Diplomats are at heart magicians. Legerdemain involving one or two players, they learn to pull off in their freshman year in the corps. The skills to juggle three players may come after a decade or so. Finessing four or five players - as in the case of Kosovo - is an art vouchsafed to only a few veterans. Whether the Kosovo negotiators will join this rarefied class should become apparent in the next half year.
Last summer the problem was this: The majority Kosovar Albanians, persuaded that they had vanquished their minority (but well-armed) Serb tormentors in 1999 with a little help from NATO, nonetheless saw their goal of independence vanishing further and further into the future. A few fringe Albanian militants were beginning to brandish rifles and the occasional mortar and missile launcher that had escaped impoundment by the NATO-led Kosovo Forces (KFOR) peacekeepers.
Conversely, the Serb political class (if not the war-weary Serb in the street) saw preservation of Belgrade’s nominal sovereignty over Kosovo as a point of honor—and the looming loss of it as yet another example of the victimization of Serbs throughout history. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 that set up the de facto UN protectorate of Kosovo in 1999 could be changed only by Security Council action—but a grumpy Russia was poised to veto any change. Yet the German Bundestag required a UN aegis for any deployment of the Bundeswehr to peacekeeping in Kosovo or anywhere else outside the core NATO area. Furthermore, the European Union, although it acknowledged that Kosovo was a sputtering fuse and that the least worst course would be to hasten its nominal independence, was split on policy.
This impasse required legerdemain all around.
Kosovar Albanians and Serbs
The Kosovar Albanians had long since agreed to the plan drawn up by Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari for Kosovar independence under the interim supervision of the EU. They thereby renounced any resort to violence and accepted interim limits on their sovereignty in the form of intrusive, open-ended supervision by EU overseers, along with postponement of formation of a Kosovar army as the NATO-led KFOR forces stay on both to guarantee external defense and to protect the Serb minority. Notably, well over 90 percent of the Ahtisaari plan consisted of guarantees of protection and rights for the 100,000 Serbs still living in Kosovo, under a new decentralization that gives Serb (and Albanian) municipalities expanded self-rule. Yet the end of 2006—once foreseen by the EU and the United States as the date for concluding status negotiations—came and went with no progress in talks between Belgrade and Pristina. The West’s counsel of patience was beginning to look to many Albanians like an alibi for inaction.
As for Serbian officials, they rejected totally the West’s reasoning that the brutal expulsion of more than half of the two million Kosovar Albanians from their homes under strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1998/99 forfeited the legitimacy of Belgrade’s claim to rule over Kosovo. Although they had not governed Kosovo in the eight years of UN tutelage there, they argued that UNSCR 1244, in referring to the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” guaranteed the continued sovereignty in Kosovo of the Yugoslav successor state of Serbia.
Belgrade officials offered Kosovo what they labeled far-reaching autonomy, but their definition of autonomy always entailed return to Kosovo of the Serbian security forces that NATO had ejected in 1999. Their implicit and sometimes explicit threat was that any “loss” of Kosovo would further radicalize Serbian politics by giving the ultranationalist, anti-Western Radicals an even greater plurality than the party now enjoys. A sub-plot here was and is the ongoing duel between fervent nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and more pragmatic President Boris Tadic about the date of the next presidential elections; Kostunica continues to maneuver to set the date after Kosovo moves on to its next status (in order to blame Tadic for the loss to Serbia), while Tadic keeps maneuvering to have the vote before Kosovo enters its next stage.
Summer 2007 - EU Disarray
In response to its sudden discovery last summer that Moscow would not go along with the West’s scenario of graduating Kosovo from a de facto UN to a de facto EU protectorate, Washington promoted recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence by Pristina. Within the EU, however, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Spain, and Romania opposed Kosovar independence, fearing that this move might set a precedent for separatist claims by their own minorities. Italy and Hungary too were disinclined to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence, the German government was dithering, and some parliamentarians in Berlin refused to approve any shift without sacrosanct Security Council authorization. The West had nightmares of new rifts in the transatlantic alliance and within the EU that might repeat the disastrous split over the Iraq war.
Under the circumstances, the default position in August was to prolong Serb-Kosovar Albanian talks for another four months, with the help of the six-nation Balkan Contact Group of the US, Russia, and four EU members—Germany, France, Britain, and Italy. A “troika” of diplomats from the US, EU, and Russia was appointed to facilitate the talks, with the German Ambassador to Britain, Wolfgang Ischinger, representing the EU. No one in the West had any clear policy or strategy, however. In the initial drift, it seemed that the West might even accede to yet another round of fruitless talks after the December 10 deadline, as Russia and Serbia wanted. The inertia of the status quo favored Moscow and Belgrade—and also increased support for Albanian militants among frustrated, jobless young Kosovars.
