The Balkan bad boy’s warning

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 19/11/07):

Vilified by the west in the 1990s as the bad boy of Europe, Serbia says the boot is on the other foot these days.

According to Belgrade, it is the US, Britain and France who now endanger stability in the western Balkans by rashly backing Kosovo’s independence. Their policy is irresponsible, illegal, and self-defeating, Serb officials claim.

Non-partisan observers are blunter still: they say independence simply will not work.

Speaking at the House of Commons today, Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister, warned that seven years of domestic reforms and political good behaviour since Slobodan Milosevic’s fall would be undermined if Serbia were forcibly partitioned. Kosovo’s loss was impossible to explain or justify to ordinary voters, and could provoke a backlash against democracy and its foremost western proponents. “If Serbia falters, if we plunge back into the mindset of the past, so will the rest of the Balkans,” Jeremic warned.

“We must not sacrifice European unity on the altar of communal aspirations … If you go ahead [backing Kosovan independence], you will have de-legitimised democracy in the eyes of the Serbian people. It will be a blow from which we may not recover.”

Jeremic spoke amid a continuing stalemate, ahead of the December 10 deadline for a final-status agreement. A weekend election victory by Kosovo’s pro-independence parties, who threaten an immediate December 11 unilateral declaration of independence, has upped the ante.

And while the US and interested European parties indicate the move may be deferred until January, or even February, Russia says it will block UN recognition of Kosovan statehood at any time.

Conducting a last-ditch resistance campaign in European capitals, Jeremic deployed several other arguments designed to give the international community pause.

A unilateral declaration of independence would break international law, in the way that Serbia had been accused of doing in the past, by ignoring international boundaries and prior UN resolutions, he said. Backing such action was also incompatible with Gordon Brown’s ideas about “shared international endeavours”; and it would undermine European values, to which most Serbs now ascribed, thus constituting a wider setback for the EU itself.

As tensions have risen in recent weeks, Belgrade has encouraged Kosovo’s Serb minority to boycott the elections, and expressed sympathy for secessionist tendencies in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serb Republic. The Foreign Office has been keen in recent days to downplay any Kosovan connection to Bosnia’s troubles or suggestions of a wider Balkan conflagration.

But Jeremic insisted the two were connected, and indirectly warned of worse to come if Serbia were humiliated: Kosovo could become a precedent for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and separatists in the Caucasus. In Africa, there were “about 50 Kosovos waiting to happen”, he said.

“This would be a very dangerous signal, a signal that there are no rules. Serbia wants to play by the rules. You just can’t come along and say they don’t matter any more.”

Serbia was offering Kosovans a “unique partnership” involving self-rule under a “common sovereign roof”, he said, and they should accept it.

David Webb, a former diplomat familiar with Kosovo, says the province’s economic problems, including up to 60% unemployment and the lowest incomes in Europe, are so grave that independence is, in any case, illusory in any practical sense.

Some 65% of Kosovo’s GDP came from foreign aid or remittances, he said. “Seventy per cent of Kosovo’s external trade still goes to Serbia; in other words, it is still dependent on Serbia.”

A pell-mell rush to independence would not be responsible and would not work, Webb suggested. Kosovo would wake up the next day with a big hangover – and Europe would have an even bigger one.