By Tim Judah
(Survival vol. 47 no. 4 Winter 2005–06 pp. 73–84)
For the last six years Kosovo has been run as protectorate of the United Nations. That chapter of its history is now coming to an end. Very soon – probably at least by December 2005 – talks should begin on the future status of this territory bitterly disputed between Serbs and Albanians. It is widely expected that, against the wishes of the government in Belgrade, Kosovo will be granted some form of ‘conditional independence’. Exactly what this means remains to be seen.
The roots of the Kosovo conflict lie in the fact that more than 90% of its two million people are ethnic Albanians.1 That Kosovo, within anyone’s living memory, has always had a high preponderance of Albanians made it a particular political problem within Yugoslavia. Since 1999, however, the link with Serbia has, in all but de jure terms, been severed. The likelihood that it can be restored seems fanciful to say the least.
In 1989 Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic, abolished Kosovo’s autonomy. During the major Yugoslav wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Kosovo stayed quiet. In 1998, however, a guerrilla war broke out. Events escalated until NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign over what was then still known as Yugoslavia. After a period of frantic diplomacy Milosevic surrendered, Serbia pulled its forces out of Kosovo and much of the local administration collapsed. They were replaced by the UN and a NATO-led force called KFOR. This arrangement was blessed by UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which provided the legal basis for the current situation in Kosovo. The resolution recognised the territorial integrity of what was then called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and instructed what was to become the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to promote, ‘pending a final settlement … substantial autonomy and self-government in Kosovo taking into full account … the Rambouillet Accords’.
The ill-fated Rambouillet meeting outside Paris preceded NATO’s bombardment of 1999. The Serbian side did not agree to the text it was asked to sign, one reason being that this document had foreseen that Kosovo’s future would, after three years, be decided ’on the basis of the will of the people’. The Serbs argued that since the Albanians were in favour of inde¬pendence, this phrase could only mean that they would lose their southern province, which they regard as the cradle of their civilisation. Thus, at its very heart, Resolution 1244 contained a contradiction – pitting the Kosovo majority’s right to self-determination against the equally valid legal prin¬ciple of the territorial integrity of states. Up to now it has been possible to avoid resolving this contradiction. Today, however, in the words of UNMIK head Søren Jessen-Petersen, Kosovo is facing ’its moment of truth’.
Since 1999 Kosovo has changed beyond recognition. The first and most obvious change is that there are no longer any Serbs in any of Kosovo’s major urban settlements, bar north Mitrovica, which is a divided city. The end of Serbian rule culminated in the flight and ethnic cleansing of large numbers of Serbs (and Roma), very few of whom have returned. Today one-third of the estimated 100,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo live in Mitrovica and the overwhelmingly Serbian-inhabited north of Kosovo, which is contiguous with Serbia. The rest live in enclaves scattered throughout the rest of the province. Some of these need 24-hour military protection, as do Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. Economically, Kosovo remains extremely weak and unemployment high, though reliable figures are hard to come by. Average wages are now around €200 a month and many families depend on remittances from the large Kosovo diaspora living and working abroad, especially in Western Europe.
Since 1999, the UN has set up a government structure in Kosovo. Powers are gradually being devolved to elected bodies and their ministries. Most Serbs boycott these institutions, either at the behest of the authorities in Belgrade or because they believe that on those occasions when they did participate, they were simply used in an Albanian effort to deceive the outside world into believing that a real multi-ethnic society was being built in Kosovo. The boycott is controversial, however. Some Serb leaders believe they have lost more than they have gained by staying outside of Kosovo’s structures.
In December 2003 UNMIK, together with the government of Kosovo, promulgated a list of so-called ‘Standards’ against which Kosovo’s progress could be measured, covering everything from rule of law to minority rights. At the same time the UN and other diplomats – adopting the slogan ‘Standards before Status’ – made clear that the issue of Kosovo’s final status was not on the agenda for the immediate future. In November 2003, however, the ‘Contact Group’ of main outside powers announced that if all went well, by the middle of 2005 a comprehensive review of standards would open the way for talks on the future status of the province. The irony is that talks may soon begin not because things went well, but because they went disastrously wrong. In March 2004 riots broke out in which some 4,000 Serbs and Roma were driven from their homes and 19 killed. It became starkly clear that the status quo was untenable and, if there was a new upsurge in violence, UNMIK might even collapse. Immediately after the riots UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called in a diplomat with considerable Balkan experience to lead an inquiry into what had caused them. The insights of this diplomat, Norwegian ambassador to NATO Kai Eide, helped convince Annan and many others that dangerous stagnation had set in; the only way to avoid a new conflagration was to give the impression that Kosovo was somehow moving forward and was not doomed to remain forever a forgotten, poverty-stricken corner of Europe.
