Another Balkan high noon
Another Balkan high noon
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Another Balkan high noon

With the world focused on Iraq, North Korea, and a possible clash with Iran over nuclear weapons, Kosovo has fallen off the radar screen. That inattention will end soon; a decision about the province's fate is looming.

The United States and its European friends have repeatedly stated their intent to make the difficult decision before the end of the year on whether to separate Kosovo from Serbia. This decision - crucial to the future of an unstable region - will test western determination and unity.

Negotiations this year in Vienna, brokered by the UN, showed that an agreed settlement between Serbia and Kosovo on "final status" will not happen. Talks continue but, as UN negotiator and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari diplomatically told the security council, they are effectively dead.

No Serbian leader will agree to Kosovo's independence, because nationalism remains the dominant political force in the country. Indeed, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the apostle of Serbian nationalism, has been trying in every way to undermine Kosovo's interim government. He is rushing to hold a national referendum this month on a new constitution without serious parliamentary debate or the usual public education. The main purpose of his new constitution is its preamble, which enshrines Kosovo as an inalienable part of Serbia.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians have proclaimed that they will not accept any tie to Serbia, no matter how tenuous. Throughout the 1990's, they virtually opted out of Serbian-run Kosovo by creating parallel institutions. Their forced mass exodus in 1999 and Nato's subsequent intervention, which ended Serbia's rule and established a quasi-state under UN administration, has made anything other than independence intolerable.

Sometime over the next month or two, the Balkan contact group - the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia - will consider Ahtisaari's recommendations on Kosovo's final status and possibly propose a solution to the security council, which must make the final decision. In public, all contact group members have tried to leave the question of Kosovo's final status open, but informally the US and some of its allies have told the two parties that they will propose independence this year.

Some members of the security council - particularly Russia and China - are opposed to or sceptical of an imposed settlement, and few governments favour dividing up another country's territory, however compelling the circumstances. Whether the security council will approve independence largely depends on averting a Russian veto, which will require considerable diplomatic effort.

The nature of the independence bestowed is also important. An independent Kosovo must be secured and its minorities protected. Northern Kosovo, now largely under Belgrade's control, must not be partitioned off in all but name. In the interest of reducing the blow to Serbia, the security council must avoid granting independence in ways that are so contorted that the new state cannot effectively function.

If the security council fails to reach a decision on final status, it will produce a grave situation: Kosovo would declare independence unilaterally, and all nations would have to make up their mind whether or not to recognise the new state. If that happens, it is likely that the Serbs of North Kosovo would declare their own independence. At a minimum, Serbia would campaign strongly against recognition.

In fact, Serbia's government is already trying to persuade the west to postpone a decision until mid-2007. It claims that if Kosovo is granted independence, the ultranationalist Radical party will come to power in the next elections, and believes that holding elections as early as this year will cause the contact group to delay a proposal to the security council. Moreover, the government has encouraged the leaders of Bosnia's Republika Srpska to threaten to hold their own referendum on separation from a still fragile Bosnia. And they continue to push - unsuccessfully - for Ahtisaari's removal in order to prolong the Vienna talks.

The timing of the constitutional referendum appears to be a part of this delaying strategy. Some hope that postponement will stimulate violence in Kosovo and further encourage western reconsideration of independence.

That tactic may be working. Many EU countries are worried about the implications of taking away a country's territory, as well as the impact of Kosovo's independence on Serbian democracy. Given Serbia's political instability, they question the harm of a short-term postponement - albeit mostly self-inflicted. But delay only offers more room for Kostunica to find ways to make a security council decision more difficult.

The west must ignore Belgrade's siren song. Serbian politics will be chaotic and unstable for the foreseeable future, and Serbian politicians will attempt to present this as an excuse to avoid facing the loss of Kosovo. Likewise, there will be problems establishing ties between Serbia and Kosovo under any circumstances.

But failure to proceed definitively now on Kosovo's final status will produce a worse Balkan situation, one that blocks Serbia's move toward the west and ultimate membership in the EU, condemns Kosovo's ethnic minorities to dangerous ambiguity, and imperils fragile states like Bosnia and Macedonia.

No realistic solution exists for Kosovo but independence. If Serbia wants to join the west, it must not forsake that opportunity by trapping itself in its nationalist past.


Board Member
Former Senior Adviser, Balkans

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