Pandora’s box should stay closed

Thursday I offered a few pleasant surprises from my visit to Kosovo, but with no firm conclusions on the vital issue of whether rule of law could or would prevail there. Today the other shoe drops: I have to offer a pessimistic view on where current political trends are leading. Ironic though it may be as Albania struggles with its own problems, the idea of greater Albania is gaining in Kosovo, largely due to failures in international policy.

Kosovo, now nominally independent for more than three years, lives with multiple limitations on its sovereignty: NATO (rather than its own security forces) guarantees its defense, the EU monitors its justice system and provides prosecutors and judges in cases of interethnic and organized crime, its budget is monitored by the International Monetary Fund, and its monetary policy is determined by the European Central Bank (since it uses the euro, not its own currency). In addition, there are of course any number of additional restrictions and conditions that donors impose on specific development and governance projects.

Few chafe much at these restrictions, though the prime minister did recently fulfill a campaign promise to raise public sector salaries in defiance of the IMF, precipitating a withdrawal of IMF budget support that will require his government either to cut back or fill the gap. “Self-Determination,” an opposition political party led by firebrand Albin Kurti, has gained something under 13% of the voting public with cries of resistance to limitations on sovereignty. For the moment he is a relatively small factor in the parliamentary equation, but with obvious potential for growth.

Belgrade’s control of northern Kosovo (three and a half municipalities north of the Ibar river) is rousing more serious problems. As demonstrated in a recent report from the Coordinator’s Office for Strategy Regarding the North of Kosovo (I’ve posted it here), Serbia has established a full array of its institutions in the north, with the obvious intention of holding on to the territory it controls there in any negotiated settlement of Kosovo’s status.

For Brussels and Washington, the talks begun late last year between Pristina and Belgrade on “practical” problems are not supposed to touch on the status issue, which the United States and 22 out of 27 members of the EU regard as settled. But few in Pristina (or I suspect Belgrade) think either Brussels or Washington shows anything like the fortitude needed to undo Belgrade’s growing domination of the north.

There are a number of practical ways in which the current division of Kosovo might be softened, and it is my understanding that these are being discussed in the EU-sponsored talks between Pristina and Belgrade. If agreement can be reached on electricity supplies and telecommunications services in the north, it could help to reintegrate the Belgrade-controlled territory with the rest of Kosovo. Agreement on mutual recognition of documents, on recognition of Kosovo’s customs bureaucracy and on export of Kosovo made goods to Serbia would also help a good deal.

But I understand that Belgrade has asked for a postponement in the next session of the talks, when a number of these agreements were expected to be reached. We can hope that this is related to the Dutch parliament’s decision to postpone approval of an EU agreement with Serbia, pending certification of Belgrade’s full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal (Ratko Mladic is in The Hague, but he was one of two outstanding indictees).

That may not be the only reason for postponement. Belgrade may be having trouble accepting the already negotiated agreements because its political level has decided that the technical agreements make Serbia’s intention of dividing Kosovo more difficult. Belgrade yesterday indicated willingness to unilaterally accept Kosovo documents for travel in Serbia, which would be an important symbolic step, but one that has little relevance to the question of partition.

Judging from my discussions in Pristina last week, there is no question but that if Belgrade presses to divide Kosovo it will open a Pandora’s box of ethno-territorial issues, starting in the Albanian-majority areas of southern Serbia, extending to the Serb-majority areas of Bosnia and ending in the Muslim-populated areas of Serbia itself. Thursday Muslims of Bosnia and Sandjak (a region lying partly in Serbia and partly in Montenegro) established a “Bosniak Academy of Arts and Sciences,” no problem in of itself but a sign of growing ethnic nationalist sentiment.

Kosovars are showing a marked increase in interest in greater Albania, an historical ambition that was abandoned during the past decade in an implicit bargain with the international community: Kosovo gets independence and Albanians forget about all trying to live in one country, since eventually the borders that divide them will come down once the Balkans countries all enter the EU.

Why anyone would want to be part of an Albania that can’t even run a decent municipal election, and in which the chief political protagonists compete to see who can be more offensive and unreasonable, I don’t know. Kosovo seems to me to have a relatively good deal as an independent state under international tutelage, except in one important area: access to Europe.

