Independence interruptus

The behavior of all sides in the current customs dispute demonstrates that — as far as the locals are concerned — the question of who has sovereignty is an indelibly zero-sum dispute; one that the respective local elites must be left to settle on their own.

By David B. Kanin

The kerfuffle over customs gates on the Kosovo-Serbia border is an expression of the untenable position of everyone involved. This includes the three local entities — Serbia, Kosovo (land north of the Ibar) and Kosova (the part of the former Yugoslav autonomous province south of that river) — the ineffectual contraption called EULEX, and the increasingly distant American presence. The immediate crisis most likely will die down, but the deeper illogic affecting the postures of all sides is not going away.

Kosova’s prime minister Thaci deserves most blame for the current problem. His impatient decision to strike out on his own (ignore the usual conspiracy theories that assume Washington must have known what he was up to) did his country’s cause no good in the region or in Western capitals. The only positive for Kosova was the predictably violent response by local Serbs, which led KFOR to close both gates. Even a short-term blockage could hurt intra-Serb commerce and call into question the status quo ante in which Serbia was able to move officials and goods through those gates and pretend it has sovereignty throughout its former province.

The lion’s share of responsibility for the longer-range problem of stunted sovereignty falls on American diplomatic blunders that brought everybody to the current impasse. This takes us back to 2005, when Washington’s attention was elsewhere. The Bush Administration, perhaps pushed by those few individuals still paying attention to the Balkans, made the decision to support an independent Kosova and declare that state a “final status.” The plan was to get a UN Security Council Resolution that would replace 1244 and sanctify the new country. The story goes that secretary of state Rice believed Russian foreign minister Lavrov had assured her his country — whatever its initial rhetoric — would not block object this line of march. From that point on, the Department supposedly ignored the beliefs of some that Moscow would not let such a resolution pass — no matter what words passed between Lavrov and Rice. I do not know if this tale is true, but I know people engaged on the issue during that time who believe it is true.

The initiative was launched in February 2006 when two diplomats, one American and one British, went around Europe telling their interlocutors the Kosovo issue would be decided that year and it would be decided by creating an independent state. As with Bosnia, the West would conjure a new country by turning former Yugoslav borders into international frontiers by insisting there was no other possible approach the local parties could take to craft their future.

Once again, this did not work very well. Washington, forgetting Diplomacy 101, put itself in the always unfortunate position of demandeur. This means it had put its prestige on the line before it had a critical mass of support for what it was demanding. It immediately became clear that a number of EU states feared Kosovo’s independence from Serbia would serve as a precedent for their own and other similar secession issues. The American response, that this question was absolutely unique and could not possibly be compared to anything happening anywhere else at any time not only was preposterous, but demonstrated that the Americans had not thought things through.

The result was predictable and widely predicted. Russia brushed aside American arguments by saying whatever happened in Kosovo also would affect the Caucasus, but otherwise relaxed and let Washington conduct its doomed diplomacy. Former Finnish president Ahtisaari came up with the standard international “plan” that provided the basis for legal slogans but had little to do with realities in Kosovo or in Serbia. The 2006 time frame lapsed into 2007. Naturally, Russia then blocked a new Security Council Resolution.

The US, used to such failures at last since its similarly stillborn diplomacy before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, responded by seeking another version of the “coalition of the willing.” As Kosova issued a unilateral declaration of independence, Washington delivered serial demarches in an attempt to get as many countries as possible to recognize the new state. This still goes on. Seventy-some countries have gone along. The rest have not. The Ahtisaari Plan now matters as little as do the serial international plans concocted and then discarded during the Bosnian war.

The European Union’s problems with the US approach go beyond their internal disagreement over whether Kosova deserves recognition. The EU wants to use the problem to demonstrate (finally) that it can manage international security problems. At the same time — just as regarding unsettled conditions in Bosnia and Macedonia — it is clear many EU members are willing to accept any solution that keeps the region quiet. No matter the hectoring rhetoric occasionally emerging from Lady Ashton or her office, absent American pressure many in the EU would tolerate new partitions, border changes, and other adjustments if by some miracle the locals actually agreed to them.

EULEX is a further obstacle to useful work. By posturing the thing as a new age-like “rule of law” mechanism, the EU advertises that it — unlike the war hawks in Washington — stands above mere security functions and is ready to bring to the Balkans the benefit of its experience and wisdom. The sharp distinction between KFOR’s decisive military actions at Jarinje and Brnjak gates with EULEX’s uncertain, diminishing performance as the crisis unfolded demonstrates the emptiness of this rhetoric.

