Austin Bay

On Super Sunday, Europe dodged a shooting war ... but just barely.

Thank Serbia's electorate -- at least 50.5 percent of them -- as Serbia's current president, Boris Tadic, narrowly defeated "ultra-nationalist" Tomislav Nikolic. Tadic opposes renewed warfare and supports Serbia's economic and political integration with Western and Central Europe.

Nikolic looks east -- to Russia. He doesn't shy from violent threats, either. "Ultra-nationalist" in the context of contemporary Eastern Europe and Central Asia is something of a euphemism for "21st century fascist." That's a freighted description, but Nikolic's "irredentist" land claims, insistent political exploitation of historical grievances and a violent brand of ethnic identity politics justifies it.

History does not repeat itself, not exactly. In 1933, a fascist didn't have nuclear weapons. Not that Nikolic does, either -- but the day before the election he promised that if he were elected he would ask the Russia Air Force to patrol Serbian air space. Nikolic added that he stood "for military cooperation with Russia" and emphasized that he opposes a "NATO presence in Serbia in any form."

NATO peacekeepers still patrol Kosovo. Nikolic was telling Serbian voters he would toss NATO out of Kosovo -- and remove the force that prevents renewed combat and ethnic cleansing.

Perhaps most Americans have forgotten the 1999 Kosovo War, the Clinton administration's war to stop a Serb-led genocide in Kosovo. Serbians haven't, Albanians haven't, nor has Vladimir Putin's newly muscular Kremlin. Perhaps Americans thought that "little" Balkan war was over and done. Serbs don't think so, Albanians don't, nor does the Kremlin.

The "Kosovo problem" was the primary election issue in Serbia. That made the election a major battle in that still simmering Balkan war. Fortunately, Serbs waged Sunday's battle with ballots instead of bombs. Unfortunately, with men like Nikolic getting 49 percent of the vote, bombs (whether delivered by unconventional ethnic and religious terrorists, or conventional strike aircraft) remain a terrifying possibility. In the Balkans, "little" events have a track record for igniting large-scale slaughter -- with World War I as a bitter example.

The Kosovo conundrum is an ugly clash with no gentile resolution.

For the last nine years, the Kosovo tug or war between Belgrade and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority has challenged diplomatic creativity. European Union and United Nations diplomats have explored several options, including a vague policy called "conditional independence," but ultimately either Kosovo becomes independent or in some fashion remains politically tethered to Serbia.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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