The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

The Great Unfinished Business of Southeastern Europe

Last Sunday's election in Montenegro leaves the rump Yugoslavia in limbo. With the electorate so evenly divided for and against independence, the Serbia-Montenegro union will live to limp on a little longer, but the relationship between the two remaining Yugoslav republics stays unviable and perhaps unreformable.

Slobodan Milosevic's demise has not solved the underlying structural problem in Yugoslavia. The constitution he imposed in 1992 cannot meet the needs of any modern, democratic state. More starkly, it cannot accommodate the legitimate aspirations of 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which is still part of Serbia al-though administered now as a United Nations protectorate.

Resolving the status and interrelationship of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro is the great unfinished business of southeastern Europe. Until it happens, politics will remain plagued by extremist nationalism. Ownership and other basic legal rights will remain clouded, and foreign investors will certainly be deterred.

Nor has life after Mr. Milosevic meant the end of crises elsewhere in the Balkans. With Bosnian Croats in open revolt, and Bosnian Serbs pinning their hopes on new nationalist leaders in Belgrade, the future of Bosnia remains wide open. Even Macedonia, for so long the dog that didn't bark, lurched close to civil war last month, with the army in action against ethnic Albanian rebels.

These crises feed on a perceived loss of international nerve and stamina. In Bosnia, the talk is of troop drawdown. There is, unhappily, a growing sentiment in some key Western capitals in favor of partition, on the basis that the multiethnic poultice invented at Dayton has not healed Bosnia's wounds and can never do so.

For Kosovo, viability must mean formalizing, in some principled way, the break with Serbia. But the sheer difficulty of achieving this has paralyzed the international community. Unless there is an accelerated move to genuine self-government, with this in turn laying the foundation for serious final status discussions, the UN-led mission will find itself more and more dangerously at odds with the ethnic Albanian majority - and just as unable to protect Serbian and Roma minorities as it is now.

All these issues are addressed in a book-length report from the International Crisis Group, "After Milosevic: A Practical Agenda for Lasting Peace in the Balkans," being launched this Thursday in Brussels. It argues that lasting peace depends crucially on institutional change, that future and final status issues have to be addressed sooner rather than later, that each country situation has its own unique dynamics, and that international policy cannot continue to drift, nervous and unfocused. Hopes that Yugoslavia can somehow be reconstituted as a loose federation or confederation, with next to no central authority, are popular in Belgrade and Western capitals but painfully detached from political realities. Both Montenegro and Serbia are reluctant to enter any revised federal arrangement, while Kosovo wants nothing to do with Belgrade at all.

There are multiple constitutional models available for Montenegro and Serbia to find some common ground. The two have to sort out monetary policy, and tax and environmental policy, and find ways of cooperating over pensions, health care and education.

The international community should be helping them reach a settlement - and should be totally relaxed if that involves independence.

Fears that Montenegrin independence moves would generate civil war in Montenegro, unstoppable domino effects elsewhere in the region, political instability in Belgrade and an adverse impact on the authority of the civil administrator in Kosovo have all been greatly overstated.

Kosovo is a much bigger challenge. As long as Albanians fear, and Serbs hope, that Belgrade's rule might return, each side will be preparing both psychologically and practically for the next war, deflecting attention from other political, economic and social problems. Three steps forward should now be taken. The first is quickly to establish, on the basis of elections held this past autumn, a full system of democratic and autonomous self-government, as promised in Security Council Resolution 1244. The second is to establish a focal point for the "political process to determine Kosovo's final status" envisaged by 1244. The most obvious candidate here is an international meeting of the kind that the Rambouillet negotiators wanted for 2002, with the Group of Eight or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe taking the lead.

The third is serious consultations on principles for a final settlement. Border adjustments should not be ruled out if they are peacefully agreed upon. (There would be no relevant parallels with ethnic-cleansing-based demands for partition in Bosnia.) The most appropriate status for Kosovo would be "conditional independence," which could involve a period of international trusteeship and some permanent limits on sovereign action.

In Bosnia and Macedonia, the critical needs are to preserve territorial integrity and the principle of multiethnicity.

The challenge of building up state institutions, and systematically destroying the power bases of extremist nationals, has at last been faced in Bosnia, but international commitment is more than ever needed now to see this through. Here as elsewhere in the Balkans, lasting peace won't come by default.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.