The one thing still agreed on across the Atlantic is that the Balkans must conform to the West’s latter-day notion of multiculturalism. Never mind that Europe itself remains based on states largely dominated by majority titular communities. The parts of the EU actually made up of competing nationalities — the UK, Belgium, and Spain, for example, (like Czechoslovakia in the 1990s) — are in various stages of centrifugal development the West insists will not be permitted in the Balkans. Romania is Europe’s multi-cultural anomaly, but the current issue there over administrative redistricting and occasional nationalist noises from Budapest suggest Transylvania once again could come into play.

The laser-like EU focus on proving the worth of itself and its ideology makes it an unsuitable mediator in the Balkans. The untenable status quo among Kosova, Kosovo and Serbia might produce minor “technical” agreements Robert Cooper can hail as indicating progress. Nevertheless, behavior of all sides in the current customs dispute demonstrates that — as far as the locals are concerned — the question of who has sovereignty is an indelibly zero-sum dispute.

The accepted wisdom in Europe is that there can be no solution to problems in Kosovo or elsewhere in the Balkans unless the EU mediates among the protagonists. This is false. European insistence on interfering in local squabbles simply reinforces the local pathology of permanent dependence. Big Men and their representatives to the Great Powers manipulate the outsiders by insisting they take responsibility for Balkan futures and then blaming them for everything that goes wrong. The widely accepted notion that Washington “must” have known Thaci was going to seize the customs gates is the latest symptom of this illness. The outsiders, unfortunately, remain all too eager to accept the role of the omnipotent Other.

If the EU really wants to do some good, it should recall Mr. Cooper and disband both his office and EULEX. It should then tell Kosova, Kosovo and Serbia that none of them have any hope of joining the European Union unless and until they settle their conflicts. The Europeans should make it clear they will not accept any decision achieved through violence — no matter who is at fault. Otherwise — and this is the hard part—“Europe” should back off, withhold advice, and leave the locals to themselves. The US and Russia should do the same.

This would be no panacea. Aside from predictable insecurity among Balkan protagonists, the traditional powers would face the prospect that Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Islamist forces would attempt to step into the vacuum to enable a so-far miniscule radicalism among ethnic Albanian Muslims and a more significant Bosnjak identity.

Still, for the first time in many centuries, it would be squarely up to local elites to settle their disputes on their own, by talking or fighting it out (despite Western ukases, violence remains a robust vehicle for the conduct and settlement of disputes in the Balkans and in most other places as well). Balkan protagonists no longer would have the perverse leverage they have enjoyed of being able to drag stronger powers into their squabbles. There likely would be further violence and there is no way to predict where this would lead — the same is true of the current situation. With the Great Powers on the sidelines, responsibility for whatever happens next finally would sit firmly on local heads.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in supporting TransConflict, please click here.



0 Response

  1. ICJ

    Sensible article, and a good argument. I just cannot see Washington, or Britain, which steadfastly supports the US line, taking such a step. I am amazed that there has been so little direct criticism of Thaci’s unilateralism. I cannot think of a more obvious example of how supposedly European values have been so wilfully ignored, and then so meekly condemned by the EU. Had it been Serbia that took unilateral steps to assert its own sovereignty, on the other hand, then there would have been a chorus of disapproval and threats. Pristina has long known that threats of violence produce results. Recent events have again proved this. It is also appalling that Washington’s only complaint was that action was taken without consultation – indicating that it tacitly supported the move. Meanwhile, the EU stands there idly. This proves, yet again, what an utter joke it has become. Its claim that it has shown a new way forward in international affairs by promoting peaceful dialogue, upholding international law and supporting multilateral institutions, such as the UN, has been wholly demolished by its recent inaction in Kosovo.

  2. I kinda agree with you until the point you suggest the international community should pack up and leave the Albanians and Serbs to sort things out themselves. I generally think peacekeepers should follow the dictum of “first do no harm.” But in this case if the best we can do after 12 years is declare defeat, then we had better not ever step beyond our doorstep again. Possible solutions to the problems of Kosovo and the north are not logically difficult. Ahtisaari’s plan is generally speaking a good one and as I have been saying here and elsewhere, some form of Ahtisaari Plus could work for the north. Partition is also an option that could work despite all the scary stories some people tell.

    Yes, the logic is not self-enforcing. But that is where the EU, US and Russia could come in. Both Serbia and Kosovo need what the internationals can give so bring them to the table and keep them there. Set some limits — such as no walking away and no absolutist demands. This could work and would be more responsible than just walking away.

  3. Bardh

    There are terrorists of the muslim side like there are terrorists of orthodox side.Remember Oslo….!The Sword of Damocle that you propose is never a way to resolve the question.Even you are right at all in what Europe must do.Because it’s all on their (Europe) money that both parts play this risky game.
    But wich Europe did you mention,that one that can naver hold an unanimous decision about the foreign politics.or the other one that permitted the 4 year massacre in the Yougoslav wars.

