It’s wrong to close down the partition option. If this is what the local parties can agree on, let Kosovo be partitioned. The US has finally accepted this logic. Others should now do the same.
By Timothy Less
At long last, the United States has decided to let Belgrade and Pristina resolve the question of Kosovo’s status the way they want – if necessary, it seems, by partitioning the territory.
Its embassy in Prishtina has stated that ‘sides in the dialogue will have unlimited freedom to decide about the destiny of their countries’. This follows an interview last month in which the American ambassador to Pristina refused to rule out partition, to the evident surprise of the interviewer.
The unresolved question of Kosovo’s status has left the country in a debilitating state of limbo for nearly two decades.
However, attempts to resolve the issue have been persistently foiled by the insistence of the West, and particularly the US, on precluding the one thing which Serbia has consistently said it might accept in return for recognising the breakaway state – namely the Serb-dominated enclave in Kosovo’s north.
Is Serbia being unreasonable in demanding this? Perhaps so. But that’s beside the point. If Serbia is to shift its position and recognise Kosovo, which is the only way out of the current imbroglio, then its demand must be taken seriously.
Doing the deal
The attraction of any deal based on partition, of course, is that it is simply a formalisation of the reality on the ground.
Belgrade knows it has lost the south of Kosovo because its overwhelmingly-Albanian population will never accept a return to Serbian sovereignty. And Pristina knows it doesn’t control the north which is dominated by Serbs and is functionally a part of Serbia.
So, the core of any such deal is a potential win for both sides, without either having to give anything new away. That bodes well for an agreement.
However, success or failure will ultimately depend on a resolution of various second-order issues, most obviously the status of those Serbs left behind in Kosovo, south of the river Ibar.
Belgrade will probably ask Pristina for some form of self-government for this community – probably less than the pending EU-mediated deal to establish an Association of Serb Municipalities, which would give some autonomy to Kosovo Serbs, but the minimum needed for a population numbering a few tens of thousands to maintain its basic way of life.
In return, Pristina will likely demand an end to the complex arrangements that give Serbs massively disproportionate influence in Kosovo’s political institutions, including ten reserved seats in parliament and veto powers over matters of vital interest. Pristina will also want Serbia to do something for the Preshevo Valley, a region bordering Kosovo in southern Serbia, where the Albanian population is agitating to be part of discussions about Kosovo.
How Serbia responds to that remains to be seen. Potentially it will sacrifice Preshevo to prevent Albanians spreading to other parts of southern Serbia. Or it might agree to grant Preshevo whatever Pristina is willing to give Serbs in southern Kosovo. Alternatively, Belgrade and Pristina might agree not to make any special arrangements and support those who decide, all things considered, to make a new life across the border.
Around the edges there are also issues of monasteries, missing persons, financial compensation and more besides that each will put on the negotiating table.
But if both sides can find some basic equilibrium in what President Vucic has called a ‘comprehensive package’, and sell it to their domestic constituencies, then a deal based on ‘partition for recognition’ which ends the Kosovo conundrum is a real possibility.
Risks and opportunities
Good news, you would think.
But so far, reaction in European capitals has been overwhelmingly hostile to the idea of partition and focused exclusively on a set of perceived attendant dangers. There is generalised talk of ethnic tensions, separatism and renewed conflict in the region.
Naturally, there are risks involved, as there are in any process of conflict resolution. But these should be kept in perspective.
One oft-raised concern is that Serbia’s annexation of the north would expose those Serbs left behind in the south to the risk of ethnic cleansing.
Would it, though?
An act of recognition by Serbia would fundamentally change the calculus in Kosovo.
Serbs have been targeted in the past because their presence complicates the Albanians’ goal of independence. Not only have they given Belgrade leverage over Kosovo’s internal affairs, but Western diplomats have insisted on diluting Kosovo’s statehood to uphold the rights of the Serb community.
If, however, Serbia recognises Kosovo, then Albanians will have achieved their core political goal and have no obvious reason to bother the small Serbian population that remains. If anything, the risk of ethnic cleansing will be lower than now.
Another concern is that Kosovo’s partition will set a dangerous precedent in a region beset by unresolved ethno-nationalist border disputes.
The greatest fear is for Bosnia where Serbs and Croats have made abundantly clear they do not want to be ruled from Sarajevo – just as Kosovo’s Albanians do not want to be ruled from Belgrade.
If Kosovo, is partitioned, so the thinking goes, then why not Bosnia too?
Again, however, that is a questionable assumption. If the Balkans was governed by such simple processes of cause and effect, Republika Srpska would have declared its independence after Kosovo did the same in 2008.
Instead, the fate of Bosnia depends far more on politics inside the country and the wider geopolitical environment than it does on developments inside Kosovo. So, there is no immediate need for panic.
Moreover, to the extent that a deal on partitioning Kosovo did have repercussions, by focusing minds in Sarajevo on the prospect of the Bosnian state breaking up, there might finally be a chance of ending Bosnia’s excruciating political deadlock.
As in any separatist conflict, the onus is on the Bosniaks, as the largest group and the one which wants to preserve the Bosnian state to find a modus vivendi with the Serbs and Croats, both of which want more autonomy.
To date, however, Bosniaks have refused point blank to discuss these demands, secure in the knowledge that the US stands behind them and that everything to do with borders is non-negotiable.
