Late last night -- under cover of darkness, as it were -- the governments of Montenegro and Macedonia issued a joint statement on recognizing Kosovo's independence. It was a smart move, copying a similar tactic used by Hungary and Croatia in March.
Such coordinated political decisions aimed to reduce tensions are not a Balkan tradition. But maybe they are the beginning of something new.
Serbia's reaction to Croatia's recognition of Kosovo undoubtedly would have been much harsher if it had not acted in concert with Budapest. Belgrade could hardly be seen to be applying double standards in such cases.
It also helps that Montenegro supported a Serbian initiative in the UN seeking a ruling by the International Court of Justice on Kosovo's February independence declaration. The General Assembly adopted that resolution on October 8, in a move that Belgrade heralded as a great diplomatic victory. Macedonia abstained. All of these moves by Montenegro and Macedonia should help restrain Serbia's reaction.
Another positive sign -- one coming from Serbia itself -- is even more important. It would appear that Belgrade has made a decision to limit its challenges to Kosovar independence to legal, political, and diplomatic means.
That Serbia -- with its long history to the contrary -- has given up violence as its main tool of international relations is important to note. Some might cynically argue that Serbia is worn out by all the conflicts it has lost over the last 20 years. But the real reason is that today's Serbia is much different from the Serbia of just six months ago and, of course, incomparable to the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic's day.Change In Direction
Just six months ago, then-Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica controlled the country's media, which trumpeted his policy of conflict with the West. When Kosovo declared its independence in February, protests were orchestrated in Belgrade that devolved into violence. One young man lost his life, and images of Serbs attacking the U.S. Embassy were broadcast around the world, depicting the country in the worst possible light.
However, in recent months, Kostunica suffered a major defeat in parliamentary elections, the nationalist Serbian Radical Party endured an acrimonious split, and the Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic has come to dominate the political landscape.
And Tadic wants to move the country toward the European Union -- a policy widely supported by Serbs generally. In July, just days after Tadic's party took over the government, Belgrade handed over notorious indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic to The Hague. The world is now looking expectantly for the arrest of former Bosnian-Serb military commander Ratko Mladic as well.
Serbia has been widely praised for such moves and the country is, finally, on track for membership in the European Union. And this is the best news that has come out of the Balkans in years.
Of course, officials in Belgrade will take some political and diplomatic measures against Montenegro and Macedonia. But that is a far cry from military action, and even economic moves seem improbable. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic has already made some very undiplomatic statements, saying before yesterday's statement that Kosovo recognition by Montenegro would be "a knife in Serbia's back."
And Serbia has asked the Macedonian and Montenegrin ambassadors to leave Belgrade. (Earlier in the year, Serbia recalled its ambassadors to country's recognizing Kosovo. However, a few months later, after the media campaign subsided and attention shifted elsewhere, the diplomats were quietly dispatched back to their posts.) Montenegro, for its part, has said the Serbian ambassador will not be asked to leave. Although reciprocity is normal in such situations, Montenegro's restraint is another smart move that will reduce tensions.Boycott Unlikely
The government in Belgrade understands that any economic sanctions would hurt the Serbian economy; "economic nationalism" would only push Montenegro to seek other suppliers and end up causing long-term harm to Serbian companies.
Belgrade could call for a boycott of Montenegro as a tourist destination, but it is unlikely such a move would see much popular support and by the time the next tourist season roles around, no one would remember what the boycott was about anyway.
The reaction within Montenegro is worth watching. Pro-Serbian parties there have rejected recognizing Kosovo and have threatened protests. It is still unclear how far they will be willing to go, but they have already been integrated into Montenegrin political life and the time when they acted at Belgrade's behest has thankfully passed.
Although a majority of Montenegrins probably would not endorse Kosovar independence, they do support integration with Europe and are willing to concede that recognizing Kosovo is part of that deal. "We will consult the people," one opposition leader said when asked how his party will react to the government's recognition of Kosovo.
It is also important to note that Russia's military intervention in Georgia and its hasty recognition of the breakaway Georgia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have dramatically weakened Serbia's hand regarding Kosovo. Three countries -- Portugal is the third -- have recognized Kosovo in the last week and more will follow soon.
In the shadow of Serbian-Montenegrin relations, Macedonia's recognition of Kosovo passed almost unnoticed in Belgrade. The government in Macedonia had been under pressure from its own ethnic-Albanian minority, which comprises about one-third of the country's 2 million people, to recognize the country's new northwestern neighbor. Last night's joint statement will help reduce tensions within Macedonia, taking at least one sensitive issue off the table.
Now the only former Yugoslav countries that have not recognized Kosovo are Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it will be some time yet before Sarajevo takes this step. But Kosovo is now firmly a reality in the Balkans, and reality always prevails sooner or later. Maybe Bosnia and Serbia will be the next pair of Balkan countries to recognize Kosovo. Or would that just be too much good news for a region like the Balkans."Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.