Kosovo's contested future

Paul Hockenos
16 November 2007

It can be exasperating to hear people from the Balkans blame “foreign powers” with hidden agendas and geopolitical ambitions for their troubles, as if they themselves bear no responsibility for their fortunes. But it would be easier to refute this counterproductive thinking if it hadn’t so often been the case over history - and is the case today, particularly when it comes to Kosovo. The problem of determining the “final status” of a province that is still legally part of Serbia but whose population is 90% ethnic Albanian was always going to be difficult. What makes it even harder is that international policy toward the disputed territory is being driven by the interests of external actors rather than those of the people of Kosovo, including the Kosovar Serbs. The main obstacle to a settlement is that these powers - the United Nations, the European Union member-states, the United States, and Russia - are themselves deeply divided, for reasons that have little to do with Kosovo itself.

The current eleventh-hour talks follow a year of United Nations-sponsored negotiations headed by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, which came exasperatingly close to a reasonable conclusion but ran aground in the UN Security Council, upon the threat of a Russian veto. The ongoing diplomacy, led by a “troika” of Russian, United States, and European Union envoys, is likely to get no further. Yet, a bitter irony not lost on the province’s increasingly resentful people: there is a general consensus in the international community that independence for the Kosovar Albanians is both inevitable and, ultimately, the best option (among many unappealing options) for everyone involved - even for Serbia. But the trick is how to get there; and on this almost no one agrees.

The road's end

The United Nations, after eight years of running Kosovo as a protectorate, urgently wants to pack up and leave, regardless of Kosovo’s status. The UN mission in Kosovo (Unmik) derives its authority from the Security Council, which stipulated that an interim UN mission administer a broadly autonomous Kosovo, and that the territory remain part of Serbia. Future talks would determine a “final status” for Kosovo thus relieving the UN of its watch. The UN was never meant to stay in Kosovo forever, point out UN officials, the way it got stuck in Cyprus for thirty-odd years.

Since June 1999, the UN has run one of the most expensive, worst administered missions of the many around the world. A telling illustration of the UN’s ineptitude is the main power-station, that despite millions of euros in international investment still leaves Pristina shivering through the winter. Much of the Serb minority lives in depressing enclaves or in the area around the northern part of the city of Mitrovica, which borders southern Serbia. Only half the people of working age in Kosovo have jobs. The greatest single debacle was the international mission’s inability to protect the Serbs in March 2004 when rioting Albanians attacked Serbs and sacked Orthodox churches. In February 2007, two Albanian student demonstrators were shot dead by UN police as they marched in protest against the Ahtisaari plan. It is no wonder the UN is eager to transfer authority to the European Union as soon as possible.

Kosovo's plight

Ahtisaari’s task was to negotiate the terms of the new status and the transition. Would the Europeans be mentoring a newly independent state into the EU, replacing the UN as overlord, or some combination of the two? The Ahtisaari report proposed “supervised independence” for Kosovo, namely a phased-in statehood overseen by an international civilian body with military capabilities. The plan envisioned a multi-ethnic, broadly decentralised Kosovo in which the minority Serbs had far-ranging rights and autonomy. In fact, so extensive was the autonomy for minorities that politicians in neighbouring countries (and even as far away as Spain and Belgium) worried out loud that their minority populations might insist upon the same.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist and author who has written about south-eastern Europe since 1989. He is editor of Internationale-Politik - Global Edition, and the author of Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkan Wars (Cornell University Press, 2003The plan received praise, not least from Washington where the George W Bush administration has consistently championed Kosovar statehood. But the United States’ position has less to do with noble principles of self-determination than it has with extracting the US from a remote, hopeless conflict. The US’s main priority is to free up resources for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. European troops may now form the bulk of the the Nato contingent, but Washington is impatient with the pace of progress and is eager to wash its hands of the Balkans; the creation of a Kosovo state will, it calculates, facilitate this. Furthermore, the American president sees Kosovo (to Europeans’ embarrassment) through the prism of the “war on terror”, and has said that a free Kosovo would be a positive example of a peaceful, democratic Muslim state.

Most of the European Union’s twenty-seven members applauded the Ahtisaari plan as well - for reasons of calculated Realpolitik. After all, there is no EU support for statehood for countless other small peoples who also suffer discrimination or worse - among them the Kurds, Basques, Ossetians, Chechens, Abkhaz, and Tibetans. But in the western Balkans, the factor that trumps all others is stability: Kosovo’s fate is critical to the entire region. After the bloodshed in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, which the then fifteen-strong European Community failed to stem, the European Union invested enormous energies and funds in pacifying the Balkans and bringing the region under its wing. Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia have joined the EU, and Croatia will follow. But this energy flagged with the defeat of the constitutional treaty in 2005 and “enlargement fatigue.” The EU’s commitment wavered and this was felt by the pro-European forces in the western Balkans.

Today, the stakes are again high. Kosovo is the linchpin that connects ethnic Albanian communities in four problem-states: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania. Any kind of civic unrest or armed conflict in Kosovo would surely drag these countries in, upending a decade of painstaking, expensive progress. There is the real fear that Greece, Bulgaria, and Bosnia would also become implicated, as would all of Serbia’s neighbours, including Croatia, Hungary, and Romania; the multiple tremors could easily damage fragile arrangements with ethnic minorities and cause the EU to split again over a response. This is why Brussels just recently pushed through relaxed visa requirements for the western Balkan states to enter the European Union, something that should have been done years ago. Now it could be too little, too late.

