Dealing with the Michael Collins problem

Along with substantive questions, both Serbia and Kosova continue to grapple with the spoiler problem which underscores – as the unfortunate examples of Ireland’s Michael Collins and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin demonstrate – the dangers notables face if they prove willing to accept something less than total victory.

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By David B. Kanin

The debates going on inside Kosova and Serbia indicate both sides are taking an increasingly serious approach to their next round of talks. Along with substantive questions, each is grappling with the spoiler problem. That is, how does a negotiator or politician minimize the advantage his/her opponents will have when they pick apart perceived shortcomings in any agreement and accuse those crafting it of betrayal? The unfortunate examples of Ireland’s Michael Collins and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin underscore the dangers notables face if they prove willing to accept something less than total victory.

This often is as hard a nut as the actual negotiations themselves. The enemy, after all, has only a limited direct affect on internal politics across the lines. While locked in at the table, negotiating parties sometimes just want a break before the next round of fighting. In other cases – and this one falls into this category – the sides understand the basic parameters of an agreement, know they are coming to a point where one actually is becoming possible, and are wrestling with the problems such a deal will create for their personal and political prospects. In my view, something like this consideration led Yasser Arafat to pull out from US-sponsored negotiations with Israel that spanned the transition year between the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

Naturally, in both Serbia and Kosova, those in charge want to convince as many of their political opponents as they can to lash themselves to a national negotiating position. Those opponents, on the other hand, want to preserve as much wiggle room as possible. Any consensus would not preclude the latter from withdrawing their support if the talks produce concessions and compromises. Still, signing on to a set of principles or a negotiating agenda would at least reduce the room for someone who has committed to the program to undermine the process of negotiation or – for the sake of one or two items – to reject an agreement that in most areas conforms to the framework that person signed onto at the outset.

No matter how carefully and sincerely each government consults its opponents, someone is going to say no – and will accuse those overseeing negotiations of all sorts of awful motives and actions. Assuming there actually is some agreement, the question will be how significant will be the damage these spoilers can do, and how determined – or violent – these people will behave as they try to destroy the negotiating process. Let’s take a look at the situation on each side.

Serbia’s advantage is that it enjoys universal recognition while its Kosovar adversary does not. All members of the EU accept the sovereignty of Serbia but five do not acknowledge the same regarding Kosova. The Europeans have not made settlement of the status issue a prerequisite for eventual Serbian entry into “Europe,” permitting Belgrade to declare its intention never to recognize Kosova’s sovereignty while not having to worry that such rhetoric does any harm to its ability to convince constituents that Serbia can have things both ways. Press reports indicate the new Serbian government appears ready to drop its insistence on including the famous footnote on placards identifying a Kosovar delegation to regional meetings. Why not? The asterisk Pristina has agreed to is enough to mark Kosova’s less than fully sovereign status as long as Serbia and the EU-5 choose to withhold recognition.

Meanwhile, Russia is a much more reliable ally than the EU or US – which forced the damning asterisk on Pristina – are for Kosova. Under these circumstances, Belgrade – under no pressure to hurry the talks – can choose when to insist that Kosova has a subaltern status at a conference table, and when this is not necessary. All the while, the Nikolic-Dacic government can claim national legitimacy via its political descent from Seselj and Milosevic, but also (again, with the timid EU diplomatic stance in mind) can declare its solemn adherence to Serbia’s European future.

Serbia’s problems include its growing financial problems and the less than fully predictable behavior of Serbs in its former province. North of the Ibar, local thugs and “businessmen” resist anything short of total restoration of Serbian control. In the south, much of the Serbian population has become resigned to its minority status in territory Serbia is not going to get back. Belgrade has indicated it will include northern representatives on their negotiating team, but is almost certain to shun those southerners who are taking part in the politics of Kosova.

Serbia’s spoilers will play on both issues. The good news for Dacic and Nikolic is that these potential spoilers are weak and in disarray. The Democratic Party (DS), having lost legislative and presidential elections in rapid succession, is weaker than at any time since the fall of Milosevic. Boris Tadic is discredited as a strategist and politician. Nevertheless, it is not clear Dragan Djilas or any other DS figure is strong or smart enough to take charge and keep the party unified while sloughing off the dead weight that is Tadic. In any case, the DS had advertised itself as the party of democracy and the EU. It likely would not be skillful enough to practice the transparent hypocrisy necessary to re-position itself as a nationalist critic of whatever deal the current government might work out with Pristina.

On the other hand, Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) likely would oppose any deal the government works out, both on principle and because Kostunica’s political marginalization over the past few years means this issue is the only thing left to him and his Party. In case of an agreement, Kostunica’s legalism would arm him with rhetoric, but he could have a difficult time outflanking a government that can go toe-to-toe with him in a fight to see who is the greater nationalist, and can compete with him for Russian favor (and money).

In short, the new Serbian government, better organized and better led than its predecessor, is in a relatively good position to take the Kosovars on at the conference table.

Things are not so clear cut in Pristina. Kosova’s advantages include physical control over most of the territory in question and demographic domination south of the Ibar. Short of a future military invasion, all but the most die-hard among the Serbs know they have irretrievably lost the bulk of their former province. (The more honest among them acknowledge Milosevic’s ham-handed behavior in early 1999 ensured the NATO bombing campaign and Kosovar separation. The more recalcitrant believe in conspiracy theories and might be willing to use violence in an attempt to spoil any Serbo-Kosovar deal.)

