The only way Kosova can hope to manage successfully the creation of a Serb counter-government is if Washington can accomplish what it has failed to so far – to convince at least some of the five EU members who do not recognize Kosova to do so now.
By David B. Kanin
The agreement that ended the Bosnia war in 1995 marked the one success Serbia enjoyed in a decade in which Belgrade otherwise suffered a string of losses that continue to affect its internal mood and international diplomacy. The ongoing rounds of negotiations over how Serbs living in Kosova will organize themselves are evolving into a major opportunity for Serbia to enjoy another such success, and to cauterize some of the damage it did to itself by bungling into its war with NATO in 1999.
Bosnia and Kosova
At Dayton, Slobodan Milosevic accomplished two things. First, he held out for a political arrangement that precluded development of a meaningful Bosnia state and enshrined Republika Srpska as an all-but independent entity. Second, he convinced the internationals into accepting the reintroduction of Serbian control over the “anvil” in Western Bosnia; for the sake of preserving an entirely arbitrary formula decreeing that Serbs should retain control over 49 percent of Bosnian territory, Richard Holbrooke acquiesced in a patchwork division that prevented the existence of either a functioning Bosnian state or contiguous Bosnjak political community. Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, who shared Milosevic’s interest in minimizing Bosnjak strength, naturally was content to accept this solution (he never really thought Croatia would get Banja Luka).
In the 1990s, the cardinal error made repeatedly by the internationals was to overestimate their own ability to drive subsequent events as Yugoslavia fell apart. Regarding Bosnia, they also underestimated the force of inertia that would undermine the serial, unsuccessful, improvisational policies and demands they would push on Bosnians of all stripes. This same mistake may be creeping into the EU-mediated effort to force an executive Serbian agency on the contested Kosovar state.
Ivica Dacic, Milosevic’s successor in more ways than one, has a chance to pull off a success similar to his mentor’s. Of course, this assumes Dacic can maintain his political position in the face of corruption allegations, the political calculations of Alexander Vucic, and protests of his diplomacy by short-sighted nationalists who do not understand the opportunity inherent in what Dacic is trying to accomplish. Belgrade, by working to replace the current parallel arrangements north of the Ibar with a political/administrative structure that would incorporate Serbs in all parts of the contested Kosovar state, is attempting not only to protect local Serbs, but also to institutionalize Serbian claims to sovereignty over all of its former province.
As the Serbs have insisted all along, status is the decisive subject of discussion—customs and “border” arrangements lose symbolic significance if tangible decisions on status change the overall context of the sovereignty issue. That is just what a “Republika Srpska” in Kosova would do.
Assessing the diplomatic trajectory
The flaw in the international approach to the talks is reflected in the conventional wisdom that Serbia has no choice but to eventually recognize Kosova, and that creation of what would amount to a Serbian counter-government in that contested state would mean the acceptance by Serbs of their incorporation in the Kosova. The opposite is true because of the unequal status of the two protagonists. Serbia is recognized as a sovereign state on all sides, and so could define a Serbian counter-government inside Kosova as an agent of Serbia itself—a sort of organizational Banquo’s ghost that would haunt Kosova until a changed regional or international context permits Serbia to restore its control over what would then once more become Kosovo.
There is no contradiction between Dacic’s efforts and a recent B92 poll indicating that most in Serbia acknowledge the fact that Kosova is “in practice” an independent state. The same poll found that 65 percent of respondents would prefer to see Kosovo restored to Serbia rather than sacrifice sovereignty over Kosova for the sake of joining the EU. 61 percent thought Dacic was doing a good job representing Serbia’s interests. The Prime Minister’s approach is meant to maximize his country’s long-term flexibility on what remains an open issue of contested sovereignty.
Therefore, Dacic is right and his domestic critics are wrong—successive Serbian governments not only would not have to recognize Kosova, but would be able to establish ties to a “Republika Srpska” that would be able to function as a sort of political transmission belt between Belgrade and itself. Once such a creature comes into being—and after Serbs north of the Ibar stop making building barricades and reflect on what actually has happened—the more thoughtful notables in the North would see they could continue to function separately from (and in opposition to) the government in Pristina. Their co-nationals south of the river would grasp that the new situation would mean they would not have to accept their subordination as a supplicant minority in a Kosovar state.
