Kosovo - The Key Security Issue in the Balkans

Posted in Europe | 02-Feb-05 | Author: Ulrich Büchsenschütz

A call for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at the gate of a destroyed church.
A call for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo at the gate of a destroyed church.
The parliamentary elections that took place in Kosovo on October 23, 2004 highlighted just how imperative it is that action be taken on the final status of the internationally administered Serbian province.

An outbreak of mob violence in March 2004, where more than 20 people died, was a sign of the increasing impatience of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority with the failure of both the international administration and the domestic elite to overcome the blockade in the status discussion and to address the ongoing economic problems. The March riots also show that neither the international military nor the police forces were capable of protecting the Serbian minority in Kosovo from organized attacks. As a result, the Serbian minority followed calls by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the nationalist opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) to boycott the parliamentary elections in Kosovo.

Both the violence of March 2004 and the Serbian election boycott are clear wake-up calls for politicians in the region - as well as the international community - to finally begin the status talks and take action to improve the economic and security situation in Kosovo.

Due to the political, geographical, and strategic importance of Kosovo, any complacency would inevitably lead to the destabilization of the whole region. Not only Macedonia and Montenegro -- where large ethnic Albanian minorities live -- would be affected by the failure to resolve the Kosovo question; it would also affect Bosnia-Herzegovina because if Kosovo were partitioned, Serbian nationalists would see the Republika Srpska as compensation for any Serbian territory lost.

Kosovo can thus be seen as the key security issue in the Balkans. Once a viable solution is found that satisfies Belgrade as well as Pristina, the danger of political instability will be dramatically reduced. This in turn would pave the path in the whole western Balkans -- Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo -- for Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, political stability would improve the economic situation of large parts of the region.

Regional implications of putting off solution for Kosovo problem

The implication of further delaying efforts to find a viable solution for the Kosovo problem is clear -- continued political instability and, of course, economic weakness for the whole region.

"[The] influence of established politicians [in Kosovo] is waning and so is the ability of these leaders to maintain public order," the British Balkans expert Misha Glenny wrote in the latest Chaillot paper published by the EU's Institute for Security Studies (http://www.iss-eu.org/chaillot/chai70.pdf). Glenny added that, "It is the commitment of the established leaders to non-violence that keeps the lid on popular anger. This is a precarious state of affairs, and were this authority finally to collapse then the southern Balkans would enter into a period of distressing uncertainty, with the possibility of unrest spreading beyond Kosovo to engulf southern Serbia, western and northern Macedonia and Skopje, southern Montenegro, Republika Srpska and even Vojvodina".

It is clear that any renewed Albanian unrest in Kosovo could spill over into neighboring countries with a large ethnic Albanian minority, especially Macedonia. The 2001 uprising of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) that demanded greater rights for the Albanian minority was inspired by the successful war of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). At the same time, the Albanian political elites in Kosovo and Macedonia have close ties; Macedonian Albanian leaders often use media outlets in Kosovo's capital Pristina to address Macedonian affairs.

Since 2001, when the Albanian rebels and the political leaders struck a peace deal that was mediated by the EU and the United States, Macedonia has become a testing ground for future conflict-solution scenarios. By granting the Albanian minority greater constitutional rights -- especially with regards to education and the use of the Albanian language -- and through decentralizing the state administration so that more problems can be resolved at the local level, a viable compromise was found.

However, attempts to reduce the number of administrative districts in the country and in particular decentralization brought about new inter-ethnic tensions. Opinion polls suggested that a referendum against the government's controversial redistricting plans might succeed because many Macedonians feared that redistricting could be equivalent to partitioning the country into an Albanian and a Macedonian part. Fortunately, the pollsters were wrong this time, and the referendum failed because the organizers of the referendum did not succeed in motivating enough voters to participate in the vote. Under Macedonian law, at least 50% of registered voters must cast their ballot in order for a referendum to succeed.

In Montenegro, the Albanian minority has relatively good relations with the government, but it also has close ties to the political elite in neighboring Kosovo. Should the ongoing frustration amongst the Kosovar Albanians give rise to any nationalist Albanian movement, the good relations could be strained very quickly.

