Kosova/Kosovo – is there a deal here?

The chance of a meaningful outcome to the next round of political negotiations depends on Serbian and Kosovar protagonists taking responsibility for negotiations away from US, EU and Russian overseers.

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By David B. Kanin

So far, Serbian president Nikolic’s comments about the Lost Province are somewhat different than those regarding old wounds in Bosnia and Croatia. He had made inaccurate and unfortunate denials that the mass murder at Srebrenica amounted to genocide, and offered the view that Vukovar somehow remained a Serbian city. He came away from this unscathed – the international reaction was predictably muted – but his salt-rubbing exercises have laid the groundwork for future problems.

When he turned to Kosova, however, this same Nikolic played the statesman. Kosovar politicians may not become rulers north of the Ibar – where “Kosovo” still exists – but Nikolic acknowledged he will not be president in Pristina. This, along with prime minister-designate Dacic’s well-known interest in a partition, sparked another round of press speculation about whether Nikolic will perform a version of US president Nixon’s famous thaw with China in the 1970s. Nikolic’s attitude is causing enough nervousness among Serbs associated with the issue to elicit a comment from Marko Jaksic rejecting partition as a answer and saying there is no hurry in finding any solution to the dispute.

It would not be a bad thing if the new Serbian government proved willing to grapple with Kosovar counterparts in political talks, precisely because they would be more difficult than discussions over electric power or other technical issues. The technical talks are worthwhile on their own, but too often the internationals who so far have orchestrated the negotiations have used them to avoid tackling the inter-communal disputes that must be solved before anything like “peace” can be said to be taking hold in the Balkans.

One way to tell how serious Nikolic is about this is whether he presses forward with his proposal to forge a unified Serbian stance on how to deal with Kosova. No one should be fooled – the more effort put into forging a formal, spelled-out Serbian position, the less likely is a deal with the Kosovars. An agreed-on Serbian position would become a political hammer to use against any efforts by Pristina to negotiate terms and whatever pressure would come on both parties from ever-present American and European kibitzers.

  • On the other hand, Nikolic should be credited for sincerity if he attempts to gain a negotiating mandate from the various Serbian parties that would not lock him into positions that would be non-starters from the Kosovar point of view, and would involve a pledge from his political opponents not to reject out of hand any deal he strikes with Pristina.

Assuming something actually comes of the current speculation, a couple of points are worth bearing in mind. First, any compromise crafted over the north – by itself – would not solve all the problems between Kosova and Serbia. Nikolic’s comment about not being president in Pristina was meant to make the fair point that the overall dispute likely will not be settled soon. Breathless expectations that an initial deal regarding the north, as significant as it could be, would end the larger dispute over sovereignty would lead to disappointment and could damage prospects for further progress. Agreement over the status of the territory under Serbian control still would leave open the problems faced by Serbs living south of the river, and of ethnic Albanians living in southern Serbia.

A larger partition and population exchange – perhaps involving Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as southern Serbia – occasionally has been suggested. It would be remarkable if a negotiation over what is left of Serbian Kosovo turned into something broader, but it would be irresponsible to assume this immediately should be the case. Agreement over the north would not mean reconciliation, which is an elusive concept more often claimed or demanded than accomplished.

Second, negotiators haggling over the status of the lands north of the Ibar would be faced with obstacles the internationals have put in their way (beyond the pathological Western stance that no progress is possible unless they run the show). Kosova and Serbia would enter into such talks from uneven positions. For all the baggage of the nineties, Serbia remains a universally recognized state, with a path to the EU possible despite diplomatic problems – assuming continuation of the current situation in which there is no clear EU declaration that Serbia cannot join that club until it settles all aspects of its disputes with Kosova. On the other hand, Kosova will be kept out of the club by at least the five EU members who do not recognize its existence. Pristina also is hampered by dependence on an American patron that – having mismanaged the unilateral independence process between 2006 and 2008 – has saddled the nascent republic with an asterisk that reminds all sides that Kosova remains less than a full-fledged member of the interstate system.

Therefore, the prospects for a successful negotiation would be undermined if Washington reacts to any Serbian willingness to engage Pristina by pressuring the Kosovars into further a priori concessions. Kosova’s chance of protecting its highly-vulnerable claims to sovereignty depends on emerging from whatever talks take place able to credibly claim it is an equal, independent party in the process. The fact Serbia will deny this does not matter, as long as the US does not once again act in a manner that lends strength to Belgrade’s position. And it is the American stance that is decisive – the Europeans hardly matter and the Russian role as Serbia’s supporter is not going to change.

Rather than interfering further regarding the diplomatic process, Washington might usefully engage its residual influence in Pristina by pressing Kosova’s notables – in government and opposition – to finally tackle problems of serial corruption and debilitating inter-personal squabbling that undermine the new state’s legitimacy with its own people. This would not be easy; as in much of the world, corruption is only the official tip of a patronage iceberg that serves as the country’s primary economic engine. Nevertheless Kosova’s debilitating internal politics undermines its ability to prepare for long haul of negotiations, tensions, and – occasionally – violent confrontation with its Serbian adversary. The fledgling state cannot succeed as long as its government continues to act as if Romania is its ideal EU model.

The chance of a meaningful outcome to the next round of political negotiations depends on Serbian and Kosovar protagonists taking responsibility for negotiations away from US, EU, and Russian overseers. Some press commentary has tilted at a straw man argument that the principals will come to a deal if they keep the internationals out of the room. This is not the point – the likelihood of an overall solution to Kosova’s contested sovereignty remains remote under any circumstances. Rather, the only chance of a limited agreement on the north that would stick is for authorities in Pristina and Belgrade to take the risk of associating their personal and political futures with the deal. This can happen only if – this time – they reject the usual strategy of sloughing off responsibility for whatever talks take place on international actors more interested in taking credit for the process and (if they like it) the outcome than in the regional impact of any agreement. International blessing of whatever emerges from a new round of talks should provide derivative support for a deal owned by its principals.

Taking ownership of an agreement also would strengthen the deal by demonstrating its authors’ willingness to personally face down the inevitable gnashing of teeth by local spoilers who will oppose any arrangement that results in anything less than total victory for their side. Those who live to snarl at their enemies should not be dismissed as marginal or stupid; these are atavistic actors willing and, in some cases, able to destroy the efforts of anyone trying to manage conflict (however Transconflict mavens define this term).

There is nothing wrong with the current speculation about possible compromise, even if it does not come to anything. The new government in Belgrade may offend by denying the facts of crimes committed during the wars, but its relative equidistance from Western and Russian influence is a good thing. Whether or not Belgrade or Pristina can create some sort of negotiating momentum this time, perhaps just the rumors of movement can begin the bilateral dance necessary to prepare the ground for something tangible.

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 read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

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