Kosovars, unlike most other Balkan citizens, don’t have visa-free access to Europe’s “Schengen” area. This, and a “contractual” relationship with the EU (meaning one in which the EU can sign agreements with Kosovo, despite the five non-recognizing states), were supposed to come with completion of the first phase of the Belgrade/Pristina dialogue. If Belgrade is going to block completion of the first phase, it only seems right to me that Brussels should go ahead with its commitments to Pristina, provided Kosovo is prepared to maintain its commitments to the already negotiated agreements.

I also don’t know why anyone in Serbia would want the north: its Trepca mine likely isn’t worth much and requires facilities in the south, less than half the Serb population of Kosovo lives there, and all the important Serb monuments, churches and monasteries are farther south. And if Trepca is the issue, as one of the commenters on a previous post claims, some sort of division of the spoils from the mine can likely be negotiated.

There is little accounting for nationalist aspirations in the Balkans. Best to keep Pandora’s box firmly closed. That will require a willingness on the part of the Washington and Brussels to confront Belgrade’s territorial ambitions in northern Kosovo, relegating them to the oblivion in which they belong. The time is coming to end Belgrade’s hopes for partition of Kosovo, and to recognize that Serbs, too, will one day see the borders between them fall as the Balkans countries enter the EU.

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12 thoughts on “Pandora’s box should stay closed”

  1. “greater Albania”

    Why so much useless energy spent on screaming about Greater Albania with no official from Albania and only Albin Kurti in Kosovo supporting it? With all the support Tadic is giving to Dodik and to the annexation of North Kosovo shouldn’t you be focusing on Greater Serbia instead? I mean, something REAL?

    “Why anyone would want to be part of an Albania that can’t even run a decent municipal election,”

    There’s no need for petty insults. It’s not like we won’t be able to run decent elections for the rest of the eternity (which by the way were run excellently in all communes save one.) Nor are elections the be all and end all.

    Those who are for the unification, go by the saying “United we stand, divided we fall” in a long-term solution. I find it illogical to jump at K. Albanians’ throats if they wish to find a way to not be constantly harassed and blocked by Serbia and its satellite Bosnia. Most of the K.Albs remember the 90s very well and still feel threatened with Belgrade ever so active every day to sabotage Kosovo. Remember, they are the people, in the ground, not in some comfy chairs across the ocean.

    “I also don’t know why anyone in Serbia would want the north:”

    They think 1,200 km2 is better than nothing and should EU and US find this partition acceptable then they would find Bosnia’s (and hell, why not Montenegro’s too, the Serbs there never accepted the country’s independence) partition acceptable as well. Most of the Serbs still support Mladic, did you think they have set aside their territorial ambitions?

    “Thursday Muslims of Bosnia and Sandjak … a sign of growing ethnic nationalist sentiment.”

    What do you expect when Serbia openly discriminates them such as in the case of the formation of the Bosniak National Council. Belgrade changed the rules overnight for the BNC clearly demonstrating the rights of the Bosniak community can be abused as they see fit.

  2. I’m willing to bet nobody in Serbia actually gives a fig about Northern Kosovo – how many Serbs not born there have ever been, except maybe for a Vidovdan rally? What politicians in Belgrade worry about is going into the next election, maybe elections for the next hundred years, as “the party that lost Kosovo.” And there’s always the Djindjic outcome to keep in mind. After giving up Mladic, the parties now in the government have to do something to prove their nationalist credentials. (And by the way, there’s also talk about a deal to give Serbia RS as well, of course, if borders are going to be changed anyway.)

    Good news about Trepca, I thought that was actually what everybody was interested in, but too polite to mention.

    And Albania – is it “Albania,” or Edi Rama that’s the problem? He seems perfectly willing to keep the country in permanent turmoil, even if it keeps Albania out of the EU, unless he gets his way. And to do what that Berisha isn’t doing? (The Socialists’ campaign motto: “It’s all Sali’s fault.”) The country has made good progress in so many areas – last year Newsweek ranked it as the “Best Low-Income Country in the World,” after all. Of course it doesn’t compare to Sweden yet, but in education, health – things that matter – it’s making progress. It just needs some peace and quiet.

    1. Sure, it’s Rama’s fault. It’s Rama’s fault in the Berisha vs President Mejdani crisis, it’s Rama’s fault in the Berisha vs gen. prosecutor Sollaku crisis, again Rama’s fault in the Berisha vs president Moisiu crisis, same in Berisha vs gen prosecutor Ina Rama etc etc…heck even the current president, Mr Bamir Topi of Berisha’s party voted for Rama this time.