Like Kosovo, Montenegro seeks full independence from Serbia. As things stand, a referendum on Montenegrin independence will be held in 2006. Serbian politicians (and, to a lesser degree, the international community) will then be in the uncomfortable position of explaining to the Serbian people a double loss -- the possible loss of Kosovo as a Serbian province and that of Montenegro.

Bosnia could be indirectly affected by any settlement of the Kosovo status question. If Serb nationalists can argue that the international community has imposed the resolution upon Serbia, then Serbia could "seek compensation by staking a claim to the Republika Srpska", as Glenny wrote.

A last but not least likely factor for destabilization is the cross-border criminal networks engaging in human/drug trafficking and smuggling. Therefore, it is in the interest of all involved parties to establish effective border controls, and the inviolability of the borders must be secured through international arrangements that help thwart any attempts by these networks to keep the political situation unstable.

General elections end without clear winner, but result in problematic nomination

A new sense of urgency to resolve the Kosovo problem was mirrored by statements of leading representatives of the international community immediately after the elections. EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said on October 25 that he welcomed the fact that the elections were held in line with international standards. Solana added that the newly elected provisional institutions in Kosovo "will have to take on newly transferred competencies. In particular, they will have to focus on moving forward decisively on implementing the 'Standards for Kosovo'. There is no alternative course. Therefore, I call on the political leaders of Kosovo to rapidly proceed to establish a new assembly and a new government. There is no time to be lost".

The Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova
The Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova
According to the preliminary results from the polling stations in Kosovo proper, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) led by Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova won about 45% of the votes (compared to 45.65% in 2001). The Democratic Party (PDK) of former rebel commander Hashim Thaci won 28% (2001: 25.7%), whereas Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) received about 8% (2001: 7.83%). Publisher Veton Surroi's Citizens' Initiative ORA provided a small surprise as it won 6% of the votes just two months after its founding. The distribution of mandates in the 120-seat parliament has yet to be determined, but it is clear that the LDK will have to look for a coalition partner to form a government.

From a Kosovar Albanian perspective, the election results mean that the major Albanian parties have consolidated their power bases. As was the case in 2001, however, it could prove tricky for the Kosovar Albanian parties to find a power-sharing arrangement. Back then, it took the parties and the UN civilian administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) several months before such a deal could be reached. Ever since, the Kosovar government has included not only representatives of the LDK, PDK, and the AAK, but also of the Serbian and other ethnic minorities.

Apart from forming a working coalition, the Kosovar Albanian parties must also have a second look at the low voter turnout of just over 50% of eligible voters. Decreasing voter activity clearly signals that Kosovar Albanians are increasingly disappointed in the achievements of those parties. The ongoing economic crisis -- with its resulting high unemployment figures -- and the failure of both the international community and the Kosovar provisional institutions to address this problem certainly contributed to the low turnout.

Two months after the elections, it is increasingly clear that Kosovo's political elite has made a problematic decision. The election December 3 of former UCK commander Ramush Haradinaj as prime minister of a coalition government presents a major stumbling block not only for any future talks with the Serbian government, but also in the province's relations with the international community. In Serbia, Haradinaj is charged with war crimes committed during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo, and there are reports that the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will also formally indict Haradinaj. The former UCK commander was also involved in an incident with Russian peacekeepers in 2000. Days after his election, former Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic accused Haradinaj of having committed 67 murders and ordered 267 others. Haradinaj, for his part, argued that the UCK was a loosely structured organization and that he was often out of touch with units that were nominally under his command.

Most pundits agree that tensions in the province will inevitably rise, should the ICTY decide to charge Haradinaj when he is prime minister. This is why diplomats have already issued warnings that Haradinaj's election could harm the process of solving the final status of Kosovo. On the other hand, UNMIK head Soren Jessen-Petersen said he could not reject the appointments made by the Kosovar parties. Jessen-Petersen added, "If I say no to this candidate, then I would be saying no to democracy". Consequently, UNMIK ruled on December 5 that Haradinaj's election was legitimate.