The Ahtisaari plan - and, implicitly, the idea of non-negotiated independence for Kosovo - has forceful opponents too. Russia is first among them. The Ahtisaari-led negotiations proceeded under the assumption that in the end Russia would be on board. Although Moscow had firmly opposed the idea of non-negotiated independence in the past and had taken the side of the Serbs repeatedly over the 1990s, the negotiators claimed that there were clear signals from Moscow indicating that Russia would consent to the process and even to an independent Kosovo.

The turning-point, argue some, was the Bush administration’s decision in early 2006 to station an anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, territory that had been part of the Soviet bloc and still considered sensitive by Russia for security reasons. President Putin may have been willing to “trade” cancellation of the missile programme for Kosovar statehood - though the possibility was never explored by Washington.

It is also possible, however, that for reasons of state (and not out of any solidarity with its eastern Orthodox brothers in Serbia) Russia was never going to accept an independent Kosovar state. The principle of territorial integrity is not just etched into the UN charter; it is critical to sprawling, multinational Russia. The Kremlin is well aware of the precedent that recognising a breakaway region would set for far-flung and disenchanted national groups (such as the Chechens) in its own sovereign territory. “The principle of the territorial integrity of states, member states of the United Nations, is one of the foundations of international law”, stated Russia’s UN ambassador in summer 2007, explaining Moscow’s opposition to the Ahtisaari plan. “There is a very strong political motivation not to reward aggressive separatist inclinations.” This naked self-interest explains Moscow’s motives much better than speculation about Russian designs in the Balkans, pan-Slavic brotherhood, or geo-strategic jockeying in the “new cold war”.

The deep uneasiness of a handful of EU states - among them Spain, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, and Slovakia - to awarding statehood to “breakaway minorities” also has little to do with Kosovo and everything with their own minorities. These states could, like the Russians, tolerate an independent Kosovo if it had the blessing of both parties, the Serbs and the Albanians, as did the Czech-Slovak and Serb-Montenegrin “negotiated” divorces. The positions of the holdout EU countries become vitally important should (as in one current option) the EU opt to circumvent the Security Council and recognise Kosovo’s independence together with the United States. Since the deployment of an EU mission to Kosovo requires a full consensus, a veto by even one state could throw everything back to square one.

Serbia's secret

The government in Belgrade claims that the Ahtisaari plan was a straightforward attempt to rob them of Kosovo. The vehement reaction defied Ahtisaari’s assumption that the Serbs would passively accept his proposal if enough compensatory “sweeteners” in the form of EU development funds and other incentives were dangled in front of them. But once Belgrade’s nationalists saw that Russia wasn’t going along, they retreated to a hardline position. Serbia’s leadership turned the future of Kosovo into a symbolically loaded cause, a test-case of national loyalty, in a way that made being “soft” on the issue impossible for any political party.

But how important is Kosovo to the Serbs in reality? There is a dark joke inside Serbia that if a Kosovo under Serbian rule would mean (on equal-opportunity grounds) Albanians being granted one-fifth of places in the national parliament, on hospital boards, in the judiciary, the education system, then the Serbs would turn and run in the other direction. The imbalance in birthrates is a horror-scenario for Serb nationalists. In fact, many Serb citizens (and off-the-record, even politicians) acknowledge that Serbia would benefit enormously from cutting loose Kosovo and concentrating on its own problems. But saying this aloud in Serbia is treasonous.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Kosovo and and the future of Serbia:

Vesna Goldsworthy, "Au revoir, Montenegro?" (23 May 2006)

Peter Lippman, "Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos" (30 October 2006)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's elections: less of the same" (23 January 2007)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Neven Andjelic, "Serbia and Eurovision: whose victory?" (25 May 2007The Kosovars' fate

What of the people - or peoples - of Kosovo themselves? The Belgrade leadership has treated the 200,000 Serbs who live in Kosovo as pawns in a cynical geopolitical gambit: instructing them to impede diplomacy, boycott elections, and believe that one day Kosovo will return to some kind of pre-1999 situation. But despite its absolutist position for home consumption, Belgrade has long been angling to partition Kosovo, ensuring that the north remains under its control.

This would most probably entail transferring all Kosovar Serbs in central and southern Kosovo to refugee camps north of the Ibar River - to join the 600,000 other refugees in Serbia, the by-product of Slobodan Milosevic’s territorial wars. Belgrade’s policies reveal that its real interest is what it has been for nearly a century: the territory of Kosovo, not the people who live there.

For their own part, the Kosovar Albanians want independence - and will take to arms to get it. Kosovo was joined to Serbia in 1912, in the aftermath of the first Balkan war. Since then the ethnic Albanians have experienced one form or another of discrimination at the hands of different Serb regimes: monarchist, socialist, and nominally democratic. Now they have an opportunity to remove the sovereign hand that made this possible, and they are not going to miss it.

So even in the absence of international agreement on Kosovo’s future, the Albanians will probably declare independence in the near future. The question is just what kind of statehood they will get. If their declared polity is internationally contested, deprived of a United Nations seat, with its border to the north blocked by Serbia, then Kosovo could be worse off than it is now.

Will post-independence Kosovo look more like Taiwan, northern Cyprus, or Gaza? The Kosovar Albanians’ biggest illusion is that the United States will put everything right for them. They believe Washington is really acting in their interests and not purely in its own. In the end, they could find themselves quite alone, carping that the great powers have left them in the lurch once again.

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