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Serbia’s Kosovo claim: much ado about...

Eric Gordy
2 October 2007

It seems like the Serbian government is escalating its rhetoric about the final status of Kosovo. But most of the noise is not being directed toward any of the parties to the negotiations. It is the sound of competing political parties talking to one another.

The Serbian government's rhetoric on Kosovo has been escalating over the past several weeks, and there have been a few pointed gestures. Foreign minister Vuk Jeremić demonstratively walked out on an after-dinner speech to be given by the former United Nations mediator Martti Ahtisaari. The government discussed formally notifying the UN Security Council that the United States advocacy of independence for Kosovo constituted a threat to the sovereignty of Serbia. The pejorative formulation that an independent Kosovo would be "the first Nato-state" began to be repeated in a number of public fora. There was a sustained exchange between officials from prime minister Vojislav Koštunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and President Boris Tadić's Democratic Party (DS) over whether Serbia ought to continue its efforts to join the Nato alliance, and at the party congress of the DSS, the party's platform was altered to oppose joining the alliance.

Eric Gordy is senior lecturer in southeast European politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

He was previously associate professor of sociology at Clark University, Massachusetts.
He is the author of The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Penn State University Press, 1999), and writes for the blog East Ethnia

Also by Eric Gordy in openDemocracy:

"The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006)

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

Simultaneously a bizarre series of events led to a crisis in relations between Serbia and Montenegro. When the Serbian Orthodox bishop Filaret, a high-profile ideologue with a history of public provocations ranging from posing for photos in ecclesiastical regalia with armed paramilitarists to ringing the bell of the historic monastery he heads to celebrate receiving a gift of an all-terrain vehicle from a rightwing politician, was refused entry into Montenegro, he set up camp and declared a hunger-strike at the border crossing.

Rather than attempting to defuse the easily resolved conflict Filaret was provoking, leading Serbian politicians made pilgrimages to visit him and public statements which prolonged the tension. The most extreme position was taken by Koštunica's advisor Aleksandar Simić, who told the daily paper Glas javnosti that Montenegro was a "quasi-state" which was "playing at rigour". While other Serbian politicians rushed to offer apologies and distance Simić from state policy. Simić himself refused to follow suit, and explained himself by adding that Montenegro does not "have the same civilisational and culturological level as other states". The two governments eventually reached a simple agreement that allowed Filaret to cross the border and conduct a mass, but not before copiously feeding fears and insecurities on both sides.

The Kosovo deadlock

Why the sudden escalation on so many fronts? There are no issues of such vital importance in the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro that would encourage anyone to let a publicity-seeking bishop generate a large scandal. And nothing substantive has changed in the process of reaching a final settlement of the status of Kosovo.

Serbia succeeded in August 2007 in obtaining an extension of the negotiation period to December. In New York on 28 September, on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly meeting, Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders met face-to-face along with representatives of the diplomatic "troika" (United States, Russia, European Union). But it would be difficult to identify anything of importance that is happening around the negotiations. Both sides have named teams whose members announced that they did not intend to budge from maximal positions. The outcome of the negotiations is more or less known in advance: the parties will posture for the media for a few months, fail to reach an agreement, and the international mediators will seek to impose a resolution. The only issue that really remains in the air is whether the final status of Kosovo will be called by the name "independence" or by some other label.

No other outcome is probable as the basic positions of the two parties are fundamentally incommensurable. The Serbian government will not accept any form of independence, and the Kosovo government will not settle for anything less. Any negotiator who might be willing to move from this pat position would be deterred by the certain severe punishment that would come from domestic voters.

So the recent escalation is not about influencing the outcome of the negotiations. It is not about protecting the remaining Serbs living in Kosovo either: if the government was concerned about them, it would have any number of topics to discuss with the negotiators from Kosovo, ranging from the protection of religious and cultural-heritage sites, the freedom of movement and the right of return, the resolution of conflicts over property, the assurance of minority representation in local government, and the prevention of periodic outbursts of violence against the Serb population. Although the government has shown much willingness to use these issues for rhetorical purposes, it has done little about addressing any of them in detail. On 12 September, the government again called on Serbs in Kosovo to boycott local elections there.

The real target

As much as the sharpened rhetoric might raise eyebrows or cause concern in international circles, it is not really directed at them. Instead, it is oriented toward influencing a few different situations that are developing in the government itself.

First, there is the question of elections in Serbia. Under the constitution adopted in 2006, presidential elections should be held soon, most likely by the end of this year. The general expectation is that the personal popularity of Boris Tadić, leader of the pro-European Democratic Party, would lead him to be reelected. But prime minister Koštunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, which has enjoyed outsized power as the junior partner in its current coalition with the DS, fears losing its advantages in an election which would affirm the dominance of its rivals, and has been arguing that the conflict over Kosovo constitutes an emergency under which elections should not be held. The longer the emergency is sustained, the longer the elections are deferred, and so DSS has an interest in keeping tensions as high as possible.

Second, there is the question of patronage, which as in the communist period remains the currency of local politics. The current rulers have learned well the lesson that Slobodan Milošević began to teach in 1987: since the state budget is the principal source of income for Serbs in Kosovo, the party that controls the budget will get their votes, and so Kosovo remains the high-yield goldmine of Serbian elections.

The present government in Belgrade has a ministry for "Kosovo and Metohija" (as the territory is called in Serbian political nomenclature), which is quickly demonstrating its potential as a gravy train for "advisors". On 24 September, the independent radio station B92 reported that in its 100 days of existence, the ministry has taken on 130 "advisors", and plans to employ fifty more. As long as the status of Kosovo remains unresolved, it seems, there should be guaranteed employment for "expert" political appointees whose expertise is otherwise in low demand.

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

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

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

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 2007)

Third, there is the question of maintaining the power relations between the two largest parties of government, DS and DSS, by controlling the demands of the smaller parties that owe their position in government to coalition agreements rather than to their election results. The demands of the technocratic G17+, which favours privatisation and closer engagement with international and European institutions, are closest to the political position of DS. The populist Nova Srbija (NS) party led by the ambitious infrastructure minister Velimir Ilić, and the rightwing United Serbia (JS) led by the colourful Jagodina mayor Dragan Marković-Palma, both seek to push DSS away from collaboration with the DS.

For Koštunica's part, he discovered in May 2007 that he could get DS to give any concession, including entrusting the premier's office to a junior partner, by flirting with the extreme-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS). As the public posturing over the question of when to call elections began, the DSS began flirting with the SRS again. A continuation of high tension will further encourage the DSS to seek its fortunes in alliance with the populist right rather than with the democratic centre, particularly since this formula has guaranteed DSS influence well out of proportion to its popularity with the electorate.

So although there appears to have been a flurry of activity and raised hackles around the Kosovo final-status negotiations, all the fuss has little to do with the negotiations themselves. No observer expects much of consequence to happen in that forum. But outside of it, it offers a tremendously useful pretext for rebalancing coalitions, testing new political strategies, and extending a shaky coalition's hold on power. The negotiations are set to end on 10 December 2007. This date will certainly come and go, possibly with a compromise agreement but more likely without one. In the meantime, the surrounding uncertainty will have had all sorts of uses.

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