Kosovo’s Albanian leaders either quickly understood, or were made to understand by diplomats and the foreign leaders that they met, that the riots had been disastrous for their international image. In December 2004, following elections, a new government came to power headed by former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Ramush Haradinaj. With much force and skill, Haradinaj moved to get Kosovo to live up to the Standards and even to reach out to the Serbs. Being a skilful premier was not enough, however, to stop allegations about his past catching up with him. In March 2005 he was indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague for war crimes dating back to 1998. With much dignity he resigned and departed but, contrary to expectations, Kosovo remained calm. In part this was because Albanian leaders understood that, if angry Kosovars began rampaging once again, the prospect of the comprehensive review would clearly diminish. This time they played their cards well and in June Kofi Annan invited Kai Eide back to begin the review.
Eide delivered his report on 4 October. Annan passed it on to the Security Council three days later, saying he accepted its recommendations. ‘The time has come’, said Annan, ’to move to the next phase of the political process.’ He added that he now intended to ’initiate preparations’ for the appointment of ‘a Special Envoy to lead the future status process.’ At the time of writing it was widely expected that he would choose Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who played a key role in securing Milosevic’s agreement to the terms which ended NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999.
Eide’s most important point was that talks on the future status of Kosovo should begin. He was not asked to say what he thought the final status of Kosovo should be and, significantly, he uses the words ‘future status’ rather than ‘final status’. This implies, and indeed Eide in places explicitly says, that international involvement in the contested province will continue for many years. ’The international community must do the utmost to ensure that whatever the status becomes it does not become a “failed” status’, he writes. ’Entering the future status process does not mean entering the last stage, but the next stage in the process.’
Progress in meeting the Standards as a whole has been uneven, Eide says: ’regrettably, little has been achieved to create a foundation for a multi-ethnic society’. Talks should nevertheless begin, he says, because the momentum and expectations have built up; ’having moved from stagnation to expecta¬tion, stagnation cannot be allowed to take hold’.
Some of Eide’s recommendations may be carried out whatever the result of status talks. The EU, he argues, should play a prominent role, especially in police and judicial matters. NATO, too, will have to stay, with at least some contribution from the US ‘in order to provide a visible expression of [America’s] continued engagement’. Certain elements of the international presence in Bosnia should be copied for Kosovo. These include the role of the ‘high representative’, currently Britain’s Paddy Ashdown, who exer¬cises huge powers and can fire any elected official in Bosnia. In Sarajevo, Ashdown holds a kind of hybrid position – both ‘high representative’ of the intervening powers and international community, vaguely defined, but also the EU’s special representative to Bosnia. Eide suggests a similar arrangement for the post-UNMIK era in Kosovo: a high represenative with extraordinary powers in the field of inter-ethnic relations, but who is also ‘firmly anchored’ in the EU.
Regarding Kosovo’s Serbian minority, Eide argues in favour of an ’ambi¬tious decentralisation plan‘ which would give Kosovo Serbs competences ’in areas such as police, justice, education, culture, media and the economy’. He also recommends that what he terms ’protective space’ should be created around Serbian Orthodox religious sites and institutions and that ways should be found to place them ‘under a form of international protection’. He adds: ‘it is important not only to protect individual sites as cultural and religious monuments, but also living communities’.
Albanian and Serb reactions to the Eide report were mixed. Albanian leaders reacted exuberantly to the fact that it had recommended that talks begin, but initially said little about the content of the report. Although giving praise where praise was due, the report was largely damning about corruption and the majority’s treatment of the Serb minority. Reactions in Serbia were on the whole positive, although not without criticisms. If the Standards had not been met, asked some, then why was Eide recommending that talks begin? To a great extent this was empty rhetoric, since by the time the report was issued Belgrade and Pristina were already readying themselves for talks, or at least were supposed to be.
