Settling the Balkans

With an ICJ decision on the legality of Kosovo’s independence looming, the West should step in to help stabilize the region.

The curtain is about to rise on the next act of Balkan diplomacy: the fallout from the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of Kosovo’s independence in 2008, expected to be announced later this summer. The resort to the ICJ was a shrewd diplomatic stroke by Belgrade, buying over two years for Serbia to slow international momentum toward recognition of Kosovo and put the country’s UN candidacy into deep freeze.

No one knows what the court will do, but:

—If the opinion favors Kosovo, that will bring the new state more recognitions to the significant but still underwhelming sixty-nine they have received to date. But they will not win recognition from Serbia nor admission to the UN because of a Russian veto. Nor will Serbia give up its demand for the northern part of Kosovo inhabited mostly by Serbs. Kosovo will have an improved limbo status.

—If the opinion is against Kosovo, the fledgling state will keep its independence but lose some recognitions and the hope of getting into the UN or EU. It will be left in a more dangerous limbo and some serious popular violence against Serbs in Kosovo is quite possible.

—If, as many expect, the court, understandingly fearful of the consequences of its decision, comes down on neither side, many states that have sat on the sidelines of the recognition debate will be more open to recognition, which Serbia well understands. Facing declining international leverage from their resolute opposition, Belgrade will likely seek to open negotiations with Pristina over their future relations. Kosovo, like it or not, will have to engage because its Western patrons will insist. This scenario has both risk and promise and serious ramifications not only for Kosovo and Serbia but also for neighboring Macedonia and Bosnia.


A Serbian Initiative to Square the Circle

Anticipating less than resounding support from the court, Serbia has begun laying the groundwork for a new diplomatic initiative. While they may initially attempt another round of “internationalizing” the problem at the UN, senior Belgrade officials have been whispering to Western officials and visitors that they want a deal on Kosovo. This in itself is a novelty, after years of cloaking their Kosovo demands in inflexible, emotional language.

The West is paying attention. But it is unclear to Western diplomats whether Belgrade is willing to compromise on terms that will make a stabilizing outcome possible. Serbian intermediaries insist on three things: a territorial adjustment returning the Serb inhabited districts of north Kosovo to Serbia, special treatment for several Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo, and an implicit understanding that the West will not let the Kosovars demand too much in return. Some officials indicate Serbia would be prepared to drop the campaign against further international recognitions of Kosovo independence and perhaps allow Kosovo into the UN but not recognize Kosovo. How firm a position this is remains to be tested. Serbian motivation is clear: to settle on borders that enable them to advance their EU accession agenda and keep the European assistance spigot flowing, while protecting their domestic political flanks

Some in Europe assert that it would be irresponsible to pass up an opportunity to explore Serbia’s flexibility on a new relationship with Kosovo. An indefinite frozen conflict in the Balkans needs to be avoided; the recent flare-up of violence in north Mitrovica shows the instability of the current standoff in the north. European officials would prefer to avoid settling for an indefinite frozen conflict; the thrust of their diplomacy, politics and economic policies for the past several decades has been to overcome national and ethnic divides and they believe they have learned important lessons in the process that translate into successful diplomatic tactics.

Washington is not uninterested but also fears danger and destabilization not simply opportunity. Talk of the North’s partition raises the specter that angry Kosovars would retaliate against Serbs living in other areas of Kosovo and could well stoke Macedonia’s restive Albanian community to break with Skopje and join with Albania and Kosovo to form a united Albanian state.

If a deal might be possible, it would make sense to work out the details and lock in an agreement. It is also sensible to recognize that a frozen conflict is better than risking renewed violence and the disintegration of Macedonia by rushing into negotiations on optimistic assumptions that might not bear fruit. The allies need to work out their differences and reach an understanding about what would constitute a stabilizing outcome before encouraging substantive negotiations between the two parties.


The Regional Dimension

Their first step should be to examine the regional situation and the impact of negotiations starting with Pristina.