This has fuelled the frustration of the Serbs and Croats and recently generated worrying levels of heat: Croats demand a third entity, Serbs threaten to secede, and Bosniaks threaten Serbs with violence, which only increases their determination to break away. On its current trajectory, Bosnia is heading for some kind of bust up.
Since Serbs and Croats are manifestly not going to change their minds, the only way out of this malaise is the emergence of pragmatic leaders within the Bosniak community who are prepared to take Serb and Croat demands for greater autonomy seriously and name their price for agreeing to this.
And a game-changing deal in Kosovo could be the catalyst for this by demonstrating that borders are not inviolable, the US is no longer taking sides and that long-standing foes can resolve their disputes by peaceful negotiation rather than settling them on the battlefield.
The prize is not just something of value to Bosniaks but a way out of the current deadlock and even a chance for Bosnia to develop as a state, to everyone’s benefit, most of all the Bosniaks themselves.
A deal in Kosovo could also offer lessons to Macedonia where Albanians have made similarly clear they will not accept second-class status in a state run for the benefit of Macedonians, but where a majority of Macedonians does not wish the country to become bi-national in character, manifest in their opposition to the proposed language law.
This ultimately leaves Albanians with only one option, which is some kind of split in which Macedonians do what they want on their land and Albanians do what they want on theirs. Again, a negotiated solution in Kosovo can offer a way out if pragmatic politicians in Skopje are willing to state their terms for giving the Albanians the autonomy they seek.
Many will object that deals are impossible in Bosnia and Macedonia and merely opening a discussion about fundamentals will automatically lead to war, presumably because they think Balkanites are inveterate barbarians who know only one way to solve their problems – with violence.
But the reason deals have hitherto been impossible is because the West has distorted the local balance of power by backing selected local clients and blocking any meaningful debate about the political arrangements in the region. If the West adopted a position of genuine neutrality, as the US is apparently now doing in Kosovo, then suddenly the impossible would become possible.
As for the resort to violence, the current negotiations over Kosovo clearly show that local parties can talk about fundamentals in a peaceful manner – especially since there is huge popular opposition to conflict following the traumas of the 1990s.
Finally, there is the spectre of the so-called Greater Albania – or, more accurately an Albanian nation state. If Kosovo was recognised by Serbia, Pristina would no doubt seek tighter relations with its more successful southern neighbour. The signs of ever-closer union are plain to see, not least this month when the two dismantled their border controls.
But is it really such a problem if Albania and Kosovo do eventually unite? Unless there is some hidden interest in denying Albanians the kind of national state which other Europeans take for granted, they have every right to have one, if that is their wish.
The only obvious casualty would be the ideology of multiculturalism, which would suffer a major setback in a region which has long been a laboratory for Western liberals to practice their social experiments. And that, one suspects, is the real motivation for much of the hostility towards partition.
At the same time, of course, the risks of a deal based on partition must be weighed against the risks of a deal not based on partition – which, given Serbia’s bottom line, means no deal at all.
Kosovo itself will remain in a state of limbo and the north a flashpoint for conflict. And the EU will steadily lose its little remaining leverage as the prospect of membership fades into nothingness.
Indeed, after the EU-Balkans summit in Sofia in May, the General Affairs Council in June and the washout in London last month, it is clear that any enlargement of the union is now on permanent hold as European leaders focus their energies on arresting the EU’s slow-motion demise.
It is not hard to foresee a scenario in which Serbia one day simply seizes northern Kosovo out of sheer frustration, triggering a crisis which leads to the revenge expulsion of Serbs in southern Kosovo and the reciprocal expulsion of Albanians from Serbia.
And that sort of violent shock really could trigger the kind of domino effect around the region which angst-ridden opponents of partition are predicting.
A new opportunity
Far from being a regional Armageddon, the new focus on partition offers a solution to the Kosovo problem, and one which has a genuine chance of success following the apparent lifting of the American veto.
In doing so, the US is to be applauded for finally recognising the two most obvious points about the Kosovo debate – that the only durable solution is one which accords with the wishes of the people on the ground. And that what really matters to those people are traditional concepts such as nationhood, sovereignty and territory.
Of course, there are risks to a deal based on partition because the consequence could be to open a new phase in the unfinished process of dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. Partition will also provide no instant panacea to the problems of poor governance and poverty.
But in the longer term, by disentangling their affairs in a peaceful, negotiated manner, Serbs and Albanians can finally embark on the long-frustrated process of state-building and address vital issues like democracy, the economy and the rule of law. With the foundations secured, construction of the house can finally begin.
Indeed, there is no reason why, in a couple of decades’ time, Serbia and an enlarged Albania which incorporates Kosovo cannot be reasonably prosperous, moderately well-governed and strategically-important nation states, with close links to Russia, China, Turkey and the West, and constructive relations with their neighbours.
That seems a more inspiring vision than the current pathway which leads nowhere except continued political deadlock, economic stagnation and a fruitless struggle to join a declining EU, which probably ends with some kind of security breakdown when people’s patience is fully exhausted.
Partitions and border adjustments may be an ugly solution to an ethno-territorial conflict, but Kosovo is not an aesthetic or moral problem but a political one. The overwhelming priority is to get Serbia to recognise Kosovo so life can go on, and Serbia has said that its price for doing so is the return of the northern enclave.
So, it’s wrong to close down the partition option. If this is what the local parties can agree on, let Kosovo be partitioned. The US has finally accepted this logic. Others should now do the same.
Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy and the leader of The New Intermarium research project at the University of Cambridge.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.