    SERBIA is not Israel soo to allow itselve one own Palestine(Kosova).It cant handle it.

  4. S.D. Dujakovic

    It is quite worrying that Mr Konin, an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), can advocate for the “local elites to settle their disputes on their own, by talking or fighting it out”, as if we are talking of a board game and pawns made out of plastic, rather than actual people, their property and livelihoods.

    Also, Mr Galucci, who himself should be well informed of a real situation in Kosovo starts from the flawed premise that “Ahtisaari’s plan is generally speaking a good one” and that “some form of Ahtisaari Plus could work for the north”. Yes, anything “plus” from a zero is better. Ahtisaari’s original plan was not inclusive, I am afraid, and as long as one side views it as totally biased, without any compromise or taking into account one’s real concerns, it cannot work. You can rebrand it, repackage it, but if it smells the rat, it won’t matter if it says on the package it is a flower.

    Both gentlemen ignore that ordinary people are hostages of local warlords, who are utilising the current situation to fuel their personal enrichment, at the expense of their own people they supposedly represent and defend. The whole region is a hornet’s nest of organised crime: drugs, human trafficking, arms trafficking, log trafficking, you name it. Anything that can be smuggled is smuggled. It is the main route for many woes afflicting many other European countries and it should hardly be news to anyone connected in one way or another to the region, let alone to these two prominent gentlemen.

    Those “local elites” in fact cooperate quite well. Serbian drug lords are well connected to Albanian, Montenegrin and other drug lords. They are well infiltrated in all local governments, no matter which side of the border (and there are many in the region) and any dysfunctional state is actually a safe-haven for those “local elites”. Past conflicts, history of mutual persecution(s) committed by either side in various periods of time depending on who had more favours with what superpowers ruled the world, are used to perpetuate a sense of anarchy and fear that prevents a real elite and real leaders to emerge, the ones that are not burdened by prejudices that were so carefully cultivated since 1870’s (if not even earlier).

    Please do not take these comments as personal attacks on Messrs Konin & Galucci, for they are not. It is only there to highlight what disconnect with reality exists in the “Western” (and “Eastern” a.k.a. Russian) circles of the situation, and how it is used continuously for war games, while the crime is flourishing and hurting everyone trying to attempt some sort of a “normal life” in this region.

    How can “the West” and “the East” support criminals and known corrupt officials in the highest ranks on either side of the conflict? Why not sweep them off the streets and out of their offices – KFOR has the actual power to do so, and get rid of the Mafia in the North of Kosovo and in the highest office in Pristina. Are there fears that tensions might escalate and local people turn against the foreign troops? Parallels are very hard to make, but let’s try it anyway for the sake of argument, with the Serbian police action against all sorts of criminals after the murder of Prime Minister Djindjic, when the whole country was cleaned up (alas, only temporarily) of every sort of human scum, and only the then-inexperienced government, already divided and in state of shock, dropped a unique opportunity to clean up the country of corruption and establish a real rule of law. KFOR has that power in Kosovo, experience and mandate. And if they are unwilling or too scared to act because of possible casualties on their side, then they should be more upfront with normal people who have seen them as troops that are there to protect the local populace – and say “we are powerless”. But stop at least pandering and babysitting actual criminals.

    Yes, the Balkans need to take more responsibility to sort its own issues once and for all, but for the super powers to withdraw now, after meddling for so long and fanning tensions out of historical habits, would be cynical and cowardly.

    Instead, do the right thing; look at how people – real people – really live. Can they move freely, can they tend to their land and stock, without fear for their safety? We are witnesses today of a modern ghetto creation, under the eyes of “peacekeepers” and the reality is ignored for fear of displaying failure after investing so heavily – and betting not on the wrong horse, but on the wrong race altogether! – having no real results to show.

    Here is the reality check, gentlemen: as long as you are dealing with the “local elites” , this situation will not only persist, but get even worse – and it will be solely on your conscience for you had the information, you could or still can influence, but have failed to do so.


    S.D.Dujakovic is very correct in regards to KFOR having the mandate to clean up Kosovo… but there is no political will to do so. I worked in EULEX I am sorry to report, and I was frustrated to the point of not extending my duty there for precisely this reason. EULEX made UNMIK look flawless, and KFOR is right up there with them. So much actionable information regarding high-level criminal enterprise involving Thachi and his cronies was brushed off. Information on well-known Serb criminals in the north was treated the same way. The most frutrating of all were the incidents in Little Bosnia section of north Mitrovica where Albanian criminals and other questionable individuals from foreign nations (to include plain clothed ethnic Germans)all were seen together numerous times before some form of terrorist attack or provocation. We had actionable intelligence yet this was ignored by EULEX. We turned to KFOR hoping SOMEONE would do SOMETHING, yet nothing was ever done. It seems as though the status-quo is just fine for the Great Powers involved in this Kosovo debacle. Although it has been some time since I was working in Kosovo, I still monitor the situation. In my opinion, a clean break along the Ibar is the only way this will be solved. The Serbs in the north will never accept Pristina’s authority – nor should they, given their second-class status amongst the “Young Europeans.”

