The West should get out of the Kosovo debate

The West should get out of the Kosovo debate

If the so-called peaceniks are genuinely interested in peace, then they must stop expecting the Serbs to put aside their core values and interests and accept solutions imported from the West that reflect its own particular values and interests. As the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence approaches, and with the issue of recognition yet to be solved, it’s high time they started to do so.

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By Timothy Less

The only durable peace in the Balkans is one which accords with the wishes of the people on the ground. That may be a truism for some, but this obvious point is lost in a new report by Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights on the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue.

The author is clearly exhausted by this tiresome conversation which has produced nothing of substance in years. ‘It’s time for measurable outcomes’, he says. ‘No more photo ops’.

So he’s decided it’s time to bang Balkan heads together. His big idea is that the Americans and the Europeans should finally get tough with the locals by launching a so-called ‘enhanced dialogue’, led by a heavyweight ‘mediator’, who settles all the outstanding issues between Serbia and Kosovo (missing persons, monasteries, money, etc.) after which Serbia has no more excuses for refusing to recognise its neighbour and just recognises it

To keep matters simple, the mediator decides what those issues are and aren’t (‘partition is not an option’) and, to maintain discipline, progress is monitored, deadlines are set and penalties imposed on the parties if they refuse to co-operate.

The report even identifies the man to perform this unforgiving task: Wolfgang Schauble, the stony-faced former German finance minister, whose unstated qualification for the job is his track record of getting disobedient Balkanites like the Greeks to do what they’re told.

But it’s not all pain for the Serbs because, in return for relinquishing Kosovo, Serbia gets to join the EU. That’s because negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina are tied to the process of EU accession, with progress in the first leading to progress in the second (providing, of course, that Serbia meets the thousands of other onerous conditions for EU entry). As the report says ‘No progress, no chapters’.

An Old Fix

If all this sounds wearily familiar, it’s because once again, the report is proposing a fix to the Kosovo problem on terms which are obviously unacceptable to the Serbs, who are the ones required to shift their position on this issue.

Sure, protecting monasteries and compensation for assets expropriated by Prishtina are both important. But they are second-order issues at best. If fixing these was all that stood in the way of a deal, Serbia would have recognised Kosovo years ago.

No, if Serbia is to recognise Kosovo, then the terms on which it does so must satisfy much deeper needs. Most importantly, they must offer some redress for what Serbia sees as the outrageous injustice of Kosovo’s illegal confiscation back in 2008, which struck at the very core of the Serbian soul. That is a matter of honour and basic self-respect.

And they must offer some solution to the dismemberment of the nation that follows from having an international border between Serbia and Kosovo. And that means resolving the question of which state the thousands of Serbs in Kosovo actually live.

If Belgrade is to recognise Kosovo, then these issues must be confronted head on.

But there is an elephant in the room in the form of the West, which stands foursquare behind Prishtina on the questions of Kosovo’s status and territory, leaving it no obvious reason to make concessions to Serbia. Why should Prishtina negotiate anything when powerful countries are pressing Serbia to just get on and recognise Kosovo?

The report doesn’t address this basic point. And that’s presumably because the author shares the prevailing Western view on Kosovo, that Albanians were the victims in the Kosovo crisis; morality is on their side; the Serbs deserve a bit of punishment; the issue of Kosovo’s status was resolved back in 2008; and, the fundamentals, like Kosovo’s population and borders are fixed. As it says of Serbia: ‘They must face the fact that Kosovo is lost’.

As a political position that’s fair enough – the author can think whatever he likes. But as a negotiating position, it’s a non-starter because the partner being asked to make a concession simply doesn’t accept that the fundamentals of status and territory are resolved, particularly if that means Serbia cannot satisfy its deeper needs.

And that effectively precludes any possibility of a successful resolution in which Serbia signs off Kosovo’s independence.

The report’s solution to this is a predictable one: put more pressure on the Serbs. Since they are clearly unable to see what is obvious to everyone – that Kosovo is independent – they need to be told the facts more clearly, understand what they have to do and then locked into a political process which forces them to do it.

The difficulty is that no one can make Serbia recognise Kosovo, even after all this. Not even Wolfgang Schauble. So the report also offers an enticement, namely membership of the European Union, which for a certain kind of optimist is the solution to all political problems in Europe.

