Kosovo and the ICJ: well, damn

So the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”)delivered its opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (“UDI”)today. (I blogged about this a few months ago.)

To everyone’s surprise — mine included — the decision was clear, strong, and favored Kosovo. A clear majority of the judges held that the UDI was legal. They tried to frame the decision narrowly, but it’s still a big win for the Kosovars. Some people are saying it’s therefore a big loss for Serbia, but let’s get real — Serbia had no prospects of recovering Kosovo or ever getting the Kosovar Albanians to accept rule from Belgrade, however tenuous, again. (It is a hit for the Tadic administration, but probably not a serious one.)

Immediate knock-on effects: a few more recognitions for Kosovo. It won’t make that big a difference, though, in the short run — the few EU members who are refusing to recognize Kosovo are mostly doing so for internal domestic reasons, and that won’t change. Russia will still veto any UN resolution affecting Kosovo’s status, which sharply limits room for maneuver.

That said, it’s a win. And the longer-term effects could be interesting.

Meanwhile, watch for various other frozen conflicts, from North Cyprus to Abkhazia, to claim that this decision validates /their/ UDIs. Of course, to make that stick, they’d have to file and win similar suits before the ICJ. And to do that, they’d have to get a resolution past the UN General Assembly. Good luck with that, South Ossetia.

I’d say more, but I haven’t read the decision yet — it just came out a few hours ago, and the ICJ’s website has crashed. Give me a day or two.

Thoughts?

Hungarian passports; or, dumbest Stratfor article ever

This sort of thing is why I have trouble taking Stratfor seriously.

Short version: the new, center-right Hungarian government is reviving the plan to offer Hungarian citizenship and passports to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary. (There are a couple of million of them. Most live in Hungary’s neighbors Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, with smaller numbers in Croatia and Ukraine.) Stratfor sees this as “an insurance policy — a way of broadening [Hungary’s] power and securing itself should its protectors, the European Union and NATO, weaken.”

What the hell? Continue reading

Kosovo snips another cord

So Kosovo just turned off the remaining Serbian mobile phone towers:

The Kosovo Albanian authorities in PriÅ¡tina removed the equipment of all Belgrade-based mobile and landline operators this morning…

Eyewitnesses, who secured the premises, said that “special police” broke into Telekom, Telenor and VIP structures to help cut off cables and take down equipment, at around 05:00 CET.

Eyewitnesses said that workers of a “telecommunications regulatory body” from PriÅ¡tina removed transmitters and randomly severed cables.

As a consequence, 40,000 Serbs are either left without mobile service in that part of the province, or have very poor reception.

A little background. Before 1999, Kosovo was covered by Serbian mobile phone networks. Since 1999, it’s developed its own — three of them. But the Serbian networks have continued to operate towers and provide mobile telephony. Unsurprisingly, most of the users have been Kosovar Serbs in the enclaves. Meanwhile the Kosovar Albanians have been buying chips and service contracts from the three Kosovar networks.

If this sort of thing interests you, there’s more. Continue reading

Kosovo: waiting for the ICJ

So Kosovo and Serbia are now waiting for the International Court of Justice to rule on whether Kosovo is independent or not.

Except, not really.

Back in October 2008, the new Government of Serbia asked the ICJ to rule on whether Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (“UDI”) in March 2008 was legal. This was clever in several ways. Internally, the new, relatively liberal and pro-Western Serbian governmnent shored up its flank against certain sorts of nationalist attack. Externally, it showed Serbia being a good, reasonable international citizen by submitting its problem to the highest body of international justice. And tactically, it invited the Court to rule on a narrow issue — was the UDI, done in that way at that time, legal? — rather than the much broader and more fraught question of whether Kosovar independence itself could be legal.

The case went before the Court for several days in December of 2009, with 25 countries submitting oral or written testimony. A decision is expected in summer.

