Theme: Kosovo is the last remaining piece in the jigsaw of the former Yugoslavia that remains to be settled. However, Western plans to move Kosovo along a smooth transition to independence via the United Nations have been sunk by Russia’s refusal to accede to this. On 20 July, Western countries, in the face of Russian opposition, finally abandoned attempts to pass a resolution on Kosovo in the Security Council.
Summary: Western diplomats have planned hard for the independence of Kosovo and had expected it to be well on its way there by now. They had not expected Russia to scupper their plans. Now new talks on the future of this Serbian province are expected, but what they can hope to achieve is questionable. Its majority ethnic Albanian population demands independence and, if it does not get it, then violence may result. At most, talks are an idea simply to buy time until the moment that the EU and the US are ready to defy a resurgent Russia and recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo’s Albanians.
Analysis: The first law of the Balkans is to expect the unexpected. When it comes to finding a solution for the vexed problem of Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province, the law has proved as reliable today as it ever has in the past. Indeed, far from the optimistic expectations and scenarios envisaged by Western diplomats last year, the situation now is best summed up by one EU diplomat close to the process, who says: ‘We are nowhere’. But the reason for this does not lie in the Balkans, but rather in Russia, which has successfully scuppered hopes for a smooth transition to independence for the territory, which has been under the jurisdiction of the United Nations since June 1999.
On 26 March the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who had been asked by the UN in 2005 to preside over the search for a solution to the Kosovo problem presented a plan for ‘supervised independence’ to the Security Council. Since then several draft resolutions on the issue have been circulated (five or six depending on how you count them), all of them rejected by Russia, whose diplomats say they are against any solution which has not been agreed between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians. ‘As you know we can only support a draft resolution that is acceptable to both sides, Pristina and Belgrade’, said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, on 12 July. Thus it made clear that it would use its veto if Western countries insisted on tabling a resolution which had not received its prior assent. By the third week of July it seemed increasingly possible that the next stage in resolving the Kosovo problem would take place outside the sphere of the UN. ‘Either the Council deals with this’, said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to the UN on 18 July, ‘with Russia playing a constructive role, taking a step in the right direction, or Russia will be responsible for pushing this process outside the Council’. On 20 July this is exactly what happened when Western countries did indeed decide that current attempts to find a solution at the UN had failed.
Kosovo, whose population is estimated to be around two million, is the last major unresolved issue resulting from the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Unlike its six Yugoslav successor states, (Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia), Kosovo was not a fully-fledged Yugoslav republic, but an autonomous province of Serbia. Ninety percent of its people, however, are ethnic Albanians, who before the disintegration of Yugoslavia demanded republican status for the province and ever since have demanded outright independence.
In 1989 the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosovo’s autonomy. When the wars began in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, Kosovo Albanians, led then by Ibrahim Rugova, decided on a path of passive resistance. They had then no means to wage war against Serbia and, besides, feared being ethnically cleansed from the province if they did. The situation changed dramatically, however, in 1997 when the collapse of government and authority in Albania meant that tens of thousands of arms could be bought cheaply and smuggled across the border. At this point men previously on the fringes of Kosovar politics moved to the centre stage and thus the rebellion of the Kosovo Liberation Army began.
The KLA by itself was not very successful militarily, but its triumph lay in its success in sucking in NATO on the Albanian side. Following its 78-day bombing campaign in 1999, Serbian security forces (and the Serbian administration) left the province.
The bombing was ended by UN Security Council resolution 1244, which introduced a UN administrative mission into Kosovo (UNMIK). It also specified that Kosovo was a part of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to which Serbia is now the successor state, but added that, at the time of the final settlement, full account had to be taken of the 1999 Rambouillet accords (that Serbia rejected), which spoke of ‘recognising the will of the people’. In other words, it contained the central contradiction which has now returned to haunt the diplomats and which they are finding it hard, if not nigh on impossible, to reconcile; ie, the right of self-determination for the Albanians versus the territorial integrity of Serbia.
In 2004 a wave of violence spread like wildfire across the province. This prompted the UN to ask Ahtisaari to work on the issue of final status. For much of 2006 the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians met for desultory talks in Vienna. In the end, they could not of course agree on whether Kosovo should be independent or not, so Ahtisaari’s team worked on a plan which eventually prescribed ‘supervised independence’. This foresaw a Kosovo which, while possessing the trappings of statehood, would in fact for the next few years be under strong international control. It foresaw not only that the current 16,000 strong NATO-led peacekeeping force would stay, but that UNMIK would be replaced by two separate institutions. The biggest would be an EU police and justice mission to help run security in the country while the second, the International Civilian Office, headed by a so-called ‘Representative’, would act rather like the office of a Governor General with considerable powers to intervene in daily life. In that, the ICO idea was modelled on the example of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, just as was planned for Kosovo, the Representative would be ‘double-hatted’ as the EU’s Special Representative. The plan also foresaw a high level of autonomy for Serbian inhabited areas. There are estimated to be around 130,000 Serbs in Kosovo.
