Day: July 29, 2011

Where am I?

That’s what a loyal reader asks:  she wants me to comment on recent events in Northern Kosovo, where the Pristina government seized a border post in northern Kosovo Monday evening that was then attacked and burned, allegedly by Serbs.  One Kosovo policeman was killed.  NATO forces have now taken possession of the border post, resisted by Serbs.

Read all about it at Outside the Walls, but ignore the nonsense about NATO starting a war and acting illegally.  UN Security Council resolution 1244 never gave local hooligans (or Belgrade) the right to control the Kosovo side of the boundary or border, which is properly secured by NATO if the Kosovo Police Service and Customs are unable to do it.

None of this is surprising.  It was only a matter of time before Pristina/Belgrade differences over the status of northern Kosovo led to violence, as they have in the past, and it could get worse.  I know of no two countries on earth where borders are not agreed and demarcated that don’t have big problems, often violent ones.

The odd thing in this case is that Belgrade and Kosovo agree where the line limiting Kosovo territory is, but they disagree on whether it is just an administrative boundary within Serbia or a border between two sovereign states.  Belgrade claims all of Kosovo as sovereign territory but only exercises sovereign control in the northern 11% north of the Ibar River.  Pristina claims independence, now recognized by 77 countries, but it is unable to gain entry into the United Nations or enforce its laws–including customs–in the north.

If the burning of a border post is the worst that comes out of this, we’ll be lucky.  The issue here is the fundamental one in the Balkans:  why should I live as a minority in your country when you can live as a minority in mine?  Both Serbs and Albanians are saying no, they don’t want to live as a minority in a state dominated by the others.  Albanians say no because of their actual experience living in Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Serbia.  Serbs are saying no because they fear being treated by the Albanians the way they treated the Albanians.

All of that is quite comprehensible.  What is less clear is why anyone should expect people in Washington to worry about a minor disturbance in a faraway place, when it faces a lot bigger issues. The answer to that question unfortunately is that this incident–or some sequel–could unravel 15 years of relative progress in the Balkans.  Pandora’s box can be opened in many places, but northern Kosovo is definitely one of them.  Over at the Foreign Service Institute, they have for years used a crisis management simulation for training senior officers that starts with rioting in Mitrovica and ends in partition of Bosnia.  Partition of Macedonia and Serbia (both Presevo and parts of Sandjak are majority minority) are also real possibilities.

Even a wide-open Pandora’s box might not attract much of Washington’s attention these days, obsessed as we are with our own budget problems and more or less three wars in places more important to us than the Balkans.  It’s good that NATO has now intervened, a move that will presumably stop the violence.  And it is good that the Security Council has refused to allow a public discussion that Serbia sought as a stage for its Foreign Minister to continue to provoke as much trouble as possible.  But don’t expect the American cavalry to come galloping to the rescue.

The only thing that will nail Pandora’s box closed is an agreement between Pristina and Belgrade on status:  first status of northern Kosovo, then status of Kosovo as a whole.  The EU has the lead on Belgrade/Pristina talks, which should discuss northern Kosovo as soon as possible. Even if five EU members haven’t recognized Kosovo, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t recognize that opening Pandora’s box is a really bad idea.  It is truly bizarre that Belgrade, which claims all of Kosovo as its own, is now trying to divide it.

I can’t imagine why Belgrade would put its hopes for EU candidacy at risk for 11% of Kosovo.   Nor do I see why it is supporting hoodlums in northern Kosovo, even if some of those hoodlums are more than likely on Serbia’s secret service payroll.  If Serbia were serious about its EU candidacy, it would arrest whoever killed the Kosovo policeman and turn the murderer over to the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo.

Kosovo has less to lose, hence Pristina’s ill-conceived and ill-executed seizure of the border post, but if it wants sympathy in Washington and Brussels for its efforts to establish sovereignty over all of Kosovo it will need to avoid provocations.  Neither Europeans nor Americans will be happy to see NATO troops tied down on the line between Kosovo and Serbia.

The issue that precipitated this mess, believe it or not, is whether Serbia will accept “Republic” of Kosovo on Pristina’s customs stamps and documents.  I gather Pristina intended its seizure of the border posts to allow it to block imports from Serbia into Kosovo so long as Serbia continues to refuse imports from Kosovo with the dreaded “Republic” word inscribed.  Does the EU really want to begin negotiating membership with a country that can’t settle a dispute of this import with its neighbor, and aligns itself with hooligans?  Does Kosovo really want to blot its copybook with the EU over the R-word?

So where am I?  Right here in DC, hoping that Belgrade and Pristina will come to their senses and sort out what is, after all, a relatively small problem in the current world order.

PS:  A birdie tells me I was wrong about the R-word.  It has not appeared on Kosovo customs stamps since 2008, and Pristina might have dropped it from the customs documents.  Belgrade still wasn’t prepared to agree.

PPS: For an update on the situation, see Jeff Jorve’s “Breaking with Customs” at The American Interest.  He has at least two great virtues:  he has been in Mitrovica this week and he was an excellent student in my post-war reconstruction class last semester.  First class piece that calls for Pristina to start proving to the Serbs in the north that it is willing to take their concerns into account and help them in a difficult situation.



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