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).

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