But this ignores the fact that, outside the urban elites, most Serbs are just not that interested in the EU because, for good reason, they’re suspicious of the West. Sure, some would like Serbia to join it because that means work and money and a kind of respectibility. But as opinion polls make consistently clear, membership is supported by only a minority of Serbs and only 13% are willing to trade it for recognition of Kosovo.

There’s also the awkward fact that, with its unrelenting internal crisis and seeming inability to reform, the EU is not actually in any position to enlarge. On its current trajectory, by the time Serbia actually qualifies for membership, the EU may not even exist, at least in anything like its current form. If Columbia University hasn’t noticed this, the Serbs most certainly have.

The sad reality is that, far from resolving the Kosovo question, if Columbia’s approach were ever attempted, it would only complicate matters.

Notwithstanding the fact that it would fall flat since Belgrade would have no obvious reason to shift its position, the certain effect of trying to strong-arm Serbia into recognising Kosovo’s independence would be to whip up public resentment against the West and increase Russian influence – in other words, the very opposite outcome to the one the author claims to want.

How do we know? Because that’s exactly what happened when the same approach was tried last decade.

A Radical Suggestion

But it would not be fair to knock down Columbia’s proposal for resolving the Kosovo issue without putting up an alternative of my own.

So, here’s my radical suggestion: if we recognise the West cannot bully the Serbs into accepting its preferences, and we recognise that the West’s involvement in the negotiations is actually part of the problem, how about the West gets out of the way and lets Belgrade and Prishtina work out their own solution to the Kosovo issue?

In negotiating terms, this implies a very different methodology to the one Columbia University is proposing.

For one thing, it would mean that outsiders were diligent in maintaining a distance from proceedings and intervened only if negotiations completely broke down. Belgrade and Prishtina both want to fix Kosovo and, left to their own devices, they would do so in ways that reflected their basic values and beliefs, the facts on the ground as they stood and the balance of power between them.

In fact, if Belgrade and Prishtina were to reach a deal on Kosovo which had any domestic legitimacy, it would be vital it came from the parties themselves rather than imposed by a foreign ‘mediator’ who pushed his own interests or took sides in the discussion.

A second difference is that negotiations would be free of the excessive complications suggested by Columbia, such as deadlines, timetables, monitoring mechanisms, unity teams, interim agreements and so on. They could also proceed without the unnecessary distraction of linking each step to progress in a non-existent process of European integration. Instead, where there is a will to resolve the Kosovo question, the two sides could fall back on something much simpler and more meaningful – trust.

And a third difference, quite simply, is that the two sides would be free to put anything on the table they considered important, regardless of how unpalatable that was to the West.

The Deal

Pretty quickly, the two would start to focus to the key questions in this whole debate. On Prishtina’s side: Is Serbia willing to recognise Kosovo or not? On Belgrade’s: What compensation is Kosovo willing to offer Serbia if it does? What happens to those Serbs left inside the country after recognition?

And the near-certain outcome is that the two would settle on partition.

Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, has already put an offer on the table in which Kosovo’s Serb-dominated northern enclave passes to Serbia in return for Belgrade’s recognition of the rest. This fits with his idea of maintaining the unity of the Serbian nation and constitutes some satisfaction for Kosovo’s loss.

Meanwhile, from Prishtina’s perspective, giving away the north would not actually give away anything at all but merely formalise the political reality on the ground – that the north is functionally a part of Serbia. It would also put a brake on any larger claim to territory that Belgrade might potentially make.

So that would be the kernel of the deal: Serbia gets northern Kosovo and agrees in principle to recognise the south as an independent state.

The next issue would be the status of the Serbs left behind in Kosovo. And here the two sides could agree to create a small, autonomous unit for Serbs in the south which allowed them to maintain their way of life. The quid pro quo is that Prishtina could then reasonably demand an end to the complex arrangements that give Serbs massively disproportionate influence on Kosovo’s political institutions, including ten reserved seats in parliament (plus another ten for other minorities) and veto powers over matters of vital national interest.

In short, both sides would agree to leave the other alone.

