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The likely independence of Kosovo
Despite its last-minute manoeuvring, Serbia now seems certain to lose Kosovo
WHAT you see is not always what you get. Serbia has a new constitution stating that Kosovo is an inalienable part of the country. Serb leaders told their people that, if they voted for the constitution in a referendum on October 28th-29th, it would speed their entrance into the European Union. But as Danas, a Serbian daily, noted tartly, “They promised a Kosovo in Serbia and a Serbia in Europe. It is hard to tell which is further away.” Politics in the Balkans has been going through a surreal phase—but reality is around the corner, in the form of Kosovo's independence.
Serbia has needed a new constitution ever since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The old one was designed when Serbia was part of a bigger country, with Montenegro. How odd then that, when Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president who was asked by the United Nations to oversee negotiations between Serbs and Albanians on Kosovo's final status, said he would present his plans at the end of October, Serbia's leaders should have rushed a new constitution through parliament with almost no debate.
The leaders of all main parties rallied to the cause, asking people to vote in the referendum, which needed a 50% turnout to be valid. An aggressive campaign was launched, with millions of text messages sent out to remind people to cast their ballots. Yet only 55% actually voted, many of them late in the day. Suspicious eyebrows were raised; one politician who had called for a boycott declared that he did not believe the threshold had been reached. But given the chaos that a failed vote would have caused, nobody of significance was prepared to question its validity.
The reason for holding the referendum now was to delay, even by a few months, the loss of Kosovo. The idea is that, with the constitution adopted, Serbia will hold an election before Kosovo goes, stopping the extremist Radical Party from picking up more disaffected votes. This has been accepted by Mr Ahtisaari and other diplomats dealing with the Balkans. The election may be held in December. Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, wants a presidential election too, but this is being resisted by the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. He fears that Mr Tadic's popularity might pull in votes for his Democratic Party, reducing Mr Kostunica's chances of becoming prime minister again.
Serbian leaders also argued that a vote for the constitution would tell the world that Kosovo belonged to Serbia and should never be given independence. Most Serbs would like that to be true. But opinion polls show that few believe independence can be prevented. “Lies, lies, lies,” commented a taxi driver as he passed a billboard demanding a yes vote to keep Kosovo. “It was lost years ago.”
Since the war of 1999 Serbia's southern province has been under the jurisdiction of the UN. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians who want nothing short of independence. Yet, ever since Mr Ahtisaari began his talks last February, Mr Kostunica has been repeating that Kosovo will never be independent. Now it seems he may have been playing a cleverer hand than some have thought.
What seems to be happening is that his government, the Kosovo Albanians and the outside powers involved (the “Contact Group”) are moving towards a messy and perhaps temporary solution. The scenario goes as follows. With Serbia holding an election in December, Mr Ahtisaari puts off presenting a final version of his plan to the UN Security Council. When he does so, it will suggest that Kosovo becomes independent but with limits placed on its sovereignty for some years to come. An EU team is in Pristina planning a mission to take over from the present UN one, which will be wound up. The EU is planning a similar set-up to the way Bosnia has been run since 1995. A post will be created called, probably, the International Civilian Representative, who will at the same time represent the EU. As in Bosnia, the job will come with considerable powers to intervene in the running of Kosovo. The NATO-led force now in place will remain.
Right now, says Enver Hoxhaj, a member of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team, “The real talks have...begun. They are not between Pristina and Belgrade, but between the members of the Contact Group.” The key ones are the Americans and the British, who support independence, and the Russians, who do not. Trade-offs between them are being proposed, some involving issues unrelated to the Balkans, such as Iran. But what is expected to be agreed by the end of March is a new UN resolution that avoids using the word “independence”. At this point Kosovo's parliament will declare independence unilaterally. Some, perhaps most, countries will recognise the new state—but others, including Serbia, will not.
Kosovo's Albanians will be happy with this—but they will have a bitter pill to swallow too. The Serb-inhabited north of Kosovo (north Mitrovica and beyond) will ignore independence and continue to operate as it does now—which is, in effect, as part of Serbia. Whether Serbs in the rest of Kosovo then choose to flee depends on what happens. In the long run Mr Kostunica may hope for a formal partition. Some Albanians would like that, but only if they get Albanian-inhabited parts of south Serbia in exchange. Partition, sighs one diplomat, is “the love that dares not speak its name”. If Kosovo can be partitioned, why not Macedonia and Bosnia?
Kosovo Albanian politicians seem curiously resigned to losing control of the north. Many think that, in the long run, Serbia will be forced to recognise the new Kosovo's territorial integrity as the price it has to pay to join the EU. In the short run, it is fashionable also to refer to the Irish precedent. Until 1999 the Irish Republic claimed the whole island of Ireland under its constitution, but it did not act on it. A future Serbia, with Kosovo still enshrined in its constitution, could take the same approach. If it does not, says Milica Delevic-Djilas, head of Perspektiva, a new think-tank meant to produce ideas about the Balkans and European integration, “It's the end of regional co-operation and of our aspirations for the EU.”