In an abrupt policy shift, Serbian President Zoran Djindjic on 16 January called for immediately opening talks with the international community and Kosovo Serb and Albanian leaders on the future status of Kosovo. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele examines Djindjic's remarks and the response they have provoked.
Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Djindjic says his "instinct" tells him that "now is the right time for opening the question of Kosovo."
In Djindjic's words, "We do not have any time left to wait for resolving problems in that province, and I request that the debate on Kosovo's status start immediately." He added, "In two years, it will be too late because Kosovo has already begun to turn into an independent state."
Djindjic adds: "Our strategy is that as a first step we undertake a conceptual change of administering Kosovo, as well as some other steps. The question is whether to start now or wait until standards are being realized -- that is, that life is returning to normal, that certain relations are functioning. In the past two years, we've tended to wait, and the majority view has been that now is not the right time to raise the question."
UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, which set the framework for Kosovo to be an international protectorate under NATO-led occupation and UN-led administration, refers to Kosovo as a part of Yugoslavia.
Until now, Serb and international officials have ruled out discussing Kosovo's status until certain standards have been met, including security and free movement for all. One of the key benchmarks is the return of more than 100,000 displaced Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks, and others, most of whom fled with the withdrawing Serb forces in June 1999 and so far have been unable to return to Kosovo.
Michael Steiner, the head of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), has suggested that the UN transfer its administrative functions in Kosovo to the European Union. UNMIK has offered its stock response to Djindjic's remarks, saying the UN Security Council will have the last word on Kosovo's status.
Djindjic appealed to the European Union to protect Serbia and give its security the same amount of attention it gives to other countries in the region. Djindjic says the security of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and, to a certain extent, Albania is dependent on stability in Kosovo.
The timing of Djindjic's comments suggests an attempt to shift the focus of the Serbian public and media away from economic difficulties, Serbia's inability to elect a president, and delays in the replacement of the Yugoslav Federation with a looser state, Serbia and Montenegro.
In all likelihood, general elections will be held in Serbia later this year, and Djindjic appears to be getting a head start in appealing to that most patriotic of themes for Serbs -- Kosovo. However, Djindjic -- in remarks at a Belgrade news conference on 16 January -- avoided traditional nationalist references to the province as "the cradle of Serbian civilization" and instead insisted that Serbs in Kosovo must be respected as a "constituent element with collective and not just individual rights."
Djindjic's deputy prime minister for Kosovo and southern Serbian affairs, Nebojsa Covic, recently has been advocating opening talks on Kosovo's status next year, following massive returns of displaced Serbs to the province expected later this year. Nevertheless, Covic responded positively to Djindjic's remarks, saying he agrees that "now is the right time for beginning of discussions about the final status of Kosovo."
However, the deputy chairman of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, Dragan Mariscanin, whose statements invariably echo Kostunica's views, disagrees with Djindjic's call for immediate talks. In Mariscanin's words, "It is unthinkable to open the question of Kosovo's final status under present circumstances that do not guarantee even minimal conditions for normal life of Serbs in the area."
Mariscanin says it is not clear why Djindjic has suddenly changed his stance, and so radically, and asked, "Whose interests is he actually representing?"
Rasim Ljajic, Yugoslavia's minister for ethnic and national communities, says he does not expect talks on Kosovo's final status to begin for another two years, as they depend on the resolution of specific problems faced by the inhabitants of the province, such as security, return of displaced persons and the restitution of their property, as well as economic and other problems.
"At the present time, I don't see a real readiness by the international community or from Kosovar Albanians or Belgrade officials that they are ready even to open preliminary political discussions, which I consider necessary to have prior to opening negotiations on resolving the status of Kosovo. Moreover, there is no willingness by the U.S. government, which is the most important player, so 2005 could mark the beginning of discussions on the final status of Kosovo," Ljajic says.
Belgrade political analyst Dusan Janjic from the Forum for Ethnic Relations says it is premature to open a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on real problems and standards defining the status of Kosovo.
"No one can predict when the decision on the final status of Kosovo will be made. There is one current in international politics represented by Mr. Steiner and a portion of the (U.S.) Congress and a portion of Serb politicians such as Mr. Djindjic, who consider that recognition of Kosovo's conditional independence will have to be done relatively soon, changing it from a UN protectorate to a protectorate of the European Union. But there is another stream that dominates, which says that 10 to 15 years are needed before the UN Security Council will be able to decide whether Kosovo should be independent or not," Janjic says.
Janjic is calling on Yugoslav President Kostunica to organize roundtable discussions on the basic principles of policy toward Kosovo. He says Djindjic has prepared an operational plan to do this with the participation of nongovernmental organizations, representatives of Serbs in Kosovo, and representatives of all organs of Serbia's government.
Kosovar Albanians have been unusually slow to react to Djindjic's remarks, perhaps unsure how to respond to what on the surface may look like support for their calls but actually may be the first step toward dividing Kosovo.
The head of the province's second-largest Albanian party, former insurgent political commander Hashim Thaci, says that while Kosovar Albanians are interested in building good relations with their neighbors, their first priority is to establish the elements of a state that once in place will be recognized by the international community.
"There are plenty of ways to achieve independence for Kosovo, but first of all we have to fulfill our own obligations domestically, and we have to convince the world that independence for Kosovo is a good thing for the region. All citizens of Kosovo must have all rights, freedom and democracy. But when it comes to Kosovo's final status, that's a matter for the Kosovars and the international community to resolve -- not that our neighbors will be excluded -- but Kosovo's final status will be decided by Pristina and the international community," Thaci says.
Ramush Tahiri, an adviser to the speaker of Kosovo's parliament, Nexhat Daci, says that what is new in Djindjic's remarks is that he is asking the European Union to support and protect the Serbs while requesting that the issue of Kosovo's status be put on the negotiating table, together with a redefinition of Bosnia-Herzegovina's frontiers.
Tahiri says what Djinjdic appears to be pushing for is a division of Kosovo between Serb and non-Serb municipalities so that all Serb-inhabited regions, be they in Kosovo or Bosnia, "would be under Belgrade's umbrella."
Other Kosovo Serbs have given Djindjic's remarks a mixed greeting.
A leading Serb member of Kosovo's Parliament, Rada Trajkovic, praises Djindjic's proposal, saying she believes he will not only take care of the interests of the state but also those of the Kosovo Serb community. Similarly, the chairman of the Serbian Parliament's Kosovo Committee, Momcilo Trajkovic, says this is the right time to be opening talks.
And a member of the Kosovo parliament's collective presidency, Oliver Ivanovic, says Djindjic's call for talks on Kosovo is part of an attempt to define the position of Serbia and integrate it into Europe. However, Ivanovic says no one is ready to hold talks yet, "not even the Albanians," and that the danger of making hasty decisions in such talks is considerable.
He brands the Kosovar Albanian call for independence as nothing but an illusion.