Vienna: The End of the Beginning

So the latest round of talks on Kosovo begin in Vienna today.

There have already been seven rounds of talks since February. The result: the two sides have utterly failed to reach any agreement on anything whatsoever.

But this is not just an eighth round. No, this is a new “phase” of the talks. Now, instead of special negotiating teams, the political leadership of both Kosovo and Serbia will be coming in. On the Serb side will be President Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, and Foreign Minister (sort of) Draskovic. On the Albanian side, President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku will lead a team that includes representatives from all major Albanian political parties.

What will this accomplish?

Almost certainly nothing.

Most legal systems, both civil and common, have a doctrine called “exhaustion of remedies”. What this means is, there are situations where you can’t go to court until you’ve first tried everything else. So, for instance, say your local Ministry of Finance claims you owe a million dollars in back taxes, and freezes your bank account. Can you sue them? Probably not. In most countries, you must first go through an internal appeals process at the Ministry (or the Tax Agency, or whatever). Only when you’ve exhausted that remedy — tried and failed — can you appeal to the courts.

That’s sort of what’s happening here.

The final remedy for Kosovo is for outside powers — ultimately, the UN — to impose a solution. However, nobody is in a hurry to do this. And nobody feels it’s wise or good practice to do this until it’s utterly, totally clear that the parties can’t reach agreement on their own.

So, this week’s talks. “We’ve tried negotiating teams; now let’s try sitting the political leadership down for direct talks.”

Once in a great while, this sort of thing can lead to results. Once in a very great while. Thinking hard, I can come up with two examples in recent history: the Begin-Sadat talks in ’77, and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Reykjavik in ’86. Both of those led to major diplomatic breakthroughs.

But they’re the rare exceptions. More often, you get tired platitudes, symbolic gestures, and stalemate.

These talks seem much more likely to go that way. None of the participants are noted for original thinking or a willingness to shock their constituents. Kostunica is a rather dull nationalist. Vuk is a mystic and egotistical nationalist. Fatmir Sejdiu is a bland creature who was selected because he was a loyal follower of the late Ibrahim Rugova, and was offensive to nobody. Agim Ceku is a career soldier who spent a decade fighting the Serbs, first in Croatia and then in Kosovo; the Serbs consider him a war criminal and have twice tried to have him arrested while travelling abroad.

So, what we’re seeing here — to misquote Churchill — is not the end, or even the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning. Once the two delegations have met and failed to agree, there will be another round of shuttle diplomacy — which will also fail. Then, finally, the international community gets to step in, and a plan will be presented. (The Albanians probably will hate this pla. The Serbs certainly will.) The plan will go to the UN Security Council.

Then things get interesting.

The UN Security Council, as we all remember from high school, has fifteen members — five permanent and ten temporary. Of the current crop of temporary members, most are likely to support any reasonable plan; the sole esception is Greece, which is traditionally pro-Serb and which hates the idea of an independent Kosovo. But Greece is just one country of ten, and anyway the temporary members don’t count for much.

But the five permanent members do, because they have veto powers. And two of the Big Five — China and Russia — might veto an independent Kosovo.

This gets into deep waters, because it involves stuff that has nothing to do with Kosovo… Russia’s WTO application, the breakaway republics that Russia is supporting in Georgia, China’s relation with the West, you name it. Since the final plan doesn’t exist yet (although there’s a pretty clear idea of its outlines), and it won’t be coming before the Security Council for another three to six months, it’s hard to guess yet what’s going to happen. But it should be interesting.

Meanwhile, a wild card: as noted a week or so back, the current Serbian government is looking at elections within… well, three to six months. Maybe something like the current government gets back in; but on the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the Serbian Radical Party — the hardline nationalists — may win. Much depends, of course, on whether the election takes place before or after the Security Council acts.

More on this anon.

17 thoughts on “Vienna: The End of the Beginning

  1. It seems fairly clear that the Serbian government can only accept an independent Kosovo as something imposed from the outside. To behave otherwise would probably lead to a Serb Dolchstoßlegende that would only do still more damage to Serbia. So I assume that even a Serb government that has already resolved itself to an independent Kosovo would still be unwilling to sign a document granting it independence. And, the longer NATO has to twist in the wind over the Kosovo, the more it costs the states that went to war with Serbia in the first place.

