Accessibility links

Breaking News

Balkans: Kosovo And Serbia Enter A New Era

By RFE/RL analyst Patrick Moore Graffiti in the ethnically divided town on Mitrovica (epa) The government of Kosovo is widely expected to declare independence shortly on the basis of a UN-sponsored plan, with the backing of the United States and most of the EU. Serbia's election for a largely ceremonial presidency is now behind it, but the country is moving into a period of political uncertainty. It is Serbia, rather than Kosovo, that merits particularly close watching.

Kosovo Sets The Stage For Independence

Following months of fruitless negotiations with Belgrade under international mediation, Kosovo's coalition government under Prime Minister Hashim Thaci of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) is preparing to declare independence, which might happen any day. All ethnic-Albanian Kosovar political leaders agree that time has come to act, regardless of the course political developments in Belgrade may take. Kosovar politicians stress that Serbia is a foreign country and its politics do not affect them.

Kosovo's independence is the final chapter in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, which began in earnest in 1991. It is also one more chapter in the historical process of decolonization that emerged out of World War II and is based on the principles of self-determination and majority rule.

The blueprint for the organization of the new state was made public by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari in March 2007. In response to unrest among some members of the 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority of Kosovo in March 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan tasked Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide with investigating the situation. He reported in the fall of 2005 that failure to take action on the future status of the UN-administered, nominally Serbian province of Kosovo -- which Belgrade lost control of to NATO forces in 1999 -- would only lead to further instability.

Central to Eide's findings was that only the clarification of Kosovo's final status will open the way for the investment necessary to modernize the economy and provide jobs for tens of thousands of unemployed. Kosovo has long had the highest birthrate in Europe, and the question of providing work for those who enter the job market each year is vital for stability in the province, even if many people continue the time-honored practice of emigrating to Western Europe or the United States.

In response to a mandate from the UN, former Finnish President Ahtisaari devised a plan to clarify the status issue on the basis of "supervised independence." This provides for the independent statehood demanded by all political parties representing the ethnic-Albanian majority, including state symbols and the right to seek membership in international organizations and to sign international agreements. The Ahtisaari plan also establishes strict safeguards to protect the Serbs and other minorities, as well as their cultural properties, such as Serbian medieval churches and monasteries.

The new state's parliament, like Kosovo's current one, will have 10 seats reserved for the Serbian minority and 10 more for members of the other significant minority groups: Roma, Bosnian Muslim, Turkish, Gorani, Ashkali, and Egyptian. This broadly follows a practice employed by Croatia and Slovenia to ensure parliamentary representation for at least some of their ethnic minorities. Kosovar law also specifies that at least 30 percent of each party's deputies in the parliament must be women.

The Kosovar state will be headed by President Fatmir Sejdiu of the late President Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Sejdiu was reelected on January 9 for his current term, which expires in 2013. The LDK is represented in Thaci's PDK-led cabinet, which also includes two Serbs and one ethnic Turk. Other parties represented in the parliament as a result of the November 17 general elections are the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) of former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj; the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) led by wealthy international businessman Behgjet Pacolli; and a coalition of the Democratic League of Dardania (LDD) and the Albanian Christian Democratic Party of Kosovo (PShDK).

Political life among the Kosovar Albanians is, in practice, largely based on overlapping structures involving the political parties, veterans groups of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) that fought President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces in 1998-99, and extended family or clan structures, often on a regional basis.

The Ahtisaari plan calls for the new state to adopt a new constitution drawn up by a 21-member commission, including three Serbs and three members of other minorities. Like the present parliament, the new legislature will have 120 seats, including 10 Serbs and 10 non-Serbian minorities. Proportional representation will continue, but with open party lists, which will enable voters to cast ballots for individual candidates. Safeguards are provided for minorities for any future constitutional changes.

Addressing a central concern of Kosovo's Serbs, the plan provides for broad self-rule for local communities, including schooling, use of language, and the display of national symbols. Decentralization of some basic governmental functions is another key provision, giving Serbian municipalities (like northern Mitrovica) control over health care and education, including the right to use textbooks approved in Belgrade.

Serbs have ample opportunity to achieve broad self-government if they choose to do so and ignore calls from Belgrade to boycott Kosovar institutions and elections. Some local Serbian leaders, such as Oliver Ivanovic, have come to realize that Belgrade does not necessarily have the interests of the Serbs of Kosovo in mind when it calls for boycotts.

