By Stefan Wagstyl
>Published: February 19 2006 18:25 | Last updated: February 19 2006 18:25
It is midnight on the road from the Serbian town of Bujanovac to Gjilan in Kosovo and Serbian police manning a checkpoint are examining passports by torchlight. A few hundred metres along the tarmac, Kosovo guards are doing the same, their fingers so frozen they struggle to turn the pages.
According to the United Nations this is a “boundary” between UN-administered Kosovo and the rest of Serbia. But it looks like an international border, it feels like an international border – and the signs are that it could soon become an international border.
The uncertainty that has hung over the troubled province of Kosovo since Nato troops drove out the forces of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic six years ago is lifting. While little can be taken for granted given the tortuous history of Balkan diplomacy, the international community is considering ending Kosovo’s UN administration and granting some form of conditional independence by the end of the year.
Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians and the Serbian government in Belgrade are due to start final status talks today. Last month foreign ministers from the US, Russia, the UK, France, Germany and Italy – the Contact Group for Kosovo – called for “all possible efforts” to “achieve a negotiated settlement in the course of 2006”. The ministers did not declare their preferences for Kosovo’s future status. However there are indications the ethnic Albanians are edging closer to the independence they have long sought – to the fury of Belgrade, which insists Kosovo remains an integral part of Serbia.
Soren Jessen-Petersen, Kosovo’s UN administrator, says: “The direction is clear . . . Eventually you have to move forward in recognition of what the majority wants.” By acknowledging the strength of the ethnic Albanian claims, the international community is taking some risks. The advance towards independence could provoke violence in Kosovo and possibly elsewhere in the fractured states that have emerged from the former Yugoslavia.
But these concerns have been offset by a growing sense that the status quo in Kosovo is unsustainable. Frustration among the ethnic Albanians is undermining efforts to promote the economy, cut unemployment and fight organised crime, rife in the western Balkans.
With the region’s political and economic outlook steadily improving, US and European diplomats have decided there may never be a better time to deal with Kosovo. The European Union late last year started accession talks with Croatia, recognised Macedonia as a membership candidate and opened negotiations on stabilisation and association agreements (entry-level co-operation pacts) with Bosnia and Serbia. Albania, once a byword for Balkan isolation, is due to complete its EU association agreement talks this spring. Meanwhile Romania and Bulgaria, well advanced on the road of EU integration, are due to join the union next year or in 2008 at the latest. The international community finally has something to show for the estimated $35bn that has been spent in the former Yugoslavia in the past 15 years.
It will not pull out. Most of the 23,000 peace-keeping troops still deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia will stay. Economic aid will continue to flow. But, with the US and the EU increasingly absorbed in the fight against terrorism, there is a new urgency about stabilising the Balkans.
Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister, says: “For me, this is the European peace project of my generation . . . This is about stability and security in Europe.” It is all a far cry from 1999, when the UN took over a battle-scarred province. To avoid renewed violence, it postponed consideration of Kosovo’s status and urged ethnic Albanians to focus on building institutions, including effective relations with the remaining Serbs, who now make up less than 10 per cent of the population.
But in March 2004 ethnic Albanian frustrations erupted in riots. The UN condemned the violence but recognised time was running out and late last year opened the way for status talks.
Ethnic Albanians envisage only one outcome – independence. Bajram Kosumi, the prime minister, says: “A small country like Kosovo would feel insecure if it didn’t have a UN seat.” However, for Belgrade independence is anathema. The Serbs who are entering the talks with the slogan “more than autonomy, less than independence”, are ready to concede de facto self-government as long as they retain sovereignty de jure. Kosovo remains historic Serb territory which no politician can give away. Boris Tadic, the president says: “For Serbia it’s unacceptable to see Kosovo with a seat in the UN.”
