From The Economist print edition
Jan 19th 2006
IF YOU were to assess the future of Kosovo only from the local media, you might think that megaphone diplomacy was all that was happening. Kosovo will be Serbian forever, trumpet Serbia's leaders. The province's Albanian majority retort that nothing less than full independence will do for Kosovo's 2m people, more than 90% of whom are ethnic Albanians. It seems an impasse.
Yet behind the megaphones, tough negotiation has already taken place—albeit not between Serbs and Albanians. Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, Serbia's southern province has been under the jurisdiction of the UN, which last November appointed Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, to start talks on Kosovo's future status. The Serbs and Kosovo Albanians have assembled negotiating teams that are due to meet for the first time next week in Vienna.
But much of the hard bargaining has already happened, among interested outside powers: Britain, France, America and Russia. Given these countries' foreign-policy differences, the degree of consensus on Kosovo is surprising. Even Russian diplomats, who insist publicly that they will back the Serbs, say the opposite in private. The four powers all agree that Kosovo should have “conditional independence”, code for full independence after a transitional period, but with certain safeguards for Kosovo's remaining Serbs.
The only dispute is over tactics. At present, all are pretending that the future of Kosovo is to be settled in Mr Ahtisaari's talks. But in private it is accepted that, since the two sides will never agree, the decisions will have to be taken for them. British diplomats argue that the sooner an explicit guarantee is given to the Kosovo Albanians that independence in some form is coming, the greater the concessions they will be ready to make to Kosovo's 100,000-odd remaining Serbs. The French are more cautious, fearing that going public too soon may mean that the Serbs refuse to engage in any talks at all.
If the outcome is already agreed, what is the point of Mr Ahtisaari's negotiations? The answer, in the words of one diplomat, is that they “are not about the status of Kosovo...[but about] negotiating the status of the Serbs in Kosovo.” The Serbian government may still insist that Kosovo belongs to Serbia under international law, but such a position needs outside backing if it is to be credible. Realising that Russia's support is uncertain, the Serbs appealed last month to France. The French replied that they would support Serbia's legitimate interests, but only if they were realistic—and keeping Kosovo was not that.
A disappointed Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, is now preparing a fallback position. If Kosovo's independence cannot be prevented, he is putting out feelers to see if Serbia can, at least, stop the Kosovo Albanians having their own army and, for the foreseeable future, a separate seat at the UN. The Serbs give warning that, if Kosovo is lost completely, radical nationalists may come to power. A recent poll showed support for the nationalists holding up better than for other parties.
Yet this threat may not be that worrying, either. What would happen if the nationalists were to take control? Not much, shrugs one diplomat. Serbia's choice is, he says, “Belarus or Brussels”—isolation or Europe. As with Hobson's choice, it is really no choice at all.