The latest Western proposal on Kosovo could work, but only if the EU this time is willing to do the work required to support an agreement.
By David B. Kanin
American diplomacy deserves credit for an initiative serious enough to have Serbian and Kosovar leaders taking it seriously. Press reports suggest Washington is pressing both sides to agree to a trade-off of concessions, in which Belgrade would recognize Kosova’s sovereignty in some form (different versions speak of UN membership and/or formal recognition) in return for a level of autonomy for an association of Serbian communities in the areas north of the Ibar river. This is not a new idea, but the understated way in which it is being handled so far makes it the first diplomatic initiative with the potential to make up for the bungled process Washington forced through between 2006 and 2008 that created Kosova’s current stunted sovereignty. If Washington can corral a fractious, inconsistent European Union and nullify Moscow’s destructive intentions this process also has a chance of restoring some luster to American interests and prestige, both of which have suffered real damage in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the South China Sea.
Still, any nascent agreement would require a number of conditions:
For Kosova, anything short of de jure and de facto recognition is not good enough – UN membership does not equal sovereignty. For decades, Taiwan held “China’s” seat in the UN and on the Security Council. Moscow and Beijing could rail against this condition all they wanted, but there it was. Still, The People’s Republic could rely on the fact that everyone agreed there is one China and Taiwan is part of it and wait for the opportunity to undermine Taipei’s legitimacy. That opportunity began with “Ping Pong Diplomacy” and a rapprochement Mao and Richard Nixon directed against the Soviet Union, matured as Deng Xiaoping turned China into a thriving, self confident country, and is advancing inexorably toward the absorption of Taiwan by the rising Chinese superpower. Along the way, Beijing took over the UN seat and permanent membership on the Security Council.
Kosova is not Taiwan and Serbia is not China, but the analogy holds as far as the context and contingency of sovereignty. Membership in the United Nations will not stop nationalists in Serbia from working toward the re-acquisition some day of the lost province – by force if necessary. It is essential that any agreement at least commit the government of Serbia to an acceptance of Kosova’s sovereignty and the legal-diplomatic marginalization of nationalist diehards. As things stand, “status neutral” and “normalization” are terms Belgrade has managed to inject into the process to ensure that Kosova exists as something short of a sovereign state.
In Serbia, Vucic’s liberal opponents should work with his government to forge an agreement and ratify it via referendum, even as they maintain their opposition to what they see as his creeping authoritarianism. The heirs of Zoran Djindjic have no one to blame but themselves for their relegation to the political sidelines. Boris Tadic could not even handle Vojislav Kostunica – no one and no combination of parties in Serbia’s pro-Western sliver of largely urban elites has shown the ability to compete with Vucic and his organization.
The Kosova issue presents the liberals with an opportunity to promote regional stability and help their country get past (to the extent it can) the nationalist pathology that has done so much harm. They should make no mistake – Vucic speaks for Serbia and will determine the country’s policies and strategies. But measured cooperation in an initiative from the government to accept Kosova’s sovereignty could provide this camp with an opportunity to take on Alexander Vulin and the group around him. The rabid behavior of Vojislav Seselj continues to draw local attention, but the more dangerous Vulin is positioning himself to challenge Vucic eventually from his nationalist flank or, with Russian help, to use whatever government portfolio he finds himself with to succeed Vucic when the time comes. The liberals clearly dislike (and, frankly, envy) Vucic’s success, but in Vulin they face a future opponent who could do serious damage to Serbia and to regional stability.
This raises the general point that, in both Serbia and Kosova, those who sign on to any agreement need to have thought through how they will handle the spoilers. Those willing to concede something to what has been a hated adversary always face political – and physical – danger from the assorted collection of ideologues, opportunists, and thugs who live for the chance to use insults and weapons to celebrate their anger. Vetevendosje has proven itself willing to use tear gas against Kosova’s parliament over much the border agreement with Montenegro and other issues less sensitive than a deal with Serbia; Djindjic’s assassination speaks for itself.
For once, the European Union should stop hiding behind declarations, demands, conference slogans, and other empty rhetoric and do something useful. That “something useful” should be early membership for both Serbia and Kosova if they come to an agreement on conditions for the latter’s sovereignty, ratify, and implement it. They should drop their door-stopper of an acquis, which largely is an excuse to kick various membership cans down the road. The fact is that few if any EU members – old, recent, soon-to-be-former, or candidate – actually meet all the formal standards for membership. The Europeans have much more reason to admit Balkan applicants now than they did to put Romanian and Bulgarian membership on a fast track more than a decade ago.
Early admittance – well before 2025 – also should be extended to Montenegro and to Macedonia, assuming the latter comes to terms with Greece over what to call itself and where to use the agreed-to name. Resolution of both the “name” issue and Kosova’s sovereignty in close proximity would be signature achievements in a region that for going on three decades has been the venue of serial frustrations for Western diplomacy. In such a positive context there should be no reason to keep Albania or Montenegro out either. These new members would appreciate membership a lot more –and complain a lot less – than some of the older ones.
By the way, land-swaps are not the same thing as partition. Partition is a dirty word in Washington and European capitals, but it also is red-letter fact of regional developments since the collapse – and serial partition – of former Yugoslavia. What Belgrade and Pristina almost certainly have considered is much more modest than, say, the partition of Tito-era Bosnia into the unworkable three community, two entity, no government contraption it is now. If Serbia and Kosova agree to a partition or to an exchange of territory and even some people as a piece of an overall settlement the Europeans should grit their teeth, provide expert help, and enable this outcome rather than whine about it.
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.