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A Serbian province looks to independence
An independent Kosovo is coming. The question is how best to achieve it
THE shabby manoeuvring that triggered first war and then the break-up of Yugoslavia began in Kosovo in 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic scrapped the Serbian province's autonomous status. Now the Balkans have turned full circle, back to negotiations over Kosovo's final status. But this time there is no doubt as to the result: independence from Serbia.
Kosovo is an emotional matter for Serbs. It lay at the heart of their medieval empire, it is where they lost a battle in 1389 that led to 500 years of Ottoman rule and it has some of their main religious sites. It is a Serbian province, not an ex-Yugoslav republic like Macedonia or Montenegro. Yet since NATO's war with Serbia in 1999, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations, not Belgrade. Over 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians who will settle for nothing short of independence.
This remains true despite the recent noisy (if narrow) approval of a new constitution for Serbia reaffirming Kosovo as an integral part of the country. The constitution and the election that will follow, probably in December, are mere delaying tactics by a Serbian government that is not ready to take the blame for “losing Kosovo”. The issue for the UN envoy overseeing the negotiations, Martti Ahtisaari, is whether conditions can be attached to independence to make it more palatable to Serbia (see page 45).
One such must clearly be the guaranteed protection of all ethnic minorities in Kosovo, especially the 100,000 or so Serbs who remain. That will require local autonomy to be given to municipalities, including Serb ones, which may necessitate redrawing boundaries; and full protection of Serbian religious sites. Another condition may be stopping Kosovo uniting with neighbours (eg, Albania). All this means keeping NATO troops and international observers in Kosovo, even after independence. Other possibilities—partitioning off the Serb-dominated bit of north Kosovo, refusing to let Kosovo join the United Nations—are unlikely to make anyone happier.
Nasty side effects
In short, it seems unlikely that any way can be found of dressing up Kosovo's independence to make it more acceptable to Belgrade. A conditional independence may thus have to be imposed internationally. Russia could block formal approval of this by the UN Security Council, so it may be up to individual countries to choose whether to recognise Kosovo. Most will surely do so, leaving non-recognisers (including Serbia) to follow later. Indeed, some Serbian leaders might welcome such an outcome, since it would show that they had done their utmost to obstruct Kosovo's independence.
Independence without Belgrade's consent may be regrettable, but it is better than denying it altogether, since this would only lead to renewed fighting. Yet it carries two big dangers. The first is of leaving Serbia, the biggest country in the region, in a disgruntled, nationalistic grump. A resentful Serbia may be unable to start another war, but it could still cause trouble across the Balkans. The way to avoid this is for the European Union to lure Serbia back onto the path towards accession negotiations, which it will also be doing for Kosovo. Indeed, it is the EU, not the UN or NATO, that must now play the decisive role. That will take money, but ultimately it also means taking in the western Balkan countries as members.
The second danger is of setting an awkward precedent. Leaders of the (Bosnian Serb) Republika Srpska already ask why, if Montenegro and Kosovo can be independent, they cannot be. Russia mutters menacingly about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two enclaves in Georgia, and Transdniestria, in Moldova (though it keeps strangely quiet over Chechnya). But parallels between countries and ethnic groups rarely hold. Few people have been as attacked and oppressed as the Kosovars. Nor should “ethnic cleansing” be rewarded, which it would be in an independent Bosnian Serb republic or Abkhazia. Kosovo's loss of autonomy started the Balkan wars; its independence may, with luck, end them.