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The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly On Kosovar Independence

  • Daniel Serwer

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (right) and President Fatmir Sejdiu

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci are currently visiting Washington, five months after Kosovo's independence declaration. The visit seems a good time to assess how things have gone and what needs to be done next.

The Kosovars have done well, though not wonderfully well. The ethnic Albanians celebrated independence without violence and have left their Serb citizens in peace. Thaci, in particular, has said many of the right things.

But we still have not seen the kind of real progress on enabling Serbs to return to their homes south of the Ibar River that would undermine Belgrade's efforts to bring about partition. Nor have we seen the kind of effective diplomacy abroad needed to raise to 100 or so the number of states to have formally recognized Kosovo, a number that would send a clear and compelling signal that the new state is here to stay.

The fault there lies also with the international community, which has made a hash of things. Without a Security Council resolution ending the UN protectorate and establishing the EU presence, a kind of sadly comic chaos reigns. It now appears the UN will remain in the north but reduce its presence south of the Ibar, where the EU will dominate. This serves Belgrade's purposes well: anything that distinguishes the territory it controls in northern Kosovo from the territory Pristina controls south of the Ibar is good news to those who seek partition.

The 'F-Word'

The international community could do better. The best option even now would be a UN Security Council resolution clarifying the situation. Failing that, more recognitions of Kosovo, together with Kosovo's entry into the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, would help. The United States needs to do the heavy lifting, including a reasonable payoff to the Russians, whose support to Belgrade has been vital. A divided Europe is perhaps best described with what is known in the U.S. State Department as the "f-word": feckless.

Clarity is what is needed in this messy situation.
Belgrade has been determined to hold on to sovereignty over Kosovo in every way possible. The government of former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, which was in power at the time of the Kosovar independence declaration, allowed the Belgrade embassies of countries recognizing Kosovo to be burned; organized attacks on UN border posts in northern Kosovo; created a Potemkin parliament for Serb communities; occupied public buildings; and in dozens of other ways -- violent and nonviolent --sought to obstruct Kosovo independence.

This effort was at least partly successful. Belgrade's policies deterred many countries from recognizing Kosovo, and Serbia remains in firm control of northern Kosovo. Serbian diplomats are busily trying to persuade the UN General Assembly to refer the Kosovo question to the World Court, a move that at the very least would perpetuate the kind of uncertainty over Kosovo's fate that has discouraged investment there for the past nine years.

Obstructing Independence

There is now a new government in Belgrade, one committed to early entry into the EU. But it is still unequivocally committed to obstructing Kosovo independence and will do everything it can short of violence to claim sovereignty.

This is ugly, not just for the United States and most of Europe but also for Serbs. Kosovo costs Serbia upwards of $200 million per year in arrears payments to the World Bank and subsidies to Serb institutions in Kosovo. Only by recognizing Kosovo independence can Serbia escape the arrears. Belgrade wants to enter the EU with Kosovo attached, but this is a delusion: the EU may be willing to accept 8 million Serbs within the next couple of years, but it will be decades before it could absorb nearly 2 million Kosovars.

But most of all, Belgrade needs to give up on its illusions. Kosovo is lost.
Clarity is what is needed in this messy situation. The United States needs to revive the idea of a Security Council resolution and bring the Russians on board. The Europeans need to state clearly and unequivocally that Serbia will become an EU member only if it gives up its claims to sovereignty over Kosovo. Europe also needs to get its Kosovo mission deployed in the north.

The Kosovars need to welcome Serbs back south of the Ibar and make sure that their new state treats all its citizens fairly and correctly. Pristina also needs to obtain recognition by another 60 states.

But most of all, Belgrade needs to give up on its illusions. Kosovo is lost. Ninety percent of its population will never accept Serbian sovereignty. No one in Belgrade would want to try to govern the Kosovars. It is time for Serbia to sit down and negotiate with newly independent Kosovo a settlement of the myriad issues that the two neighbors have not resolved. Continued efforts to claim Kosovo, in whole or in part, are clearly a threat to peace and security in the Balkans. They should be treated as such.

Daniel Serwer is vice president for peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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