  6. EULEX and UNMIK, as civilian peacekeeping missions, must work within the framework of their UN mandate and according to the realities of the environment and situation. The real fault is with the EU and especially the US for not insisting on clean government in Pristina but rather choosing short-term stability. Peacekeepers are at best just placeholders while those outside powers with political influence sort out political issues and sometimes even dictate terms.

    Also, KFOR is not a police force. As a military peacekeeping element, it has responsibility for ultimate security but has neither the mandate nor the capability to act as police and do “arrests.”

  7. S.D. Dujakovic

    To quote Mr Gallucci, “…KFOR is not a police force. As a military peacekeeping element, it has responsibility for ultimate security but has neither the mandate nor the capability to act as police and do “arrests.””.

    Everyone is passing the buck – or hot potato, which is a more accurate description.

    What will it take for someone…anyone to do something right?

    Right now, it looks like a very bad episode, not even a funny one and with victims, of BBC’s classic “Yes, Minister”.

  8. Gentlemen,

    In 1991, I was in Yugoslavia on a Mission of Friendship and Goodwill with @ 30 members of the Serbian Unity Congress. There were 5 representatives from various groups (Education/Finance/Agriculture (grape production,Business, etc). I was selected as one of the few women on the trip because of my many awards from Apple Computer Company over the last several years and for being used as a speaker in various U.S. cities for the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, teaching other teachers in the US, how to integrate Creative Thinking Skills into their Curriculums. The other four gentlemen on my team were true gentlemen of renown, professors in engineering, mostly. We took our jobs seriously to see how we could “help.” Believe me, from what I saw, Serbia didn’t need any help except with computers. They were far ahead of America in education, but behind the USA in having any computers. Lots of respect from students who knew the value of education, etc. We especially liked visiting Petnica, the Center for Gifted Education in Valjevo.

    Forgive the long introduction, but it is important to know who was on this trip and what was trying to be achieved. We met with the Francuska 7 literary writers, we traveled from Monastery to Monastery along our route to Kosovo, and experienced the most BEAUTIFUL reception in Kosovo where in Pristina, a Conference of all the BEST poets and writers from Serbia would give poems about the importance of Kosovo. I remember that Desanka Maksimovich was one of those, who walked to Kosovo to show her love/importance for the area. Our group had no idea about the event’s importance. We arrived late. They were waiting for us even though the rest of the hall was packed. We had front row seats saved for us. Several of our members were inappropriately dressed (too casual for such high importance event-California style as they truly did not know what to expect.) The poems and short stories all addressing what Kosovo meant to them were so moving! All heart and soul. I remember the Serbian Unity Congress (SUC) President then, Mr. Michael Djordjevic, was asked to say a few words. All he could muster forth between genuine, heartfelt tears was, “There will never be a Kosovo without Serbia, there will never be a Serbia without Kosovo.”

    That night, Serbian villagers (VERY POOR as you well know!) came in and out carrying all kinds of food. They didn’t stay to eat it. It was for US! As usual, no matter their circumstances, they wanted us to share their hospitality. I will NEVER, EVER forget that scene as long as I live.

    The next day was scheduled to talk to both the Serbian and the Albanian sides in a room with 4 long tables set up in a square. Dialogue went back and forth for hours and hours. Finally, we realized that Mr. Djordjevic and a few others had slipped off with some of the Albanian leaders to talk…. leader to leader. It was very late at night when an exhausted Djordjevic, a very successful businessman who knew a lot about negotiations and Win-Win scenarios, and concessions from both sides, came back forlorn. I can still hear his words which proved prophetic for the next 20 years.: “There’s no talking with them. They want everything and will give up nothing. They have one message they keep repeating over and over about Kosovo being theirs and stick to it. No negotiating. Ever. 20 years and its still the same. Only their way.

    Did the USA really know what it was doing when it supported the Albanian separatists? I hope the people in charge are rethinking the whole last 20 years and the many mistakes made.

    I’ve been to Kosovo monasteries 3 times over the last 20 years. Each time, we needed protection to get to the Decani, Pec, and Gracanica monasteries so dear to our hearts.

  9. Pingback : Congratulations, Kosovo | TransConflict | Transform, Transcend, Translate - TransConflict Serbia

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons