Kosovo in the Balance

Like a bad cold that won’t go away, the Kosovo question continues to plague international diplomacy long after it was expected that it would be resolved. If everything had gone according to plan, there would have been agreement by now for a settlement of Kosovo’s status that would have entailed “supervised independence” for the southern Serbian province and a large degree of autonomy for its ethnic Serb population. Instead, the threat of a Russian veto has derailed the Kosovo independence train and Europe is once again facing instability on its doorstep.

On July 20, 2007, UN efforts to determine Kosovo’s future status effectively collapsed. Successive attempts had failed to win Russian support for a draft Security Council resolution based on the proposal for Kosovo submitted by the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, and on that day France’s ambassador to the UN announced that further discussion of the matter at the UN was to be “put on hold.” The United States and the other Western powers had decided that it was pointless to persist in seeking a settlement through the UN and that a solution would instead be sought under the auspices of the informal Contact Group, consisting of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Britain and the United States. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in turn requested that the Contact Group report back to him by December 10.

The decision to abandon the UN process, even if only temporarily, represents a serious setback for a diplomatic initiative that began 20 months earlier when then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Ahtisaari to preside over talks between Serbian and Kosovo authorities. From the start, however, it was apparent that the positions of the parties were too far apart to be bridged: the Albanians would accept nothing short of independence whereas the Serbs were willing to compromise on many things but not on the fundamental issue of sovereignty. Ahtisaari’s package of proposals, which he presented to the Security Council on March 26, 2007, would have granted Kosovo all of the trappings of independence subject to the ultimate authority of an International Civilian Representative, while Kosovo’s Serbs would have enjoyed special protections and far-reaching control over their own affairs.

The stage is now set for what is likely to be a four-month period of fruitless talks between Belgrade and Pristina that could culminate in a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of Pristina and Serbian counter-efforts to assert their claims–in short, a prescription for disaster.

The Diplomatic Faultlines

From the start Russia has insisted that it would only accept a settlement that had the support of both parties to the conflict, knowing that Serbia would never relinquish its sovereignty claims. Moscow maintains that Security Council Resolution 1244, which mandated the establishment of the interim UN administration of Kosovo (UNMIK) in 1999, affirmed Yugoslavia’s (now Serbia’s) sovereignty over Kosovo and that any adjustments to Serbia’s boundaries could only be altered with Belgrade’s consent.

It has long been thought that Russia’s real concern has been the precedent that an independent Kosovo might create for conflict territories within Russia’s own borders, most notably Chechnya. More recently, Russia’s position on Kosovo has become associated with its bolder foreign policy stance more generally. In remarks at a regional energy conference in Zagreb on June 24, President Vladimir Putin observed that it was “natural that a resurgent Russia is returning [to the Balkans].” Russia’s insistence on a new Security Council resolution, moreover, has allowed Moscow to enhance its multilateralist credentials and thus occupy the moral and legal high ground. Whatever its reasons, it had been assumed that Russia would seek concessions from the West–perhaps on the U.S. deployment of missile defences in Eastern Europe–but that it would not scupper the Ahtisaari plan in the end. Those assumptions have proved wrong.

Russia’s move has put Europe in an awkward position. The EU is Kosovo’s largest benefactor and under the Ahtisaari plan, the EU is meant to head and staff the International Civilian Office that is to replace the UN mission, deploy a police and justice mission to bolster the rule of law and contribute significantly to the International Military Presence that is to succeed KFOR. The EU is now at risk of fracturing over Kosovo, with some states willing to recognize Kosovo within the Ahtisaari framework but without UN Security Council authorization and other states opposed to such a move. In the past, divisions within Europe with regard to the Balkans have undermined the EU’s effectiveness and the EU is poised to fall into the same trap.

The U.S. has less at stake directly in the Kosovo debacle but it cannot afford to see the EU falter and is loath to see Russia exploit the situation to its advantage. The Bush administration has made a number of bold pronouncements in support of Kosovo independence, including on June 10 when in Tirana President Bush declared: “At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you’ve got to say enough is enough, Kosovo is independent.” However much pronouncements of this kind may help to make clear the U.S. position, they are also likely to embolden the Kosovar Albanians and expose the divisions among its European partners.

The Way Forward

There are three future scenarios conceivable. The first is continued negotiations leading to an agreement among the parties. With neither Belgrade nor Pristina willing to abandon its fundamental goal, however, continued negotiations are more likely to mean continued stalemate. But a prolonged stalemate is unsustainable: frustration is rising among Kosovar Albanians and it is only a matter of time before it boils over, as occurred in March 2004 when it appeared that resolution of the status question was slipping from the international agenda and Albanians took to the streets in violent anger.

The second possible scenario is agreement to partition Kosovo. Moscow has hinted that it might accept such an outcome but the EU and the U.S. have ruled out the possibility. They are concerned that any redrawing of boundaries would reverberate throughout the region. It is easy to imagine that the Albanians in Serbia’s Presevo Valley and in Western Macedonia, for instance, would demand unification with Kosovo if the Serbs in northern Kosovo were allowed to join with Serbia.

The third possible scenario is a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on the part of Kosovo if the Contact Group-led negotiations do not make any headway. This would be highly destabilizing as Serbia might seek to assert its claims to the territory. An alternative to UDI would be a form of “managed independence”: if Kosovo were to commit itself to implementation of the main provisions of the Ahtisaari plan, then the US and key EU member states–including Britain and France–might be able to build support within the EU for an independent Kosovo.

None of these scenarios is particularly attractive but managed independence is arguably the least worst option. Washington can play a constructive role here. First, it must tone down its rhetoric and send clear signals to the Albanians that a unilateral declaration of independence would be unacceptable. Second, it must help to strengthen European resolve to break the diplomatic deadlock by working with willing European partners to promote acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan–leading to conditional independence of Kosovo–among the more hesitant member states. The EU cannot afford to leave the Kosovo question unresolved. While Brussels fiddles, Pristina could well burn.

Richard Caplan is professor of international relations at Oxford University ,the author of Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.