Although Ahtisaari’s mission was technically a UN one, it was to all intents and purposes set up by, encouraged and followed by the Contact Group, which also laid down a number of guidelines for the talks. The Contact Group consists of six big countries and has long served as a forum for attempting to coordinate policy in the former Yugoslavia. The countries are the US, the UK, Russia, France, Germany and Italy.
Although the Russians agreed to everything including the role of Ahtisaari they always made it clear that they opposed independence for Kosovo, citing the precedent that it could set for separatists from Spain through to the ‘frozen conflicts’ of the former Soviet Union. However, at no point in 2006 did Western diplomats take this opposition seriously. They assumed that Russia’s mounting and increasingly vocal opposition amounted to an attempt to up the price for an eventual trade of Kosovo’s independence for something else elsewhere. ‘I told my colleagues that this time the Russians were serious and they meant it’, says a senior EU diplomat from a former communist country, ‘but they just said, ‘“we know what we are doing”’.
After 26 March various drafts of a possible resolution were circulated in the Security Council, all of which basically endorsed the Ahtisaari plan and thus foresaw independence. Russia objected to them all. In early June, Kosovo was a subject for debate at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in Germany and there Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French President, suggested a six-month delay in ending the Kosovo process, which he suggested should be used for more talks. However, Sarkozy also made plain that Kosovo’s independence was inevitable and he appointed Bernard Kouchner, the first UNMIK chief, who is known to favour independence, as his Foreign Minister. Sarkozy’s ideas were incorporated in the latest UN drafts which no longer obviously foresaw Kosovo’s independence but were rejected by Russia all the same. ‘Almost the entire text… is permeated with the concept of the independence of Kosovo’, said Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, noting that the chances of its being adopted as it was were ‘zero’. There were two immediate reasons for this. First, the Russians suspected that any resolution which did not reiterate 1244’s assertion of the territorial integrity of Serbia would be used to justify the later recognition of an independent state and, secondly, the Russians were indeed right that the draft was a way of getting Kosovo to independence by stealth.
The reason for this was that the Americans had long insisted that if the Russians refused to let Kosovo become independent via the Security Council then the other main option was for it to declare independence by itself and for countries to recognise it bilaterally. The problem with this was, and is, that the EU is uncomfortable with this idea since many of its own countries (Spain and Slovakia amongst them) are distinctly antipathetic to the idea of Kosovo’s independence, having separatist fears of their own. Thus, it has been deemed necessary, until now at least, for the process to have the imprimatur of the UN to give legitimacy to the EU mission and ICO. The fear is that a unilateral declaration of independence would lead to chaos as the UN mission withdrew and the Serbian-inhabited north of Kosovo in turn declared independence from Kosovo. So the final draft circulated in July demanded 120 more days of talks, during which time the UN would hand over to the EU and the ICO. In other words, when those talks failed, which inevitably they would, then it would be far easier to proceed to a unilateral declaration of independence since the EU mission and ICO would already be there and could thus carry on, and at that point it would be very difficult for Spain or Slovakia to demand that the EU mission be terminated.
For Russia the issue has never been about Kosovo as such, but rather about Russia and demanding the respect it lost in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many of the leading figures involved, such as Churkin and Lavrov, there has also certainly been a sense that now is the time to seek revenge on Western countries for what they perceive as their humiliation in the 1990s, epitomised by the bombing of then Yugoslavia which they could not prevent. Indeed, Sergei Karaganov, a political advisor to the administration of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, said as much when he commented on 16 June: ‘Many in Moscow now want American and European colleagues to pay the full price for their games in Kosovo, although they do not want to admit it publicly’. On the geopolitical world stage, Kosovo is a small but useful pawn, when other issues include questions such as energy security and the proposed US missile shield. So, says Victor Yasmann in a comment for RFE, Kosovo is a ‘weak link’ in Western policy and ‘Russia realizes that any unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo that does not follow UN procedure will not be recognized by all members of the European Union, and could cause a rift within the bloc’. As if to underline this and to cause consternation in the EU, which, since it surrounds the former Yugoslavia regards it as less as its backyard but rather an inner courtyard, Putin, speaking in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, at an energy summit on 24 June said that the Balkans had always been a ‘sphere’ of Russian ‘special interest’ and that it was ‘natural that a resurgent Russia is returning there’. This came soon after the US President George Bush, speaking about Kosovo in Tirana on 10 June, had told Albanians: ‘We need to get moving… and the end result is independence’.
In Kosovo itself, Albanian leaders became ever more nervous as it appeared that the so-called Plan A, for ‘Ahtisaari’ and for independence was slipping from their grasp. Encouraged by Western diplomats, they had already announced that Kosovo would be independent by the end of 2006. When this did not happen, they promised that it would come by the end of May. When that did not happen, they feared that their credibility was thus in question and, besides, with these dates in mind, they had assumed that local elections (already due) and general elections (due by the end of the year) would take place in the wake of independence. Now it seems they will have to take place before it, possibly on 24 November, thus opening the way for a bitter campaign, in which accusations will be traded about why Kosovo’s status remains unresolved. This aside, there was also the fear of a return not just to political instability but to violence too. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s deputy permanent representative to the UN said: ‘One should bear in mind the ability of events on the ground, particularly in the Balkans, to overtake what we might want to do here in New York, if we don’t address the concerns of the people of Kosovo’.
