Kosovo: Get It Right, Now
Kosovo: Get It Right, Now
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 7 minutes

Kosovo: Get It Right, Now

The soon-to-be-appointed UN special envoy who will negotiate over the status of Kosovo faces an almost impossible task: to satisfy all those with a stake in the region without denying minority rights, and to prevent the region from being frozen in stalemate for decades.

Soon the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, will appoint a special envoy to begin difficult negotiations over Kosovo’s final status. This post will probably go to a respected senior European diplomat, probably the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, with as many as three deputies, including an American, a European and a Russian. But as the international community has learned from repeated rounds of high-stakes diplomacy in the Balkans over the past 15 years, some successful and some decidedly not, a lot more than good intentions goes into getting the talks right.

The stakes are high. If the new envoy does not get Kosovo right, it could become perpetually underdeveloped and prone to unrest, or stay frozen in a decades-long stalemate like Cyprus. Equally important (and despite the fact that Kosovo is unusual because of the 1999 Nato military intervention that paved the way for this current process), the international community’s handling of Kosovo will be read around the globe as having broader meaning for what it says about minority rights, self-determination and the way to deal with breakaway territories. So here is some unsolicited advice for the new special envoy.

If you don’t have real authority, your mission will fail. After a few rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Pristina, Belgrade, Moscow and points west, don’t be surprised if you hit an impasse. At this point, you will need to have the power to put new proposals on the table to get the talks moving. Leaders in this region have seen a string of high-level envoys come and go who did not have the standing to take strong action.

Obviously, you will need to respect the bottom lines that will be deal-breakers for the Contact Group, but if the Serbs, Albanians and Russians see you as little more than a letter carrier from Washington and London, it will not be long before they start dealing directly with these capitals and turning you into a mere figurehead. This is important, because this is one of the first occasions (since Lord Owen’s rocky involvement in the early phases of the Bosnian war) that a European has been given such pre-eminence in Balkans diplomacy. Unless you have real powers, many in the Balkans will assume that you are simply answering to your US deputy or more powerful handlers in the White House. It will only take a few times when you need to step out of the room to get instructions before others around the table begin to think they should be negotiating directly with the front office.

In a marked shift from its position in its first term, the Bush administration is now much more willing to take on the Kosovo issue, and feels that there is no realistic alternative to moving forward with resolving Kosovo’s status. The core team of career US diplomats dealing with the issue are seasoned Balkans hands and quite able. That said, it is far from clear how the Bush administration, which never seems to like being the junior partner in anything, will adjust to letting Europe take the lead on Kosovo. Washington has enough on its hands right now, with everything from Iraq to New Orleans crowding for attention, and it should be happy that Europe has taken greater ownership of all issues Balkan. Yet, there also continues to be an almost instinctive dislike within the White House for European leadership on matters of high diplomacy, and a fundamental distrust of Europe’s ability to stick to tough positions.

The key to dealing with the administration will be to get their full buy-in early, maintain good rapport with your US deputy and convey a sense of professionalism and forward movement that avoids grandstanding. You will also need to maintain a good relationship with the US military officials involved in planning discussions, because most people in the Balkans still see the US military as the most important muscle behind any agreement, even if its long-term presence in the region remains relatively token.

Dealing with Russia is both vital and uniquely frustrating. You will need to endure many long nights and much second-hand smoke before you get Moscow’s UN security council stamp of approval for any Kosovo deal, regardless of whether you have a Russian deputy or not. There are many Soviet-trained hardliners still in positions of real power in the Kremlin, and most still view Kosovo as yet another loss for Russia’s broad sphere of influence. But image remains important for the Russians. President Putin is eager to be seen as a heavyweight on the global stage, and he uses such appearances to bolster his sometimes shaky domestic credibility. Your meetings with the Russians should be well publicised and frequent. You would be wise to speak of the Russians as tough negotiators who care deeply about the minority rights of the Serbs, and you should offer Moscow iron-clad guarantees that the West will not accept the creation of a Greater Albania that merges Kosovo and Albania. Whatever new status awaits Kosovo, it is vital that this arrangement not trigger further rounds of irredentism and territorial claims; allowing Kosovo to merge with Albania would only destabilise Macedonia and other states in the region already wrestling with their own ethnic problems.

