Serbia's Future Without Kosovo

While Kosovo's Albanians refuse to participate in the political life of Serbia and seek only independence, Serbs see Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.

While Kosovo's Albanians refuse to participate in the political life of Serbia and seek only independence, Serbs see Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia. Since the UN and other international organizations hold onto the principle that the existing borders of sovereign states are inviolable, it would seem that the Serbian position is stronger. Nevertheless, it seems probable that Kosovo's Albanians will manage to achieve their goal. Privately, many Serbs feel that Kosovo is lost. They acknowledge that the past's heavy burden, combined with the strength of Albanian nationalism, make for the impossibility of a bi-communal political life.

How then to proceed? Most importantly, Belgrade must seek to stall the drive to independence so as to drive the Albanians to concessions. The focus should be to safeguard the rights of Kosovo's Serbs and secure their autonomy within the emerging entity. When the time finally comes for final status negotiations, Belgrade must insist that these autonomous parts remain a part of Serbia. Additionally, Serbia must make special efforts to secure and enforce the special status of its historical, religious and patrimonial sites throughout Kosovo, some of which date back to the 10th century.

All of this is not much, from the Serbian perspective, but it is not little either. Encouragingly, Serbia's best negotiating strategy is more advantageous than Pristina's, for it presupposes a realistic understanding of the geopolitics of the region that, at the same time, has international law and Western strategic interests on its side. A future without Kosovo was not always in the cards, but recent history has concentrated the Serbian mind to think in ways that reject traditional ways of thinking on the matter.

Had Serbia sought partition in the 1990s, we could have gotten a better deal. Milosevic was stubborn and brazen when he was strong, pliable and soft when he was weak. And when a politician yields from weakness, he always looses more than had he yielded from strength. The majority of the then opposition parties were no wiser than Milosevic. But being hard on them will achieve little, for Serbs are strongly attached to Kosovo as "old Serbia." Serbs paid a heavy price almost a hundred years ago when it liberated it from the Turks and has held onto the territory ever since.

Had Kosovo's Albanians not boycotted election after election in the 1990s, they would have held the balance of parliamentary power in their hands. Their votes also would have guaranteed the victory of Milosevic's opponent in the 1992 presidential election, Milan Panic, then-CEO of the California-based pharmaceutical giant ICN. The Balkans would have been spared much of the carnage that followed. At the time, Washington expressed dissatisfaction with Kosovo's Albanians for their unwillingness to exercise the rights of citizenship, but in such a mild way that it was interpreted in Pristina as encouragement to stay the course. The nature of the Milosevic regime made it easier to paint the Albanians' plight in anti-Serbian colors, which played into the hands of Albanian extremists, helping to ensure that the situation would not resolve itself peacefully.

Since the U.S.-led 1999 bombing of Serbia, the situation has changed completely. The cessation of hostilities in June of that year, and the subsequent withdrawal of Serbian forces from the region, coupled with a UN-led interim administration, led to a massive campaign of reverse ethnic cleansing against hundreds of thousands of non-Albanians -- under the nose of 50,000 NATO troops. Kosovo today is one of the most ethnically pure regions in all of Europe.

In Kosovo today, we find little law and less order, to say nothing of democracy. The main impediment to any agreement involving Belgrade is Pristina's inflexibility: to blame any other party for the lack of results in the return of refugees -- a key demand of the UN's interim authority (UNMIK) -- is to mistake wishful thinking for the harsh reality on the ground.

For these reasons, I do not believe that the UN, the United States and the Europeans are ready to grant independence to Kosovo in the short term. To do so would be a radical move without precedent and would go directly against the national security interests of the United States and Europe's member-states (think only of Cyprus, for example).

The West does not seek the emergence of new, unstable statelets in the Balkans. Consider the sorry state of Bosnia. Eight years after the Dayton Accords, the Bosnian state barely survives economically, and its three peoples show no sign of working toward reconciliation. In Macedonia, the Slavs and the Albanians have begun to fight anew, as tensions have heightened over a number of serious issues. A quick Albanian drive to independence could very well precipitate a Macedonian civil war.

Bill Clinton's promise of a multiethnic Kosovo has not materialized. The presence of foreign troops and administrators and the corresponding absence of Serbian soldiers and bureaucrats means that this failure rests not on Belgrade, but on Washington, Brussels and Pristina. This provides Belgrade with a certain amount of political and moral capital that it ought to cleverly harness.