    So, if I were in charge of Serbia, I’d be as stubborn and immovable as possible on Kosovo, in the expectation of still losing but of doing as much political and diplomatic damage to NATO powers as possible. I’d also try to do what Israel does and pick who I’m willing to negotiate with. Agim Ceku is not only unacceptable to Serbs, he has a large community of enemies in Canada for what happened at Medak. So, if I ran Serbia, I’d refuse any face-to-face negotiations as long as he’s in charge, going on about what a terrorist and war criminal he is. Russia and China might sit on a UN-backed solution until they get concessions, and during all that time, the West is fully responsible for everything that happens in Kosovo. Someone shoots a Serb in some surviving Serbian enclave? Where was UNMIK?

    Then, years from now when NATO has finally gotten Kosovar independence, Serbia should get Greece to declare that it will veto any EU expansion unless Serbia becomes an official candidate for admission. Then, and only then, might it behoove the Serbian government to reluctantly acknowledge Kosovar independence.

    The only real card anyone has to play with Serbia is EU membership, and there’s no way that’s going to be on the agenda for years. In the mean time, Serbia has nothing to lose by stalling, much to gain by not provoking nationalists, and can enjoy watching the states that attacked it eat crow on Kosovo’s behalf.

  2. It seems fairly clear that the Serbian government can only accept an independent Kosovo as something imposed from the outside. To behave otherwise would probably lead to a Serb Dolchstoßlegende that would only do still more damage to Serbia.

    You may be right about the first point. I’m less sure about the second. Imposition from outside means no buy-in, and a lingering claim against Kosovo. This in turn will poison Serb-Kosovar relations for a long time. Not that they’re going to be great anyhow, but still.

    And, the longer NATO has to twist in the wind over the Kosovo, the more it costs the states that went to war with Serbia in the first place.

    Do what? The modest NATO presence in Kosovo isn’t very expensive at all. And the single biggest piece of it is American — the 36th Infantry Division, down at Camp Bondsteel. Costs to European countries are modest indeed.

    As for political costs, there aren’t any. Unlike Iraq, Kosovo has the UN’s blessing, and so is respectable. Even peace-loving governments of the center-left are keeping their troops in. The Spanish are long gone from Iraq, and the Italians are going, but neither government has even hinted that it might pull out of Kosovo.

    if I were in charge of Serbia, I’d be as stubborn and immovable as possible on Kosovo, in the expectation of still losing but of doing as much political and diplomatic damage to NATO powers as possible.

    I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. I think they’re just being stubborn because they think Serbian public opinion will punish them forever if they do otherwise.

    N.B., pissing off NATO members = pissing off EU members, or close enough. Bad idea.

    So, if I ran Serbia, I’d refuse any face-to-face negotiations as long as he’s in charge,

    That would be silly. This is the least objectionable government the Kosovars have yet produced.

    You think they’d be happier negotiating with Ramush Haradinaj? Hashim Thaci, maybe? No, this is as good as it gets. As for the Israeli strategy of picking who you’ll negotiate with… um, would you call that a positive role model?

    Anyway, Serbia is not Israel. Much as they might wish.

    Russia and China might sit on a UN-backed solution until they get concessions, and during all that time, the West is fully responsible for everything that happens in Kosovo. Someone shoots a Serb in some surviving Serbian enclave? Where was UNMIK?

    Somebody shoots a Serb? Not much happens, and nobody really cares — except that it makes the West more annoyed with the Albanians. (Bad Albanians. /Bad/.)

    Russia and China can veto for a while, but beyond a certain point that well runs dry too.

    The Serbs just have very little to bargain with here.

    years from now when NATO has finally gotten Kosovar independence, Serbia should get Greece to declare that it will veto any EU expansion unless Serbia becomes an official candidate for admission.

    This is basically what happened with Cyprus. Result: the EU purchased a headache that will drag on for years if not decades to come.

