The Kosovo Dilemma

The Kosovo Dilemma

The European Union needs to get Serbia focused on the future.


It was not intended to turn out like this. Kosovo’s declaration of independence was supposed to end the uncertainty over its future, stabilize the region and get reconstruction going. The declaration brought jubilation in Pristina, celebratory cakes in the streets and a rare feel-good moment in the White House. But it has enraged the Serbs, given the Russians another bargaining chip against the West and worried quite a few European nations that have longstanding secessionist groups of their own.

As an issue of principle, Kosovo cuts both ways. On the one hand, until recently international diplomacy acknowledged that the Serbs had a legitimate claim to the province and therefore sought their agreement before changing its status. On the other, the Serbs undermined their case by the way they treated Kosovo’s Albanian majority. After the mass expulsions of 1999 in particular–whether they were in retaliation for NATO bombing or part of a long-prepared plan is immaterial here–it was impossible to imagine the Albanians living under Serbian rule. But at what point do human rights violations trump state sovereignty and permit intervention? As conceived, the UN Charter essentially rules this out, and in 2004 Kofi Annan implicitly acknowledged that not even the desire to prevent genocide necessarily legitimizes it. A state’s behavior may be determined by the Security Council to constitute a threat to “international peace.” But precisely this sanction was lacking during the 1999 NATO bombing. In short, neither the Serbs nor the Western powers supporting Kosovo’s independence can unproblematically appeal to the idea of law.

Kosovo’s future is as hazy as its past. The plan of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which the Kosovars have pledged to uphold, foresees a highly conditional sovereignty for the new state, ruling out Kosovo’s joining any other country and building in safeguards for minorities, decentralized local government and international oversight for some time to come. Keeping the pressure on Pristina to honor these commitments and to exercise moderation in the face of Serbian hostility will keep both the UN and the EU fully stretched.

The UN’s role in Kosovo is not over. But it is up to the EU to take the lead, not merely in monitoring standards of governance in Kosovo but in pushing for a broader regional settlement. The EU, unlike the UN, is not paralyzed on the issue. And it has the incentive, for Kosovo lies at the heart of the greatest challenge to stability in Europe today. The country is the smallest in the already fragmented Balkans, with the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest standard of living. If history is any guide, independence and economic fragmentation mean things are likely to get worse before they get better.

The EU can certainly make a difference. Thanks to its Stability Pact for southeastern Europe, other parts of the region are doing fine. For all their problems, Bulgaria and Romania, the EU’s newest members, are already in a different league, larger in area and with significantly higher per capita income. Croatia is even more prosperous. But in the western Balkans we see the emergence of micro-states with income levels scraping the bottom of the European barrel. Kosovo may be the latest and the poorest, but Macedonia and Montenegro are not much better off, and Bosnia/Herzegovina is still as dysfunctional as a decade ago, with an unemployment rate second only to Kosovo’s. The western Balkans cannot be isolated, and if their problems fester, Europe will suffer. Instability will flow outward and comparative advantage will favor drugs, prostitution and other kinds of smuggling over legitimate trade. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix.

The EU is already beefing up its commitment to Kosovo’s neighbors, especially Albania and Macedonia. Without their cooperation and links to the outside world, the new country will stagnate. But the most vital part of the European equation is the hardest: Serbia. There the prospects are very poor. Boris Tadic, the pro-European president, may have to coexist for another three years with a Parliament dominated by one of the nastiest nationalist parties on the continent. Even before Kosovo declared independence, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica blocked the signature of a pre-membership agreement between the EU and Serbia, and recent polls suggest that an overwhelming proportion of Serbs refuse to enter the EU without Kosovo.

But there are a few hopeful signs. Tadic’s recent re-election was one. And most Serbs when polled say they see their country’s future as part of Europe. The EU’s task is to increase its attractiveness to Serbian public opinion and do its best to disregard the nationalist provocations. Helping Serbia escape from its political and intellectual isolation is vital because, without some curb on nationalism and without Serbia’s return to its central role in the region’s economy, there is little chance that the countries around it will prosper either.

Relaxing visa restrictions on Serbs traveling to the EU will help. But the latter may have to think the previously unthinkable and decouple EU membership from the issue of past war crimes. Until now, handing over Bosnian war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic has been seen as the test of Serbs’ willingness to accept the truth about what they did in Bosnia. But confronting the past can be a long-term process. Even Germany, unambiguously defeated in 1945, took more than a generation–long after West Germany’s integration into Western political structures. The Serbs have lost in just a few years not only what they’d enjoyed since 1945 but almost all the territorial gains they made since emerging as an independent state in 1878. No state since Hungary in 1919 has lost so much. The Europeans need to show more sensitivity to the implications of this and decide what they want more: getting Serbs to see the past the way Europeans do, or getting Serbs to stop thinking about the past and focus on the future. This is not about letting up on the perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre but preventing their fate from determining the pace of change. An unpalatable thought, even so. But one way or another, the EU is going to have to do a lot more to strengthen its allies in Serbia if the Kosovo imbroglio is not to destabilize the entire region.

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