But most Serbian communities in northern Kosovo and in the enclaves scattered throughout the province rely on their own "parallel structures," which the UN and its civilian administration (UNMIK) consider illegal. As the "The Wall Street Journal" noted on February 5, "the greater [postindependence] danger comes from the Serbian enclave around the city of Mitrovica. Some politicians there, backed by Belgrade, promise to break away from Kosovo. This is a red line for the Kosovo government and NATO."

An "international civilian representative" from the EU will embody the supervised nature of the independence set down in the Ahtisaari plan. His powers have not yet been determined but are likely to be similar to the wide-ranging ones of the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One of the chief objections of Kosovars to UNMIK is its allegedly colonial character, and the new top EU official will need to be diplomatic as well as firm if he is not to be regarded locally as a viceroy imposed from abroad. The late British Middle East expert and Conservative Party politician Sir Anthony Nutting once said of the Arabs that they would rather be governed badly by their own kind than governed well by foreigners, and the same probably holds true for Kosovar Albanians.

There is a danger that postindependence euphoria, particularly on the part of young males, could lead to violence or otherwise unpleasant incidents on the model of March 2004, which served nonetheless as a wake-up call for the international community not to ignore the status question. The Kosovars have broad forces of social control, including the clans, UCK veteran groups, and political parties. But, as Balkan experts James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers pointed out in their "The Albanian Question: Reshaping The Balkans" (London: I.B. Tauris [2007], p. 97), politics in Kosovo and Albania left the elite domain long ago and moved out "into the urban streets and hilly countryside."

Kosovo's security will remain heavily dependent on the 16,000 NATO troops stationed there, known as KFOR. Most Kosovar Albanians, like other ethnic Albanians across the Balkans, pride themselves on being the "most pro-American people in Europe," as Pettifer put it, because of the leading role the U.S. military played in ending the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars by Milosevic's forces in 1999. For that reason, the presence of the U.S. military in particular serves to reassure the Kosovar Albanians against a possible return of Serbian forces and thus helps prevent an outbreak of new violence.

The West Prepares To Act

As one observer of the Balkans said recently of Kosovo, "the script is ready, the actors know their parts, so let the play begin." When Prime Minister Thaci reads out the declaration of independence, it seems clear that the United States and most of the EU will recognize the new state.

Russia's persistent practice of blocking in the UN any approach not acceptable to Belgrade, which rejects independence outright, means that Washington and Brussels will not seek any further to resolve the status issue in the Security Council. As U.S. foreign-affairs expert Morton Abramowitz wrote in "The Moscow Times" on January 30: "At every turn, Russia has challenged Western efforts to facilitate Kosovo's independence. After a year of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin rejected the UN mediator's report recommending supervised independence, prevented the Security Council from accepting that report, and insisted on three additional months of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, even after compromise became impossible." For his part, UN Secretary-General Ban said on January 28 that Kosovo is a "European issue" and primarily a responsibility of the EU.

Some EU states are not expected to be in the first wave to recognize Kosovo. These include countries that fear that Serbia's formal loss of Kosovo could set a bad precedent for some of their own regions, despite assurances from several major Western capitals that Kosovo is a unique case. Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Cyprus belong to this group. A second group includes Greece and again Romania, which have traditionally good ties with Serbia. A separate case is Hungary, which fears offending Belgrade lest Serbia take revenge on its own ethnic-Hungarian minority. Finally, it might be noted that large amounts of Serbian and Russian capital found their way to Cyprus in the turbulent 1990s, which might also influence Nicosia's policy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Washington's position clear in an interview with "USA Today" on December 12. She said: "I hope that the Russians are as committed as we are to a stable outcome in the Balkans and to being constructive in the Balkans. But the fact of the matter is Kosovo and Serbia are never going to be one again, and that's the reality. And if you don't deal with that reality, you're only going to sow the seeds of considerable discontent and considerable instability." She added that "both Kosovo and Serbia need to get on with their futures, their separate but related futures. And the way to do that is for Serbia to have a strong European perspective."

Many in the EU sought to use the prospects of a European perspective in order to influence the February 3 Serbian presidential election runoff in favor of the more pro-European President Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS) over Tomislav Nikolic of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Accordingly, officials of Slovenia, which holds the rotating EU chair, Germany, and some other EU member states proposed offering to Serbia to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), a first step toward membership, even though it had not met all the relevant criteria.

The Netherlands and Belgium blocked this move on the grounds that Serbia has not met all its obligations to cooperate with the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Those two countries referred specifically Belgrade's duty to arrest and extradite fugitive Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic. Former ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and many others believe that he is hiding in Serbia with at least tacit support from the military or other power structures.