Russia has learned the hard way that being obstructionist in the Balkans is counterproductive, but it is important to remember that the Russians also fear that any precedent established in Kosovo will eventually be applied to Chechnya. Russia has a large and restive Muslim population in its southern republics, and would be wise to learn the lesson that Serbia failed to grasp in Kosovo: protecting minority rights is the surest means to head off insurrections before they begin.

The key to dealing with the Serbian government will be applying steady public pressure and using your position as a bully pulpit while dealing with Belgrade’s legitimate concerns. Kosovo remains a hot issue in Serbian politics, and few Serbian politicians have been honest to their constituents about the general situation on the ground in Kosovo over the past 15 years. Many Serbian politicians acknowledge behind closed doors that it would be easier for them if it looked like their arms were being twisted by the international community. The general sentiment is “Please impose this rather than make us look like the bad guys in public”. Yet, this effort cannot be totally heavy-handed; as one senior US official noted, it will be important to “not totally drive the Serbs against the wall. If we drive the Serbs into a corner they will not bend.” It is probably better to err on the side of toughness; some of the Serbian officials involved in the talks have been through many similar exercises during the past decade and will be anything but starstruck at your title or the importance of your mission.

Figuring out practical plans to respect minority Serbian rights in Kosovo is the best way to take the wind out of the sails of Serbian complaints. Kosovo is the site of important historic and religious sites for the Serbs, and access to and protection of religious sites will be a central concern. It might also be useful to locate some government ministries in the heavily Serbian city of Mitrovica, and establishing security arrangements that can be trusted to protect Serbs will be a central measure of your credibility. The issue of decentralising government powers in Kosovo will also loom large, but while decentralisation is fine, attempts to partition Kosovo are not. Lastly, the French “non” vote on the EU constitution will only make your job harder, and the loss of potential early EU membership for Serbia has left the international community with one less carrot to dangle before Belgrade.

Dealing with the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team will be a mess. Getting unity even within the team will be tricky business, and a senior diplomat in Pristina recently complained that the current provisional government of Kosovo spends most of its time “trying to appear to be doing something without actually doing anything”. The recent announcement that President Ibrahim Rugova is suffering from cancer will only intensify the jockeying among the Albanians for political position, and these party disputes have often veered into violence in the past. Making sure that former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters understand that violence is counterproductive and has no place in the political arena will be key to bringing some harmony to the Kosovar Albanian delegation.

While the Kosovar Albanians will likely get much of what they want out of talks, in that they are unlikely ever to be ruled directly by Belgrade again, do not expect them to go along happily with the process. You will need to be every bit as blunt with the Albanians as you are with the Serbs. Probably the best thing you can do for Kosovo and Kosovars is to develop a reasonable plan for the continued international civilian presence in Kosovo over time. Kosovo is still plagued by cronyism and corruption, with little experience in running government. By pushing the Kosovars to accept the role of a reasonably intrusive continued international civilian presence, particularly in areas such as the justice system, you can help avoid creating a Kosovo that is ripe for failure.

As the world has learned painfully in the Balkans, just because everyone agrees to a plan does not mean that it is necessarily a good plan. One need only think back to the creation of safe havens and the fiasco of Srebrenica to appreciate that fact. There will be times when all of the capitals with which you are dealing are so eager to reach a deal that they will sign almost anything. The devil is in the detail and if you do not resist the many half-baked sovereignty options with which you will be presented, Europe could be left with Kosovo as a problem for decades to come.

Even the EU itself has recognised that Kosovo will need to have such fundamentals as treaty-making powers and distinct borders if it is ever to be integrated into the EU and other European institutions years down the road, and this is likely its best hope looking forward.

Welcome to your new job.

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