    This will not happen again.

    Greece is going to be too busy anyway, what with threatening to veto Macedonia’s entry (over the name issue), Turkey’s (over Cyprus) and Albania’s (because they’re a lot of filthy Albanians… no, sorry, because of concerns about the ethnic Greek minority in Albania). I don’t think they’ll have much diplomatic credit left to spend for Serbia.

    Even if they did, you want to look hard at what Greece /did/ for Serbia in the last 15 years, as opposed to what they /said/. Greece has been publicly pro-Serb, and has made a lot of noise, but they’ve consistently failed to actually do much.

    Then, and only then, might it behoove the Serbian government to reluctantly acknowledge Kosovar independence.

    Alternate version: the Serbs should cut Kosovo loose at once. It’s a diseased limb that’s damaging the whole organism.

    What they should be fighting for is (1) safety for the Serbs left in Kosovo, and (2) to hang on to the northern enclave. There’s some small chance they could get that, especially if they maneuver the Albanians into looking stubborn and refractory. Which, with a little bit of diplomatic finesse, should not be hard.

    Unfortunately, when I look at Kostunica and Vuk Karadzic, “finesse” is not the word that comes to mind.

    The only real card anyone has to play with Serbia is EU membership, and there’s no way that’s going to be on the agenda for years. In the mean time, Serbia has nothing to lose by stalling, much to gain by not provoking nationalists, and can enjoy watching the states that attacked it eat crow on Kosovo’s behalf.

    That’s wrong on just about every point. No offense.

    There are plenty of other cards to play besides EU membership. Various sweetheart trade deals, for instance, mean that Serbia is now the only Eastern European country to run a trade surplus with the EU. But all those deals are short-term and subject to renegotiation.

    Serbia has much to lose by stalling; it will remain a half-pariah state, poorly integrated into both the EU and the region. Bright ambitious young people will continue to leave and not come back.

    “Provoking nationalists” results in… the nationalists whining a lot, and then nothing. Notice that every time a general is shipped to the Hague from Croatia, Bosnia or Serbia, there’s supposed to be an explosion. Yet somehow it never happens.

    Nobody’s eating crow over Kosovo. Nobody cares that much. It’s a minor lingering nuisance, but nobody’s losing sleep over it in the chanceries of Europe.

    So, the Serbs don’t have a lot of cards to play.

    Doug M.

  3. Well, Kostunica has just fulfilled all expectation by walking out of the talks before lunch, bringing the Serbian delegation with him. Apparently he was upset that the Albanians demanded independence. (Why this should have been at all surprising to his is rather a mystery.)

  4. I’m not so sure that the west isn’t having to eat crow over Kosovo. It’s true it’s not in the Western European press much, but at every turn, Kosovo turns out to be the centre of the heroin trade, or the girl trade, or peacekeepers turn out to be buying sex with 12 year olds. And it isn’t UNMIK so much as aid to Kosovo that costs money. That may not cost much, but why should Serbia let the rest of the world off the hook by washing their hands of the place?

    I’m not advocating Serbia behaving this way, but it strikes me as a likely strategy for someone with no cards to play. Serbia is unlikely to be able to emerge from half-pariah status for years to come, no matter what they do. Surrounded by the EU after 2007, but with future candidacy still far in the future, the EU can offer trade agreements, but I doubt Serbia is likely to receive a lot of foreign investment income soon under any trade agreement.

    A trade surplus is what happens when you don’t receive foreign investment income. North Korea probably has a trade surplus too. Better to run a deficit and build new businesses. Serbia’s seen strong GDP growth the last few years, but most of that has been recovery from the damage of the 90s. Unemployment is still pretty high. I know it’s trying to get into the WTO and get a stabilization agreement with Brussels, but I have to be cynical about whether agreements with the EU will lead to new investment anytime soon. So, I think Serbia’s leadership is not so likely to value new trade agreements unless there’s some real growth in it on the short or medium term.