In addition, some commentators in Croatia, which is still waiting to join the EU, argued that easing criteria for Serbia in the complex legal process of "drawing closer to the EU" would be an insult to those countries that Milosevic attacked in the 1990s and have since patiently sought to meet the membership requirements set by Brussels. In Croatia's case, the EU membership it had hoped for in 2007 will come about in 2011 at the earliest, providing it succeeds in better combating corruption. Croatian critics of special treatment for Serbia add that concessions to it by the EU would be interpreted in the Balkan cultural context as a sign of weakness, which politicians in Serbia and perhaps elsewhere would then seek to exploit.

Among the EU's older members, moreover, the feeling seems to be growing that Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to full membership in 2007 before they were really prepared for it. In such circles, there is a marked reluctance to repeat what some regard as a mistake in granting two poor, postcommunist Balkan countries membership for what were essentially political reasons. The supposed model for their membership was the admission of Greece in 1981 and then Spain and Portugal in 1986 to help ease their transitions to democracy.

Just days before the runoff, the EU finally offered Serbia what one German commentator called an "installment plan" for a European perspective in the form of a "political agreement." Its centerpiece is an offer of talks on "political dialogue, free trade, visa liberalization, and educational cooperation."

Of crucial importance to ordinary Serbs -- including registered voters -- is the visa issue. Up until the end of the communist era, Yugoslavs had what was arguably the most enviable passport in Europe because they could travel to both the East and the West without visas. For former Yugoslavs who remember those days, and for those who have heard about them from older people, the visa requirements currently in force for almost all European countries constitute possibly the most painful proof of what many former Yugoslavs regard as their second-class status in today's Europe. The importance of the visa issue to ordinary people should not be underestimated. This is probably why Nikolic in the last phase of his campaign stressed that he wants good relations with the EU, even though he clearly prefers Russia as "the partner that attaches no conditions" in dealing with Serbia.

Serbian Politics Casts A Shadow

Not all Serbs, however, are ready to embrace the EU, especially if it recognizes an independent Kosovo. On December 26, the Serbian parliament passed a resolution in a 220-14 vote stipulating that Serbia will sign no treaty that "violates its territorial integrity" on Kosovo, including an SAA. Voting in favor were deputies of the DS, SRS, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which was once Milosevic's power base. Among Serbian political parties, only Cedomir Jovanovic's small Liberal Democrats argue that Serbia lost Kosovo for good in 1999 and should face up to that fact. The G17 Plus group, which was founded by liberal economists, centers its attention on integrating Serbia with the EU and international financial and trade institutions and generally avoids the Kosovo debate.

On January 3, without the agreement of his coalition partners in the DS, Kostunica told the EU that Serbia will not accept an SAA if the EU sends its proposed 1,600-strong "policing and justice mission" to an independent Kosovo. He reiterated a statement he made on December 11, namely that "anyone who wants Serbia as a partner has to know Serbia will accept partnership only as a whole country, not as a country cut in two." It remains to be seen if he will similarly reject the latest offer of a "political agreement."

Tadic shares his rival Kostunica's view that independence for Kosovo is unacceptable. The president, however, disagrees openly with the prime minister on some issues relating to Serbian EU membership, which Tadic regards as his primary foreign-policy goal. In December, he quickly rebuked an aide of Kostunica's for suggesting that Serbia might go to war were Kosovo to declare independence. Tadic stressed instead that "war and violence would, for sure, jeopardize the possibility that Kosovo could remain part of Serbia and also the basic interests of the people." On January 6, he said that "giving up on the European path literally means giving up on Kosovo." Brussels, in turn, made it clear in the run-up to the election that it favored Tadic over Nikolic and quickly congratulated Tadic when he won a narrow victory over the SRS candidate on February 3.

Most observers regard the tensions between Tadic and Kostunica as yet further evidence of the shaky nature of the governing coalition, which consists of several small or medium-sized parties. The DS is the largest of them and second to the SRS in strength nationwide. Following Tadic's reelection, some Belgrade commentators predicted that early general elections will take place in the fall. According to this view, the newly reelected Tadic would seek to punish Kostunica, whose support in public opinion polls stands at about 7 percent, for his failure to endorse Tadic in the race against Nikolic. In a second variation, Kostunica would force the crisis by not signing the EU's "political agreement" and thereby compelling Tadic to act.

