Do Kosovars and Serbs have options other than work avoidance?

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By David B. Kanin

One of the main problems with the EU’s approach to Balkan affairs is its penchant for the “low-hanging fruit” model of diplomacy.  This is the doctrine under which negotiators put aside central difficulties for the sake of resolving side issues and technical details.  The thought seems to be that the process of getting to know each other and forging agreements on small things will create an atmosphere in which contending sides can build a record of success and come to a feeling of mutual understanding (if not trust).  Perhaps they then can solve the big problems, or else those problems will be overtaken by events.  Meanwhile, whoever sits in the vaunted job of EU High Representative and Security Policy can brag about progress and instruct the sides on how they can attain further progress, without ever making any progress on the things that some day will lead to further fighting.

That is the central problem with the series of negotiations the EU continues to supervise between Serbia and Kosova, and the reason these discussions drone on without meaningful result. The focus on creating some sort of organization of Serb municipalities in Kosova sooner or later may produce an outcome, but this will have no more impact on the core dispute than agreements between Jules Ferry and Otto von Bismarck on colonial policy in the 1880s had on the lethal quarrel over Alsace-Lorraine.

The same goes for recent American diplomacy in Kosova and Macedonia, but this at least involved relatively low-keyed rhetoric and tactics.  To its credit, this round of US mediation lacked the usual pretension.  It also lubricated political processes while enabling a notably effective Macedonian special prosecutor’s office to do its job.  The best thing about Hoyt Yee’s visits to the region this spring was his willingness afterwards to back off and let the politicians in Pristina and the new government in Skopje get about their business.  Nevertheless, it is too bad he followed up with the usual rhetoric; he told a Greek interviewer that the borders of countries in the Balkans are “clearly defined, internationally recognized and not a matter of serious dispute” – all of which remains false no matter how many times Western diplomats repeat it.  Nevertheless, while the basic fault lines remain in place, there is something worthwhile about an interjection that left dangers chronic, rather than acute.

Getting at some of the central difficulties that otherwise will remain lethal in the Balkans will require attempting to crack the hardest nuts first (my apologies for mixing fruit and nut metaphors).  One way to do this would be to remember that, to the Serbs, Kosovo is a religious as well as political question.  For decades (centuries?), it has been clear Serbs from outside Kosovo are much more interested in traveling there to celebrate the sacred time of 1389 and conduct religious ceremonies than in building a viable provincial community.  To Albanians, Kosova has a much more practical object – it is home.  From time to time people have considered ideas designed to reconcile the Serbian clerical establishment in Kosovo with the Kosovar state.  It is worth thinking about this again.

If (yes, it is a very big if), mutual rhetorical and kinetic communal venom somehow could be overcome, there might be a deal possible between political authorities in Kosova and religious hierarchs in Serbia and in Kosovo-Metohija.  To be sure, the Serbian Orthodox Church, like other religious authorities in the region, has sought to restore its Ottoman-like centrality to communal identity and, on the whole, has formed symbiotic arrangements with nationalists who, like the prelates, seek to link faith, land, and politics.

At the same time, every now and then some Serbian priests appear willing to accept that – as Thomas Jefferson believed – the earth belongs to the living generation.  For a time, Father Sava Janjic appeared to propagate the view that it was in everyone’s interest to find a modus vivendi between the largely Albanian Kosovar population and an active, robustly Serbian Orthodox Church.
Father Janjic opposed Kosova’s independence and has continued to defend Serbian interests against what he views as misbehavior by the Kosovar authorities.  Willingness to deal with Kosova would not mean the Church would knuckle under to the bare-knuckled intimidation that characterizes some elements of Kosovar behavior toward it.  Rather, such a process would have to involve a good-faith effort to combine efforts to improve the material prospects of all communities in Kosova while nurturing Kosovo’s status as the social, spiritual, and cultural lodestar for many Serbs.

In my view, Alexander Vucic is in a good position to prepare the ground for and mediate such an effort, if he has the courage and patience to take it on.  No matter reports of election irregularities and inconvertible evidence of Vucic’s efforts to corral Serbian media, he is the clear center of politics in the country.  There is no question he was elected by a majority of Serbian voters and that there currently is no viable political opposition to him (despite a hatchet job in the Economist that crudely caricatured Vucic and greatly overestimated the political clout of Vuk Jeremic).  Vucic has proven skillful at balancing Western and Russian interlocutors and at managing the various pressures on him from his nationalist and liberal flanks.

He also has forged a constructive relationship with Hashim Thaci, who remains Kosova’s most important figure despite his move from the Prime Ministership to the less important Presidency.  If Vucic is willing, he might be able to craft a political-security arrangement under which Kosova would surrender sovereignty over churches and monasteries and the lands around them – and stop the land grabs that have been going on regarding the latter – in exchange for clear, de jure Serbian recognition of Kosovar sovereignty over everything else.  These Serbian spiritual sites, but not the rest of Kosova, would be taken care of by a budget built in Belgrade (although the Kosovars would maintain roads and other infrastructure necessary to keep these places viable).  Serbian police would serve the role Swiss guards did in the Vatican when they were among the best-trained soldiers in Europe.

Serbia and Kosova could then turn their attention to convincing other states in a still-fragile Balkan security eco-system to forge practical economic and security arrangements along the lines of the still-vague economic and trading zone proposed by Vucic and commented on favorably by the EU.  Serbia, Kosova, Macedonia, and – if its poisonous internal politics somehow can be overcome – Bosnia could then give the EU a little time to become serious about admitting them.  If the Club continues to use its rhetorical dance to hold them at arms length (which is the guess here), these still unsettled shards of the former Yugoslavia would have the opportunity to limit themselves to transactional deals with the Western powers, Russia, and China, while deepening their own ties as much as is practicable.

There is no question that is a major stretch to imagine that the Serbian Orthodox Church as a constructive player in a Kosova-Metohija and the greater Balkans, especially given the continuing quarrels the Serbian Church has with its Macedonian and Montenegrin counterparts.  It may take further fighting to moot current secular, ethnic, and religious quarrels the way 19th and 20th century warfare overawed disputes among the Patriarchate in Constantinople, the national Greek Orthodox Church, and the Bulgarian Exarchate.  Still, given the weak tea that is US and EU diplomacy, Russia’s Great Game style policies and actions, and simmering disputes among and within former Yugoslav states and the overlapping Albanian universe, it is at least worth trying something else.

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.

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