    But I agree that they should try to fight to have the northern enclave separated from Kosovo. It probably is the best they can make of the situation. Is there any real chance of getting that? I have the impression that redrawing the border is something as politically unacceptable to the Kosovars as Kosovar independence is to Serbs. So, why negotiate when the outcome gets decided elsewhere in the end?

  5. I’m not so sure that the west isn’t having to eat crow over Kosovo. It’s true it’s not in the Western European press much, but at every turn, Kosovo turns out to be the centre of the heroin trade, or the girl trade,

    This gets overstated. Kosovo has gotten a bit more of a bad rep than it deserves. Organized crime has certainly found a happy home there, but it’s no more than a secondary center for drugs, and the girl trade is still dominated by Turks and Russians.

    Key point: this isn’t causing much distress to “the West”, nor much satisfaction to the Serbs.

    And it isn’t UNMIK so much as aid to Kosovo that costs money.

    Most of that is coming either through the UN or bilateral donors. The sums involved are — in international donor terms — chump change. A few hundred million a year, spread out over a lot of donor countries.

    Know what the single biggest aid sink in Kosovo is? Keeping the lights on. The power plant is ancient and filthy, it’s supplied by coal mines that are obsolete and dangerous, the distribution network is crumbling, and nobody pays their bills. (It’s that last one that’s the kicker.) KEK, the Kosovo electrical utility, has soaked up about $500 million in donor aid since 1999.

    But still, in the great scheme of things, not much. Nobody’s demanding a change of status because of budget issues.

    A trade surplus is what happens when you don’t receive foreign investment income.

    Sometimes, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here. Serbia got about $1.5 billion of FDI last year.

    I have to be cynical about whether agreements with the EU will lead to new investment anytime soon.

    See above. FDI is actually one of the bright spots.

    So, I think Serbia’s leadership is not so likely to value new trade agreements unless there’s some real growth in it on the short or medium term.

    That might seem a reasonable assumption; but as it turns out, no. They’re crazy for trade agreements. In addition to the stuff with the EU, they have bilaterals with every neighboring state, and with countries as far away as Canada and India.

    — I have an unfair advantage here: Serbia’s current Minister of International Economic Relations is a friend. Lovely man, and I’ll be sorry to see him out of office when this government falls.

    Serbia is unlikely to be able to emerge from half-pariah status for years to come, no matter what they do.

    Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro.

    (I think the Croats have been let off rather easy, but that’s something else again.)

    Doug M.

  6. Well, you do have better contacts in Serbia than I do, but 1.5 billion in FDI is smaller per capita than Bulgaria or Ukraine get. And, while I agree that Croatia got let off the hook too easily, I’m not sure the same is coming for Serbia. As much as I despise the Chomskyan left for making such mountains out of molehills of anti-Serbian sentiment in the west, there are larger molehills of anti-Serbian sentiment than there ever were of anti-Croatian sentiment.

    I could be wrong. I might even like to be wrong. All the Serbs I know have the attitude that Kosovo independence is inevitable, and will undoubtedly lead to the ethnic cleansing of Serbs there. That Serbia might be decent place to live in a generation, but probably not sooner. But then, the ones I know are all exiles, and frustration is always epidemic among exiles. I have the impression of an attitude of beaten down frustration of the kind that usually leads to stubborn refusal to cooperate, thinking that cooperation won’t actually get any results anyway. It would be nice to get them something better than one last humiliation.

  7. smaller per capita than Bulgaria or Ukraine

    True; but Serbia is in Year 6 of transition, not Year 14 or Year 17.

    there are larger molehills of anti-Serbian sentiment than there ever were of anti-Croatian sentiment.

    Actually, I agree with this. The Serbs have a deeper hole to dig themselves out of.

    But it’s very doable IMO. From 1990 to 1996, Montenegro was Serbia’s junior partner in every dubious enterprise. Ethnic cleansing, mass murder, you name it, there were Montenegrins right in the thick. Nobody’s bringing that up today; it’s all “welcome Europe’s newest country”.

    I could easily imagine a scenario where, five years from now, Serbia has mostly shed its reputation. I don’t think it’s likely, but I definitely think it’s possible.

