Kosovo: then what?

Okay, so Kosovo is likely to declare some sort of independence in the near future.

“Some sort” covers a lot of ground, but it will be something formally unacceptable to Serbia, and thus to Russia. The negotiations have another three weeks to run, but it’s clear they’re going nowhere; the Kosovar Albanians want independence, and Serbia will never agree to that. So, at some point the knot will have to be cut.

Okay, what happens next?

Former US Ambassador to Serbia William Montgomery has some ideas. I disagree, and I’m willing to stick my neck out a little.

Some fisking follows. If you’re not interested in Serbia and Kosovo, jump now!

I agree completely with Montgomery’s opening paragraphs, about Serbia’s ruling coalition:

G17 Plus wants to improve the country’s international financial position and its overall economic underpinnings.

DS is trying to move Serbia towards full integration in the Euro-Atlantic institutions and more importantly, have Serbia perceived as a normal European country, sharing a common system of values.

DSS remains focused on Serbian national questions such as Kosovo and Bosnia. The rivalries and animosity among these three parties is far stronger and more evident than towards either the Socialist or Radical Parties, which would logically be their political and philosophical opposition.

The end result is a government with major internal contradictions; “fiefdoms” exclusively controlled by individual parties; a patronage system where party loyalty rates far higher than competence, honesty or effectiveness; stalled reforms; and lack of coordination in public statements which results in contradictory messages to the outside world.

Just so. After that, however, I think he heads off into mouth-breathing Serb Menace land. For instance:

The DSS has already taken steps to demonstrate that there will be serious regional repercussions in the event of Kosovo independence. A major initiative in this regard was to link the date of elections for the Serbian President to events in Kosovo.

In other words, the DSS has deliberately taken steps which make it far more possible that the next President of Serbia will be from the Radical Party. They are sending a message to the International Community that this is one of the potential downsides of unilateral recognition of Kosovo Independence.

Meh. What DSS is really doing here is signalling to its coalition partners that it would be willing to join a government with the Radicals. Since DSS has been sending these signals since the elections nearly a year ago, this is not exactly shocking. The only questions are whether anyone will ever find the nerve to call their bluff; and if so, whether they’re really bluffing.

A Radical President? Unlikely. Current President Boris Tadic is one of the most popular… no, that’s not right. One of the least unpopular politicians in Serbia. He had little difficulty defeating Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic three years ago. Nikolic will probably be the rival candidate again, and will probably be beaten again.

The second step which the Prime Minister and his party has taken is to support aggressively the Bosnian Serb leadership in its protests over measures taken by the High Representative to facilitate the work of the Bosnian Parliament and Council of Ministers.

This was accompanied by a coordinated media campaign reminiscent of the Milošević years. This was intentionally done to present a case of the International Community mistreating Serbs not only in Kosovo, but also in Bosnia.

True. And it’s kind of sad how willing most of Serbia’s media has been to swing into line on this. But not really relevant; protests from Belgrade are going to have little effect on events in either Bosnia or Kosovo.

The end result was to solidify, at least in the minds of the Serbs, a definite linkage between the two cases. It raises the possibility that any unilateral declaration by the Kosovo Albanians of independence could lead either to further Bosnian Serb challenges to the authority of the High Representative or even an effort to stage a referendum on independence for the Republika Srpska.

I think this is possible, though not likely. RS leaders have been muttering about a referendum for a while now.

Problem is, this would blow up Dayton, and give the international community an excuse for reorganizing Bosnia. Of course, that in turn would drastically escalate matters, so maybe not.

But on yet another hand, the status quo in Bosnia isn’t too bad for the RS leaders… they’re autonomous, and not for from de facto independent. The current High Commissioner can hassle them, but he isn’t changing the balance of power. I have trouble seeing them want to take a wild gamble like a referendum.

Thirdly, the DSS has taken the lead in visibly cozying up to Russia. This includes claims that the West’s purpose in supporting Kosovo Albanian independence is to create a “NATO State” in the Balkans and other NATO bashing. The obvious intent is to show that the end result of Kosovo independence would be a Serbia far, far closer to Russia and more distant from the EU.

