The recent deal between Belgrade and Pristina consolidates Kosova*’s position as something less than a sovereign state – a decision that will be very difficult for the Kosovars to change.
By David B. Kanin
Over the past week, Kosova* and Serbia both have given a bit to meet the desires of their American and European overseers. One protagonist has made a tactical retreat that strengthens its overall position relative both to the parties’ specific bilateral dispute and its overall goals of joining “Europe.” The other side has lost something tangible in return for a status that, at best, undermines its interests in what is settling in as a frozen conflict.
Kosova* is the disadvantaged party. In return for the honor of sitting at various European regional tables, it has agreed to have its representatives sit behind a sign that will include an asterisk marking the continuing efficacy of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. This underscores Serbia’s consistent insistence that 1224 remains the practical as well as legal basis for the international status of what was a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia, and Serbia again from 1913 through 1999.
The asterisk also reminds the reader of the International Court of Justice decision that the unilateral declaration of independence was not, in itself, illegal. This sop to Pristina will have virtually no impact on Kosova*’s political status. Of more importance is the EU’s decision to begin a feasibility study regarding Kosova*’s membership.
- The net effect of the deal is to ensure that the asterisked Kosova* will have less clout than did the autonomous province of Kosovo in the former Yugoslav federation under the 1974 constitution. That asterisk will not just melt away – as someone suggested – “like a snowflake in spring.”
Some Serbian nationalists are angry that Kosova* gets any seat at all; they fail to recognize that the deal consolidates Kosova*’s position as something less than a sovereign state – a decision that will be very difficult for the Kosovars to change. This does not mean Kosova’s* institutions are any more “temporary” than Serb municipal bodies north of the Ibar River, where “Kosovo” still exists. Both sets of political structures are guaranteed to last only until the next major change in the region – which, eventually, will come.
Pristina’s error is even more revealing if – as most commentary suggests – it resulted from direct American pressure on Kosova* to cave in. In that case, this event marks the latest US effort to make up for its failure to replace 1224 at the UN Security Council in 2006. Washington’s less than fully thought-through diplomacy lead instead to a unilateral declaration of independence making Kosova* something much less than a fully sovereign international actor. Serbia’s success in putting an asterisk connoting the numbers “1244” in front of future Kosovar delegations to European meetings means the terms under which Kosova* participates in “Europe” explicitly recognizes the language in a resolution that preserves a measure of Serbian sovereignty over its former province. This advertisement of such sovereignty – dormant as it may be – marks tacit American acceptance of the defeat of its diplomacy of the past six years. The asterisk means America has relegated its client in Kosova*to something like the status currently enjoyed by Taiwan.
One way to redress this setback would be for the US and those EU members who have recognized Kosova* to convince the five EU states that do not to do so. This might not be easy – some press reports emanating from the February 28th EU Commission meeting suggest at least some states not recognizing Kosova* initially opposed the Stabilization and Association Agreement feasibility study for Kosova*.
The future talks at which the Kosovars will display their new sign will discuss trade, electricity, the rights of minorities, issues related to Serbian holy sites, and all sorts of other practical problems. With work, the sides sometimes will strike agreements enabling tangible improvements in the lives of people living in Kosova*, Kosovo and Serbia. However, Kosova*’s concession means that 1244 will remain the political context of all discussion and, therefore, that Kosova* will continue for the foreseeable future to have a tarnished status in any talks.
Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, almost certainly realizes how empty is his insistence that the deal means Serbia has recognized Kosova*’s independence. The fact someone as savvy as the Kosovar leader is party to this arrangement reinforces the impression that it was born in Washington. In this case, the usual Western default priority of getting everyone to a table – no matter the limits of what can happen there – mainly enables a negotiating process under which the parties will define the practical conditions under which the conflict will freeze.
Serbia did make a concession of its own, but one that does not detract from its diplomatic victory over Kosova*. Belgrade has agreed not to run local elections in Kosovo at the same time as these take place in Serbia itself. Again, Serbian nationalists are making noises about betrayal, but this concession does the Serbian national cause little damage.
In the short run, this decision – along with the agreement on Kosova*’s subsidiary status at European meetings – appears likely to gain Belgrade the EU candidate status its current government has craved (once Belgrade satisfies Romania’s demands regarding Serbia’s treatment of its Vlach minority). Messrs. Tadic and Jeremic will go into this spring’s election cycle able to claim they have accomplished all that was possible regarding the EU and Kosovo. They have outflanked Cedomir Jovanovic, and left Vojislav Kostunica with the problem of attacking success. (Tadic’s DS and Tomislav Nikolic’s not-quite Radicals will decide after the election whether or not to form a grand coalition).
The Tadic government scored a point by reminding the local bully boys north of the Ibar that it has some leverage over their status in the Serbian universe. It was necessary to restore a sense of Belgrade’s efficacy after the mayors and “businessmen” who run things there caused Belgrade to lose control of the recent dispute over the presence of Kosovar customs officials and EULEX at the famous border gates (EULEX still does not have freedom of movement there; Serbia’s award of EU candidate status with that issue still unresolved means EULEX has joined Kosova as a loser in the recent diplomatic action).
Withholding local elections from Kosovo also will be a constructive answer to the recent, pointless referendum local notables held in their fiefdom to reinforce their well-known rejection of Kosova*’s institutions. By relegating its state to asterisk status, Pristina has done more than any resolution held north of the Ibar could do to undermine Kosova*’s writ.
Of course, Serbia’s victory in the current round does not guarantee it will win the war over Kosova*/o. The EU and each of its full members will retain the power to insist Serbia and Kosova* reach a permanent – mutually acceptable – agreement over their relationship before either can join the Union. The overwhelming dominance of the ethnic Albanian population in Kosova* also militates against any eventual return of the place to a condition of subservience to Serbia. Perhaps some future Serbian government will choose to disgorge its lost province and become the kind of regional partner its neighbors very much need. Perhaps not – handicapping Kosova* with an asterisk means this will be Belgrade’s choice.
There is potential danger in the longer term Kosovar reaction to this setback, assuming no early movement toward EU membership. Eventual impatience with their officially subaltern status will present future Kosovar leaders with the problem of how to deal with a prolonged political stalemate; Kosova* could face many years in which it is unable either to get into Europe or shake off what will be an increasingly burdensome asterisk. This problem could become complicated if inter-communal problems in Macedonia fuel ethnic Albanians’ resentments in both entities. The time could come when a critical mass of activists on both side of the newly-surveyed border believe they have little to lose by agitating forcefully to change what some already realize has just become a more disadvantageous status quo.
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).