The frozen conflict over Kosovo can only be solved by changing the contours of the sovereignty game, ending Western pressure on both sides, and ensuring special arrangements for Serb historical and religious sites and Serb communities.
By Steven E. Meyer
Honest people can disagree about who won and who lost in the recent “asterisk” agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Respectable arguments can be made handing an advantage to either Pristina or Belgrade. For example, both sides claim that they “won” when the Kosovar Albanians withdrew from a meeting in Belgrade last week over a “dispute” about the Brussels Agreement. The political dance will go on and on about the asterisk and the Brussels “compromise,” much as it will over the plethora of moving parts that make up the larger Kosovo dance (EULEX, IFOR , the UN, Russia, the EU, the International Court, etc.).
One thing, however, seems certain; the asterisk agreement amounts to little more than tinkering around the edges of what already has become one more stubborn “frozen conflict.” Neither Belgrade nor Pristina is prepared to make the kinds of concessions that are necessary to arrive at a concrete, sustainable agreement. It is both a short term and long term problem. In the short term, the respective ruling parties in Serbia and Kosovo worry that a misstep before the next election will hand the opposition a winning issue (right now this is especially true in Serbia, which faces parliamentary elections on 6th May and possibly a Presidential election shortly thereafter). In the longer term, neither Belgrade nor Pristina want to anger their masters in Brussels and Washington. Right now the EU neuralgia is especially palpable in Belgrade – every time Brussels dangles the carrot of candidate status in front of Serbian politicians, the EU moves the carrot just out of range. Last week, in front of a session of the European Parliament, EC council president, Herman van Rompuy, congratulated Belgrade on its “good progress,” but he ended with a thinly veiled threat that Serbs must continue to make progress with their neighbors. Indeed, the EU has still not announced a date for Serbia’s candidate status to take effect. Conditionality is a two edged sword – it is designed as much to keep new members out as well as to bring them in.
The inability to find a sustainable answer to the Kosovo issue also is a problem for Europe and the US. Western policy -especially the hidebound, hubris-soaked American state department – is especially incapable of making the adjustments necessary to pull Kosovo out of the deep freeze. Super powers simply do not admit to mistakes and the need to recalibrate policy, and the EU is in such shambles it really does not care very much about the Balkans.
Thanks mostly to the “West,” Kosovo has become a zero sum game. Kosovar Albanians have made it clear that they will never again submit to rule from Belgrade. Every prominent Kosovar politician, including prime minister Thaci, has built his or her reputation on the vow to build an independent sovereign state within the borders of the old – Tito defined – Kosovo. By the same token, Serbian leaders have vowed not to surrender “sacred” Serb territory – the home of so many Serbian historical and religious sites, including the ancient seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. To make the problem even more difficult for politicians in Belgrade, sovereignty over Kosovo is ensconced in the Serbian constitution. At the same time, although most members of the EU have recognized the “independence” of Kosovo, five members of the union have withheld recognition. Even though the International Court of Justice has ruled that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is not “contrary” to international law, the Court’s ruling was not a full-throated endorsement of Kosovar sovereignty. Finally, Washington’s insistence that Kosovo must be recognized and understood within the existing borders adds considerable weight to Pristina’s argument and a considerable burden to not only to Belgrade’s seemingly desperate desire to join the EU, but also to its relations with Washington. Perhaps one of the strangest aspects to the issue is what possible difference it makes to American interests whether Kosovo is independent or part of Serbia.
Given all of this, then, how is it possible to move forward, to unfreeze this latest “frozen conflict”? A sustainable solution will not be found in Belgrade’s efforts at some sort of super autonomy within Serbia or in a complicated scheme of parallel institutions. By the same token, a variation of the old Ahtisaari Plan offers only continued and institutionalized separation of the ethnic communities and unacceptable political communities within Kosovo that are controlled by Belgrade. By the same token, a solution that assures Kosovar Albanian control over most Kosovar Serbs is unacceptable to those Serbs and a prescription for increased violence north of the Ibar River. To move forward – to really do so – requires several steps.
First, and most important, it is imperative that the Western powers back off from pressuring either side. As difficult as it is for the EU, US, Germany, Britain and a few other north European countries to withdraw their pressure, it is necessary if there is to be a sustainable settlement. Belgrade and Pristina spend more time being whipsawed by the demands, entreaties and threats emanating from Washington and northern Europe than they do in serious negotiations about the major issues separating them. Perhaps even more important, interference by the major powers provides Belgrade and Pristina with a convenient excuse for avoiding constructive leadership on the issue. For Belgrade and Pristina it is a classic case of transference; for the “great powers” it is a classic example power domination.
Second, zero-sum games are broken only by fundamentally changing the contours of the game and the game here is one of sovereignty. For Belgrade, this means accepting the reality that the majority of Kosovo will never again be under Serbian rule and no political contrivances will alter that. For Pristina, this means understanding that Kosovo will never know peace and will not be accepted into the broader European community without accepting an agreement that recognizes Serbian sovereignty north of the Ibar River. It is especially necessary for the US and European powers to back off the long held view that Kosovo must be recognized only within its present borders. It is illogical and has no historical or political validity. The US and several north European governments like to argue that partition, i.e. border change, would be “destabilizing” and could lead to violence. There is, however, no evidence to support this and, indeed, borders can and have changed peacefully if change is agreed to by mutual consent and international support. For example, the old internal borders of the Soviet Union became international borders mostly peacefully when the USSR collapsed in 1990-91; the Czech Republic and Slovakia split peacefully in 1993; and, Montenegro peacefully split from union with Serbia after the referendum in 2006. The US and northern Europe supported these and other border changes with no knee-jerk reference to instability and war. Perhaps most ironic, every country that proclaims there must be no border change in Kosovo would not exist in its current configuration without border change. Partition for Kosovo has been bandied around for the past 13 years, but never seriously discussed as the basis for an agreement – it is now time for partition to be discussed seriously.
Third, special arrangements need to be made for the Serb historical and religious sites and Serb communities living south of the Ibar River and for the small Kosovar Albanian community living north of the Ibar. This is where the larger powers can make a difference, but only through a UN-sponsored and guaranteed program. Once Belgrade and Pristina have been encouraged to agree that partition is a reasonable, responsible (partial) solution, they can begin drafting a treaty with the help of the UN. In addition to agreeing to and drawing an international border at the Ibar, the parties must agree to provide internationally-supervised guarantees to the minority communities that chose voluntarily to remain in the sovereign territory controlled by the other ethnic majority. The treaty must guarantee routine international inspections and access to all minority communities. Members of minority communities who do not want to remain subject to a government controlled by the other ethnicity not only must be allowed to move, the cost of their move must be borne by the international community through the UN. In addition, the treaty must allow for joint international (UN) and Serbian control of Serb holy and historic sites south of the Ibar River and access to those sites by Serbs and international visitors.
Once agreement can be achieved on these major political principles, logistical and technical details can be worked out -either by the Serbian and Kosovar sides alone, or with the help of UN-assigned officials. Then, it should be possible to discuss mutually beneficial economic arrangements that will improve the lives of citizens on both sides of the new international border.
Steven E. Meyer is a partner in the firm TSM Global Consultants and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. Before that he worked for many years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his last position was as a Deputy Chief of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Balkan Task Force during the wars of the 1990s. After leaving the CIA, Dr. Meyer taught national security studies, American foreign policy and comparative politics at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the Free University of Amsterdam. He received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. degree from Fordham University in New York and a PhD from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., both in comparative politics. He has published in several journals and is working on a book on the changing structure of the international system.