02 June 2007

Life on the amputation waiting list

By Eric Jansson and Neil MacDonald
Published by Financial Times, 30 May 2007

Even in Serbia’s sharpest moments of division, one idea seems to unite the country. “The only issue we can almost completely agree on,” says Slobodan Milosavljevic, a government minister from the pro-western Democratic party “is that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia and that it has to stay Serbian territory.”

Unfortunately for this overwhelming majority, which comprises Serbia’s pro-European Union reformers, ultra-nationalists and everything in between, much of the rest of the world disagrees.

This year, members of the United Nations Security Council aim to forge an agreement on the “final status” of Kosovo, a breakaway province of 2m people. While international negotiations have rolled on, many people on the ground – Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian secessionists included – are beset by feelings of powerlessness and drift. “Kosovo is poisoning the political atmosphere,” says Dejan Anastasijevic, one of the few Belgrade journalists to have backed the notion of “supervised independence” being advanced by the UN’s special envoy for the province.

Kosovo has been occupied by Nato since 1999, when the western military alliance intervened to stop the former Yugoslav regime’s persecution of the province’s 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority. The intervention triggered an escalation in which thousands perished and hundreds of thousands fled as refugees. The UN has since overseen the province but struggled to resolve ethnic tensions that continue to flare, frequently against Serbs, and most disastrously in a three-day pogrom in 2004.

Because the previous Security Council deal on Kosovo, Resolution 1244, reaffirms former Yugoslav borders, Belgrade argues that there is no legal basis for imposing independence. Yet because Nato intervened on the ethnic Albanian side and the US and other countries have issued veiled endorsements of independence, Kosovo’s one-time guerrilla leaders likewise consider their goal within reach.

International debate over the province deprives both sides of a way to break the deadlock. Earlier this month, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, reiterated Moscow’s view that the proposal advanced by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy and former Finnish president, was “unacceptable”. Whether Russia, which publicly sympathises with the Serbs, would use its veto in the Security Council to block a resolution permitting independence remains to be seen. But western diplomats, who once doubted such a scenario would arise, are no longer sure. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, showed little flexibility this month at an EU-Russia summit and a bilateral meeting with Condoleeza Rice, the US secretary of state.

Western diplomats have raised the possibility of a breakthrough “within weeks”, but deadlines over Kosovo have repeatedly slipped before. The six-nation Contact Group consisting of the US, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and Italy pledged to resolve outstanding status issues in 2006, warning that postponement would increase the risk of renewed bloodshed.

Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade-based political commentator, says a return to war is out of the question. “Serbia does not have the capacity to go to war. We have an army of 30,000, under equipped, and the police will not go either.” Yet this does not mean Belgrade lacks leverage. “Serbia can be a factor of destabilisation by being stubborn, prolonging the situation and provoking the ethnic Albanians, so Serbia can say, ‘look, they are to blame’,” Mr Grubacic says.

Some analysts predict a surge in violence even if the ethnic Albanian majority is granted “supervised independence” – which in practice could mean a transition to eventual independence with strict political oversight, an extended Nato-led military presence and policing under the European Union, resembling the international regime in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Some Serbian government ministers imply that “maximal autonomy”, sometimes described as “everything but a seat at the United Nations” for Kosovo, is the only way to avert bloodshed. “What we are talking about here is one logical solution, and another one that is against international law, against elementary economic and political logic, and that some countries are trying to impose,” says Aleksandar Popovic, a government minister from the prime minister’s conservative Democratic party of Serbia.

“You know, the 1938 Munich Agreement was also imposed. Part of a democratic country was removed from it by the decision of some other players, and they said it was because we would have peace, and you remember what happened later. I do not see a better parallel.”

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders refuse to alter their position that Serbia, through the former regime’s cruel treatment of ethnic Albanians before and during the war, lost the moral rights to the province. They decry Belgrade’s “cynical” citations of international law.

Optimists hope relations between leaders in Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo’s provisional capital, will improve after an outcome is determined. Last year tensions over another sensitive secession died down after Montenegro voted to dissolve its political union with Serbia. But Montenegro was a separate republic before it broke away. Kosovo remains legally a Serbian province. despite its UN administration and Nato occupation.

Partition could yet emerge as a compromise option, but only with further negotiations under less restrictive terms, some analysts say. Such a move would introduce additional complexities, likely prolonging the debate further. Western diplomats warn of endless Serb stalling, while Serb negotiators insist that “serious talks have not yet happened.”

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