With these fundamentals agreed, the way would be clear for Serbia and Kosovo to move onto the relatively straightforward second-order issues the Columbia report identifies, and even out any perceived iniquities. Among other things, Belgrade wants special protections for its religious and architectural heritage. Prishtina wants an account of missing persons and completion of the ‘normalisation’ process. And both sides want financial compensation.

Suspending Ideals

The difficulty, if anything, would be selling such a deal to the West which is committed to upholding the ‘multiethnic character’ of the Balkans. When Serbia raised the issue of partition in status negotiations last decade, diplomats immediately rejected it for fear of setting a dangerous precedent in the ethnically-divided states of Bosnia and Macedonia. Many also recoiled at idea of separating people along ethnic lines.

But if it came to it, the West would do well to keep its sights on the real issue in hand, which is to get Serbia to recognise Kosovo and remove a flashpoint for conflict. Partition is an ugly solution to any ethnic dispute but the people on the ground know better than outsiders how to solve their problems and, unlike in the West, the process of creating nation states is only now beginning in the Balkans.

So if that is what Belgrade and Prishtina freely agreed between themselves, and as long as their proposals were consistent with international law, the West should suspend its ideals and accept such a deal in the interests of a durable peace.

The consolation is that an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo that revised their borders would not automatically set a precedent for the rest of the region. As the West has long argued, Kosovo is sui generis and the fate of Bosnia and Macedonia depends far more on their respective domestic politics and the wider geopolitical environment than developments in Kosovo.

Moreover, to the extent that a deal between Serbia and Kosovo that revised their borders did set a regional precedent, it would be a positive one. The Western Balkans is handicapped by a mismatch of political and ethnic boundaries that has led to institutional dysfunctionality and economic stagnation.

If two of the region’s most formidable foes could find a way to disentangle their affairs in a peaceful, negotiated way, this would serve as a positive model for other states where the likely alternative to a negotiated settlement on borders is violent rupture followed by ethnic cleansing.

It may be annoying for peaceniks that Serbs have their pride and remain attached to traditional concepts such as nationhood, sovereignty and territory. Columbia University’s report displays all the frustrations of those in the West who despair at Serbia’s refusal to accept their enlightened, post-modernist vision for the Balkans.

But if they are genuinely interested in peace, they must stop expecting the Serbs to put aside their core values and interests and accept solutions imported from the West that reflect its own particular values and interests. As the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence approaches, and with the issue of recognition yet to be solved, it’s high time they started to do so.

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy and a former British diplomat in the Balkans. He worked on the question of Kosovo’s final status in 2004-05.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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4 Responses

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  2. Nick Dale

    Excellent article: a solution based proposition that caters for the needs of the two involved countries and not the demands of third party countries.

    As an Australian with no allegiance to either side, I have always been confused as to why the West thinks that it is ok for Kosovo to separate from Serbia for ethnic regions but not ok for North Kosovo to separate from Kosovo for the same reasons.

  3. Artur Trungu

    First let’s be clear, Transconflict is a pro-Serbian site. To date I have no seen anything otherwise.
    Second, I doubt Serbs and Albanians would agree without mediation.
    Third, Timothy Less mentions the proposal of Ivica Dacic but goes further than him. Ivica Dacic, in his partition proposal, talked about the exchange of the territories, North Kosovo for South Serbia (Presevo valley). So, Mister Less for you it is ok for Albanians to live in Serbia but not for Serbs to live in Kosovo. Nice agreement, maybe Ivica Dacic is wondering why he did not think of it first!
    But, let’s move further. After the clean ethnical cut of Kosovo, what is stopping Kosovo from joining Albania? And for that matter, what about of Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro? And I don’t want to get to Bosnia here. Mister Less, there are no clean ethnic states in Balkans.
    Kosovo came to this point because since 1911, when Serbia annexed Kosovo (by the way, with the approval of European States that you don’t want involved now), the only thing that Serbs cared was how to get rid of Albanians in Kosovo. For almost 90 years, thousands of Albanians were killed, persecuted or kicked out of Kosovo; 1998 was the last straw.
    I believe an independent Kosovo, as is right now, is the best solution because neither Albania nor Serbia has it. Both sides remain unhappy. That is why European countries, USA and Albanians have accepted it. It is time for Serbia to accept it, too.

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