Who cares?

Really. The whole “we’re going to jump into bed with Russia!” thing doesn’t resonate anywhere outside of Serbia. This is not a meaningful threat. You want to join Russia? Knock yourself out, guys. Welcome to Kaliningrad South.

Finally, even though the government has been careful to avoid any overt signs of support, the announced formation of a “St. Tsar Lazar Guard” composed of Serbian volunteers to fight to defend Kosovo in the event of an unilateral declaration of independence is obviously designed to raise the possibility of paramilitary units going into Kosovo as they did in Bosnia and Croatia in 1990-95.

I don’t think the current government is dumb enough to let these guys actually do anything; and if they are, I don’t think the international community would be dumb enough to let them get away with it. People do still remember the 1990s.

The hope of the DSS is that these threats and actions will be sufficient to scare key EU countries such as Germany so that they defer any action on Kosovo. At least as of today, however, it appears as if the majority of EU countries (including all of the “heavy hitters” with the support and encouragement of the United States has decided to proceed regardless of the potential consequences.

Since these threats and actions aren’t all that scary, this isn’t surprising. — Mind, it would be interesting to see an up-to-date nose count of who stands where on Kosovo. German seems to be tipping towards recognition, but does anyone have more on that?

In fact, it unfortunately seems that many in the West are beginning to view Serbia, as during the Milošević years, as a destabilizing factor in the region. The “honeymoon” following the downfall of Milošević is definitely over.

I’d say that’s true. It’s also a little unfair, since Serbia has a real grievance with Kosovo. But in terms of perception, yeah, the current Serb leadership is reminding a lot of people of the bad old dies. Croat President Stipe Mesic said this in a speech just the other day; since Mesic isn’t usually a big Serb-basher, it’s worth taking notice.

The question then becomes, exactly what will Serbia do in the event of unilateral independence. My best guess is as follows:

Duelling guesses! Woo hoo!

a) A contingency plan has already been worked out with Kosovo Serbs so that they will react immediately in rejecting any unilateral declaration of independence.

Probably.

Serbian-controlled areas will be established in Kosovo similar to those set up in Bosnia and Croatia sixteen years ago

Maybe. If so, this will only be in the northern, Serb-dominated part of Kosovo. The Serb enclaves in the south are too small to make this possible.

b) At least some “volunteers” from Serbia proper will go to help the Kosovo Serbs. The government will take a hands-off position and claim that it had nothing to do with it.

See above. I don’t think this will happen.

c) The Bosnian Serbs will be encouraged to further challenge the High Representative, possibly even with a referendum initiative.

They may be encouraged, but I’ll be surprised if they actually do it.

d) Large protest rallies will be staged in many cities in Serbia.

Whoop ti doo.

e) Efforts will be made in Parliament and in the media to significantly downgrade relations with countries which recognize Kosovo independence.

What, like Serbia’s major trading partners Italy and Germany?

I think “efforts will be made”, sure. There will probably be an outburst of anti-Americanism, in particular. And Germany has been a whipping boy of Serb nationalism since dirt was new. But I don’t think it will have much effect. What are they going to do, break off relations?

f) Serbia will renounce any responsibility for its debts in Kosovo with international financial institutions.

Umm. Any version of Kosovar independence is likely to include saddling Kosovo with some debt (though the Kosovars will vigorously resist, of course). But how is Serbia supposed to square “Kosovo is still part of Serbia!” with “but we renounce all debts”?

g) Serbia will close its boundaries with Kosovo for all traffic other than those with Serbian license plates and review its transit agreements with KFOR/NATO.

This might happen briefly. It’s very unlikely to stick. A blockade would cripple Kosovo’s economy (the overland connections to Macedonia and Albania are pretty bad), but it would inflict a lot of pain on Serbia too. The economies of southern Serbia and Kosovo are tightly interconnected — much to the irritation of both Serb and Albanian nationalists. Since Kosovo is on the euro, and runs a big trade deficit with Serbia, it’s an important source of hard currency. And the parts of Serbia that are exporting most to Kosovo are exactly the parts that are the strongest supporters of DSS.

h) Serbia will consider cutting off its supply of electrical energy to Kosovo.