An attempt to do this already seems to be under way. Addressing veterans of the KLA, Avdyl Mushkolaj –chairman of one of the main veterans’ associations– said that the officially disbanded organisation was only ‘on a ceasefire’. Referring to the blood of fallen comrades he said: ‘I have already said it a thousand times and I am reiterating it, that if the national issue is jeopardised –and it can only be jeopardised by Serbia– there is no doubt that there will be another war here’.
In the short term, a return to violence does not seem imminent. According to Visar Reka, a former KLA spokesman, ‘Albanians have developed this collective consciousness that any trouble would work against us and chiefly against the independence of Kosovo because it would give lots of ammunition to Russian diplomats to argue that we were troublemakers’. Still, if the balance in early summer lies against a return to violence, the probability that the scales will tip increases as the year wears on.
By the third week in July frustration was mounting, and not just amongst Kosovo Albanians. As it seemed that finding a solution to the problem via the Security Council was blocked, attempts were being made to find a way of breaking the deadlock outside of the UN. This despite the Serbian Premier Vojislav Kostunica’s instance that it was not possible and that Serbia was now involved in a mighty struggle with the US of ‘might or right’, in which only ‘right can win in Kosovo’. On 17 July, Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said after meeting Ahtisaari that a last ditch attempt was being made to pass a resolution at the UN, but that ‘if that is not possible, I believe the Contact Group will reopen 120 days of negotiation’. It seems that this is now what is about to happen. On 25 July a Contact Group meeting was reported to have been scheduled in Vienna to decide on the next steps.
In effect, this talk (and even now action) seemed aimed at buying time, failing a better idea. After all, Russia is a member of the Contact Group, just as it is a member of the Security Council, and as Veton Surroi, a member of the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team and de facto Foreign Minister, pointed out, no one was actually saying ‘what we should talk about’. While the diplomats said that the extra talks, demanded by Russia and Serbia, were needed to ‘go the extra mile’, Surroi retorted that once you had already done a marathon, ‘what is the point of running an extra mile?’. In fact, the point appeared to be twofold. First, above and beyond buying time, neither the US nor the EU was yet ready to confront Russia over Kosovo and to encourage it to declare independence unilaterally, which it was ready to do according to Agim Ceku, its premier. Secondly, assuming that the talks would not yield any agreement, EU sources indicated that they would use the time to build a critical mass of EU states ready to recognise a new Kosovar state, without the blessing of the UN. With a critical mass it was then calculated that the government of Kosovo, in exchange for this support and recognition, would invite the EU mission and ICO into Kosovo.
At the time of writing, various ideas were circulating about new talks. One was that these would take the form of shuttle diplomacy. Another was that in the autumn a conference could be convened along the lines of the one held in Dayton which ended the Bosnian war in 1995. Some mentioned Paris as a possible location, which brought to mind the failed Rambouillet talks just outside the city in 1999, that ushered in the period of the NATO bombing. Others mentioned Brussels. Meanwhile, as the diplomats discussed ideas of talks, it seemed extremely unclear what they could achieve, beyond buying time. There was also considerable confusion about the whole concept of new talks as one diplomat explained that despite them, the Ahtisaari plan still stood and despite the idea circulating of finding another negotiator, Ahtisaari would still remain in his post.
No doubt the fog of confusion will soon lift, but in the meantime it has given new life to an old idea, that of partition. Whether this comes about or not remains to be seen, but it was now discussed openly by diplomats, politicians and in the press. The idea was that Kosovo would become independent in exchange for giving up the Serbian-inhabited north of the territory, where it is estimated that less than half of Kosovo’s Serbs live. Kosovo Albanians might not oppose this if it were really on the table, on the condition that in exchange Serbia gave Kosovo the Albanian inhabited areas of the Presevo valley. This seems unlikely, especially as Serbia’s main north-south road and railway axis connecting it to the Greek port of Thessalonika runs right through the area. However, the wider problem with partition remains the same as it has always been, ie, that if it is alright to change the existing frontiers of Kosovo, then why not redraw the borders of Macedonia and Bosnia and then countries outside the former Yugoslavia too?
Conclusion: If one traces the roots of the Yugoslav conflicts it is easy to argue that Kosovo was the touchpaper which lit the spark which destroyed that country. Ever since the demise of Yugoslavia it was widely predicted that, in the end, to close the chapter on the Yugoslav story, the conflict would return to its roots in Kosovo. This has come to pass. What is now clear, however, is that the question of this tiny patch of land has become snagged in a greater game to do with the return of Russia to the international stage, and hence its two million people must remain trapped in limbo, not knowing what their future will be, for some time yet to come.
Journalist. The author covers the Balkans for the Economist