The specter of the growth in the ethnic Albanian population in southern Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia is a mixed blessing for Kosova. None of these neighbors can ignore their Albanian citizens, but fear of a “greater Albania” gives them a potential common cause, especially if Belgrade and Pristina fail to reach an agreement on how they will relate to each other. The slogan “Balkan Benelux” masks confederal ideas that, if taken seriously, would just create a new version of the loose association that destroyed Yugoslavia after 1974 and were carelessly re-hashed into a congenitally dysfunctional Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kosova’s government has a much more difficult problem than does the new constellation in Belgrade when it comes to managing domestic spoilers. Prime Minister Thaci, in place for years rather than newly-elected, does not have the political wind at his back that enables Dacic and Nikolic. Thaci, like Dacic, is trying to maneuver his political adversaries into some sort of pre-negotiation consensus, but he faces rivals in his own camp as well as at least two groups (rivals to each other as well as to him) more capable and willing than Serbia’s DS and DSS to poison the diplomatic and political atmosphere.

Vetevendosje, with its explicit (if more than a little unclear) greater Albanian platform has the easy job of being able to say no to whatever Thaci works out with Belgrade. Albin Kurti and his colleagues already have benefitted from Thaci’s asterisk mistake and are in position to tar the Prime Minister with treachery allegations at the first sign of negotiating progress. Indeed, if Kurti or others showed any inclination to work something out with Thaci for the sake of Kosova’s future, others within that group likely would outflank their own leaders and attempt to establish a new and harder line. It is unlikely Thaci can co-opt Vetevendosje, so instead he may attempt to isolate them.

The Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) is the most interesting of Thaci’s opponents. It is organized well enough to function while its leader, Ramush Haradinaj, undergoes his retrial in The Hague. Haradinaj and other AAK leaders have a legitimacy earned by having fought in the insurgency of the 1990s. His competent performance during the brief time he served as Prime Minister suggests he could be a constructive actor – even in opposition – if he is acquitted again and returns to politics. One of Thaci’s most important tasks as he prepares for the talks with the Serbs is to build as much common ground as possible with Haradinaj and the AAK.

It is just as important for PDK and AAK to come to an understanding on where will be the remaining, inevitable, points of difference between them. It would be helpful if they also could set ground rules for how they can clash rhetorically over those differences without permitting their disputes to destroy what might become a real chance to forge a working relationship with Serbia.

In my view, Kosova’s the League of Democrats (LDK) is in even worse shape than Serbia’s DS. This party continues to suffer from the gradual decline in place since the death of the iconic Ibrahim Rugova. Recent criminal proceedings demonstrate the dangers of bringing back such tainted individuals as Bujar Bukoshi. Its best strategy would be to bring on an entirely new generation of political faces and position itself as an honest alternative to the deeply corrupt politics practiced in Pristina. The LDK, like the DS, remains wedded to its attachment to the West and – also like the DS – would be in no position to try to gain political capital by opposing a negotiating framework backed by the US and EU.

What about the North (and Presevo)?

The vague conventional wisdom emerging in the context of speculation about the next round of talks seems to involve either a partition – with the area north of the Ibar reverting to Serbia – or a less well-filled in notion of condominium, in which the North would be co-administered by the internationals and Belgrade. Much of this talk does not mention what Kosova would get in return, besides the sort of technical agreements already struck (and already the subject of disputed interpretations concerning what the sides actually agreed to). Kosova would be the loser in any de facto partition deal, unless Pristina holds to a firm insistence that any partition must involve explicit Serbian recognition of its independence – anything less would pile on to the asterisk mistake by giving up something now for a vague promise of something later. Condominium with the internationals would hurt Pristina a little less and not help Serbia as much as outright partition. Kosova would still be giving up claims to the North, but Serbia would be gaining only a tentative advance on its rights under UNSC 1244 requiring further negotiations somewhere down the line.

Let us assume for the moment an unlikely case in which the status issue actually is settled, with Serbia and Kosova in agreement on at least de facto independence for the latter, in exchange for some form of restored administration from Belgrade north of the Ibar. Some Serbs in the North would lose out, both because they sincerely want to hold out for the day in which Serbia re-conquers all the territory of its former province, and because local notables and “businessmen” could lose their personal clout once northern Kosovo is more closely reintegrated with Serbia. Some figures – Marko Jaksic, for example – also would lose their political reason for being, and probably would become vociferous domestic spoilers.

Meanwhile, a deal like that would put paid to the leverage some ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia have attempted to use to maximize their freedom of action within what to them is a hostile Serbian state. Some in Kosova and southern Serbia are calling for the status of the Presevo Valley also to become an issue for the Kosovar talks. These potential spoilers likely know that they have to get on the agenda before Serbo-Kosovar talks start to make progress – the people at the table would be unlikely to welcome agenda expansion if it appears they actually could reach a deal.

It would be refreshing if the internationals would accept any arrangement the protagonists come to, even if it is not made in America (or Brussels). If Kosova is willing to give up is sovereignty for the sake of a practical arrangement with Serbia, so be it. If not, and if Serbia nevertheless becomes willing to grant Kosovar sovereignty for the sake of moving itself and its region forward, fine. In any case, whatever arrangement the two sides agree to almost certainly will unleash recriminations in one or both capitals. It would be worth the effort for each side to start thinking now how they will manage that fallout. It might not even be a bad idea for negotiators to exchange views informally on this problem. Erstwhile enemies might prove to be mutually productive sounding boards regarding each others’ domestic spoilers.

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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