Delay in recognising Kosovo will invite more bloodshed

By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 26/01/07):

Remember Kosovo, the small province of Serbia that sparked the first shooting war in Nato’s 50-year history? Astonishingly, it is almost eight years since US and British bombers went into action over Belgrade, and the problem has still not been solved. Kosovo’s large Albanian majority has not got the independence it was demanding after decades of oppression that culminated in a merciless campaign of ethnic cleansing by the now dead Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. For their part, Serbs are still obsessed with the issue. Their election last Sunday revolved around it, giving the ultra-nationalist Radical party as impressive a victory as it had in 2003.

Meanwhile, international efforts to broker a solution continue to stumble. A UN envoy who was appointed over a year ago to consult all sides and come up with a compromise package will present his proposals today. But there is a looming danger that his work will be in vain, unless Europe and the US radically alter their current line. It seems incredible that countries which went to war to enforce their views should now be lapsing into delay and dither. But that appears to be the case. It is even more incredible given that the envoy’s proposals for Kosovo’s future squeak as softly as a church mouse. I am told they do not even use the word “independence”.

In the eight years since the Nato war, a gamut of thinktanks and experts, not to mention western diplomats, argued that the best solution for Kosovo would be “conditional independence”. The suggestion was that even a free Kosovo would need a form of temporary international supervision, backed by foreign troops and police, in order to protect the Serbian minority but also to deter any attempt by Belgrade to reconquer the province by force.

The UN envoy is Martti Ahtisaari, a distinguished former president of Finland and one of Europe’s most experienced negotiators. He was asked to proceed on the understanding that there could be no partition of the province, no change of borders, and no return to Serbian rule. There was also an implicit principle that an agreed solution was better than an imposed one.

Reluctant Kosovo leaders were pressed into negotiating with their former masters in Belgrade. They made a series of concessions on local government that allow the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo to become municipalities, run their own affairs, and keep financial links with Serbia. Ahtisaari patiently listened to both sides, as well as to Russia, Serbia’s principal backer, and to Quint, the shorthand name for the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

The result is a package to go to the UN security council for approval. It will fudge the independence word by not attempting to define Kosovo’s future status and not allowing the territory a UN seat. It will be boringly technical, focusing mainly on property issues, international lending arrangements, and mechanisms by which the EU and a so-called International Civilian Office can take over a reduced version of the UN’s supervisory role in Kosovo.

All fine and constructive. The snag is what happens to the package next. One might have thought that after you appoint a statesman to study an issue, conduct complex diplomacy, and craft a compromise, you close the process by implementing it. Not a bit of it. The Quint decided last week that a new round of consultations is needed. John Sawers, the British Foreign Office’s political director, was in Pristina this week to break the news to the Kosovans.

This could be fatal, since the Serbs are masters of delay. Under pressure from Quint, Ahtisaari gave Belgrade an unnecessary concession last autumn by delaying the announcement of his package until after Serbia’s elections. Serbian politicians are now saying there should be more delay until a coalition government is formed, a process of haggling that could last months. Only then can meaningful talks take place. After that there may be presidential elections, etc, etc.

Why the western spinelessness? Three factors are in play. One appears to be post-bombing guilt. Having made war in 1999, Nato and its EU members are now wooing Serbia on all fronts. In November, Nato took it into the Partnership for Peace programme after dropping its requirement that Serbia arrest the indicted war criminal and butcher of Bosnia, General Ratko Mladic, and send him to The Hague.

The second factor is a western illusion that Serbia is divided into “nationalists” and “pro-Europeans”. So the west takes heed of the latter’s siren voices that constantly tell gullible EU ambassadors “Shh, we need your help. Protect us from the radicals. Don’t put pressure on us for concessions.” Last Sunday’s election result exploded that fraud. The few parties which accept that Kosovo is lost won only 7%. On the “pro-European” side all that happened was a redistribution of votes among four competing parties. President Boris Tadic’s Democratic party did best out of this, largely because he showed he was still a good nationalist last year by supporting a backward-looking new constitution that says Kosovo can never be detached from Serbia.

The final factor is anxiety about a Russian veto on the security council. Diplomats say the new consultations are to show Moscow the west has “gone the extra mile”. But Russia’s role ought not to be exaggerated. Under Ahtisaari’s modest proposals, the UN would not recognise Kosovo’s independence. It would be left to each country to do so if it wished – and however the Russians vote.

On Kosovo, the EU is more important than the UN. If the EU holds firm when its foreign ministers meet next month it can salvage the situation by coming out strongly behind Ahtisaari, putting a short time limit on further consultations, and declaring it will recognise Kosovo, whatever Russia does. Much will depend on Germany. As current president of the EU, Germany has a chance to show leadership on a major European issue. Many Europeans charge Germany with helping to precipitate the Balkan wars of the 1990s by hasty recognition of Croatia. It would be ironic if Germany over-compensates now by delaying the recognition of Kosovo, and thereby precipitating Balkan violence again.

Those are indeed the stakes, and they are far from trivial. Until Serbia’s nationalists see the game is lost and over, they will never be marginalised. Only then will Serbs become the nice modern Europeans the EU wants them to be.