As late as June 2005, on the Serb side a degree of denial still prevailed. Officials in Belgrade described Serbia’s policy as anticipating that Kosovo could have ‘more than autonomy, but less than independence’. What this meant was unclear. Some officials, such as Aleksandar Simic, an adviser to Premier Vojislav Kostunica, said that this meant that although being autonomous, the future Kosovo would send back deputies to the parliament in Belgrade and play a full role in running the whole country.13 Serbia has a population of 7.5 million, as against some 2m for Kosovo. The forcible reincorporation of such a large number of implacably hostile Albanians into the Serbian body politic seemed so far from reality or in the interests of a stable Serbia that one could only wonder: had Serbian strategists, unable in the past six years to visit Kosovo at will, simply lost any grasp of the reality there?
By autumn 2005, however, a more realistic concept of what was possible was emerging. Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the head of the Serbian government’s Coordination Centre for Kosovo, was saying that she envisaged the province having full autonomy in the judicial, executive and legislative fields but that defence, foreign affairs and sovereignty would remain in the hands of Serbia. Dusan Batakovic, a historian and diplomat with a deep knowledge of Kosovo, and now advisor to Serbian President Boris Tadic, elaborated on this: he did not expect that the Albanians would want to return to parliament in Belgrade, though this option remained. He also said that, in preparing for talks, he was gaming various scenarios of what might happen.
It seems unlikely that the Serbian idea of ‘more than autonomy but less than independence’ will gain support amongst the big powers who will help arbitrate Kosovo’s fate. However, the new position, despite the occasional nationalistic outburst, is expressed in the mild language of compromise; the Serbs claim they are trying to find a happy median between the Albanian desire for self-rule and their desire to defend Serbia’s territorial integrity. In private, some senior Serbian leaders say they believe that ‘conditional independence’ for Kosovo is inevitable, but they will nonetheless put up a fierce rearguard struggle to prevent it. No Serbian leader wants to go down in history as the one who lost Kosovo, so if this rearguard action succeeds in staving off independence during their watch – which is conceivable, if unlikely – they will regard the talks as a success.
In Pristina, preparations for talks lag far behind those of Belgrade. Publicly, everyone from President Ibrahim Rugova to Premier Bajram Kosumi says that they are willing to talk with the Serbs about everything except independence, which is non-negotiable. Pristina’s position, in other words, is the mirror image of Belgrade’s. This position is understandable from their point of view, but what seems alarming is the lack of prepara¬tion for any succession issues, in light of the experience of the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Since 1999, for example, Serbia has not paid pensions to Albanian workers who had paid their contributions like other Yugoslav citizens. When Kosovo Albanian negotiators demand this money, the Serbs will retort that they have paid the interest on Kosovo’s interna¬tional debt for the last six years.
Indeed, diplomats in Pristina fret that the main Kosovan leaders are simply unprepared for talks and have been lulled, by talk of ‘conditional independence’, into a false sense of security. They do not seem to appreciate the threat, from their point of view, of the preparations being made by the Serbs.15 Indeed, Albanians recently were outraged when the International Telecommunications Union failed to quickly accede to a request from UNMIK to allot Kosovo an international direct-dialling code separate from Serbia’s. This was thanks to deft diplomacy on the part of Serbia, although the issue has not yet been finally settled.
Some skilled people will be at the coming talks, as part of a team already selected by Rugova. But the question is whether there are enough of them. The two best men on the team, not being major political figures, have the least clout. One is Blerim Shala, the editor of the daily Zeri, who has been asked to coordinate the team’s working groups; the other is Veton Surroi, the publisher and now leader of the small opposition party Ora. The rest of the team leave room for concern, quite apart from personal antipathies within the group. Nexhat Daci, the speaker of parliament, is widely regarded by diplomats who deal with Kosovo as an old-style, inflexible demagogue and by opposition leaders as unacceptably authoritarian. Next is Bajram Kosumi, the likeable but weak premier who succeeded Ramush Haradinaj. A whiff of scandal hangs over his premiership following allegations of corruption which appeared in the press. President Ibrahim Rugova is the best-known international symbol of Kosovo and his authority is unmatched. However, he has lung cancer and nobody knows how his health will hold up over the next few months. If he dies or is incapacitated soon this will provoke a major political upheaval as rival camps, which are already emerging, fight for the leadership of his Democratic League of Kosovo, the largest single party in Kosovo. His demise could also fatally weaken the Kosovo Albanian negoti¬ating team, as the others fight for a leadership role. Finally there is Hashim Thaci, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, who used to be the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. All these men, bar Daci, participated in the Rambouillet negotiations.
