Barbed wire and bridges

By Gyula Hegyi, a Hungarian Socialist MEP (THE GUARDIAN, 26/04/06):

Dolce Vita is a small cafe in Kosovska Mitrovica, on the Serbian side of the city. It is on the river bank, in front of the bridge leading to the Albanian part. Sometimes the bridge is opened to traffic, other times it is barricaded with barbed wire and tanks of the French gendarmerie. After decades of the cold war, Berlin is now united, but those with nostalgia for its wall have only to travel to Kosovska Mitrovica. It is a city divided into two hostile parts.

The former Yugoslavia is split into ever smaller units. Where once there was one country, now there are five states, plus smaller entities clamouring for independence or at least complete autonomy. This chain of mini-states and enclaves lacks economic viability, but is rich in well-paid “ministers” and “parliamentarians”. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were oppressed by Milosevic, so the US and its European allies bombed the so-called smaller Yugoslavia.

Now Milosevic is dead, the name of Yugoslavia exists only in history books, and the Serbs have been expelled from the larger part of Kosovo. Pristina, freed from Serbian rule by the Americans, became a 100% Albanian and Muslim city. The twin symbols of the city are the wondrous new mosque, built with Saudi money, and a local replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty, painted pink. The veil and huge American billboards go hand in hand in this part of the world, where Muslims still admire the United States.

Albanians in Kosovo want an independent state, while its Serbs are afraid of the Albanians and prefer to remain part of Serbia. Under international law Kosovo still belongs to Serbia. The aim of the 1999 war was, at least officially, to establish the rule of law and democracy. Serbia is a democratic country now, and it would be wrong to break international law by taking away its province against its will. If we accept that state frontiers can be changed by wars, and new states created by bombing, then we risk opening a Pandora’s box. On the other hand, the ethnic Albanians have good reasons for not wanting to live under Serbian rule. And Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian community does not want to live under Albanian rule, also with reason. So is the answer to create one Kosovo for the Albanians and a smaller one for Serbs?

There is only one viable long-term solution. All states, regions and entities of the former Yugoslavia want to join the EU. And the EU can build upon that ambition. It should make cooperation between the small western Balkan countries the most important criterion of any enlargement in the Balkans. It would be silly to start talks with one or two small states that are not ready to have good relationships with their neighbours.

Croatia and Macedonia are on track for EU membership. Two other countries wish to join as well: Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its three ethnic communities – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – who don’t want to live together in one state; and Serbia and Montenegro plus Kosovo, where some of the Montenegrins and most of the Albanians want an independent state. If all the separatist dreams were to be met, that would mean six new states instead of two.

Europe’s response should be: “Look, we want you, but all together. If you can create two loose federations in which every entity has its own rights, if you can cooperate in a smaller union, then you are more than welcome in our bigger union as well. But do not think that one entity can join earlier than the others, just because of its war record.”

We want to create real peace in the Balkans, not new frustrations by selecting the good guys against the bad ones. As far as the economy and infrastructure go, there are no real differences between these two federations. The EU should, therefore, start the pre-accession process on the principle of equal chances for all.

A loose federation should include Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and an autonomous Vojvodina inside Serbia. Respect for the rights of all nations and religions, autonomy in internal affairs, and a common strategy for EU accession and foreign affairs would be necessary. The Vienna talks on the future of Kosovo, which began earlier this year, should lay the basis for a new, creative structure for the future. An independent Kosovo or Montenegro with hostile minorities would regenerate the old conflict, while a new EU-backed form of coexistence could stabilise the region.