Democracy (or War) in the Balkans
“The EU has just signed what in eurojargon is known as a ‘stabilisation and association agreement’ with Bosnia – an important step towards eventual membership. The EU should make it crystal clear, in public diplomacy directed at the Serbian people, that it very much wants to do the same for Serbia – the day after the first of the two war criminals Karadzic and Mladic is handed over”. Or perhaps before… Or necessarily before…
The best answer for Kosovo is EU membership – and for Serbia too
If Russia won’t play ball, a coordinated declaration of independence for the disputed territory is the next best thing
Some time in the next decade, two European countries will become members of the European Union. They will be called Serbia and Kosovo (or possibly Kosova, the spelling preferred by Kosovan Albanians). Chroniclers will note that one of these countries used to be part of the other. The Serbia that becomes a member of the European Union will be a rump Serbia, a shadow of its former self, like Austria after the first world war. This outcome will have been reached through a long vale of blood, sweat and tears. Over the next few weeks, as the issue of independence for Kosovo comes to the boil, we are certain to have more sweat and tears, but we can, with luck and good judgment on all sides, avoid the shedding of more blood.
This final outcome will not be wholly just, as in an ideal court of law. History does not work like that; it deals rough justice, at best. Innocent Serbs have suffered and died, alongside innocent Kosovan Albanians. I remember how those Kosovan Albanians laboured under the lash of Slobodan Milosevic. I have before me, as I write, my own photographs of the displaced families, the ruined houses, the blood in the snow. I talked to bereaved mothers as they shivered amid the rubble.
But I also feel the Serbian loss. Those exquisite Serbian Orthodox monasteries, the architectural gems of Decani, Gracanica and Pec, were among the first places I ever visited in the Balkans, more than 30 years ago, and they remain among the most beautiful sights on what, in a more believing age, we used to call God’s earth. For all the protective arrangements in the proposed international agreements for Kosovo, they will now be islands in another country, reachable only across territory settled and controlled by what is, at least for the time being, a hostile people.
I do not know the way to draw up a historical balance-sheet that determines whether this result is just. And who, under what circumstances, has the right to self-determination is a conundrum that liberals have spent 160 years failing to resolve. But two things I will assert with confidence. First, the single human being most responsible for this Serbian loss is Slobodan Milosevic – may he rot in hell – aided and abetted by two war criminals still at large, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. I will never forget the words a melancholy monk spoke to me at the monastery of Decani, just a few days after the Nato invasion drove out Serbian forces in the summer of 1999. It was Slobodan Milosevic, said this Serbian Orthodox divine, who had “not only lost Kosovo but completely destroyed his own people, physically and spiritually”.
The second thing I assert with confidence is that this will be the least worst outcome, not just for Kosovo but also for Serbia itself. Serbia has not exercised any effective sovereignty over Kosovo since the summer of 1999, with the exception of the Serb-controlled parts north of the river Ibar. In their hearts, most Serbs know that Kosovo is lost; but almost no one in Serbian politics will acknowledge that publicly. So Kosovo is a festering wound on the Serbian body politic, preventing the country’s politicians, officials and journalists from concentrating on the things that really matter for the welfare of their people. Yes, this is an amputation – but sometimes, even with 21st century medical technology, it’s better for the patient to have a mangled and gangrenous limb removed.
The real question now is not whether this is the right outcome but how it will be achieved. The best way forward has been blocked by the intransigence of Putin’s Russia. That way – for which the UN special envoy for Kosovo, the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, and other negotiators worked so hard – would have been to get a UN security council resolution to bless the so-called Ahtisaari plan. This charts a course of supervised independence for Kosovo, with far-reaching protection and autonomy for Serbian holy places, communities and municipalities. Russia is doing no service at all to its fellow Orthodox Slavs in Serbia, or to itself, by being so bloody-minded; but bloody-minded it has been and bloody-minded it seems likely to remain following the recent Russian elections.
The worst way forward would be for the new Kosovan government, under the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci, to rush to a hasty unilateral declaration of independence – UDI. This could prompt a furious reaction from Serbian extremists and the Serbs north of the river Ibar; an angry response from the authorities in Belgrade (especially in the run-up to a presidential election), perhaps including an energy and trade blockade; not to mention possible tit-for-tat rhetoric coming out of the so-called Serb Republic in Bosnia.
The best way forward that is currently feasible, in the absence of Russian consent, is what senior negotiators are calling CDI, a coordinated declaration of independence. The new Kosovan government would move towards its cherished goal over the next three months, but in close coordination with the European Union and other international partners. Both the timing and the form would be agreed. The Albanian Kosovans would explicitly link their historic proclamation to acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan, including a new international office to supervise the running of the proto-state, a continued Nato security presence, and pledges to adopt a liberal constitution and protect minority rights. If he has sufficient courage and wisdom, Thaci will make his multi-ethnic commitment dramatically visible by saying a few generous and well-chosen words in Serbian to mark the occasion.
Though backed by the US, Nato and, so far as Russia allows, the United Nations, the European Union would take the leading role in the new arrangements – Kosovo is, after all, in Europe, not Wisconsin – and place them in the larger perspective of becoming a member state of the EU. But that perspective should not be confined to Kosovo. It must extend to the whole region.
The EU has just signed what in eurojargon is known as a “stabilisation and association agreement” with Bosnia – an important step towards eventual membership. The EU should make it crystal clear, in public diplomacy directed at the Serbian people, that it very much wants to do the same for Serbia – the day after the first of the two war criminals Karadzic and Mladic is handed over. What is more, the Kosovans should ideally be persuaded to wait until after February 3, the currently scheduled date for the second round of Serbia’s presidential election, in an effort to ensure that a last emotional spasm among the Serbs does not catapult an extremist into the presidential office in Belgrade. (Serbia should not, however, be allowed to put off Kosovo’s independence any longer simply by postponing the election.)
Kosovo’s coordinated declaration of independence, in February 2008 at the latest, would thus be accompanied by this strong European offer to the Serbs: trade the residual shell of formal sovereignty over Kosovo for the practical chance of a better future in the EU. With their mouths, most Serbs will still say no; in their hearts, they may start to say yes.