Dacic—unlike Vuk Jeremic, who made a hash of the previous Serbian government’s efforts against Kosova—is endeavoring to freeze the conflict in a manner that would work to his country’s advantage by keeping the sovereignty issue open while ending the need to constantly defend Serbia’s stance. Meanwhile, he can advertise his country’s peaceful intentions and, perhaps, get the coveted date for start the accession dance with the EU.
Dacic clearly is on the defensive, beset by political problems and by the criticism of his Kosova policy. His plea that people recognize that Serbia does not control its former province and should save what can be saved is misunderstood as capitulation–he is not communicating his stance very well. Ironically, Kostunica is calling for a freeze in the conflict–which is exactly what Dacic is attempting to accomplish, but under better terms than the DSS has in mind. A structure that incorporates Serbs south of the Ibar is an advance – from the Serb point of view – on the current smuggler/”mayoral” system now in place Brussels, following in the tradition of European policies toward the Yugoslav space since it began to fall apart two decades ago, is interested mainly in demonstrating its ability to manage the Balkans. The Europeans will accept any political status quo that permits them to trumpet their own role and involves an absence of immediate violence.
The internationals also appear not to recognize another analogical problem. Agreement to create a “Republika Srpska” inside Kosova would have the opposite impact of the Erdut Agreement that settled the status of Serbs in Croatia. Erdut simply codified a decisive Croatian military victory that—with Milosevic’s acquiescence or active cooperation, depending on your point of view—already had put paid to the existence of a cohesive Krajina Serb community. Those Serbs who limped back into Slavonia after Erdut recognized that from now on they would exist merely as a supplicant minority in a resoundingly Croatian Croatia.
Things are very different regarding Kosova, which lacks the uncontested recognition enjoyed by Croatia and even the dysfunctional Bosnia. Kosovar Serbs may have been defeated when Milosevic caved into to NATO’s bombing, but they have managed to retain their sense of community and insistence that their former province retains its historical, cultural—and political—status as part of Serbia. Serbs living south of the Ibar have cooperated with Pristina out of necessity, but that necessity would be removed if a Serbian counter-government comes into being. This puts Kosova in a bind. Its supposed international friends may be ready to press it to sacrifice an element of its contested sovereignty—just as they did major harm to the Bosnjaks by forcing them to accept an unworkable state and the return of Serbs to the Anvil. The Kosovar version of a “Republika Srpska” would be weaker than its counterpart in Bosnia, but still would be an element working to undermine Kosova because—unlike Bosnia—not everyone in the EU recognizes the Kosovar state.
The domestic political calculus in Pristina is the opposite of that in Belgrade. If he knuckles under on this unconditionally, Prime Minister Thaci would be wrong and his domestic critics right, no matter how much authority he would claim Pristina would have over a Serb counter-government. Given his country’s disadvantageous international position, if the internationals force Thaci to accept a Serb political structure in Kosova his non-negotiable minimal stance should be to insist that everyone gaining authority in this Serbian entity explicitly acknowledge Pristina as its legal and legitimate government—the new Republika Srpska should at least acknowledge Kosovar sovereignty to the same extent the existing one has been forced to pay lip service to the notional Bosnia.
This brings us back to the question of the EU Five, whose refusal of repeated US approaches involves an ongoing, singular failure of American Balkan policy. The only way Kosova can hope to manage successfully the creation of a Serb counter-government is if Washington can accomplish what it has failed to so far – to convince at least some of the five EU members who do not recognize Kosova to do so now. It would not be good enough to launch another round of failed demarches while continuing to insist complacently that this eventually will happen. Pristina would need some tangible success to offset Dacic’s success; recognition by at least one of the five at the same time as the new “Republika Srpska” is created is the only thing that might mitigate what otherwise would be another setback to the US-directed effort to enable Kosova to gain internal self confidence, regional legitimacy, and international recognition.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).