Kosovo – the politics of partition

Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, recently executed a dangerous gamble in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo by seizing the border posts between the region and Serbia. His actions illustrate the changing balance of power between Americans and Europeans in the region, and the important role of Serbia’s primary opposition party in resolving the Kosovo conflict.

By Matthew Parish

Hashim Thaci, the prime minister of Kosovo, is in an invidious position. On the one hand he is a national hero, having secured the independence of his nation barely ten years after leading a violent freedom fighter movement. He transformed himself from leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), once vilified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, into a respectable international politician welcome in the White House. US support has been essential to Kosovo’s independence and to Thaci’s personal achievements. The US government pushed for NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. It then pushed for international occupation of Kosovo by foreign troops, and for the Kosovo status process from 2005 that led to the territory’s declaration of independence some three years later.

Yet US interest in Kosovo, and in the Balkans more generally, has irreversibly waned. In the midst of a deepening financial crisis, the United States has lost its appetite for expensive foreign adventurism. Development budgets for the Balkans have suffered as a result.  Moreover the USA has no strategic interest in the region. Unlike the Middle East, the area has no natural resources of significance. Unlike Latin America, the organised crime and immigration problems emanating from Kosovo’s endemic poverty do not reach US shores. Fifteen years ago, the United States had an interest in extending NATO eastward and limiting the influence of Russia. But those goals have been largely achieved with accession of ten former communist states to the European Union in 2004 and 2007. Kosovo’s exclusion from most international institutions remains a mere blip in this sea of success. Thus the United States has been gradually withdrawing from the Balkans, leaving the area’s outstanding problems for the European Union to resolve.

This transition of international power has left Thaci with a problem of bewildering dimensions: he is now meant to serve two proconsuls. Formally, the European Union is in charge of Kosovo’s progress from anarchy towards a tolerable approximation to international standards of public administration. An International Civilian Representative serves as the country’s foreign governor, with powers to impose legislation and appoint and dismiss officials from public office. EULEX, Kosovo’s international law and justice mission, populates Kosovo with foreign judges, prosecutors and police officers in the absence of effective and honest domestic equivalents. Both these institutions are managed and funded by the EU, and wield theoretically formidable powers.

Yet lingering de facto authority lies with the US Ambassador, whose influence remains so profound that it extends to the highest levels of government. In the face of parliamentary deadlock, in April 2011 the Ambassador selected Kosovo’s new President, a 36-year old political novice who is a member of no political party. When a Council of Europe investigation concluded Thaci’s complicity in organ harvesting in December 2010, the Ambassador’s support for him served as a cloak of invulnerability to an otherwise toxic and potentially fatal accusation. When the American University in Pristina wanted to secure prime land at under the market value from the Kosovar government without a conventional tender, the US Ambassador negotiated the deal in personal consultations with Thaci. The US Ambassador exerts authority to which the European missions can only aspire.

This inevitably creates frictions. While Albin Kurti’s Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement rails against the perceived tyranny of EULEX’s infractions upon Kosovar sovereignty, US influence in Kosovo stands aloof from all domestic criticism. This frustrates the EU, which realises that Kosovo’s legal institutions are so weak they can neither stem the tide of organised crime that engulfs the country nor protect the Serb minority enclaves without a perpetual foreign military presence. International intervention in Kosovo has so far lasted over twelve years; for all the resources invested in institutional reform the results have been meagre. European officials are now starting to contemplate the prospect that no amount of state-building will be sufficient to enable Kosovo to function as a multi-ethnic state after the departure of an intensive international presence. The Serb minorities in northern Kosovo will refuse to integrate; their current mentality is fight or flight, and this is unlikely to change. The Albanian majority government cannot be trusted to protect them, as is illustrated by events in March 2004 when government-organised mobs went on a 48-hour rampage burning Serb buildings and driving Serbs out of their homes.

Aware that extended international efforts have yielded little of substance in improving Kosovo’s governance, the European Union is searching for an exit strategy. The only options in the face of scepticism about future Serb-Albanian coexistence are either formal partition, or radical autonomy for Serb enclaves that would informally amount to the same thing. Hence the EU has pressed a new round of negotiations upon Serbia and Kosovo, with a view to achieving one of these goals. Belgrade, enthusiastic at the prospect of accelerating EU accession negotiations as a tool in winning April 2012 elections, has willingly acceded. Yet this new EU-Serbia axis in urging negotiations is a trap for Thaci: he fears pressure to agree a deal in which the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, and other Serb enclaves, are ceded to formal Serb control. Kosovar Albanians know that this presages partition of their newly formed and beloved country. Thus it would be political suicide for Thaci to accept any proposal of the kind the EU has in mind.

Thaci’s escape strategy from this impasse is to turn to his traditional allies, the Americans. American political culture is more sympathetic to the notion of forced integration of Serb enclaves into Albanian political institutions than is that of Europe. Whereas people of every ethnic background came to the United States to live under a single political system, Europe has seen centuries of bloodshed over ethnic conflicts and is wary of the human consequences of coercing unwilling people to live together. EU member states also have a far more immediate concern, of refugee influxes if Serbs flee or are driven from Kosovo by the threat of Albanian domination. Western Europe is already straining under immigration from the east, and the last things it needs are new population movements from the Balkans. Yet as a matter of philosophy the United States disagrees with what the Europeans are trying to press upon the Kosovar government; and as a matter of strategy they view with distaste their ally Thaci being pushed into so uncomfortable a corner.

