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Can a Kosovo-Serbia deal cheer up the Balkans?

Unlike most of the world's economic powers, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo as a state. It will need to, though, before it can start down the road to EU accession.
Denis MacShane
7 November 2011

From the Alps to Aegean the Balkans are Europe’s unhappy region. Twenty five years ago Slobodan Milosevic unleashed the nationalist rhetoric that plunged the peoples of the former Yugoslavia into a decade of conflict. Twelve years ago Nato swerved round the UN to launch its ‘humanitarian intervention’ assault on Serbia.

Today there is no war but nationalist, clerical and ethnicist populisms still bedevil the region. Although Croatia has won its prized entry into the EU, Albanian politics generate violent hates which should have no place in European democratic politics. Macedonia cannot agree on a census lest the Albanian minority’s place in bi-partite governance comes into question. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three communities refuse to cooperate. Some Bosnian Croats are now talking of attaching themselves to Croatia. Belgrade insists that Serb rights are upheld in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.

Serbia would like to start travelling down the road of EU accession as would the many friends of Serbia’s popular president Boris Tadic in different EU capitals. But Serbia first has to come to terms with the existence of Kosovo. In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence. Serbia with the backing of Russia and some EU capitals brushed away Kosovo’s claim to be a new nation-state as irrelevant – on a par with the claims of a South Ossetia, Transnistria or northern Cyprus. 

But last year the International Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling that upheld Kosovo’s right to declare its independence. In one of the longest most detailed judgments to come from The Hague, the ICJ dismissed one by one Serbia’s international legal arguments. 

As a result 85 nations, including most of the world’s major democracies and economic powers now recognise Kosovo and have embassies in Kosovo. All the main European airlines fly to Pristina. At the UN, Russia and China maintain their veto on Kosovo joining the UN. Greece refuses to vote for Kosovo to join the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. But increasingly diplomats, and in private, politicians in Spain and Greece – the two major EU non-recognising states – realise that following the ICJ ruling, denying Kosovo its status as an independent nation-state is pointless. 

In fact, Kosovo has a better record than many of its neighbours. Its political quarrels do not lead to people being killed in demonstrations as in Albania. Kosovan politicians have voluntarily gone to The Hague’s International War Crimes tribunal in contrast to the Serb army’s decade-long protection of its General Ratko Mladic. Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, is cooperating fully with an investigation into allegations – so far without evidence or a single witness – made by the now retired Swiss politician, Dick Marty. Kosovan public finances are in order – not the least because the government cannot spend its budget – in contrast to Serbia’s mammoth public debt. Unlike Skopje where handsome Ottoman squares are being filled with kitsch statues of Alexander the Great to whip up nationalist identity passion, Pristina is multi-cultural with orthodox churches being rebuilt, a handsome Catholic cathedral and the most secular Muslims anywhere in the world. The population is the youngest in Europe with English-language universities in Pristina turning out smart young men and women for whom the Milosevic years are not even a memory. 

By any logic, Kosovo and Serbia should have the kind of relationship that say Britain and Ireland, or more recently, the Czech Republic and Slovakia fashioned after the respective communities went their separate ways. Instead the most pressing Balkan problem remains the Kosovo-Serbia imbroglio. 

Belgrade accepts Kosovo as a nation but resists recognition of Kosovo as a state. This earned Serbia’s President Tadic a public dressing down from Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel when she insisted that Serbia had to dismantle the parallel structures it maintains in northern Kosovo. Serbia spends €200 million in subsidising north Kosovo. Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo live at peace if apart from their Kosovan neighbours much as Catholic and Protestant communities are separate in Northern Ireland but under a common law and administration. 

The one area where there is close Serb-Kosovan Albanian cooperation is in crime. Serb and Albanian criminals in the north run an oil-smuggling racket that brings in $100 million annually. This money is used to pay for rent-a-mob gangs that throw stones and worse at officials of Eulex, the EU law and justice operation which is meant to uphold EU-shaped law across Kosovo. 

Belgrade is comforted in its refusal to cut a deal with Kosovo by Russian and Chinese anti-Kosovo politics at the UN. Five EU member states also refuse to recognise Kosovo. Each had different, and in their own eyes, justified reasons for so doing. But the five non-recognizing states undermine EU claims to run an effective foreign or enlargement policy. When the EU cannot speak as one on the relatively minor issue of Kosovo it is unlikely that the BRICS, or even Washington will pay any attention to Europe. 

Having been victims of Serb oppression for decades in the twntieth century, Kosovans are now seen as oppressors by the minority Serb communities living inside Kosovo. Under the supervision of the Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, there is a balanced plan allowing Serbs considerable autonomy and  rights within Kosovo. The EU is unanimous that there will be no more partitions or population transfers. But both Tadic and Thaci face political pressure from nationalist radicals and, in Belgrade, a populist media which whips up anti-Kosovo passions. In Pristina intellectuals play with language of “Greater Albania” or ridding Kosovo of its internationals, little realising that they echo and mirror the Milosevic nationalist-ethnicist populism that caused such tragedy in the region. Kosovo energetic young Foreign Ministry team, peopled by smart LSE graduates, are criticised as is Hashim Thaci himself if they suggest reconciliation and compromise with Serbia rather than outright confrontation.

Now both Belgrade and Pristina are in an impasse. Serbia’s intransigence on Kosovo means it will make no progress in its legitimate desire to follow Croatia in the EU. A breakthrough could happen if the EU could unite around recognising Kosovo which would allow President Tadic to tell his people it was time to move on from the post-Milosevic era Serbia is trapped in. The incoming Spanish government could play a constructive role as recognising Kosovo has no implications for separatist forces in the Iberian peninsula. Churchill noted that the Balkans produces more history than it can consume. A move to let Kosovo be Kosovo and, as William Hague told the Commons, to allow both Serbia and Kosovo start the journey to EU accession could transform the region for the better.

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