The start of talks on Kosovo's future
A Serbian province heads towards full independence
THE United Nations Security Council has given the go-ahead for talks that could culminate in independence for Kosovo. Six years after the end of the Kosovo war, it signalled on May 27th a new determination by the western powers to open talks on the final status of the disputed province. The fear is that, if Kosovo is not seen to be moving towards independence soon, the UN mission and NATO troops in Kosovo might be faced with an ethnic-Albanian equivalent of Palestine's intifada.
Under international law Kosovo is still part of Serbia, even though it has, since June 1999, been a UN protectorate. It has a population of some 2m, of whom more than 90% are ethnic Albanians. They want independence. Serbia's leaders say that they are willing to offer the Albanians virtually everything they wish—except that.
The UN has now set a diplomatic process in motion. A UN envoy will be sent to assess the situation in the province. A “status envoy” may then be appointed in the autumn to push forward negotiations between Kosovo's Albanians and Serbia.
Serbian officials are preparing various negotiating strategies. Nothing is finalised yet and some, at least, is bluff. After all, in the unlikely situation that Kosovo's Albanians accepted Serbia's offer of “more than autonomy and less than independence”, this could put ethnic-Albanian ministers into Serbia's government, as well as an ethnic-Albanian block into parliament in Belgrade. Such a block could hold the balance of power between parties representing 8m Serbs. Serbia's leaders do not want this. What they would prefer is for the western powers to persuade the Albanians to abandon their demands for full independence. No Serbian leader wants to go down in history as the man who treacherously signed away a province many Serbs see as their historical birthright.
According to one Serbian source, this could mean that ethnic-Albanian areas of Kosovo would be self-governing and independent in all but name. Yet many western diplomats think that it is unrealistic for Serbia to retain any kind of link to Kosovo. They are mulling the idea of “conditional independence”. This would break the link with Serbia and replace the present UN mission with a new body that would have considerable reserve powers to keep the province under tight international control for many years to come.
To a considerable extent Serbia's leaders are fighting a rearguard action over Kosovo. They know that they may not be able to prevent Kosovo's independence. They even concede that, if it should be forced on them, they could not possibly launch a new war against it. Yet, as one Serbian source close to the president says, an independent Kosovo could quickly turn into a crime-ridden, mafia-run state: a result that would be nothing short of a “disaster for the region”.
To the grim satisfaction of Serbian officials, and just as independence appears within its grasp, Kosovo's own politics are in disarray. While the UN is trying to encourage all sides to find a consensus before the final-status talks, bitter political feuds are breaking into the open. A spate of inter-Albanian shootings and bombings has underlined just how fragile political life is in the province.
Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank, gives warning that there could be worse to come. He says that Kosovo's stagnant economy may shrink by as much as half a percentage point this year, just as the EU is also drastically cutting back aid. This he terms “strategic blindness”, which could result in upheavals and violence just at the moment that the EU is nudging the Serbs and Kosovo's Albanians towards talking peace.