Is there an alternative to zero sum competition for possession and sovereignty?
By David B. Kanin
Whether there is any point to dialogues about this disputed territory depends on the goals of the discussants. Are they willing to accept erstwhile adversaries’ existence as something more than subordinated supplicants, or is the purpose of any transaction to prepare the ground for eventual victory and continued or restored domination? So far there is little evidence Serb and Albanian notables and constituents expect anything other than future conflict. Their ability to manipulate the Americans, Europeans, and even the Russians likely reinforces this attitude; how can powers either clueless when it comes to conflict management or aggressive in their own right be counted on to produce – or even enable – anything constructive?
In case anyone really wants to take the risk of doing something different, the immediate question is how to move from the conditions created by UN Security Council Resolution 1244 toward something that does more than freeze (or at least gel) the conflict while the contestants wait for whatever is going to precipitate the next round of fighting. Washington was confident it could do that in 2006, when it informed the other internationals there would be a new UN resolution and an internationally sanctified sovereign Kosovo by the end of that year. When that failed the American plan B was to force-feed a unilateral declaration of Kosovar independence, creating the current a stunted “sovereignty” that is unlikely to hold (even assuming Suriname’s revocation of its recognition of Kosova does not attract copycats). Serbia, supported by Russia and the five EU members who recognize analogues the US claims cannot exist have good reason to withhold recognition from Pristina; the fact that even just one naysayer among EU members is enough to block Pristina’s EU membership – and, in effect, its international legitimacy – means the naysayers also will continue to have the diplomatic wind at their backs.
Much of my last decade in government was spent with a group charged with going against the analytical grain and looking for unlikely alternative futures worth considering in case the conventional view is wrong, or the conditions underpinning majority judgments change. In that spirit, it might be worth considering a sort of first step toward a constructive arrangement between Serbs and Albanians (with the caveat that this would only be a first step; it should be clear by now that rhetorical slogans related to “final status” or other teleological turns of phrase are as unhelpful as they are inaccurate).
Albania, Kosova/o, and Serbia could form a tripartite condominium in which Pristina would retain its government , tax its citizens (who would pay no taxes in Albania or Serbia), and form an army. Kosova/o would function like a state but Belgrade would not have to formally recognize it. The three pieces of this condominium would form a mini-“Schengen” –type border arrangement. Citizens and residents of each would be able to cross borders without visas or other requirements (consistent, of course, with counterterrorist and other security/law enforcement requirements agreed to be all sides). Serbian religious sites would be protected by Serbian police, who would obtain unfettered access to those properties in numbers agreed to in advance. The armament permitted this force also would be agreed to in advance.
Serbia Kosova/o, and Albania would establish a free trade area and/or common market, as proposed not long ago by Serbian President Vucic. Macedonia and Montenegro and their Albanian minorities would be invited to join the condominium if they choose to. Potentially, this would resemble the quasi-federal ideas promoted by Serbia’s King Alexander Obrenovic in the 1860s (Tito’s version of the 1940s would have been something else altogether).
Albania’s inclusion would be necessary to prevent this set-up from becoming a cover for reestablishment of Serbian domination over its lost province. The presence of both mother countries also would create a legitimate “status neutral” situation. There is nothing “status neutral” about Serbia’s current use of the term, which simply serves as a clever euphemism for denying Kosovar sovereignty a priori.
Such a condominium would work best if all parties to it have nothing more to do with the EU-brokered Brussels talks, the demeaning process of begging for EU membership, or American demands for constitutional reform or other less-than thought through political performances. Its parties could usefully build on existing road and other infrastructure projects to maximize prospects for combining economies and, when appropriate, negotiate together for foreign project assistance or loans. The only piece of the Brussels arrangement useful in a condominium would be the long-delayed creation of the association of Serbian municipalities in Kosova/o, which would have a very different function in this altered context. A similar system would be created for ethnic Albanian-majority municipalities in southern Serbia.
Given the continued interest of both Belgrade and Pristina in the dubious prize of EU membership, Brussels could do some good if it would endorse a condominium assuming the parties agree to it, and would promise membership to all sides – Serbia, Albania, and Kosova/o – once they put it in place. The EU would drop the mountain of “Acquis” paperwork and serial pronouncements about the obstacles to be overcome on the vaunted European path. So far, the ambiguous, opaque rhetorical stances of European spokespeople regarding the relationship between agreement over Kosova/o’s status and membership prospects have further confused an unstable conflict. The relatively precipitous grant of membership to Romania and Bulgaria a decade ago proves the EU is willing to drop its onerous membership requirements when it finds a reason to do so.
Serbia, meanwhile, would be permitted its relationship with Russia, no matter the fact that Belgrade would continue regarding some important issues to support Moscow against Western policies. The Europeans (and Americans) should realize it is not a bad thing for east European states to have constructive communication with Russia, and should acknowledge that Serbia would be hardly alone in doing so – Germany, Czechia, Hungary, and other EU members all maintain contacts in Moscow in various ways and for varying reasons.
A condominium between Serbia, Albanian, and Kosova/o would not by itself close the book on conflict in the southern Balkans. Still, it would be a constructive first step toward something more positive than the ad hoc series of arrangements forced on the Balkans by Western overseers who for almost three decades have lacked a viable strategy toward the region.
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).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.