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.