Kosovo at the Crossroads

Kosovo at the Crossroads

Steven A. Meyer offers his assessment of realities on the ground in Kosovo along with a way forward for resolving Kosovo’s status.

Arguably, the future of Kosovo is now at its most important juncture since the crisis in 1999. For the past eight years almost nothing has been accomplished to resolve the Kosovo issue. By and large, the fault for this can be laid at the doors of the major Western powers. Their lack of imagination, innovation and creativity in attempting to resolve the problem has been the major impediment. Western efforts have been arbitrary and capricious, blind to the realities on the ground and offering solutions that serve their own interests rather than those of the people in Serbia and Kosovo.

At the same time, Belgrade and Pristina have mostly talked past each other in anger, when they talked at all. But, for the most part they waited for the major powers to provide answers and assumed no concrete, meaningful initiative of their own. As a result, Kosovo has joined the long list of dangerous "frozen conflicts" and if positive action-action that can be "owned" by Belgrade and Pristina-is not taken soon the Kosovo issue will become "unfrozen" through violence.

But, all of that is about to change. Since the Kosovo issue has been moved out of the United Nations and to the Contact Group, there is a genuine opportunity for Belgrade and Pristina to agree on a compromise settlement. But the window of opportunity will not be open long before violence flares again and the conflict "re-freezes"-as it certainly will if Pristina declares independence unilaterally. To take advantage of the opportunity, however, it is necessary for both Belgrade and Pristina to recognize six hard realities-some of which are unpalatable to one side or the other.

Six Realities

First, the Ahtisaari Plan is dead and, despite calls by some UN members and political commentators to resurrect parts of it, this is very unlikely to happen. Events have moved well beyond Ahtisaari's proposal to create a series of ethnically stove-piped communities in Kosovo. At its heart, the Ahtissari plan was an attempt primarily by the United States, the UK, France and Germany to force a settlement on both Serbs and Albanians that avoided ground reality and served the interests of those countries much more than the interests of those who live in the region. The collapse of the Ahtisaari Plan means that, if there is to be any hope of a permanent settlement, the United States and its West European allies will have to include the Serbs and Albanians as true partners in meaningful negotiations.

Second, U.S. influence has diminished. Although Washington may try to restore some of its clout in the full Contact Group, the comments of the EU and Russian representatives on the troika that visited Kosovo recently have effectively undercut the American position. Several times during the Troika's "fact finding trip", EU representative Ischinger and Russian representative Botsan-Kharchenko said that "nothing is impossible" and that everything is "on the table." This is a positive development. The evolving position of the EU and Russia easily could lead to a "negotiating period" longer than the additional 120 days allotted by the UN Security Council. If so, Washington might be tempted to unilaterally "recognize" an independent Kosovo. But, this would be a very risky move because it could cause serious strains with European "allies" and put the United States at odds with the widely accepted view (especially in the EU) that the construction and recognition of new states requires the approval of the United Nations. In the wake of the debacle in Iraq, Washington cannot be seen to be so dismissive of international law and procedures.

Third, officially Belgrade and Pristina remained locked in a nasty, dangerous zero-sum game that, if it is not broken, almost certainly will hasten violence. All levels of power in the Albanian community insist that independence of Kosovo-within its current boundaries-is the only course acceptable and that Pristina will not back away from this position. By the same token, Belgrade says that the only acceptable solution is for Kosovo to remain within Serbia, albeit with considerable autonomy. Indeed, the new Serbian Constitution stipulates that Kosovo is a Serbian province. At the same time, there is a glimmer of hope in Belgrade because some officials have begun to suggest that perhaps they might be willing to back away from this hard line.