In theory, Kostunica always has the option of deserting the DS and joining forces with the SRS, whose views are virtually identical to his own. But he would scarcely be in a position to claim the premiership from what is easily Serbia's largest party. Kostunica also knows that a SRS-led state would be treated by the West as a pariah.

In a rather different twist, some Kosovar Albanian commentators suspected Serbia's two top officials of carrying out a division of labor in the international arena, in which Kostunica took a relatively anti-Western, pro-Russian line similar to that of Nikolic, while Tadic said things that Washington and Brussels wanted to hear. According to this theory, Tadic and Kostunica were playing the classic "good cop, bad cop" game with the foreigners.

Following Tadic's reelection, some Kosovar journalists suggested that talk of a Serbian government crisis and fall elections was simply a ruse to buy more time and encourage countries like Spain or Italy, which were never enthusiastic about Kosovar independence, to put pressure on Brussels and Washington to delay resolving the status issue until after the next Serbian vote. By that time, the commentators noted, the United States will know who its next president is, and it might be someone unconcerned with the Balkans or not in favor of independence. This theory is based on the observation that Belgrade and Moscow clearly played for time throughout the discussions about Kosovo in recent years, apparently on the assumption that the Western powers would eventually lose interest and either leave or agree to a settlement more to Serbia's liking.

It remains clear that any Serbian general elections will be more important for determining the country's future course than was the recent ballot for the largely ceremonial presidency. Power lies with the government, and the SRS, as the largest party, has the best chance of winning it. The DSS and SPS are reasonably close to it ideologically and are potential coalition partners from that perspective. The alternative is probably something similar to the present government, namely a shaky coalition of politically diverse parties, led by the DS and held together by a common desire to hold power and keep the Radicals away from it.

Regardless of who holds power in Belgrade, one should not rule out the Serbian authorities' potential for interference in Kosovo's affairs. Tadic made a highly publicized visit to the Serbian communities there in early 2005. He presented each town or enclave on his itinerary with a Serbian flag and declared that "this is Serbia," which is something that not even Milosevic did. That slogan has definite connotations, because during the Croatian conflict of 1991-95 and the war in Bosnia in 1992-95, Serbian nationalists wrote "this is Serbia" on the walls of countless Croatian- or Muslim-owned houses and buildings. Nikolic campaigned hard among the Serbs of Kosovo, who voted heavily for him. Tadic visited Kosovo shortly before the runoff vote.

Serbian special forces might also seek to stir up trouble in Kosovo. The former communist secret service, UDBA, was led by Serbs and Montenegrins and was generally considered one of the best in the world. Following Milosevic's retreat from Kosovo in 1999, the Serbian special services' offices were transferred from Pristina to Nis, and from other Kosovo population centers to cities and towns on the Serbian side of the border, where they remain active.

Many ethnic Albanians suspect Serbian agents provocateurs of being behind some of the violent incidents in Kosovo in recent years and fear that more such actions might follow the declaration of independence. Noel Malcolm recalls in his book "Kosovo: A Short History" (New York: New York University Press [1998], p. 251) that the Serbian authorities secretly armed restless Albanians in Ottoman-ruled Kosovo in the run-up to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 at the same time Belgrade was conducting a publicity campaign against "Albanian lawlessness."

Russia Makes Its Presence Felt

On the diplomatic front, it remains to be seen how Washington and Brussels will respond if Kostunica refuses to sign any document with the EU or breaks off relations with countries that recognize Kosovo, as he has threatened to do. Perhaps Western leaders have taken a cue from Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who said in early January that experience shows that one need not take seriously all the tough talk that comes out of the western Balkans.

One development to which the West cannot be indifferent, however, is the increasing Russian economic penetration of much of former Yugoslavia, including Montenegro and the Republika Srpska as well as Serbia. Much of the Russian activity is highly visible, such as in buying up hotels and beachfront properties on the Montenegrin Adriatic coast. Some other investments in ageing industries have proved short-lived or have given Russian businessmen a bad reputation for not keeping their side of a bargain. Many Serbs and Montenegrins have traditionally held pro-Russian sympathies, however, and Russian businessmen with cash to spend have sought to make use of this reservoir of goodwill.

Their biggest success to date came in Moscow on January 25, when Putin and his heir-apparent, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, witnessed the signing of some major economic agreements in the presence of Tadic and Kostunica. The most important deals involve the sale of Serbia's state oil monopoly NIS to a Gazprom-led group and the construction by Gazprom of a pipeline through Serbia. The sale of NIS will reportedly take place at a fraction of its market value, according to Serbian Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic of G17 Plus. The EU objected to the absence of competitive bidding, but Kostunica ensured that Russia would get what it wanted. Dinkic said that unnamed cabinet officials told him that it would be politically "indecent" to ask Russia to pay a market price after it had supported Serbia so faithfully on Kosovo.

