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On Point

The Quest for Kosovo's "Final Status"


by Austin Bay
January 23, 2007

After 16 years of war and peacekeeping, the Great Yugoslav War of Devolution has entered a new, promising phase.

But don't call it finished, and don't call it peace -- at least not quite yet.

A substantial slice of Serbia's electorate remains angry and unpacified. In last Sunday's Serbian election, the "ultra-nationalist" Serbian Radical Party (SRP) took the largest number of party-line votes. The SRP opposes the creation of an independent Kosovo and lays claim to parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Though disdaining former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic (who died while being tried for genocide), the SRP has no intention of compromising over Kosovo. Nor have SRP voters forgiven Western Europe and the United States for the 1999 "NATO war" on Serbia, a war fought without U.N. authorization.

Yet Western European diplomats are delighted with the election results. The SRP did not get enough votes to form a government. Initial results indicate a patchwork collection of "pro-European" democratic parties took over 60 percent of the vote. Political and economic aid from the European Union should cobble together a coalition "reform government" that may control a two-thirds majority Serbia's parliament.

That doesn't immediately translate into a peaceful resolution of what to do about Kosovo (the "final status" decision in diplo-speak), but it does bode well for continuing the slow integration of Yugoslavia's leftovers into the European Union. Given time, European diplomats are betting that the Balkan integration project will slowly decompress the historical, ethnic and religious antagonisms that afflict the region.

The Balkans in 2007 are different, and far better off, than the Balkans in 1999. Macedonia and Albania have stabilized (and remember, Macedonia was fighting a civil war in 2001). Croatia has made economic and political progress. However, a small EU-led peacekeeping contingent remains in Bosnia, with good reason. Bosnia's "split state," with Bosnian Muslims and Croats balancing Bosnian Serbs, just manages to creak along.

NATO troops also remain in Kosovo, some 16,500 as of Jan. 1. That is a long-term occupation.

Over the last eight years, the United Nations and European Union have played a careful diplomatic game regarding Kosovo's final status. The Serbs, however, aren't stupid and can read the diplomatic body language. That wiggling semaphore suggests the European Union will recommend Kosovar independence -- though likely an independence with limitations. What that might look like in political and organizational terms remains intentionally vague. There is also talk of "autonomy" within a "democratic Serbia," though Albanian Kosovars (who now control Kosovo) reject this option. Still, a democratic Serbia does exist, and Serbia just conducted a clean, honest election.

Last year, the European Union and United Nations said a decision on Kosovo would take place shortly after the Serbian elections. Now, the United States says all parties should take "more time." Certainly, Serbia's reform parties have earned the opportunity to form a government and establish its bona fides without the disruption of a U.N. decision.

"More time" also gives European politicians time to coax Russia.

The Russians have objected to Kosovar independence from Serbia, and Russia wields a U.N. Security Council veto, which could block a pro-independence U.N. policy. Kosovo's government has approached Moscow on its own, trying to assure the Kremlin that Kosovar independence won't set a precedent for other independence and separatist movements in Europe. That's a tough sell, but Moscow might agree in return for future political considerations. What might those include? Concessions regarding the status of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and Transdniestr are possibilities.

Advocates of partition in Iraq should approach "the Yugoslav analogy" with extreme caution. Syria, Iran and Turkey thoroughly oppose an independent Kurdistan, carved from Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait oppose an independent Shia Arab state in southern Iraq. Both do provide rough analogs to Serbian and Russian opposition to Kosovar independence. However, the Middle East's dysfunctional neighborhood lacks a European Union -- a stable, supra-national "reuniter" that rewards peace and democracy with economic and political benefits. The missing "Middle Eastern EU" is a major difference.

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