      Every single crisis during the last 20 years has had one single factor in common : Sali. But of course it’s Rama’s fault…he is …oh my god, a socialist!

      Faces come and go in the Socialist party but it’s always their fault. On the other hand, the so called “Democratic party” has had only one leader since 1991, and the last party elections were won by Sali with 99,7% elections of the votes with no other candidate running. Typical of Sali, he hasn’t changed his ways since he was Secretary of the Communist party and a close friend of Enver Hoxha’s family

      This madman is ruining the country in very single way he can, yet it’s Rama’s fault. Socialist, such an evil word…

      1. I admit, I don’t know Albanian politics from the inside, but the word “Socialist” doesn’t really scare me. (My complaint against the Soviets was that they ruined the chance of even a mild, European-type socialism in the US, maybe forever.)

        Ok, so Sali’s been in office for a long time (although he’s also been out of office at times – during the period when the Yellow House either was or wasn’t earning its reputation, for instance). But this is not necessarily proof of his nefariousness – a majority of voters may simply have felt safer with a known face. And then there is the recent experience of Communist government, and pink is closer to red than whatever color Berisha uses.

        The country is making progress, so you can hardly say that the current government is totally inept. Even so, it’s a good idea to rotate the parties in power on a fairly regular basis, if only so that no one feels they have no chance to gain power except through violence. On the other hand, threatening not so subtly to make the country ungovernable when you lose is unacceptable.

        Calling for outside legal review of court decisions does not do anything to improve respect for the country’s institutions, but has Rama said that even that would be an end to his obstructionism? (It’s a question – I haven’t had time to check the news sites yet today.) If so, then maybe asking Vienna for its opinion would be worth it. (I wish there had been someone to over-rule the Dred Scott case in the US. Others, too, including some recent ones.)

        If Vienna says the Albanian ruling was incorrect, let Rama remain major, let there be public discussion of how votes should be counted and let parliament write legislation to cover extremely close outcomes based on some general rule (we use “the will of the voter” and end up with chad-counting – maybe the Albanians can come up with something better). If Vienna says they’re cool with the ruling, Rama should go on vacation and reconnect with his paint brushes.

        1. Amer, I have no idea where you get the information about Albania but let me tell you you’re rather disinformed. Progress, what progress are you talking about? Progress on the deforestation, corruption of the judiciary, destruction of the national library, doubling the foreign debt in merely 2 years?

          I have no sympathy for Rama, but at least unlike Berisha he’s never killed anyone. Rama hasn’t ceded any portion of Albania to Greece, Rama hasn’t collaborated with Milosevic and so on. Rama hasn’t loaned 120 million usd for the building of a new parliament structure. The madman Sali has.

          I mean why borrow increasing your debt in order to build hospitals and schools when you can build a new fancy parliament for your clan just a few weeks after having RENOVATED the current one?

          Regarding the votes, they were stolen live on TV, where Ristani (Berisha’s handpicked man) Chairman of the Central Election Commission, the rules of his institution assigned votes as saw fit, as he assigned to Basha those ballots who had “murderer”(the 4 protesters killed on the street Lukashenko-style) writen on them. And you have the audacity to say Rama is obstructing anything?

          Again, I have no sympathy for Rama, but I cannot support a bloody murderer and traitor like Sali.

          Read and open up your mind Amer

          1. (The comment boxes keep narrowing down – I think it’s a hint to wrap this up.)

            My sources on Albania are mostly the US press, and the American press likes Berisha because he supports the US. I glance at BalkanWeb and BotaSot, but it’s mainly for language-learning purposes, not sociological study.

            Your complaints about Berisha seem to go back pretty far – cooperating with Milosevic? Being a member of the Communist Party? What other party was there to be a member of?

            Ok, the new parliament building is probably not a good idea, but what about Rama’s promise to build a huge new mosque in Tirana? This is just politicians being politicians.

            I’ll read the piece you suggest, but maybe it’s time to wrap this up here, until Mr. Serwer actually writes something on Albania.

            I’ll leave the last word to you.

  3. There is little different now in Belgrade’s “control” of northern Kosovo than there was in 1999. For the past 12 years, the four northern municipalities have been functioning essentially as part of Serbia. They have never been “integrated” into the Pristina administration except as facilitated by UNMIK.

