Global Policy Forum

Kosovo: Once Again a Political Pawn


By Michael Boyle

March 11, 2008

In the last few weeks, it has become increasingly clear that Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17 did not settle the matter once and for all. The newly independent Kosovo is a tense place, roiling with ethnic incitement in its predominantly Serbian north and struggling to survive amid rumours of a potential partition. Worse still, it is a pawn in two overlapping political games: first, between the US, EU and Russia and second, between its ethnic Albanian Kosovo leadership and the Serbian government.

The first thing that should be clear is that nobody walks out of this mess with clean hands. That Kosovo would have to be independent was probably inevitable. The campaigns of ethnic cleansing led by Slobodan Milosevic expelled nearly 800,000 people from Kosovo (nearly 90% of the population), and killed - according to an American bar association estimate - nearly 10,000 people. It's hard to imagine that the Kosovo Albanians who returned to the province after this assault in 1999 could ever imagine themselves again being part of Serbia, no matter how democratic it became or how much minority protection it offered.

But that does not mean that all of the players can absolve themselves of responsibility for this crisis. Both the US and the EU deserve a fair amount of blame for tabling UN resolution 1244 in 1999, which promised to resolve Kosovo's status at some unspecified future point. This "kick the can down the road" approach might have worked if it was tied to a clear strategy to get Serbia to accept Kosovo's independence. But it was rather an attempt to gloss over a nearly intractable issue, while minimising the political consequences for the political leadership at the time. This left the successors of Clinton and Blair with a ticking time bomb and no particularly compelling options for how to defuse it.

What has emerged now - a declaration of independence which makes even European states that fought to protect Kosovo uneasy - is evidence of this lack of strategic forethought. Recognising the independent Kosovo may have been the least bad option, but it certainly did not need to happen with the level of political cost that it incurred.

The European Union should also not congratulate itself on its behaviour in Kosovo. While it has played an important role in state-building and in deploying peacekeepers and police to prevent the outbreak of violence, it nevertheless held on to the hopes of a negotiated settlement with Belgrade for too long and proved reluctant to play hardball with Serbia.

For example, the EU could have made Serbia's admission into the European Union conditional on its peaceful acceptance of a negotiated independence for Kosovo. But this was a bridge too far for the EU, due to internal opposition by its members, and thus it spent years experimenting with unworkable proposals for things like "conditional independence".

Its preference for a negotiated settlement may have increased the political shocks after independence happened. The EU-backed Athissari plan, which promised a quasi-independent status for Kosovo, was a compromise, but one which was fundamentally unacceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade. It was, essentially, another "kick the can down the road approach" and in avoiding the issue it may have magnified the severity of the political reaction from Albanians and Serbs alike.

Moreover, when independence happened, the EU appeared to be caught almost by surprise and, astonishingly, insisted on no common policy for the legal recognition of Kosovo among its members. This has meant we have a new state recognised by only some of the states in the regional organisation it wants to join.

At the time of UNSCR 1244, Russia was happy to accept this sleight-of-hand, to end the war and to rein in Milosevic's Serbia before the situation got out of hand. But today we are dealing with a very different Russia: a surly but resurgent power that resents the American and European posturing about the democratic future of Kosovo. The Russia that Putin built is more than happy to keep the Kosovo issue in play just to dish some humiliation back to the US and the EU.

Keeping Kosovo as an issue in play has also paid off financially and politically for Russia. Russia capitalised on its backing of Serbia and by cutting several deals over gas and oil with Belgrade and then by suddenly repositioning itself as the champion of international law against rogue secessionist states. This is either ironic or cynical, because Russia is simultaneously using the Kosovo precedent to openly flirt with the idea of recognising Georgia's breakaway republic, Abkhazia, just to settle some old scores. No matter how much it protests that Kosovo's independent was a dangerous precedent, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Russia has benefited most from this bungled affair.

Both Belgrade and the Kosovo Albanian government in Pristina have also been playing games with the Kosovo problem. On top of allowing rioters to attack the US embassy, Belgrade has formally rejected the independence of Kosovo, and instructed its 120,000 citizens to cut off all ties with the government in Pristina. It has also fomented the dreams of a "soft partition" where the Serbian community lives apart from its Albanian neighbours, without specifying how this would happen or how exactly how this impoverished and vulnerable community should sustain itself once it happens. Beyond denial, what positive future is Belgrade offering the Kosovo Serbs once independence is an established fact?

In a sign of how messy things are getting, the Kostunica government collapsed yesterday, as the prime minister dissolved the government due to concerns that his coalition partners are insufficiently committed to "the battle to preserve Kosovo". This is a clever move: first to reconstitute the government in May with hardliners who will make the Kosovo issue their top priority, and secondly to exploit the divisions in the EU by forcing it to clarify how it can admit both Serbia and Kosovo, given that some EU member states do not recognise the partition and some do. It promises only a bigger headache for the EU in the years to come.

Finally, the Kosovo Albanian government in Pristina cannot be absolved of its responsibility for this mess. During the period after the war, the interim Albanian government often turned a blind eye to reprisal attacks against Kosovo Serb civilians (often allegedly by KLA splinter groups) and watched with indifference as Serbs, Roma and other minorities were expelled, trapped and harassed in enclaves. Now Pristina claims the moral high ground, with Agim Ceku calling on the international community to stand up to Serbian extremists to protect Kosovo's freedom.

While Pristina has every right to protect itself, it will need to recognise the legitimate security concerns of the Kosovo Serbs and starts taking serious measures toward providing them with jobs and a future in the new Kosovo. Pristina will get nowhere by insisting on the purity of its moral position while remaining blind to the sins of the KLA or to the needs of its most vulnerable.

What we see in Kosovo at the moment is not an example of careful statecraft at the level of great power politics, nor of considered and reasoned attempt at reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs. The Kosovo situation is a mess because its independence has become a bargaining chip in a series of overlapping games for political power. All of these games are conducted at the expense of the Albanian and Serbian citizens of Kosovo, who would certainly trade them for some kind of hope for their future.

More Information on the UN Security Council
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