As Western capitals groped for a policy, their representatives in the troika adopted a holding tactic. They explored and exhausted all possible solutions to the impasse, as the troika’s final report to the UN Secretary-General has now certified. This search entailed dropping all previous labels (including, for a time, even the name “Ahtisaari plan”) and restraining American officials from proclamations of support for a unilateral Kosovar declaration of independence. It further included dropping formally the Contact Group’s previous insistence on no partition of Kosovo to say that if the two sides agreed on partition, that would be acceptable. (The two parties both rejected partition, in fact, since both claimed all of Kosovo.)
Winter 2007 - The EU Reunites over Kosovo
As the negotiations droned on, the Germans and then the Europeans as a whole quietly pulled themselves together and settled on a strategy. Partly to atone for Europe’s failure to stop the Srebrenica massacre in the 1990s, partly to fill the Balkan policy vacuum at a time when Washington was focused on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and China, the Europeans concluded that they must now take the lead in their own backyard of the Balkans. They determined that any course other than Ahtisaari’s projected independence for Kosovo under EU supervision—including any passive alternative of prolonging Kosovo’s current limbo—could again destabilize South-eastern Europe and rekindle ethnic violence. They further became convinced that if the EU did not speak with a single voice in this most ambitious project in joint European foreign policy ever to be attempted, the project would fail and doom their aspiration to play a global political role matching Europe’s economic power.
Once Berlin set its course, Rome followed. So did Spain, which is currently chairman of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe and therefore has a special obligation to lead the OSCE’s commitment to help build Kosovo’s domestic institutions. In line with the EU consensus culture, the other skeptics too—with the exception of Cyprus—gradually joined the bandwagon. The moment the troika certified the final breakdown of Serb-Kosovar talks to the UN Secretary-General on December 10, a conclave of EU foreign ministers authorized EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to prepare EU civil administration, justice, and police teams to take up duties in Kosovo as soon as the new government in Pristina declares independence and invites the EU in. Except for fine-tuning, the basic finessing of the EU was in place.
The Next Hurdles
The next hurdles will be implementation and timing. On the security side, NATO has already conspicuously augmented the standing 16,500 KFOR peacekeepers by deploying three extra battalions to Kosovo or holding them as ready reserves. As before, KFOR’s primary duties, beyond guaranteeing external security by deterrence, will be to protect Serb enclaves and Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries south of the Ibar River. More discreetly, the EU is updating its ongoing technical planning for training of the crucial Kosovo Police Service and coordinating KPS work with that of international police. Besides continuing its quiet recruiting of civil servants for its new Kosovo mission, the EU is also continuing with plans to kick-start the economy despite Kosovo’s poverty and the chaos of ownership rights after the Serbs took property deeds with them on their 1999 retreat.
Choreographing EU moves with domestic politics in Kosovo and Serbia will be even harder than choreographing a common EU position. After parliamentary elections in Kosovo in mid-November, the Europeans did persuade the presumptive new prime minister, Hashim Thaci, to postpone the triumphal unilateral declaration of independence by parliament. Instead of acting the day after breakdown of negotiations, the Kosovo assembly will now wait until next spring (presumably after Serbia’s presidential election). Furthermore, Thaci—who is already facing demonstrations in Pristina by students demanding instant independence—accepted a delay in recognition of Kosovar independence by EU members until after the assembly has enacted legislation fulfilling the Albanians’ pledges under the Ahtisaari plan.
In parallel, the EU has been doing its best not to pour unnecessary salt into the wounds of Belgrade politicians at the imminent loss of Serbia’s nominal sovereignty over Kosovo. Most of them (Radical leaders excepted) do want eventual EU membership but resent loss of Kosovo, or at least feel vulnerable in low-turnout elections to the Radicals’ mobilization of the discontented. Brussels has not removed the stick of refusing to sign a first-step Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Belgrade so long as war-crimes indictee Ratko Mladic has not been delivered to the Hague international tribunal. It has, however, initialed that agreement, and it has increased the EU aid earmarked for Serbia once the SAA is signed.
As of this writing, Belgrade’s response to the looming independence of Kosovo is not yet clear. Officials in Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) have backed off from their earlier threats to send Serbian security forces back into Kosovo. Their representatives also joined Kosovar representatives several weeks ago in the troika talks in renouncing the use of force in the dispute. DSS spokesmen have not, however, repudiated earlier threats to seal the Serbia-Kosovo border, cut off electricity and energy supplies to Kosovo, turn Belgrade’s present de facto running of the predominantly Serb northern Kosovo into de facto partition, pressure Serb officers in the Kosovo Police Service to resign, break relations with states that do recognize Kosovar independence—and send tax inspectors after Slovenian investors in Serbia if Slovenia abets Kosovar independence during its EU presidency in 2008.
