As both formal and informal behind-the-scenes talks about Kosovo’s future status begin, the member countries of the powerful Contact Group seem to have reached a consensus that Kosovo should be granted “conditional independence”.
By Tim Judah in London and Paris for ISN Security Watch (24/12/05)
Though UN officials have recently announced that talks concerning the status of Serbia’s UN-administered province of Kosovo would begin in earnest in January, ISN Security Watch has learned that much of the real work is already being done behind the scenes, with intense discussions between key countries involved in the region and Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders.
Over the past few weeks, a series of meetings, both formal and informal, have taken place in key capitals - including the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Kosovo capital, Pristina - as diplomats attempt to shape a deal for Kosovo, bolstering the work being done by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who has been chosen to head the UN-led status negotiations.
Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, the province of some two million people has been under the jurisdiction of the UN, though it legally remains a part of Serbia. Its population is over 90 per cent ethnic Albanian. They have made it clear they want nothing less than full independence for Kosovo.
Serbia’s official position is that Kosovo can have “more than autonomy but less than independence”.
Members of the Serbian negotiation team, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic, had proposed earlier this month that Kosovo be divided into Albanian and Serbian areas.
According to the Serbian plan, the Albanian areas would be self-governing and independent in all but name, while the Serbian ones would remain linked to Belgrade and the Serbian flag would fly once again on Kosovo’s frontiers.
In parallel to this, the Serbian leadership has also decided that it would be most advantageous to argue their Kosovo case along legal lines - that is to say that Kosovo is de jure part of Serbia and thus its international frontiers cannot be changed without Serbia’s consent.
However, Kosovo’s Albanian leaders are demanding that the province be given full independence in recognition of their right to self-determination.
Over the last few weeks, there have been several meetings - including one between the Contact Group, which was set up to coordinate policy during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, and Ahtisaari - which have yielded significant results. While Ahtisaari is now the official Kosovo mediator, real power lies with the countries of the Contact Group.
There appears to be a considerable unity of purpose among the Contact Group members. France and the US, for example, so often at loggerheads over the past few years, have no major disagreement over Kosovo. Russia, too, has been described by diplomats as extremely cooperative over Kosovo. If Serbian leaders were hoping to find backing from the traditionally friendly Russians there is no evidence thus far that they will get it.
Representatives of the Contact Group countries have decided that the best solution for Kosovo is that it be given so called “conditional independence”.
This means that the sovereign link with Serbia will be broken but that restrictions on Kosovo’s independence will remain for a transitional period. These could include, for example, no army and awarding reserve powers to a representative of the international community. The result would be a slimmed down and more focused version of the model that exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is effectively governed by the international community’s High Representative, who has sweeping powers.
Diplomats who have talked to ISN Security Watch, on condition of anonymity, say the only disagreement among the Contact Group members is over speed and tactics.
“We all know, more or less, where we are going but we just have to be careful of the language used in public,” one source said.
At the moment, officials from Contact Group countries say publicly that what they want is an agreement made between and mutually acceptable to Serbs and Albanians. Yet, privately, everyone knows that Serbs and Albanians will never be able to agree on the status of Kosovo.
France is less willing to openly say that the Contact Group countries are in favor of conditional independence because it fears that to do so might prompt the Serbs to withdraw from talks before they have even properly started.
By contrast, the British believe that the sooner the “I” word (for independence) is pronounced, the more flexible the Albanians will become. The British theory, according to informed sources, is that given a guarantee that independence (conditional or otherwise) is coming, the Albanians will be more amenable to granting the Kosovo Serbs concessions such as extensive decentralization.
As to whether moving Kosovo towards independence might provoke a nationalist radicalization of Serbia, one source in favor of moving faster rather than slower, simply sums up the Serbian dilemma as one of “Belarus or Brussels”. That is to say that Serbia has a choice between renewed isolation or continuing along its current path towards European integration.
It is clear to Serbian leaders that US policymakers have little sympathy for the Serbian efforts to keep Kosovo. However, what is unclear is that there appears to be no compelling reason (other than realpolitik,) as to why the US should favor independence for the Kosovo Albanians but oppose it for Iraqi Kurds, for instance.
Serbs have looked for support in meetings in Moscow and with the French. The Russians, while promising Serbian leaders that they would oppose anything Belgrade does not agree with, say in private talks with their western counterparts that they will not oppose conditional independence for Kosovo.
France then was perhaps the last best hope for the Serbian leadership, but here too, in a series of meetings this month, the Serbs have been disappointed. According to ISN Security Watch sources, the Serbs were told that France would support Serbian interests but that those interests had to be realistic. Holding on to Kosovo, in any form, was not considered realistic.
In public and private, the Serbs are now pursuing different lines of attack. Predrag Simic, Serbia and Montenegro’s ambassador to France and a member of the Serbian Kosovo negotiating team, evokes the situation leading up to the Second World War to argue against independence for Kosovo.
“In 1938,” he says, the Western powers, fearful of Hitler, accepted his demand to annex the Sudetenland, the predominantly German inhabited area of Czechoslovakia. But this appeasement “brought neither peace nor security to Europe”.
However, in private, according to western diplomatic sources, Serbian President Tadic is exploring a more flexible agenda. He wants any settlement to secure the future of the Kosovo Serbs and wants to try and steer proponents of conditional independence into making sure that if this cannot be avoided then, at least for the foreseeable future, Kosovo will have no army or highly symbolic seat at the UN.
But Western diplomats are fearful of what they call the “disaster scenario”, which foresees the talks failing to gain traction and hardliners on either side opting for violence.
The disaster scenario sees either Serbian or Albanian hardliners provoking an exodus from the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo. There are some100,000 Serbs in Kosovo, of which 30,000 live in the solidly Serbian north, while the rest are scattered in enclaves in central and southern Kosovo.
Albanian hardliners could decide to attack the enclaves and provoke the flight of the Serbs there, so as to prevent the areas from becoming autonomous regions that would remain, in their view, like Serbian claws in a future independent Kosovo.
By contrast Serbian hardliners could seek to provoke a Serbian exodus from the enclaves in a bid to solidify the Serbian population of the north. Their hope would be that many years down the line the de facto partition that already exists along the Ibar river would one day be recognized as the international frontier between the part of Kosovo that Serbia managed to save and the Albanian part, which would be independent.
It is precisely because they want to avert such a disaster scenario that the diplomats are now talking intensively to the Serbs and Albanians and among themselves.
Indeed, the message diplomats are now delivering to the Kosovo Albanians might come as a surprise to some. According to one source, the Albanians have been warned not to let hardliners provoke violence, but they have also been told that since conditional independence is the aim, “The talks are not about the status of Kosovo. What they are really about then, is negotiating the status of the Serbs in Kosovo,” the source said.
Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, both published by Yale University Press.