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

Europe must get behind Kosovo

After nearly a decade of intensive multi-lateral engagement in Kosovo, the international community is disturbingly close to tripping itself up at the last hurdle. Not only has the best plan for resolving the outstanding Balkan conflict been hazardously left to rot, but the central international player - that is, the one with the most to lose from a return to chaos on its doorstep, the European Union - has sadly allowed itself to become split, in large part by something that can only be described as Russian mischief making.

There are only a few weeks left to sort out the legal status of the territory that has been under UN administration since 1999, when NATO bombing halted Belgrade’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the breakaway province’s 90% Albanian population. When a final 120-day negotiation period ends next month, no one can be sure what will happen. Almost certainly the talks between Belgrade and Pristina will lead into a dead end, and the UN Security Council, paralysed thanks to Russian veto threats, will be unable to break the stalemate by adopting the painstakingly crafted proposal for Kosovo of UN Special Negotiator Martti Ahtisaari,.

In short, come 10 December, all bets are off. Early in 2008, we will probably see a unilateral declaration of independence from Pristina, recognised by some 22 EU member states - along with the US, Turkey and neighbouring Macedonia among others - but not by four or five EU countries. Europe’s division is deeply worrying for a variety of reasons.

First, the EU is supposed to send political and rule-of-law missions to Kosovo to supersede the UN presence there. It is already clear Moscow will deny this new effort a UN Security Council mandate - a stance that does nothing for the cause of stability in the Balkans. If EU member states cannot agree amongst themselves on Kosovo’s status, the new missions start off with an additional handicap. How will EU overseers, police and judges be able to function effectively in a country that several EU members do not even recognise?

Second, how will Brussels work with the new country if EU members are split on the issue of its very legal existence? Trade arrangements and discussions leading toward potential EU membership, starting with a Stability and Association Agreement, could not even begin to get off the ground. The forlorn state would merely continue its international limbo status under another name, doing no favours for those who prefer to see political stability and economic prosperity in this region.

And the problems run deeper still. If the EU allows itself to be visibly split on this issue, Serbs in the north of Kosovo may feel encouraged to attempt to break away from the new state, particularly if NATO forces are not on the ground there in sufficient numbers and do not have an interventionist mandate. With this, however, Serbs living north of the Ibar River would cast adrift Serbs living in the ethnic enclaves in the south, by far the larger group, who are sadly left without the formal minority protections the Ahtisaari plan would have provided them. Albanians in the neighbouring south Serbian area of the Presevo Valley, who fought a brief insurgency in 2000, have promised to demand inclusion in the new rump Albanian Kosovo if north Kosovo Serbs start redrawing the old internal boundaries of the former Yugoslavia - a logic familiar to revisionist Serb voices in Bosnia’s Republika Srpksa as well.

Clearly, such spreading instability is not in Europe’s interest.

The EU’s naysayers on Kosovo independence (primarily Greece and Cyprus) and the fence-sitters (currently Slovakia, Romania, Spain, Italy and Slovenia) clearly have no alternate plan for the province - no formula that nearly ten years of proposals and negotiations at every level have somehow failed to discover - so it is not at all unreasonable to ask them to fall in with the EU mainstream. Russia has been outstanding at rallying Orthodox allegiances and evoking notions of Slavic brotherhood on behalf of Belgrade, but European ties should take priority over these other sentiments.

Other EU states worry recognition of Kosovo would give succour to potential separatist elements back home. But Kosovo is hardly a precedent: no where in Europe does anything similar exist - a people subject to massive ethnic cleansing, returned to their land by international military intervention and living with UN protection for years as the 90 per cent majority population, under a Security Council resolution which envisages that the future status of the country will be determined by a “political process”.

Romantic inclinations and groundless fears aside, the reality of uncharted waters after 10 December remains. Yes, it would have been ideal if the UN Security Council approved the Ahtisaari plan, but sadly that did not happen. To avoid increased instability on its own borders the EU has no option but to back Pristina’s now inevitable declaration of independence and look forward to dealing with Europe’s newest state.

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