“Will consider”? What kind of a prediction is that? Here’s my prediction: they won’t pull the plug.

i) Serbia even now will encourage Russia to use the renewal of the EUFOR Mission in Bosnia in the UN Security, which is scheduled for December, to extract unacceptable concessions in exchange for its support.

They may “encourage”, but it won’t work. Note that Russia has made noises about Bosnia — they’re very critical of the current High Rep — but has yet to even suggest concrete action there.

j) Serbia will do some “saber-rattling” by ostentatiously moving military units closer to the boundary with Kosovo and reinforcing the police units currently there.

Police, maybe. Military, no.

k) There may well be some highly-publicized departure of Kosovo Serbs, primarily from the more southern enclaves.

No “may well” about it; some Kosovar Serbs will leave.

But not many. Most everyone who was going to leave has already. The ones who are left are either fanatically devoted to the land, so poor they have nothing to lose, or both. (Talking about the enclaves here, not the north.)

What this adds up to is “not much”. There’s just not a lot Serbia can do here. Obviously they’ll refuse to recognize Kosovo, and obviously Russia will make as much diplomatic profit from the affair as possible. (Most notably by connecting Kosovo to Russia’s own “frozen conflicts” — if the Kosovars can do this, why not the Abkhaz?) But Serbia itself… well, what are they going to do? Elect a Radical government? Join Russia?

So, here’s my prediction: Kosovo will get some sort of independence, Belgrade and Moscow will cry foul, there will be a certain amount of huffing and puffing… and then, not much. The borders will stay open; the lights will stay on. The medium-term effect will be to create a sort of Balkan Taiwan, recognized by some states but not by others.

We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we.

Predictions! Anyone else want to try?

This entry was posted in Transition and accession and tagged , , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

15 thoughts on “Kosovo: then what?

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Serbia: Kosovo Predictions

  2. Pingback: The Unforgiving Minute · And then there were two

  3. Douglas – useful thoughts, as always, and I don’t have much to add regarding your predictions around Serbia. My worries are more over what happens inside Kosovo once the dust settles – basically, I don’t think Kosovar politicians have got the chops to deliver even the most basic needs of the province/country/whatever. I hope that I’m proved wrong, but it doesn’t seem that likely. More on the matter at my blog.

  4. Pingback: Kosovars Sick of U.N. Occupation « Far Outliers

  5. A Balkan Taiwan is overstating things. Kosovo will likely have relations with most of its neighbors and all the major western powers. That’s plenty good enough for them. This isn’t a few Caribbean and Pacific islands, like for Taiwan.

    I agree Russia will do very little. The only question is quite how crazy the Serbian government is willing to be – in general, the crazier they are, the more sympathy Kosovo will get and the worse it will be for them.

  6. One element that’s missing from the equation here is the power of Serbia’s parallel institutions to harden the de facto partition of Kosovo in the north. Most of the international organizations are anticipating at least some limited violence across the Ibri / Ibar in Mitrovica, and to what extent that is utilized by hardliners further south as a pretext for pressuring Kosovo Serbs to leave is an important question mark.

    The expulsion of Kosovo Serbs from the enclaves–whether by violence or by the creation of a political climate less compromising than the Ahtisaari-focused rhetoric from Pristina today–would be a boon to Belgrade, enabling Serbia to portray Kosovo’s quasi-state as inimical to minority rights. If things blow up in Mitrovica, that becomes a much more likely endgame.

  7. Hektor, I agree that Taiwan is overstating things; most of Kosovo’s neighbors will recognize quickly, including Macedonia, Montenegro and (of course) Albania.

    On the other hand, the “no” list would include Russia, China, Romania, Greece and (of course!) Serbia. Also, a lot of non-European countries with minority issues — Indonesia — or who just aren’t comfortable seeing a UN resolution ignored.

    Doug M.

  8. Mijawara, I agree — we’ll see the de facto partition harden. At some point something will have to be done about that.

    I think violence against the Serbs in the south is less likely, though. Not impossible, certainly, but not the way to bet. They’re a small minority now, and the Albanians are aware that they’re under scrutiny.