Serbs stay away from the elections

One of the questions in these elections was not so much the distribution of seats in the future Kosovar parliament but the question whether the Kosovar Serbs would follow the boycott calls. The Kosovar Serb minority did abstain from ballot boxes, and this raises a number of questions not only for the future of Kosovo, but also for the legitimacy of the Serbian representatives in any future Kosovar government.

It is therefore understandable that the international community unanimously expressed its disappointment with this boycott. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said on October 25: "We are deeply disappointed that many Kosovo Serbs chose not to vote. It is our view that...that decision is self-defeating. Taking part in Kosovo's institutions is the best way for all communities in Kosovo to advance their legitimate interests".

The first problem of the Serbian election boycott concerns the parliament itself. Under the 2001 Constitutional Framework for Kosovo, 10 parliamentary seats are reserved for the Serbian minority, and another 10 for the remaining minorities such as Turks, Roma, Ashkali, or Gorani.

At present, it is not clear whether the Serbian politicians who actually ran for parliament will accept their mandates. Dragisa Krstovic of the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on October 25 that he will not accept his mandate, but added that he and other Serbian politicians will make their final decision after consultations with the Serbian leadership in Belgrade. "As far as I am concerned, I have already decided not to participate [in the parliament], for the simple reason that...it will be extremely difficult to represent somebody in the parliament who has not given you a mandate to do so", Krstovic said. Another Serbian candidate, Slavisa Petkovic of the Citizens' Initiative of Serbia, said he would accept his parliamentary seat. "Somebody has to defend the Serbian interests in the Kosovar parliament and that is one of the reasons for us to...become members of the Kosovar parliament", Petkovic said.

Boycott result of intimidation or church authority?

For Petkovic, the symbolic turnout of Serbian voters is not a problem regarding the legitimacy of his mandate, since the boycott is the result of brutal intimidation.

As of now, it cannot be confirmed that the success of the boycott is due only to pressure on the voters. According to Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN civilian administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), there may have been cases in which voters "may have wanted to go out to vote but who were afraid to go out and vote, because some of them may have felt intimidated".

For Serbian President Tadic, the boycott was not a surprise. Responding to charges by the opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS) that the Kosovar Serbs' election boycott was a defeat for him and that he should therefore step down as president, President Tadic said in Berlin on October 27 that he never enjoyed much support in Kosovo even before he was elected as president in June. In Tadic's view, the decisive factor for the boycott was the call by the Serbian Orthodox Church for the Kosovar Serbs to abstain from the vote. Tadic said the Serbian Orthodox Church is the only remaining authority recognized by the Serb minority in Kosovo.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica
Infighting in Belgrade

The second problem of the Serb's boycott concerns the political life in Belgrade rather than in Pristina. Those politicians who called for the boycott -- including Prime Minister Kostunica and SRS Tomislav Nikolic -- now claim the election boycott as a victory for their position. At the same time, they say that President Tadic, who called on the Kosovar Serbs to participate, suffered a defeat.

Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), for its part, initially ascribed the boycott to the serious situation in Kosovo. But after Nikolic and the SRS started taking potshots at Tadic, the DSS joined the SRS in criticizing the president.

The argument of both Tadic and the international community that the Kosovar Serbs should participate in the vote in order to have legitimate representatives sitting at the table when it comes to the talks on the final status of Kosovo remained unheard.

A Serbian proposal

With their boycott, the Kosovar Serbs once again opted for Belgrade rather than Pristina. With this decision, they also support the Serbian government's plan to grant the Serb minority in Kosovo territorial autonomy in order to protect them. This plan is, however, strictly opposed by Kosovo's Albanian majority and by UNMIK because they see it as equivalent to partitioning the province.

In the preface of this plan, the government argues that: "The international community has been trying for years to convince Serbia that the autonomy of Kosovo and Metohija requires special and atypical elements. Today, however, it has to admit that autonomy for Kosovo Serbs, for objective reasons and in order to make their survival possible, requires the same".

