Independence or occupation?
The moment of truth has
finally arrived. More than six years after the end of the Kosovo war, talks on its future status open this morning in Vienna. They are to be chaired by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.
Tim Judah / Pristina, Belgrade, and Vienna
For several months diplomatic sources have indicated that, not only do they expect the talks to lead Kosovo’s independence, but that they are not really even about its future status, but rather about the future of the Serbian minority within Kosovo.
Kosovo has a population of some 2 million people of whom more than 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians. They have long demanded independence from Serbia.
War began in Kosovo in 1998 and NATO intervened in 1999. Following a 78-day bombardment of Serbia, its southern province came under the jurisdiction of the UN, although technically the sovereignty of the province remained with Serbia.
An exodus of non-Albanians, primarily Serbs and Roma followed the war. Now some 100,000 Serbs live, either in the north of Kosovo, in an area that abuts Serbia, or in enclaves scattered across the province.
Over the last year, diplomats working on the Kosovo question have predicted that the talks would lead to some form of “conditional independence”. This foresaw the breaking of the sovereign link with Serbia, NATO-led forces remaining and some form of international presence that would have the right, as in Bosnia, to interfere in everyday politics.
Now, however, sources close to the talks process in Vienna have told ISN Security Watch that Kosovo is likely to have far more independence than this. According to these sources, even the term “conditional independence” is now politically incorrect and is being replaced by “sovereignty with limitations” or “monitored independence”.
Talks in Vienna on Monday will center on decentralization. This is diplomatic code for autonomy for Serbian areas. Among things to be discussed will be the redrawing of municipal boundaries to create more Serbian dominated municipalities.
Two questions of highly symbolic importance that are unlikely to be discussed at the Vienna talks - but rather imposed by the UN Security Council in any status decision it is likely to take later this year - are about whether Kosovo will have a seat at the UN and whether it will have an army.
Diplomatic sources have told ISN Security Watch that they expect that Kosovo will have a UN seat sooner rather than later, which means that this could be within the next two or three years rather than say, waiting to time this with Kosovo’s eventual accession to the EU, which is certainly, at the very least, a decade away.
Under any settlement, Kosovo’s security is to continue to be provided by forces from mostly NATO member states and a role in policing is likely to be played by the EU.
As to the question of Kosovo’s own future army, ideas being discussed include a re-branding of the Kosovo Protection Corps. This was set up in the wake of the 1999 war to absorb several thousand former ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK/KLA). Today, despite its military ranks, it is supposed to be an unarmed, civil emergency force. One idea is that it should be given an arsenal of light weapons and given a new role as a “gendarmerie” force.
Although it has been clear for much of the last year that Kosovo was heading towards independence little has been done by Serbian leaders to prepare their population for this eventuality.
Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the largest in Serbia’s parliament, says that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has agreed with him that if Kosovo becomes independent then it should be declared “occupied territory”.
Kostunica has not denied this claim, which would end Serbia’s bids to join both the EU and NATO, as both of them would presumably be occupying powers, along with Kosovo’s native Albanian population.
Aleksandar Simic, an adviser on Kosovo to Kostunica, said recently that Serbia would “never” accept the independence of Kosovo and: “The Kosovo Albanians have to be aware that they will not receive independence from Serbia and that Serbia will retain the right to take back everything which it lost in an illegal manner.”
Another possibility currently under discussion in Serbia is whether or not to hold a referendum on the future of Kosovo, in effect, to ask Serbian voters to reject independence.
This idea recalls the referendum held in 1998 when the then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic asked Serbs to reject foreign mediation in the Kosovo conflict.
Indeed, the current level of discussion about the future of Kosovo has been greeted with dismay by some in Serbia. Daniel Sunter, head of the Belgrade think tank, the Euro-Atlantic Initiative, says there has been no serious debate in Serbia about what Serbs could expect if Kosovo was not given independence.
Quite apart from the demographic issues involved in trying to live in peace with a young, growing, and hostile Albanian population, he says: “What would it mean for Serbia? That it would take 500,000 soldiers to keep it under control or what?”
Kosovo Albanian leaders are, of course, in good cheer since independence is the goal they have been working towards since the collapse of the old Yugoslavia.
They are already turning their minds to the period after independence. Veton Surroi, a prominent opposition leader, says that the election of Fatmir Sejdiu as the new president of Kosovo following the death of Ibrahim Rugova last month brings with it an opportunity to clear out a lot of the corrupt old guard of Kosovo politics and usher in new people better able to deal with some of Kosovo’s massive economic problems.
According to Surroi, the 6 February declaration by John Sawers, the political director of the British Foreign Office, that Kosovo would be independent, meant that “the Rubicon has been crossed”. That, he said, coupled with the political opportunities that may follow the election of Sejdiu, leads him to feel a new and positive “critical energy” among Kosovo Albanian decision makers.
(Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War & Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, both published by Yale University Press)