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Kosovo: Is Partition Most Likely Outcome?

  • Patrick Moore --> (RFE/RL) April 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Many commentators have suggested that the Serbian-dominated north of Kosovo will break off from that province and become a part of Serbia if the Albanian majority declares independence.

The idea of partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines is nothing new. Some Serbian officials and academics toyed with the idea in the early decades of the 20th century as a way of dealing with the Serbs' declining demographic position there. More recent partition projects were associated with the Serbian Academy of Sciences in the mid-1980s.

In addition to securing Serbian-majority areas and cultural and religious sites for the Serbian state, the partition planners have generally sought to keep control of as much of the province's mineral wealth for Belgrade as possible.

Some forms of de facto partition already exist in Kosovo. In the 1970s and early 1980s, when ethnic Albanian politicians held sway in communist Kosovo after decades of tough Serbian rule, many Serbs left the province. They said they were victims of intimidation and various forms of pressure to sell their land, although the Albanians claimed the Serbs were happy to take the money and move to better farms in Vojvodina.

Serbian Refugees

In the wake of the 1998-99 conflict, much of the Kosovar Serbian population fled their homes for Serbia proper or for what was emerging as a heavily Serbian territory north of the Ibar River, which divides Mitrovica into northern Serbian and southern Albanian halves. Various Serbian enclaves remain throughout Kosovo, but their existence is often precarious.

Some Serbian refugees and displaced persons probably will never go back to their former homes in what are now heavily Albanian areas like Pristina. The Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign of 1999 in particular made heavy use of "human intelligence" on the ground that only local Serbs could supply. Many Serbs who cooperated with former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's security forces subsequently fled because they feared the wrath of their Albanian neighbors.

Those Albanians also remember that it was the Serbs of Kosovo who formed the bedrock of support for Milosevic in his rise to power in the mid-1980s and subsequently helped keep him there.

Lack Of Communication

There has, moreover, been little communication across ethnic lines since 1999. The younger generations of Serbs and Albanians literally do not speak each other's languages because they never experienced the joint school or military systems that Yugoslav-era generations did.

Traditionally, few Serbs bothered to learn much Albanian, but prior to the late 1980s, most Kosovar Albanians with anything more than very basic schooling knew some Serbo-Croatian. All Kosovar males who served in the Yugoslav military learned at least enough Serbo-Croatian to conduct basic conversations and probably developed their skills further if they were posted to Croatia or Bosnia or somewhere else far from home.

Balkan Dominoes

The international community has long ruled out partition as an option, saying that Kosovo's future will be determined for the province as a whole. Some observers have warned that if foreign powers ever do allow the Serbian north to secede, they will pave the way for similar partition attempts in the Presevo Valley, Macedonia, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby opening a Pandora's box of Balkan conflicts.

Whatever the merits of a Balkan domino theory might be, there is at least one realistic scenario for Kosovo that leaves open the possibility of partition in the not-too-distant future. According to that view, Russia will continue to stall on any serious consideration by the UN Security Council of UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan for conditional independence for Kosovo. Moscow will go on calling for holding debates, arranging fact-finding trips, appointing new negotiators, and doing whatever else can be done to delay things.

In the meantime, according to this scenario, the Kosovar Albanians will become increasingly impatient. Before young hotheads or organized radicals take matters into their own hands and renew the violence that shook the province in March 2004, the political leaders will issue a unilateral declaration of independence. This will be endorsed as the only practical alternative to protracted instability by several members of the international community, including probably the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, and some other states that have already indicated their support for Kosovar independence.

Most of the EU member states will bicker among themselves and not be able to act together, as has often happened in the past. Serbia will use its old connections with the Nonaligned Movement and its corps of experienced diplomats to ensure strong support for its position among the developing countries. This could prove useful, not only in the Security Council but also in the General Assembly, if and when Pristina seeks membership in that body. The Kosovars have few seasoned diplomats to plead their case except for publisher and negotiator Veton Surroi.

Facts On The Ground

At this point, so the theory goes, Russia and Serbia will make it clear that they have been stalling in hopes of triggering a declaration of independence by the Kosovars without Security Council approval. Serbia will then invoke the council's Resolution 1244, which specifies that Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia. (Yugoslavia was changed to Serbia in the text after Milosevic's rump Yugoslavia ceased to be.) As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has noted, the Western countries never meant the reference to Kosovo being part of Yugoslavia seriously but simply included it in 1244 as a sop to Russia and Greece.

But that will not make any difference at this stage. According to this scenario, Belgrade, backed by Moscow and perhaps Beijing, will announce that it will invoke what it considers its rights under 1244 and send its security forces and other officials into northern Kosovo to protect the Serbian population there from the "illegal" regime in the south.

The partition will then be sealed, perhaps with the assistance of foreign peacekeepers guarding the new boundary lines to prevent any direct clashes between Serbian and Kosovar Albanian forces.

The new Kosovar state will try to observe the provisions of the Ahtisaari plan and protect the Serbian enclaves and cultural properties because it knows that its international standing depends on it. But the enclaves will likely fade away as the young in particular move to the north, to Serbia proper, or even further away still. The cultural properties will lead a sometimes difficult existence, probably behind much barbed wire and guarded by French or Greek troops.

One of the lessons of the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts of the early 1990s was that Serbian populations outside Serbia had difficulty accepting the possibility that Serbs could have happy and productive lives in states that they did not control. That is clearly the case in Kosovo, too, particularly after 1998-99. It is probably too much to expect that any Albanian-dominated Kosovar state would ever attract even the grudging the allegiance of the province's Serbs.

Partition would be a bitter pill for the Albanians to swallow. They have said repeatedly that they will not accept it, but they might find themselves with little choice. With the political limbo of the UNMIK period behind them and a new legal system in place, they will then get on with their own lives and display the skills of entrepreneurship that they have in the United States, Switzerland, Germany, or Croatia. Neither they nor their former neighbors are likely to miss each other.

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Final Status For Kosovo

Pro-independence graffiti in Prishtina (epa)

FINALLY STATUS? Sabine Freizer, director of the Crisis Group's Europe Program, told an RFE/RL briefing that deep divisions in the UN Security Council make it uncertain what form Kosovo's future status might take.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


RFE/RL's coverage of Kosovo. The website of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service.