The Gazprom agreements state that the valid texts are in Serbian and Russian, but in case of a dispute, the Russian text is binding. As the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented on January 29, this is also a political statement. To some observers, the arrangement recalls the "joint stock companies" that Stalin established in much of the communist Balkans following World War II so that the Soviet Union could exploit the natural resources and economies of those countries.

In Yugoslavia, one such firm was the airline JUSTA. Russian buyers now appear set to acquire its successor, JAT Serbian airlines, and the RTB Bor copper mine, Serbia's largest. As of 2006, however, the largest foreign direct investments in Serbia still came from Norway, Germany, and Greece. Russia was well down the list, just behind the United States and with less than 10 percent of the investments made in Serbia by tiny Slovenia.

Will Serbia Face Up To Its Problems?

Two basic facts of life on the ground will most likely determine the broad future course of events in Kosovo. The first is that the Kosovar Albanians want nothing to do with Serbia, which the declaration of independence will make clear. The second is that a partition already exists in practice, as the existence of Serbian parallel structures in the north and in the enclaves demonstrate. It also seems likely that the north in particular will increasingly function as a part of Serbia, regardless of what Pristina or Brussels may say. Belgrade politicians of all political hues are likely to encourage such trends.

Perhaps the most important question facing the region is not which direction Pristina will take, since the political parties there are in clear agreement with the West that the Ahtisaari plan is the only way forward. Years of tutelage by UNMIK and KFOR have left the Kosovar leadership with no doubt as to what is expected of it and what it can count on in return.

The most vexing Balkan issue is probably the political future and direction of Serbia. Located in every respect at the center of the Balkans, Serbia cannot be left impoverished, isolated, or to become a rogue state, lest such developments have an unmistakable and potentially tragic impact on the entire region. It remains to be seen whether Serbia's leaders will be up to the challenge of modernizing a country where, as recently as 2001, a government-funded Serbian nongovernmental organization's study showed that 36.5 percent of the population earned less than $30 per month, with the percentages rising for large families, the young, the unemployed, industrial workers, and the urban population.

Despite a high rate of poverty and unemployment, as well as a need to rebuild the institutions and infrastructure that rotted under Milosevic, most of the political class chose in the recent election campaign to concentrate its time and energies on Kosovo. This was probably the easiest thing for them to do, since they knew that the issue will be decided elsewhere regardless of what they said, and that their voters could hence not hold them accountable.

But the politicians knew that the voters might hold them to any promises they might make about the economy and social issues, so clever candidates sought to avoid concrete pledges on such matters. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on August 24 that "Serbia's economy is suffering because of Belgrade's fixation with Kosovo." Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace has long argued, in fact, that Kosovo's independence will be the best thing that could happen to Serbia because it will enable Serbia to concentrate on its real problems.

In its ongoing efforts aimed at derailing Kosovo's progress toward independence, Belgrade has financed a costly and imaginative lobbying campaign on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps once Kosovo's final status becomes a fact, some of this money and creativity will find its way into dealing with Serbia's domestic issues. Besides poverty and unemployment, these also include a democracy deficit; an ultranationalist political culture rooted in blame and denial; and interconnected structures linking politics, business, security forces, and organized crime.

These are not uniquely Serbian problems. But Serbia is not even a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Bulgaria joined in 1996, nor does it have an SAA with the EU, which Macedonia signed in 2001. Serbs traditionally viewed both these countries as their poor cousins. It is all the more painful to them that Bulgaria is now a full member of the EU and Bulgarian citizens enjoy visa-free travel within that bloc.

Professor Stevan Pavlowitch made an observation in "Serbia: The History Of An Idea" (New York: New York University Press [2002], p. 230) regarding the late 1980s, which might seem appropriate for today. He wrote that "to cope with [the breakup of Yugoslavia], Serbia would have needed a leader with the stature and vision of Charles de Gaulle -- a personality who could understand, and convince his compatriots, that in order to tackle the problems posed by the Serbs' dispersal over a disintegrated Yugoslavia, Serbia had to get rid of the burden of Kosovo. What it had was Slobodan Milosevic...[whose] project had no consistency beyond holding on to power."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.