The Contact Group has so far avoided taking sides. Last year it set out its principles – no partition of Kosovo, no union with a neighbouring state and no return to pre-1999 conditions. But the US and the UK are increasingly leaning towards independence for Kosovo. Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state, spoke recently of the ethnic Albanians having to prove they were worthy of independence by protecting minority rights. British officials have talked of “some form of independence”.
Other EU states are more cautious, concerned that early discussion of independence could take the pressure off Pristina to negotiate. One EU diplomat says: “There is concern that if we talk about independence too early, the Serbs will just walk away.” There is much debate about what form independence might take. But the Contact Group agrees minority rights must be guaranteed, peace-keeping troops must stay and an international civilian mission – probably EU-run – put in place.
Russia, which has traditionally backed Belgrade, supports the search for a negotiated settlement. Moscow is worried about setting dangerous precedents for Chechens and other separatists in the former Soviet Union. But it may decide that conditional independence for Kosovo is better than provoking ethnic Albanians radicals.
If the Contact Group pushes for independence, it could face a Serb walk-out and will then have to decide whether to impose a settlement. Such a scenario might even suit Vojislav Kostunica, the Serb prime minister. He will be able to claim he fought as hard as he could then retreated without surrendering.
With the no-compromise Radical party riding high in polls, Mr Kostunica has little negotiating space. Braca Grubacic, a Belgrade commentator, says: “Kosovo is still a taboo subject.” Complicating the Kosovo question is Montenegro, the last remaining republic of the former Yugoslavia that is still linked to Serbia in the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro. However, under an EU-brokered agreement in 2003, Montenegro was promised an independence referendum after three years and the pro-independence Montenegrin government is now preparing for a plebiscite in April. Belgrade says reluctantly that it will abide by a fair result but wants a high threshold for a valid Yes vote. The EU, trying to calm tensions, last week proposed a 55 per cent minimum, which pro-independence Montenegrins say is too high.
The atmosphere in Montenegro is tense, but the issue does not generate the same passion as Kosovo because Serbs and Montenegrins share a Slav background and Orthodox faith. Serbs believe they would not be “losing” Montenegro in the sense that they face “losing” Kosovo to the Muslim ethnic Albanians.
The EU blocked Montenegro’s independence drive three years ago for fear it would set precedents for separatists elsewhere. Today officials are more concerned about the instability created by keeping Kosovo in limbo.
The dangers of fragmentation have not disappeared. In Bosnia, Lord Ashdown pushed the leaders of the two “entities” – Republika Srpska and the Muslim/Croat federation – to establish national institutions including joint military and police forces. The next stage is for the new high representative to give up his viceregal powers and return full sovereignty to the Bosnian government. But the country is still far from functioning as a unified state.
In Macedonia, tensions between the ethnic Albanian minority concentrated in the west of the country and the ethnic Macedonian majority have eased since the country came to the brink of civil war in 2001. The implementation of the power-sharing Ohrid agreement has gone some way to bringing the two communities together. But Macedonia remains vulnerable to instability emanating from neighbouring Kosovo.
Lurking under the surface is radical ethnic Albanian talk of “Greater Albania” – uniting Albania, Kosovo and the ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia, southern Serbia and southern Montenegro. The discussion is generally limited to political extremists but has qualified support from Arben Xhaferi, a mainstream veteran leader in Macedonia.
Contributing to insecurity in the Balkans is the failure to capture alleged war criminals, particularly Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Ratko Mladic, his military commander. Widespread unemployment also casts a long shadow. The transition from central planning to the market, long delayed by war, is gathering pace. But renewed investment is creating few jobs for the growing numbers of young people, especially among ethnic Albanians where birth rates are high.
The jobless are prey for the recruiting sergeants of organised crime. Balkan gangs have access to weapons and money generated from trafficking guns, drugs and women to western Europe.
