mystery-solution tour

By bne IntelliNews August 3, 2012

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -

The United Nations has a somewhat mixed record in the Balkans in recent decades. Most notoriously, UN-mandated troops stood by during the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995, which took place in a supposed "safe zone". In the same conflict, Bosnian Vice-President Hakija Turajlić was shot dead by a Serb soldier while theoretically under guard by a UN convoy. More recently, the UN's Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo has been regarded by many Serbs as violating their country's sovereignty and is unpopular even among the ethnic Albanian community, as the slogan "UNMIK go home" daubed on many a Kosovan wall indicates. And the organisation's Security Council remains at odds over Kosovo's independence.

Thus the visit of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to the Western Balkans in July was not greeted with a tremendous amount of excitement. No one was expecting Ban to deliver lasting solutions to the region's frozen conflicts and inter- and intra-national antagonisms. So in this sense at least the South Korean's visit can be described as living up to expectations. There was the usual mood music about reconciliation and "lasting stability," but rather less about how these might be achieved, other than through EU membership (a distant prospect for most countries in the region). Ban's statements could have been made by almost any figure in the international community.

Ban left the Balkans pretty much as he arrived in them - troubled by ethnic divisions, economically sluggish and, in many cases, hampered by self-serving and corrupt elites. Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided on ethnic lines, leading to political deadlock, and is at risk of fragmenting further; Kosovo's sovereignty and the position of its Serb minority remain unresolved; violence flared between ethnic communities earlier this year in Macedonia, which is hamstrung at an international level by a petty row with Greece. Even Croatia and Slovenia, two of the more affluent, united and stable countries in the region, have restarted squabble over Croatian savings salted away in a defunct Slovenian bank, with Ljubljana threatening to block Croatia's EU accession over the issue.

Nonetheless, the secretary general's six-country tour (seven if one counts Kosovo, which the UN doesn't) does serve as a reminder that the region exists, that it faces serious challenges - and that it has made progress since the end of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession.

History lessons

One of the most significant aspects of the tour was Ban's visit to Srebrenica, the first by a UN Secretary-General since the 1995 massacre, in which around 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed. The visit was largely of symbolic importance, but it was important nonetheless, not only from a Balkan perspective. As Kurt Bassuener, a Sarajevo-based policy analyst points out, his admission that "the international community was incapable of protecting those who in that moment needed our help, and they were killed" (Ban's words) isn't new, as the UN has already taken partial blame for the events. But the UN chief did indicate that the international community had taken on board the lessons learned, and had applied them in places such as Libya and the Ivory Coast - and that it should do so again in Syria.

"Ban has been much stronger on Syria than his predecessors were on Bosnia, and I would look at his statements through that lens," Bassuener tells bne.

Ban also brought succour to Macedonia in its name dispute with Greece, saying that a "prompt resolution" was "imperative", and underlined the role of his personal envoy Matthew Nimetz to helping bring this about.

Athens objects to the country being officially referred to as "Macedonia", claiming that it implies a territorial claim on the adjacent Greek region of the same name. As a result, it has blocked its neighbour's membership of Nato and its EU accession process, to the understandable frustration of the citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (as the country is officially referred to thanks to Greece). There are now real hopes that the issue can be unfrozen. "The visit was warmly welcomed and highly beneficial as it was first of its kind at this level in recent years," Aleksandar Dimishkovski, a Skopje-based business consultant, tells bne. "I think that it was designed and timed so that it can revive the negotiations between Macedonia and Greece. It seems that it was probably also an attempt to put the issue in the global public's focus and increase the pressure at both ends in order to finish the long lasting, ridiculous and tiresome dispute and enable the two countries (and the region as well) to focus on other important issues such as the economic crisis and its effect, the need for increased interconnecting infrastructure and cooperation."

Ban's visit to Kosovo, the first by a UN secretary general since its declaration of independence in 2008, was rather more controversial, raising objections from Serbia. Inevitably, he urged Belgrade and Pristina to continue with negotiations and to normalise relations. As more than one person has pointed out, it's hard to normalise relations with a country while considering it a breakaway region and an inalienable part of one's own country. The fact that the UN doesn't recognise Kosovo itself also makes Ban's job rather harder.

In any case, the organisation has a minimal role in the day-to-day running of the country, having handed over its responsibilities to the EU; its staff in Kosovo largely have an observe-and-report role. "Ban repeated his previous and known positions, including that negotiations on Kosovo should continue, and that an improvement in relations would be welcome," Bratislav Grubacic, a Serbian analyst active in the Serbian Progressive Party of the new president, Tomislav Nikolic, tells bne. "The tour wasn't very special, nothing spectacularly new was said."

In Grubacic's view, the UN has proved better at protecting peace in the region than the next step of bringing reconciliation. That, in the end, depends on the people of the Balkans and their recalcitrant governments.

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