    Doug M.

  9. The partition will harden, but it’s hard to see what anybody can do about it. Serbia can legitimately keep supporting that area without the international community having grounds to oppose it, as long as they play it right, and a Pristina government would be forced either to ignore it or play for compromise. Does anybody think any differently?

    I wonder about the violence question in general. I was shocked by the visceral hatred and the overt violence that permeated society in Kosovo immediately after the war. Certainly this was partly due to the brutalisation of an already awkward society, but I now think it was also because the victors really weren’t convinced that they’d won. With independence, they will be convinced – and possibly feel that they don’t have anything to prove any more.

    Or possibly not.

  10. Do I ever hope Paul is right . . . One of the worst unintended consequences of the UN protectorate is that no one ever meaningfully won: Albanians were not able to approach their new circumstances with magnanimity, and pursue reconciliation from a position of strength; and Serbs in Kosovo were never forced to acknowledge the new reality, and seek an accommodation within it that maximizes their voice.

    If the choreography of status finalization in the next few months is executed deftly, we might be able to see the conflict start to thaw. But I’m not as confident as Doug that the hardliners on the Albanian side will exercise the restraint that’s needed for that to happen.

  11. As broad as “some sort of independence” is, there is also quite a bit of breadth in “some sort of recognition.” What seems the best likely situation is the Balkan Taiwan scenario. Countries that wish to deal with Kosovo will recognize that there is a government in Pristina, establish relations that most won’t call embassies, and negotiate agreement that most won’t call treaties.

    But I would be surprised to see many countries jumping on the bandwagon to recognize whatever territorial claim a self-declared government in Pristina might make, especially if it includes territory that government does not de facto control. And if the government in Pristina pushes the issue, is not satisfied with being a Taiwan, I can see Kosovo becoming a Balkan Kashmir, a far less happy situation.

  12. I am very pessimistic about what will happen next. Albanians and Serbs have a long history of making life difficult for each other. Kosovo’s Albanian leaders look to me more like thugs than statesmen who are able to make a grand gesture (try reading the Haradinaj indictment). And the low level violence (stone throwing, thefts, vandalism, etc.) is still going strong. I don’t expect it to stop once independence is achieved: much of it is done by Albanians who aim to acquire Serb property cheaply or for nothing.

    According to opinion polls by Kosovo’s government 30% of the Serbs will leave if Kosovo becomes independent. That will probably involve the majority of those south of the Ibar.

    The Ahtisaari plan doesn’t hardly mention any security improvements for Kosovo’s Serbs: it talks only about autonomy. So the pressure on Kosovo’s Serbs to leave will stay and the tension will stay. Many more will leave – making the autonomy hollow.

    No Serb leader can afford to accept such ethnic cleansing on territory what according to international law still is theirs.

    My estimate: for many decades to come we will have a heightened risk for war in the Balkan. And that all because our diplomats couldn’t think up anything better than that partial Ahtisaari plan.

  13. Actually, while Haradinaj is a thug, he’s a very intelligent thug who did indeed make some statesmanlike gestures during his brief time in office.

    There’s still some low-level violence, but not as much as there’s been in the past. Also, acquiring Serb property is probably not a major motive… most of the nicest properties (apartments, shops, farms) were taken in 1999-2000. Also, it’s much harder to just grab property now; if a Serb family leaves, they can sell it to the highest bidder. That’s changed from a few years ago, when a local Albanian clan might simply take over.

    Also, don’t neglect the economic aspect. The Albanians could treat the Serbs south of the Ibar with perfect respect, and the Serbs would still be leaving. Albanians are leaving Kosovo in droves, after all.

    Doug M.

  14. The predictions could be made only if the history is evaluated. The only good thing happened after Second world war is European Union. Separation, territory dividing, establish a new country is the worst thing could happen in Europe today. This is step back. Unsuccesful politics like Tadic in Serb now making the wrong step. The war is knoking on the door.

  15. In retrospect it seems you were spot on on pretty much everything Doug. Good call!