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.