Kosovos Tricky Waltz

The much-anticipated UN plan for Kosovo’s final status unveiled in part last week is a crucial step to resolve the long-standing conflict over the restive province in what used to be Yugoslavia’s southwest. While avoiding the controversial word “independence,” UN Special Envoy Matti Ahtisaari presented the outlines for a new Albanian majority state with a period of international supervision and substantial autonomy for the minority Serbs.

But significant challenges remain. As local and international reactions to the plan revealed, achieving a just and stable solution to Kosovo is like a long and complicated waltz on a dance floor full of holes, with clumsy dancers and the occasional oil slick. For lasting stability, Kosovo will need help building democratic institutions that defend the rule of law.

Differing Views

Serious disagreements remain between the ethnic Albanians, who make up at least 90% of Kosovo, and Serbs, both in Kosovo and Belgrade. For the Belgrade leadership, relinquishing symbolically laden territory is a heretical thought, not to mention political death. Moreover, it has concerns about the rights and freedoms of Serbs who would live in an Albanian-run Kosovo state.

For Kosovo Albanians, the plan is a step towards independence, and the Prishtina leadership took great pains to present it as such. But like a child who hoped for a bike on Christmas and got a sweater, the Albanian reaction was muted, with no flag-waving parades. The plan gives Kosovo an army, an intelligence service, a new flag, and the right to join the World Bank and IMF. But the international authorities that have run the province since 1999 will remain, with the European Union (EU) replacing the UN. The status of Kosovo will undergo review for the first time after two years.

“It’s neither rain nor snow,” one Kosovo Albanian politician said, citing a Serbian saying.

The details of the plan have also come under criticism, most importantly the notion of “decentralization.” According to this principle, six new or enhanced Serbian-majority municipalities will have strengthened powers to run local courts, schools, and health institutions with assistance from Belgrade.

On both the Albanian and Serbian sides lurks deep political strife. In Prishtina, the death last year of long-time president Ibrahim Rugova sparked a power struggle within his party and the Albanian leadership as a whole. The Kosovo Albanians’ “unity team” has maintained a common front but behind the scenes the parties and individuals are posturing to hold the mike on independence night. Behind them stands a small but energetic movement called Self-Determination, which has accused the negotiating team of treachery for sitting down to talk. The war crimes trial in The Hague of Kosovo’s former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, an ex-Kosovo Liberation Army commander, adds another unpredictable ingredient to the mix.

In Belgrade, negotiations to form a new government continue after elections last month, and no Serbian leader wants to be the traitor who gave Kosovo away. The election winner was the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader is also facing war crimes charges in The Hague, but two other parties are trying to find common ground and lead the state in this sensitive time. The pro-western Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic is willing to negotiate on Kosovo but Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia has adamantly refused to even meet the UN envoy. When Ahtisaari presented his plan last Friday, even Tadic declared that “Serbia and I, as its president, will never accept Kosovo’s independence.”

Kosovo over the Net

In addition to these domestic twists, both Albanians and Serbs recognize that global politics may decide Kosovo’s fate. In March, the Security Council is expected to review Ahtisaari’s plan, and Russia has said it will reject any resolution that Serbia does not support, although Foreign Minister Lavrov said this week that a veto was not for sure. “It’s like we and the Serbs are watching a tennis match from the side,” one member of the Albanian negotiating team said.

Although Russian intentions remain murky, it wants at the very least to avoid a precedent for secessionist movements on its territory. Unlike in 1999 when NATO bombed Yugoslavia, Putin has a racket in hand and he expects to play. On the other side, the United States is desperate for a foreign policy success.

The European Union, with divisions among its member states, finds itself half-on and half-off the court. Britain stands with the United States on independence, and it has the freedom to do so without reliance on Russian oil. Germany, which has the EU presidency for the next five months, does not enjoy that energy independence.

If the UN Security Council fails to approve the plan, then Washington could turn to Plan B: unilateral recognition by the United States, United Kingdom, and then other states. But, if the Bush administration decides to go it alone, how many EU states would follow that lead, let alone countries in the East and South?

On the Ground

If the Security Council does approve Ahtisaari’s plan, then the biggest hurdle is implementation on the ground. According to decentralization plans, some Albanian villages will become part of newly empowered Serbian-majority municipalities, so in Albanian minds residents of these areas would again be under Serbian rule. Kosovo Albanians are also deeply frustrated with the frequently ineffective and at times corrupt international presence.

The Belgrade leadership of course does not want to relinquish territory, and the Serbs in Kosovo are terrified of living in an Albanian-run state. Since 1999 they have been victimized by violence and discrimination, and tens of thousands have fled. Despite the guarantees for minorities in the Ahtisaari plan, Serbs remain deeply skeptical that the human rights violations won’t persist.

The flashpoint is Kosovo’s northern city of Mitrovica, currently split between the Serb-dominated north and the Albanian-controlled south. If any eventual solution, through the Security Council or otherwise, fails to satisfy Serb demands, then ethnic Serbs in north Mitrovica and areas further north could declare their intent to join Serbia, with which they share a border and have maintained strong financial and security ties. This could provoke ethnic Albanians in the Preshevo valley, a predominantly Albanian area in Serbia’s south, to take similar steps.

The “Albanian issue” in the south Balkans is still alive, with scattered pockets of disgruntled former fighters from Kosovo, Macedonia, and Preshevo, and a murky armed group called the Albanian Liberation Army (AKSH). While the so-called army lacks the capacity to wage war, and some say the group is but a criminal enterprise wrapped in the flag, it takes relatively few men to stir the pot.

For most Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, however, the key issue is how to survive. Whether Kosovo becomes an independent state or not, the economy is in shambles, and it stands to get worse if and when the international presence leaves. The prospects for serious investment remain slim, despite rich veins of brown coal, and the residents of all ethnicities wonder how they will improve their hospitals, roads, and schools. They are tired of ideological and nationalistic fights.

After more than seven years of UN rule, controlled above all by the United States, and billions of dollars in aid, Kosovo remains a poor place with widespread corruption and dysfunctional courts. If and when the EU takes over from the UN, it should learn lessons from the past seven years and promote transparency and accountability, even if that means accountability for the local actors it considers indispensable for short-term stability. For Washington’s part, it should provide the funds, training, and political support to help build sturdy institutions that protect democratic rule and create lasting stability in the region.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Fred Abrahams is a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. He covered Kosovo for the organization from 1995 to 2000, and recently returned from one week in the province.