    It would be nice to get them something better than one last humiliation.

    You could argue that Serbia today has to cash a check written by Milosevic.

    What’s the alternative? Keep Kosovo under the UN? Um. Give it back to Belgrade? I think not.

    Doug M.

  8. [day two]

    The lines drawn as expected. Albanians all about independence, Serbs will never accept it.

    One interesting twist: Kostunica wants a fixed minimum number of seats for the Serbs in Kosovo’s legislature. Reasonable enough.

    But — he then adds that no law should pass without the consent of a majority of that minority.

    Oooh boy.

    Doug M.

  9. Last week you may have noticed that Serbia got Anan to state that there must not be an imposed solution for Kosovo final status.

    This week this was repeated by Croatian PM Sanader.

    I’d say that those that wanted to finish off Kosovo independence by the end of the Summer are beginning to realise that it wont be that simple.

    BTW I read that Kostunica didnt attend the joint lunch organised rather than walking out – though its interesting how everybody expects him to be obstuctionist and Tadic to be peacenik and favoured by the internationals.

    The body language though confirms the image – Tadic seems very much at the centre of things and almost appears to be enjoying himself. Kostunica on the other hand has that trademark bitter smile etched onto his face.

  10. “But — he then adds that no law should pass without the consent of a majority of that minority.

    Oooh boy.

    Doug M.”

    That is precisely what the solution that was imposed in Macedonia for the Albanian minority.

  11. To be precise not for all laws, but only for those that concern minority issues, an apparent Pandora’s box for interpretation.

  12. I’d say that those that wanted to finish off Kosovo independence by the end of the Summer are beginning to realise that it wont be that simple.

    I’d agree. This was supposed to wrap by the end of 2006. Now it looks likely to stretch into next year.

    Kostunica didnt attend the joint lunch organised rather than walking out – though its interesting how everybody expects him to be obstuctionist and Tadic to be peacenik and favoured by the internationals.

    Tadic shares the pragmatic philosophy of his old boss Djindjic.

    Also, he’s in a better position than Kostunica. He’s not in danger of losing his job in the next few months. His party is in better shape going into the elections. And (for the moment, at least) he’s Serbia’s most popular national political figure. Granted, this is because most other national political figures are pretty _un_popular right now… but still; he can afford to be relaxed.

    Kostunica on the other hand has that trademark bitter smile etched onto his face.

    I used to live around the corner from Kostunica, in Dorcol. We never met, but you had to respect the fact that he never moved to Dedinje.

    He’s a stubborn man.

    Doug M.

  13. To be precise not for all laws, but only for those that concern minority issues, an apparent Pandora’s box for interpretation.

    Hasn’t been so far, although of course it’s still early days.

    But if I understand correctly (and it’s possible I don’t), Kostunica was saying that the Serb minority should have a veto over /all/ laws.

    That’s just crazy talk.

    Doug M.

  14. the single biggest piece of it is American — the 36th Infantry Division, down at Camp Bondsteel. Costs to European countries are modest indeed.

    Doug, I don’t know about unit size, but hasn’t the US military presence in Kosovo been scaled down considerably? I thought the largest contingents were now Italian, German and French, in that order, with the US only having something like 1700 troops left there..

    Most of that is coming either through the UN or bilateral donors. The sums involved are — in international donor terms — chump change. A few hundred million a year, spread out over a lot of donor countries.

    I agree about the overall scale, but I thought the donor contributions coming in have been mainly from EU countries, mostly under EU auspices. Over €1.6 billion to date from the EAR, for instance. It’s the EU that pays those KEK wage bills and refurbished the plant.

    The point of this niggle is to ask whether you think there is any divergence in US and EU policies over a settlement. My general impression is that Europeans, notably France and Germany, are more understanding towards the Serb position, just as they were keener on keeping at least some bridges over the Danube still standing. The EU has some pull with the Serbs, and despite the relative financial contributions, the US has more pull with the Albanians, for whom number of bombs dropped on Serbs counts for more than amount of wages paid to Kosovars. However this influence is not much use if the US is giving the Albanians a blank check in these negotiations.