One ancillary Serb threat does seem to have faded in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. For months Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik talked of responding to any Kosovo independence by staging a tit-for-tat referendum about RS secession from Bosnia—a plebiscite that would surely have attracted support from a large majority of the Bosnian Serbs. Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica endorsed this notion and at one point suggested that if Kosovo could secede from Serbia, then the RS could secede from Bosnia.
For a few weeks fears about a crisis surged high enough to induce hoarding of staples by Bosnians. At the time more seasoned observers expected that Dodik—who is probably the most talented Serb politician in the Balkans and knows it—would walk up to but not overstep the brink. This appears to be the case. RS officials have now stopped dropping hints about a referendum. The Bosnian Serbs have also proved accommodating at the last minute about the demand of the international High Representative in Sarajevo to bring the RS police under greater oversight of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For his part, the High Representative has somewhat softened his own new rules that would let parliament pass long-stalled reform legislation even if Serb or other MPs boycotted sessions to block a quorum. The reward for Bosnia for this moderation of ethnic confrontation was, as in the case of Serbia, the initialing of its own SAA agreement with the EU.
From UN to EU
For the EU, the next immediate requirement will be to secure some form of UN sanction for the managed transition under EU tutelage to eventual full Kosovar independence. Diplomats aim to finesse this by reinterpreting UNSCR 1244 as allowing the current UN administration in Pristina to be supplemented by and evolve into EU administration without seeking a new Security Council resolution. In this reading, since 1244 does not stipulate that Serbia holds sovereignty until the Security Council decrees some new status, the salient provision of the resolution is its call for a “political process” to “determine Kosovo’s future status.” A “political process” is now under way, and Kosovo’s final status may well be determined when a critical mass of states recognizes a Kosovar declaration of (supervised) independence.
In this scenario UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be asked to follow up on his observation in launching the troika talks last August that in Kosovo “[t]the status quo is not sustainable.” The troika report in December reiterated and refined that finding in concluding, “For some time Kosovo will continue to need an international civilian and military presence to exercise appropriate supervision of compliance of the provisions of the status settlement.” Since 1244 authorized the UN Secretary-General to establish the current UN administration in Kosovo eight years ago, the EU reasoning goes, the Secretary-General can also approve modifications in that administration, in conjunction with an invitation for an EU presence from the new Kosovar Albanian government.
Politically, Ban Ki-moon could reinterpret 1244 in this way only after first asking the advice of the Security Council—in a debate that EU diplomats hope would be held at a level short of a formal resolution amending 1244, thereby avoiding the risk of a veto. To do this, he would certainly need political backing by a substantial majority of the Security Council, as well as by the EU—hence the further importance of the EU’s near unanimity. And since Security Council approval is required for appointing any new Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Kosovo, this provision might have to be finessed by asking the current Special Representative, a German, to stay on in a double UN and EU role in order not to incur a Russian veto on a new nominee.
A Long Way Still to Go
To date, diplomats have been more successful than anyone could have imagined a few months ago in levitating divergent EU members to a common policy on the Balkans and persuading Kosovar politicians to postpone the day of (conditional) independence yet again. They have effectively conjured the Serbian and Russian advantage of the inertia of the status quo into an EU advantage of momentum toward supervised independence for Kosovo.
Now all the diplomats have to do to earn their full laurels is to work equal magic at the United Nations; avert ethnic violence, a mass exodus of Serbs from Kosovo, or de facto secession of the Serb majority in northern Kosovo; reenergize the demoralized international administration in Pristina; stave off development of any hostile Albanian perception of EU officials as foreign occupiers; lift Kosovo out of its rank as the poorest land in the Balkans; persuade the Serbs that a shared European future is more attractive than jealous ethnic pride; and stamp out organized crime and corruption in the Balkans.
Other than that, the EU magicians are now home free.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist, editor, and author of five books on Europe, including Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance (2003) and Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style (2006). She was the founding editor of the transatlantic edition of Internationale Politik.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Elizabeth Pond on EU Can Prevent Versailles Syndrome in Serbia
- Antonio Cassese advocates a Confederation for Kosovo
- Ulf Gartzke on Kosovo: The Next Transatlantic Clash?
- Nikolas Gvosdev asks Will Kosovo End the Transatlantic Honeymoon?