    Also, it is not at all clear that technical agreements on phones and electricity would help “reintegrate” the north into Pristina-controlled Kosovo. It would be unlikely for Belgrade to agree to force the Kosovo brands — KEK, PTK — upon the northern Serbs as they would not accept them. More likely — and status neutral — would be allowing Serbian companies to service Kosovo Serbs (which in the north, at least, they still do). It would be the Albanians that might balk at this unless pushed into such compromise by the Americans. (Perhaps both the Pristina and Serbia based companies could be allowed to operate everywhere in Kosovo and let consumers choose?)

    But again, it should be noted that a special status for the north need not entail partition. An Ahtisaari-Plus approach would preserve the territorial integrity of Kosovo, allow both sides to claim sovereignty of the whole and rationalize the existing status quo. This could last until those EU barriers come down.

    1. Are you assuming that Kosovo and Serbia would join the EU simultaneously, or that Serbia would undertake not to prevent Kosovo from joining as a sovereign nation in the future? And what would that mean about their claims to Kosovo in the meantime?

      Tadic seemed to be suggesting when he first came into office that Croatia would be held back until Serbia was ready to join to prevent Croatia from imposing unreasonable demands on Serbia, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. In any case, the question may not arise for a long time yet – the Dutch are saying that cooperation with the Hague includes not only handing over Hadzic, but seeing the trials completed. (Including appeals?)

      1. I’m in Macedonia just now and heard the Foreign Minister here say just yesterday that the EU should move quickly to bring down the barriers for all the Balkans countries as a way to ease the tensions across the region.

  4. @emir
    “With all the support Tadic is giving to Dodik and to the annexation of North Kosovo shouldn’t you be focusing on Greater Serbia instead? I mean, something REAL?”
    Come on, be objective for a moment. If Serbia couldn’t pull off a Greater Serbia in the early 90s with the bulk of the JNA at its disposal (4th? biggest army in Europe at the time, wasn’t it?), two years free run at the Croats and Muslims, and a much more easily controllable media, what chance have they now? If they so much as lift a finger in Bosnia or Kosovo(justifiably or not), im sure people like Serwer will be exhorting his pals in Washington to rein down the world’s supply of depleted uranium down onto Belgrade and Banja Luka before you can say “collateral damage”.

    A potential Greater Albania on the other hand… let’s look at the evidence.
    1. You’ve grabbed Kosovo
    2. the world’s biggest superpower backs you to the hilt
    3. said superpower has its biggest base in Europe located in your back yard
    4. the Macedonian govt. is shit-scared of its Albanian minority

    Yup, Greater Albania looks like a going concern to me

    “Most of the Serbs still support Mladic, did you think they have set aside their territorial ambitions?”

    Surprise, surprise. Last time I looked most Croats still support Gotovina, most Boslims still support Naser Oric, (most French still support DSK!), and most Albanians still support Haradinaj and Thaci. What’s your point therefore?

    Incidentally, at least the Serbs had the decency to send their war criminal to the Hague. By the way, what’s Hashim up to these days?

    “I also don’t know why anyone in Serbia would want the north”
    I might ask the same question of the K-Albanians. Worried you might to have to edit all those flags?

  5. I am curious where in Kosovo did you encounter more interest towards greater Albania. Vetevendosja gained 13%, but only because of social agenda. I think great Albania is but a demagogue’s vehicle to reach out masses, but with no real weight in the political landscape of Kosovo. Don’t forget that Albin Kurti has a knack of never hitting the popular sentiment with his – well – populist rhetoric: he was against Rambuillet Accords when everyone sane and suffering was for it; he was against Ahtisaari, when it enjoyed overwhelming support in 2008, and he is today against existence of Kosovo as independent nation, which is by now, an established fact difficult to change. As for Galucci, happy to see him enlightened. He now realizes that Kosovo’s integrity and independence are established facts. And he mixes points: no Kosovan wants Serbian brands out of Kosovo. Telekom Srbije and Serbian utilities may continue providing services in north – it’s just that they’ll have to be licensed according to UN-promulgated or post-independence laws, also paying taxes to Kosovo and becoming a legal player in Kosovo market. This is what Serbia HAS TO SIGN, and that’s why they are stalling. They know they will be exposed to attacks and they have no cojones to tell people the truth. So until some proper leadership which is not focused on ethnic borders and placing stupid belated bets when the game is already over, appears in Serbia – we’re screwed. But Serbia more than anyone else really…

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