For Balkan leaders, the only answer to these problems is what Mr Tadic, the Serbian president, calls “the debalkanisation of the Balkans” through integration with the EU. Balkan politicians worry about growing enlargement fatigue, especially in France where last year’s No in the EU constitutional treaty referendum was widely interpreted as a vote against further expansion. French doubts extend even to Croatia, the most advanced of the western Balkan states.
However, for now, the EU remains committed to integration. The union backs promises of eventual membership, with practical assistance ranging from opening markets to visa facilitation. It is by far the largest aid donor with €5.3bn pledged in the past six years. EU officials play vital roles in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. And drawing on its experience in former communist eastern Europe, the union is pushing economic reform.
As Ms Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister, says: “The union has enormous transformational experience.” None of this guarantees success. Another round of inter-ethnic violence could undermine the progress of the last few years. That is why diplomats are keen to reach a final settlement for Kosovo. For without stability in Kosovo, there can be no real stability in the Balkans.
Hunt for justice reopens wounds
Just below the surface of bargaining over the future status of Kosovo lurks a legacy of bitterness. Its cause is events before and during the 1999 war sparked by ethnic-Albanian demands for independence from Serbia, writes Neil MacDonald.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the United Nations court dealing with war crimes, has indicted members of practically all major ethnic factions, whether in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo or those allegedly involved in the more limited conflict in Macedonia.
So far not one ethnic-Serb defendant has been cleared and released, compared with at least four Croats, one Bosnian Muslim and one Kosovo Albanian. More than three-quarters of guilty verdicts and almost two-thirds of indictments have been against Serbs – a fact that has not gone unnoticed in Serbia.
Some international lawyers have also criticised the tribunal for implicitly exempting US or Nato commanders from prosecution for the aerial bombardment that terminated Belgrade’s grip on Kosovo and brought down the then-Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, whose trial at the Hague has entered a fourth year. For now, international attention is focused on the hunt for the remaining fugitives from ICTY justice, all Serbs.
Ratko Mladic, former Bosnian Serb military commander, is suspected of organising the ugliest incident in the Yugoslav break-up: the execution of up to 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian Muslim “safe haven” around Srebrenica in July, 1995. Serbian defence officials recently disclosed that 50 Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb officers have illegally hidden Gen Mladic over three-and-a-half years.
Tribunal prosecutors are also seeking Radovan Karadzic, former president of the breakaway Bosnian Serbs, for alleged crimes against Croats and Muslims.
But atrocities in the Yugoslav wars were far from one-sided. The arrest late last year of Ante Gotovina, ex-French Foreign Legion corporal and successful Croatian operational commander, cleared the way for his homeland to enter the EU soon, officials said. The indictment against Gen Gotovina also names Franjo Tudman, Croatia’s wartime president, so his death may have spared the ICTY a dicey political problem.
Yet Serbian sensitivities are highest over Kosovo. Of 12 current defendants in Kosovo-related cases, five are veterans of the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), including some who went on to serve in the UN-backed Kosovo Protection Corps. Sandra Raskovic-Ivic, Serbia’s chief co-ordinator for the UN-sponsored status negotiations, complains about “Hague indictees who were involved in killings . . . who have changed into suits and claim to be ‘democratic.’ ”
Ramush Haradinaj resigned last year as Kosovo’s prime minister and turned himself in to the tribunal to face charges of persecuting Serbs, Gypsies and suspected collaborators among the ethnic Albanians. Mr Haradinaj has been granted a provisional release, allowing him to conduct some public political activities until his trial.
Kosovo could prove the key to convicting Mr Milosevic, as “command responsibility” could be easier to pin on him there than in Bosnia. Up to June 1997, Mr Milosevic was president only of Serbia and not technically responsible for military and police units. By the time the Kosovo war broke out he led the Yugoslav federation and held de jure command.
But ethnic grudges run far deeper than command responsibility. Kosovan Serbs collaborated “quite a lot” with Milosevic’s regime, says Alex Anderson, Kosovo director for Brussels-based International Crisis Group. It is a role their Albanian neighbours refuse to forget.