    Anyway, apart from final status, there are other issues at stake – but I’m not too sure what they are in practice.

  15. John, I’m honestly not sure what US policy is here. The State Department is being very quiet and low-key. However, the Bush administration has shown flashes of surprising wit and insight in the Balkans. N.B., I am not generally a fan of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But the Balkans are a partial and interesting exception.

    The two guys you want to keep an eye on are Nicholas Burns — #3 at State, and the highest ranking non-partisan appointee — and Daniel Fried.

    You can find an interesting recent interview with Fried here:

    http://pristina.usmission.gov/pressr/prs89.htm

    * * * * *

    Question: Loose ends from the ’90s, Kosovo. What happens next?

    Fried: Well, I’ll tell you what can’t happen, which is the status quo forever. It’s not stable. It won’t keep. It won’t get better by itself. Some problems just don’t improve with age. The UN, with our backing, has launched a process to determine, this year, Kosovo’s final status.

    Question: This year?

    Fried: This year. Former President of Finland, Maarti Ahtisaari, is negotiating this. None of the options is ideal. We lost ideal options when Slobodan Milosevic decided to try out aggressive nationalism for political gain and he started a series of wars.

    We can’t go back. We can’t stay where we are. We’ve got to go ahead. It’s not fore-ordained what the outcome will be, but there are a couple of parameters. I don’t foresee Kosovo being ruled again by Belgrade. They’re not going back to the pre-1999 era. The administration doesn’t see a Kosovo without guarantees for a minority population, which means the Kosovo Serbs. They have to have protection, the Serb communities there plus the monasteries, the historic sites. There have to be arrangements for so-called decentralization to give Serb communities daily control over their own lives, police, education. These things can be worked out.

    Frankly, Serbia has to be offered a path to Europe. It can’t be sort of hung out to dry as a pariah. Milosevic is dead. There’s a democratic government in Belgrade. What happened in Kosovo is not their fault. These are the people who, by and large, helped overthrow Milosevic.

    There are risks when you move ahead. Any time you change the status quo, there are risks. In the Balkans, changing the status quo has high risks, but we found out there were riots in March ’04, which sort of woke everybody up. You can’t go on like this, so we are going to move ahead. We’re working with the British, French, Germans, Italians and Russians in the so-called Contact Group. It’s not going to be easy, but the Kosovo issue is the last open question in the Balkans. If we get it right, then the whole region can start moving to Europe.

    Question: I have to ask you, what do you see as prospects? Is this doable?

    Fried: Well, sure. It’s doable.

    Question: By the end of the year?

    Fried: It is doable by the end of the year. It will be difficult and, as I said, there are risks, but the risks of inaction we know, which is that you have a deteriorating situation and then people like yourselves would write, “Why didn’t the administration do something when it had the chance?” [Laughter.] You’d be right. [Laughter.] But you’d be right to do that.

    Sometimes, the U.S. government actually is capable, we think ahead, we see a problem coming, we take steps to try to avert it.

    Question: God forbid. No.

    Fried: That’s our job.

    Question: But you think it’s doable?

    Fried: I think it’s doable. I don’t think it’s easy. I think that the Serbs, it is painful for them, but it’s not the present Serbian government that is responsible for this wretched situation. It’s Milosevic. The Kosovar Albanians also have a responsibility. They have to treat the Serb minority population better than they were treated. They have to demonstrate that they deserve – they claim the right of independence and, in our view, independence has to be earned and has to be based on their achieving and making commitments to achieving European norms. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve got to do it.

    * * * * *

    That was a couple of months ago.

    If you read the whole thing, you’ll notice Fried downplaying differences between Europe and the US. That’s interesting. (Even if he’s lying his ass off. /Especially/ if he’s lying his ass off.)

    Doug M.

  16. If you read the whole thing, you’ll notice Fried downplaying differences between Europe and the US. That’s interesting. (Even if he’s lying his ass off. /Especially/ if he’s lying his ass off.)

    How important is the Balkans to the US? How likely is it that the US will find itself in a situation where it needs Russia very badly in the near future?

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