The centerpiece of this plan is to grant the Serb minority in Kosovo territorial autonomy and to create compact areas with Serb majorities that can be easily defended against any attacks from Kosovar Albanians. These autonomous areas should be granted certain legislative and executive rights as well as their own institutions (see http://www.srbija.sr.gov.yu/extfile/en/1933/resolution_kosovo_260304.doc). In effect, the plan provides for the creation of an entity quite similar to the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as Jacques Rupnik of the Paris-based Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches internationales (CERI) of the Fondation nationale des Sciences politiques expressed in his contribution to the Chaillot paper "The Western Balkans: Moving On".

Since the Serbian parliament unanimously approved that plan on April 29, it has been analyzed by a broad range of experts and institutions, including the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think-tank with offices in Berlin, Brussels, Sarajevo, and Pristina. In a study titled "The Lausanne Principle. Multiethnicity, Territory, and the Future of Kosovo's Serbs", ESI shows that the plan cannot be implemented. ESI has conducted research on the settlement structure of the Kosovar Serbs and was able to show that the majority of them live scattered among the Albanian majority in rural areas throughout southern Kosovo. For this reason, ESI said, it is not possible to create an autonomous and compact region for the Serbs "without mass displacement of both Serbs and Albanians, increasing hostility and further compromising the security of Serbs".

The ESI study argues that the autonomous territory in Kosovo created on the basis of this plan would be totally dependent of the Serbian government in Belgrade, similar to the Serb Krajina Republic in Croatia in the 1990s. "In the end, the Krajina Serbs were brutally expelled from Croatia when Belgrade reneged on its promise to protect them", the study says. "Given the demographics of southern Kosovo and the persistent economic weakness of Serbia, any attempt to implement the Belgrade plan would lead to a similar result -- a tragic outcome for the rural Serb communities that have remained in their homes throughout the turbulence of the past five years".

ESI and pundits such as Franz-Lothar Altmann, who is a Balkans expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), another think-tank, believe that Belgrade's plan is merely a maximalist position that may serve as a tactical base for future negotiations on the future status of Kosovo.

German forces liberating Kosovars as part of KFOR
German forces liberating Kosovars as part of KFOR
Partners and preconditions for negotiations

In theory, the stage is now set for negotiations on the final status of Kosovo. The Serbian government has signaled that it is ready for talks on Kosovo, albeit with a maximalist proposal, but also with a commitment for compromise. In an interview on October 28 with Belgrade's private BK TV, Prime Minister Kostunica said: "These talks should lead to a compromise solution in due time, which would ensure institutional protection for the Serbs in Kosovo-Metohija". In the same interview, Kostunica made it clear that he expects Belgrade to lead the negotiations on behalf of the Kosovar Serbs. "The number of those who participated in the Kosovo-Metohija [parliamentary elections] can hardly represent those who had contested the poll with their candidacies and legitimately represent those who voted", Kostunica said. "They can hardly be the legitimate representatives of the majority of the Serbs in Kosovo-Metohija and the displaced persons living in Serbia".

If it is true that the Serbian Orthodox Church is the only authority recognized by the Kosovar Serbs, as President Tadic said, then the church must be included in the negotiations, too. Altmann also states that the international community should take this idea into consideration.

The Kosovar Albanians, for their part, have elected a parliament and expect their old-new leaders to enter into negotiations. As all major Albanian parties based their election campaigns on the call for Kosovar independence, it is not yet clear whether and what kind of compromise solution they would be willing to accept. After his election as Prime Minister of the Kosovar provincial government, Ramush Haradinaj called on the Kosovar Serbs to participate in the Kosovar institutions. At the same time, he signaled his readiness to cooperate with Belgrade. When he took office on December 6, Haradinaj said he is "ready at any moment, even tomorrow, to begin a dialogue with Belgrade". The newly elected prime minister stressed that he has "...no prejudices". "I know what I'm going to do for Kosovo, [and] it will be necessary to meet and discuss everything of interest to Kosovars and Serbs".

However, many politicians in Serbia reject any talks with Haradinaj, whom they consider to be a war criminal. While Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica considered Haradinaj's election a "provocative" move, Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister, Vuk Draskovic, called on UNMIK to annul Haradinaj's election. As a reaction to the controversial election, Belgrade reportedly pulled out of the so-called "Vienna Talks" that focus on practical issues between Belgrade and Pristina. As a positive sign, on the other hand, moderate Serbian President Boris Tadic said on December 8 that Serbian politicians should not pass up opportunities to protect their people's interests, wherever those interests might be under threat.