But here’s the thing:the ICJ is very unlikely to deliver a clear opinion. Continue reading

Death on the Tisza

A sad story from the edge of Europe last week: fifteen Kosovar Albanians died trying to cross the border between Serbia and Hungary. The border there is a a river, the Tisza, which is a large and swift-flowing tributary of the Danube. The Albanians were illegal immigrants trying to move from Kosovo into the EU. Their boat capsized and most of them drowned. The immigrants seem to have been family groups, and the dead include at least two children.

Kosovo declared a national day of mourning last week. Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as part of its territory, made no official statement.

It’s a very sad incident that points to some realities in the region.

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Gazprom in Serbia: How’s that working out?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about the sale of Serbia’s oil and gas company, NIS, to Russia’s Gazprom. Here were the high points:

— Gazprom was able to buy NIS for much, much less than its real value — 400 million euros for a company whose value was estimated to be more than 2 billion euros.

— The reasons for this have never been made clear. It may have involved corruption and/or a political quid pro quo for Russia’s support on Kosovo. Or perhaps the last Serbian government was just really bad at negotiating.

— The purchase was made without competitive bids, even several other large oil companies expressed interest, and two publicly stated that they would bid at least 2 billion euros.

— The deal gave Gazprom 51% ownership, but included provisions that ensured its total control. For instance, the Serbian government — which owns the other 49% — cannot sell its shares to anyone without Gazprom’s consent.

— Gazprom promised to assume NIS’s debts, which are about 600 million euros, mostly owed to the Serbian government, and also to invest about 500 million euros in NIS.

— Gazprom committed to building the South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia — giving Serbia transit fees — and also building a large gas storage facility at Banatski Dvor.

Okay, so. All that was a year ago. Since then, the deal has been signed and finalized. Gazprom formally took over NIS early this year; six of the ten members of the company’s board of directors are now Gazprom appointees, as are the Chairman of the Board and the company’s new general director. Although it was the last (Kostunica) government that negotiated the deal, the current (Cvetkovic) government has accepted it; three of the four Serbian board members are politicians involved with the current government.

So how’s it working out? Continue reading

New Balkan visa rules: Serbia in, Albania still out

And the Montenegrins and Macedonians. EU Commissioner Olli Rehn just announced his recommendation that these three countries be granted visa-free travel to the EU starting January 1, 2010.

While many European readers will blink and shrug, this is a huge, huge deal for the region. For the last 20 years, it’s kinda sucked to be a Serb. Back in Yugoslav times, you had one of the world’s best passports. East, west, developing world… the Yugoslav passport was welcomed for easy travel in almost every country on earth. But after 1991, suddenly your passport was a piece of junk: nobody welcomed Serbs, you were often viewed with suspicion, and you had to fill out elaborate forms (and wait for months) to get a visa to enter the EU. Even after the wars ended, Serbia was still kept firmly at arm’s length.

A whole generation of young Serbs have grown up grumpy about this: they didn’t do anything, so why are they being punished, while young Croats and Bulgarians can freely travel to London and Paris?

No more. Assuming the recommendations is approved — and it’s almost a rubber stamp — then six months from now, Serbs (and Montenegrins and Macedonians) will be able to jump on a plane and just fly to anywhere in the EU, no visa required.

Mind you, they won’t be able to get work permits. It’s just travel. But still: it’s going to make a huge difference.

This being the Balkans, there are of course some complications.
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Serbia and Prishtina: further and further

Here’s an interesting article that I somehow missed when it came out a few months back. It’s a dialogue between Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijević (who we’ve met before) and Kosovar Albanian journalist Migjen Kelmendi.

If you’re interested in Kosovo, read the whole thing: it’s all good. But this is the bit that jumped out at me:

Arsenijević: [I] really don’t known anyone in Serbia who is keen to maintain regular contacts with artists in Kosovo, or who thinks that it should be done. Books by Kosovo Albanians are not being published, so we have no idea what is happening there. Each act that assumes some good intention towards Kosovo Albanians has to be explained at great length. It is not that the police ask you to come down to the station for a chat, no, that does not happen; but you have to justify yourself in the most normal, everyday conversations. The problem lies in the fact that, when it comes to the Albanians, we are filled with anger, rage and a feeling of being losers; that we act like some injured partner or spouse who has been denied something that he believes naturally to be his own. If you say: ‘There is a great writer in Kosovo, who has written a novel’, they will talk not about the novel, but about the author’s nationality.

