Instead of entertaining the idea of territorial exchanges between Serbia and Kosovo, the international community should make mutual co-existence, human rights and anti-racism the basis of its intervention in the region.
By Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi and Roland Gjoni
On July 22, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) affirmed the legality of Kosova’s February 2008 declaration of independence. Before the ICJ ruling, Serbia lobbied hard to convince states around the world to withhold recognition of Kosova’s independence, claiming it was against international law. Once the Court ruled, Belgrade began to realize that Kosova’s existence as a sovereign entity was irrefutable. But instead of respecting the ICJ ruling — a ruling that it requested — Serbia attempted to override the Court’s ruling by presenting resolutions at the UN General Assembly, asking for renewed talks on Kosova’s status. New talks without recognition of Kosova’s independence, however, have the potential to throw the finality of Kosova’s status and the functionality of the new state into free fall, insuring that lasting peace and stability in the region will remain elusive.
The United States and the European Union seem to believe that all solutions for the Western Balkans are found in Belgrade and are trying to push Kosova’s political leadership to the negotiating table, purportedly to deal with “technical issues.” In reality, the international community has run out of ideas for securing Belgrade’s cooperation and is putting pressure on Albanians to give further concessions to Serbia. The fact that the Serb-populated northern part of Kosova has not been under Prishtina’s authority is ostensibly the main reason for renewed talks. But the root cause of Prishtina’s inability to govern the north is not acknowledged.
Since war’s end in 1999, when Kosova came under the protection of the United Nations, the international community has enabled the de facto partition of Mitrovica, allowing Belgrade to consolidate its power there. While the internationals pushed Prishtina to implement the “Ahtisaari plan” (the final status settlement named after its creator, UN Envoy Martti Ahtisaari), which in only two years made all state institutions in Kosova multi-ethnic, integrating the Kosova Serbs into the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, no one tried or tested the plan in the north. On the contrary, the day after Kosova declared its independence in 2008, the West stood idly by as Belgrade-supported extremists burned Kosova’s border crossing, customs checkpoints, and courthouses in the north. In March 2008, it watched as Serbian-controlled extremists killed a Ukrainian peacekeeper and injured 80 international police officers, when UN personnel tried to reopen a courthouse and ever since never reacted to more than a dozen violent incidents in the north. In spite of these and other continuing acts of lawlessness, the West has never put pressure on Serbia to withdraw its financial and political support for illegal, parallel structures in the north.
Appeasing Belgrade has been the centerpiece of the international community’s foreign policy approach to the Balkan conflict ever since the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic began waging four wars of aggression in the Balkans unimpeded until a NATO bombing campaign led by the United States ended his genocidal march across Europe ten years later. By then, more than 200,000 Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Kosovar Albanians were dead, four million people had been displaced, and towns, cities, farms and factories lay in ruins. When more than 1 million Albanians who had been driven out of Kosova, many pushed onto deportation trains, returned home at war’s end in June 1999, the West should have recognized Kosova’s independence, informed Belgrade that it had forfeited its legitimacy to govern Kosova, and set Serbia on a path to democratization. Instead, Serbia was never forced, as Germany was in 1945, to confront and transform its genocidal past. The corrupt, intolerant system that Milosevic created in Serbia has yet to be dismantled — not just to the detriment of Albanians, but to the detriment of Serbs.
This is why Serbian President Boris Tadic has every reason to believe that his government can successfully leapfrog over the ICJ ruling and into a new diplomatic phase — one that seeks the acquisition of Kosova’s northern municipalities. Belgrade wants to reopen negotiations with Prishtina in an effort to expropriate the north — just as it was able to extract “Republika Srpska” from Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Dayton Accords in 1995. This has always been Serbia’s endgame — not the reclamation of the whole of Kosova, but instead a land grab that would overshadow Belgrade’s moral problem of insisting that nations live under Serbia, not alongside it.
Twenty years of failing to push for a non-violent, integrationist solution in the north is now culminating in calls for Kosova to trade the largely Serb northern part of its territory for the Albanian majority parts of southern Serbia in the Presheva Valley. But internationals should know that Serbia’s real objective is neither to improve the lives of the roughly 50,000 Serbs living in the north, nor to finally resolve the conflict. On the contrary, such an arrangement will embolden Belgrade to seize the north and leave Kosova in limbo as a failed state, dependent on an international presence for years to come.
Instead of fulfilling Serbia’s expansionist appetite by entertaining land swaps and population exchanges, the West should promote mutual coexistence and human rights throughout the region in anticipation of the day when all borders and visas in the Balkans will be removed. It should champion a new 21st century political process that is neither orchestrated nor manipulated by Belgrade. The way forward should entail making human rights and anti-racism the linchpin of international involvement in Southeast Europe and not rewarding violent behavior because we have no patience and willingness to confront it.
Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League. Roland Gjoni is an expert in international law working in Kosova.