One important precondition for all negotiations -- be they on the future status of Kosovo or the return of the Serbian refugees to their home -- is that UNMIK, the Kosovar provisional institutions of self-government and the Serbian government cooperate to establish accurate figures on the number of internally displaced persons who fled Kosovo and now live in central Serbia and on the number of Serbs still living in Kosovo. As ESI argues, the numbers currently used by both the Serbian government and UNMIK are highly inaccurate and therefore useless. Unlike the Serbian government, who says that some 200,000 Serbs had fled Kosovo since 1999, ESI put that figure at only 65,000, adding that the actual number of those wishing to return might be even less.

Another important precondition for any negotiations is that the international community as well as the Kosovar provisional institutions of self-government must take better care of the security situation in Kosovo. There simply cannot be renewed violence that would destabilize the whole region and would also scare away the remaining Serbs. During the parliamentary elections, KFOR stepped up its military presence in the region to avert violence. In the post-election period, an effective, ethnically mixed police service should be gradually built up in order to replace the international military and police presence.

Apart from ensuring physical security, UNMIK and the Kosovar provisional institutions of self-government should also seek to set up a legal and institutional framework for minority protection, possibly by forming a ministry for minorities or by setting up minority councils. Such a legal and institutional framework could also serve to counter the Serbian proposals for territorial autonomy.

The difficult part to come

When the international community decided to interfere in Kosovo in 1998-99, it took responsibility for the future of the southern Serbian province. After setting up a civilian administration, providing a constitutional framework and ensuring a peaceful environment, it now faces the difficult task of negotiating an exit strategy for itself while leaving a sustainable solution behind.

These negotiations may take years, but with the goodwill of the parties involved and with the help of a clear perspective of a future Euro-Atlantic integration of the whole region, it may be achieved. The big unknown in the negotiation process is whether the international Contact Group for Kosovo -- France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- will be able to convince the hard-line politicians in Pristina and Belgrade that it is better to accept a compromise solution and to be a member of the EU rather than to stick to nationalist aims and remain outside.

Whether this compromise solution will be independence for Kosovo or some other form of sovereignty remains to be seen. Currently, UNMIK seems to consider something like a "conditional sovereignty." As members of the UN administration admit, however, the legal basis for this kind of sovereignty has yet to be formulated in international law.

There are indications, however, that the international community has yet to define its own position in the negotiations about Kosovo's future status. The International Crisis Group, for example, demanded in a study released on January 24 that the international community should recognize "Kosovo's de jure sovereignty" by mid-2006. At the same time, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on January 27 that it was too early to begin discussing the future status of Kosovo. Boucher underscored that the United States supports UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the time frame proposed by the UN. "That way ahead calls for a comprehensive review of Kosovo's progress on the standards for Kosovo around mid-2005", Boucher said. "If that review is positive, then the international community will begin a political process to talk about Kosovo's future status. So we encourage Kosovo to continue to work to implement all the standards, and we think that more remains to be done in that regard, but we'll see where we are when we get to the mid-year review". Already on January 18, Erhard Busek, who coordinates the EU-led Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, told RFE/RL that the EU should have a greater role in Kosovo, admitting that the EU has not yet defined a strategy for the negotiations on the future status.

The uncertainty about the international community's strategy may lead to renewed violence. Therefore, the international community must reconsider its security strategy for Kosovo as soon as possible if it wants to avert future destabilization. The March 2004 riots highlighted a number of shortcomings. Neither did intelligence services of the countries participating in the peacekeeping efforts provide the UN's military forces with early warnings, nor does the UN civilian administration have a unit for political analysis that could have interpreted the signs of increasing tensions in the province. The rules of engagement for the KFOR troops must also be reconsidered so that the units of individual countries cannot use them as a pretext to stay in the barracks during riots, while other countries send out their troops.

These adjustments are necessary because only a stable and peaceful Kosovo can guarantee regional stability.