Fourth, multi-ethnicity is dead in Kosovo. By and large, survey research as well as anecdotal information indicates that most Serbs and Albanians do not want to live together in the same society or to be governed by a government controlled by the other ethnic group. At times multi-ethnic states have "worked" in Europe and at times they have not. But the general trend-despite some notable exceptions-over the past century has been for states in Europe to be controlled by a single ethnic or cultural group. The point was well demonstrated after World War I with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires, and since the end of the Cold War by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It would be ideal perhaps if ethnicity were not a determining factor in the construction of political communities in the Balkans today. But, it is a reality despite the wishful thinking of well-meaning but naive Western policy makers.

Fifth, a surge of new violence in and around Kosovo likely will lead to renewed outside military intervention. The major powers of Western Europe and the U.S. almost certainly will not allow the Western Balkans to spin out of control again. Although this will not lead to a "permanent NATO" base in Kosovo as some in Serbia have argued, it almost certainly will lead to a stronger Western military presence in the province that could last for several years. Although the Europeans likely would shoulder the bulk of any new military undertaking, it is also possible that there would be some limited number of additional U.S. forces deployed to Camp Bondsteel. The introduction of more troops to Kosovo would be designed primarily to separate warring Serbs and Albanians, but it also likely would set back efforts to find a permanent political and security solution.

Sixth, in the final analysis, the Kosovo issue is primarily about ethnic, territorial sovereignty. It has been erroneously argued-mostly by officials and scholars from outside the region-that territorial sovereignty is passé. As their argument goes: The entire region someday will (hopefully) be part of the European Union and, when it is, traditional state or territorial sovereignty will be far less important. Moreover, they argue, focusing on such a traditional conception of sovereignty will only delay the accession of the countries in the Western Balkans to the EU. Sadly, this reasoning misses the fundamental point. With the establishment of the EU and the end of a thousand years of violent nationalism based on state sovereignty, traditional state sovereignty has become much less of an issue in Northern and Western Europe. But the Western Balkans is in a different place. There, issues of state sovereignty have not been worked out and they need to be resolved before the countries of that area can hope to move to a different understanding of sovereignty. Moreover, most people in the Western Balkans understand that EU membership and, especially, the full benefits of that membership still are a long way off-if it happens at all-and they are going to have to rely on national prerogatives and regional associations for many years to come.

A Way Forward

If these six realities are deemed accurate and accepted by the political leadership in Serbia and Kosovo, and it is possible for them to bargain in good faith and come to agreement on four basic points they could-in time-construct a permanent settlement on the future of Kosovo.

First, both sides need to accept the fact that a negotiated partition, with attendant border adjustments, can provide the basis for an equitable-not perfect-division of territory. Although partition has been discussed throughout Serbia by officials and scholars, it has not been sanctioned officially in Belgrade. The Albanian side adamantly has rejected any consideration of partition, but Pristina needs to reconsider this position or risk violence and the unilateral declaration of independence by Serbs north of the Ibar River.

Logically, partition-and a new border-would be established along the Ibar River, with the northern part remaining with Serbia and the southern part becoming an independent Albanian state. This is no one's first choice, but it can work if Belgrade and Pristina accept the rationale of ethnic territoriality and the right of the other side to territorial sovereignty. There is not now and there never has been anything sacred about borders-especially in Europe (as well as the United States). Borders have changed in Europe for 2000 years for a variety of reasons and the spate of border changes throughout Central Europe and the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War demonstrates that the configuration of states can change peacefully-if there is the political will to do so.

Second, partition and border changes alone will not be enough. Certainly, it will be necessary to get past a period of painful adjustment, including some violence by "rejectionists" on both sides. Moreover, there are many Serb holy and historic sites and Serbs south of the Ibar and some Albanians north of the river. As part of any negotiated settlement that accepts partition, the United States, Russia and the EU, perhaps through the UN, need to guarantee the safety of the sites, Serb access to them and the minority populations in both ethnic communities that chose to remain on the "wrong side" of the border-to include sanctions against the governments that do not protect their minorities from harm or discrimination. For those Serbs and Albanians who cannot remain where they are now and chose to leave, the UN needs to establish a substantial fund to relocate them to other political communities.