At the time of writing the Eide report was awaiting examination by the Security Council. According to diplomatic sources, once this stage has been passed and Ahtisaari or someone else has been selected to lead the talks, three deputies – from the US, EU and Russia -- will be chosen. A period of shuttle diplomacy will begin, perhaps in December, and at some point in early 2006 the team could retire to write a draft agreement. While working groups of Serbs and Albanians may go over certain individual questions, the main negotiators will not yet meet. Indeed, a proposal which had been floated behind the scenes in late summer for a formal opening of talks was quashed on the grounds that both sides would then be obliged to state positions publicly, which would later reduce their room for manoeuvre and flexibility. According to Veton Surroi, a realistic scenario foresees the Serb and Albanian main negotiating teams summoned to meet around May 2006 ‘in a castle in Austria’. In January Austria takes over the presidency of the EU.
What happens next is impossible to predict. One scenario outlined by a senior diplomatic source foresees that the Serbian team will fight hard to make sure that the agreement contains all possible safeguards for the Kosovo Serbs, acknowledging its own interests and in institutionalising international protection for Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches.18 Having achieved this, the Serbs could then refuse to endorse the plan because it also points the way to Kosovo’s independence. Reluctantly, perhaps, the Albanians would then be compelled to accept more in terms of Serbian rights in Kosovo than they would have done otherwise, but under international pressure they might see such concessions as the price of independence.
At the same time Serbia’s leaders, none of whom want to take responsibility for losing Kosovo, could claim that, at this point and having fought as hard as possible, Kosovo was taken away from Serbia. Since Serbia did not give its consent, it will not recognise the emerging state and hence, as far as it is concerned, its status could (theoretically,) be reversed at a later date. If this is in fact how the situ¬ation develops, this Serb position will, sooner or later, have to be modified, if only as the price of EU membership – as recent quarrels over Turkey and the question of its recognition of Cyprus have demonstrated.
It is impossible to know in advance what the UN-led negotiating team might propose. But since the widespread assumption is that it will be some form of ‘conditional independence’, it is worth examining what this could mean. In broad terms it would certainly mean adopting some of the recom¬mendations discussed by Eide, but more specifically it may well be that the negotiators are guided by the blueprint of the International Commission on the Balkans. This independent group, which issued its report in April 2005, was chaired by former Italian Premier Giuliano Amato, and for the most part included people either from or with a deep knowledge and experience of the Balkans. They proposed that Kosovo should move towards independence in four stages. The first, ‘de facto separation of Kosovo from Serbia’, seems to describe the current situation. The second is called ‘independence without full sovereignty’, which is described as meaning that Kosovo is an independent entity but not yet a sovereign state and one in which the international community ‘reserves powers in the fields of human rights and minorities’ – a theme which was echoed by Eide. The third stage is called ‘guided sovereignty’, and would ‘coincide with Kosovo’s recognition as a candidate for EU membership’ and in which the international community would lose its reserve powers which would be replaced by ‘influence through the negotiation process’. The fourth and final stage is called ‘full and final sovereignty’, and is marked by the ‘absorption of Kosovo into the EU and its adoption of the shared sover¬eignty to which all members are subject’.
The Serbs hope that it will not come to this, and with skilful diplomacy they might stand a slim chance of at least making the technical status of Kosovo somewhat vaguer and more drawn out than that described above. For this they would probably need vigorous support from Russia, however, and according to diplomatic sources the Russians have already decided to betray the Serbs.20 For the benefit of the Serbian press, Russian diplomats say that they will not accept any solution for Kosovo which is not endorsed by Belgrade, but to Western diplomats they are saying precisely the oppo¬site. It has always been widely assumed that Russia, citing the precedent of Chechnya, would oppose Kosovo’s independence. Now, however, three things seem to have happened. In 2003 Russian troops were withdrawn from the Balkans. This has dramatically lowered Russia’s diplomatic leverage in the region. Secondly, Russian diplomats have concluded that there is no realistic way to reconnect Kosovo and its hostile population to Belgrade. Thirdly, they have concluded, and indeed told visiting foreign ministers, that as far as they are concerned the question of precedent could be used to their advantage. That is to say, they are noting that if Kosovo can secede from a sovereign state, then the same argument can potentially be applied in areas of the former Soviet Union where they have interests, specifically Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Trans-Dniester in Moldova.