The decision by Kosovar government special police forces to overrun the border posts between northern Kosovo and Serbia by force on 28 July 2011 must be seen in this light. The ostensible reason for this move was to enforce a retaliatory customs policy. Serbia has refused to accept Kosovar imports into its territory, and Thaci’s strategy has been to impose an equivalent ban upon imports of goods from Serbia. If he could enforce it this would lead to a gradual purging of the Kosovar Serbs, most of whose day to day goods are sourced from Serbia. But for Thaci this uncompromising stance has an additional benefit: it has wrecked the negotiations with Serbia in which it has no desire to participate and the outcome of which can have no happy result for him.

The United States also saw value in Thaci’s move. From them it was the last chance to undermine the de facto segregation of the Serb north from the rest of Kosovo, acquiescence in which has been a central plank of rival European policy towards Kosovo. No political decision that involves Kosovo’s central government pitting itself against European wishes in such a way could have taken place without American connivance, and this decision was no exception. In this the Americans were reassured by quiet pledges from Belgrade that there would be no policies of violence on the part of the Serbian government. Serbia, it could be presumed, would remain mostly silent in the face of this hostile act; and so it has proven.

Nevertheless the Americans at least, in lending their tacit imprimatur to this operation, misjudged the dynamics of Kosovar Serb politics. The Serbs of Kosovo live in a virtual anarchy. Few laws apply in their parts of the country. Belgrade’s writ runs extremely weakly and Pristina’s is non-existent. Their regions are run by local political bosses not from the Democratic Party that dominates in Belgrade, but who instead hail from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). These opponents of the Belgrade government adopt a hard line in response to what they perceive as Belgrade’s inclination to disregard the interests of Kosovo Serbs in currying favour with the EU. Hence when the Kosovar Albanians moved upon their territory, the Kosovar Serbs were organised and ready to defend their interests. The Kosovar police units met violent resistance; civilians blockaded the customs points; gangs of Serb youths burned one border post.

In a panic lest matters degenerate to another episode of the mayhem seen in March 2004, the international peacekeeping force, KFOR, intervened and forced the Kosovo special police to withdraw. At the time of writing the two contested border posts are controlled by US and French troops, respectively. Yet their actions belie quite different agendas. Whereas the American soldiers are enforcing the Kosovar government’s ban on Serb imports at the border post under their control, the French were imposing no such restriction. (On 5 August a deal was signed which seemed to perpetuate this arrangement indefinitely.) Public statements are also revealingly different. Whereas the Americans are asserting the legitimacy of the Kosovar authorities taking actions to control the country’s external boundaries, the European Union has regretted that any actions were taken without coordination with EULEX. The US continues to support Thaci, while the Europeans are privately exasperated with him.

A number of lessons have emerged from the border posts incident. Kosovar Albanian government forces do not have the capacity to take and hold strategic parts of Northern Kosovo without inciting organised resistance and massive civil disobedience. Even if they attempt to do so, the European authorities will not let them. Thaci may have achieved his short-term objective, which is to derail forced negotiations with Serbia. But it is not clear that his longer-term objective – to ensure the territorial and political integrity of Kosovo – is achievable while a foreign military presence in the country exists to prevent him. He may try to adopt a strategy of making life increasingly unpleasant for Kosovar Serbs, hoping they will ultimately leave. But while Serbs can maintain open borders with Serbia through the north, they will continue to receive the foodstuffs, medical supplies and other essential goods that enable them to survive. And for as long as Kosovo remains in political stasis, ostensibly with a unitary government but in practice with swathes of territory under the control of a political party based in Serbia, the country will remain unattractive as a destination for foreign investment. Under those conditions, economic and institutional progress will be hard to achieve.

Devoid of other practical options, Belgrade will remain keen on pursuing a tacit partition policy under the guise of autonomy or devolution, as the best possible resolution to the conflict with its southerly neighbour. It will thereby ingratiate itself with sympathetic minds in the EU who see division of irremediably hostile peoples as the only sustainable outcome to the problem of northern Kosovo and who view Serbian inclination to negotiate positively in the face of Kosovar intransigence. SNS has proven itself a key player in the Kosovar conflict, wielding authority over the Serbs in the contested areas while Belgrade exerts minimal influence. If SNS leader Tomislav Nikolic becomes the next Serbian prime minister after the country’s April 2012 elections, he may be able to coax the Kosovar Serbs towards a genuinely negotiated solution.

Finally, the border débacle may represent one of the last gasps of US foreign policy in the Balkans. Thaci has suffered something of a humiliation, as his police units have been compelled to withdraw in favour of a continuing international presence. On this occasion, the Americans could not deliver. Albanians may come to view US support a less decisive instrument than it once was. American influence in the Balkans is surely on the wane, because the region matters a lot more to the Europeans than it does to them.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva and was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brcko in northern Bosnia. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. His first book, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia‘, is published by I.B.Tauris. His second book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, is published by Edward Elgar. His third book, “Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law”, will be published by Edward Elgar in 2012. www.matthewparish.com

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