Karabeg: Mr Kelmendi, do Albanian artists from Kosovo want to work with Serbia, to have their books translated there, to exhibit their paintings, to have a theatre perform there, or do they want artists from Serbia to come to Kosovo, to Prishtina?

Kelmendi: No. They are definitely no longer interested in Belgrade and Serbia. They are fully oriented towards Tirana and Albania. It is there that they wish their works to appear. I would say that the Kosovo Albanians have turned their backs on Serbia for good. There is not the smallest wish to know what is going on there. It seems at times that Belgrade for them is a faraway city, that Serbia is a faraway land. They do not translate books by Albanian authors. Apart from occasional individual contacts, communication has practically ended.

Arsenijević: Belgrade was not very open towards Kosovo Albanians, and now we see this being repaid by turning their backs on Serbia.

This is, unfortunately, true. Kosovo is a young society — the average Kosovar Albanian is about 25 — which means that most Kosovars have no adult memory of peaceful, friendly interaction with Serbs. The Serbs north of the Mitrovica have as little contact with Albanians as possible; the Serb communities left in the rest of Kosovo are small and insular. Continue reading

A bit of Balkan kabuki

The Bulgarians arrested Agim Ceku last week! But then, after a couple of days, they let him go. Serbia is upset.

Who is Agim Ceku, and why should you care?

Well, Agim Ceku is a very important Kosovar Albanian. He was an officer in the Yugoslav army and then, after 1991, he was a commander in the Croatian Army during their war against the Serbs. Then, after that, he was chief of staff of the Kosovar Liberation Army during the 1999 Kosovo War. Later, he was Prime Minister of Kosovo. He’s sort of retired now, or at least politically in eclipse, but he’s still one of the most important political figures in Kosovo.

The Serbs say he’s a war criminal. They have indictments against him for various horrible acts, including genocide. They tried him in absentia for some of them, back in 2002, and convicted him to 20 years in prison. They’ve managed to get an Interpol warrant for his arrest. So, Interpol member states are supposed to assist in capturing Ceku and, if necessary, extradite him to Serbia.

There have been several attempts to do this. None have yet succeeded. The most recent was last week, when Ceku visited Bulgaria. He was stopped at the border, then detained, while a Bulgarian court considered whether to hand him over to Serbia. After a couple of days the Bulgarians decided no, they weren’t going to do that, and Ceku went free. The Serbian government has expressed outrage, outrage! Ceku is still in Bulgaria but should be heading back to Serbia soon.

So why should anyone care? Continue reading

Ten years since the bombs started falling

On Serbia. Or, as it was then, Yugoslavia.

The Kosovo War has been debated, God knows, enough times. Still, a couple of things. One is this interesting article from the always-worth-reading Nenad Pejic. (Favorite line: “the official speeches spend all their time remembering that Serbia was bombed but never mention why Serbia was bombed.”) This bit was particularly interesting IMO:

Mladic remains at large and Serbia remains in denial about the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Schoolchildren are taught about crimes committed against Serbs, but not about crimes committed by Serbs. This policy of denial has created an alarming situation among young Serbs. A 2007 poll of youths found that more than 30 percent say “there is no need” to be acquainted with ethnic Albanians. Fifty percent think the Cyrillic alphabet should be given preference to the Latin alphabet. Twenty-five percent “cannot imagine” having sex with a member of another ethnic group, and 20 percent expressed a desire to live in an ethnically pure state. It is unlikely these figures have improved since the poll was taken.

To be fair, I should say it is likely the responses would be similar among ethnic-Albanian youths in Kosovo. I shudder to think what these attitudes mean for the region when this generation takes over political power.

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