China is unlikely to resist the independence of Kosovo if Russia does not, although this cannot be taken for granted. While China has never taken an active role or even interest in the Balkans, it did veto the continuation of a UN peacekeeping force in Macedonia in 1999. The Serbs might succeed in persuading China that independence for Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent for Taiwan or even Tibet. Whatever the repercussions for Tibet, Serbian politicians argue that if Kosovo is granted some form of independence this would destabilise the region in a way they could not control. They argue, for example, that if they cannot prevent the loss of Kosovo, Serbia might succumb to a renewed wave of angry nationalism and the Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, now on trial in The Hague on war-crimes charges, might come to power. This is conceivable. The Radicals are already the largest party in parlia¬ment, although they are not in government. Outside of Serbia’s borders, the Serbian argument runs, Kosovo’s independence would embolden Albanian nationalists in Macedonia, thus perhaps prompting the disintegration of that state, with its large Albanian minority. The Serb part of Bosnia would again raise its wartime demand to secede and join Serbia.
Diplomats who follow the region are of course well acquainted with this line of argument, which played a decisive role in the EU’s decision in October to begin talks with Serbia on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA). Diplomats openly said that they decided not to let the outstanding issue of Ratko Mladic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime commander wanted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, stand in the way of the opening of negotiations. They are hoping that the good news of the conclusion of an agreement next year may help counteract the simultaneous bad news of the loss of Kosovo and likely secession of Montenegro from the loose federation which currently links it to Serbia.
Albanians counter these arguments about radicalisation in Serbia with the argument that, unless they get independence, it is certain that hardliners will again resort to arms; in the ensuing uprising KFOR and representa¬tives of the international community present in Kosovo will be targeted. UN vehicles are already targets of the occasional bomb.
In the shorter term there is another threat. Over the last few months, Albin Kurti, a 30-year-old former student leader and political prisoner, has been organising young people across Kosovo. Studying the techniques used by those who organised the overthrow of former regimes in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, Kurti wants to ready his people to come out in protest against the talks on Kosovo’s future status.
Kurti says that talks, by their very nature, aim at compromise and there can be no compromise on Kosovo’s independence. He fears that what he calls Kosovo’s ‘corrupt’ politicians might yet buckle on this if put under pres¬sure. He argues that talks with Serbia should only take place when Kosovo is already independent and thus can sit at the table as an equal. His slogan – ‘No negotiations! Self Determination!’ – already decorates walls across Kosovo but his strength is, as yet, untested. If, however, at some point in the near future or during talks one of the Albanian leaders, for example Hashim Thaci, decided to ‘play the Kurti card’ and swing his support behind him then the outcome would be not only unpredictable but in such an unstable and highly charged situation a fresh wave of anti-Serbian ethnic cleansing similar to that of March 2004 might break out.
Diplomats who deal with Kosovo all repeat the mantra that they have no preconceived agenda, beyond wanting to prohibit the physical partition of Kosovo or a possible future union with Albania, and that they want Serbs and Albanians to reach agreement on the territory’s future among themselves. All of them know, however, and admit in private, that the likelihood of this happening is nil. This is why ‘conditional independence’ is their aim. As to the fear of violence and instability, the most honest of them will admit that their fear of radicalisation in Serbia is simply less than their fear of an Albanian uprising. As to the question of the probable eventual recog¬nition of the new state, they argue that while it would be preferable for this to be done via the Security Council, especially in light of the fact that Kosovo is now under UN jurisdiction, if Russia or China prevented this another route would have to be found. After all, the UN Security Council played no role in the recognition of the other states which emerged from the former Yugoslavia. According to Richard Caplan, in the likely case of Serbia opposing Kosovo’s recognition, ‘there will be ample opportunities for lawyers on both sides to exploit what is a rather ambiguous case’. Realities on the ground will be decisive. ‘Here, I think, politics will trump law.’