From The Economist print edition
Why nerves are jangling from Croatia to Macedonia
FOR the countries of former Yugoslavia, 2006 will be busy—and perhaps dangerous. This time next year, the map may look quite different. In Kosovo, there is a risk of violence linked to talks over the province's future status. Montenegro will bid for independence. As all countries in the western Balkans prepare for talks to join the European Union, one source in Brussels talks of “a giant ‘to-do’ list”.
Last week's arrest of Ante Gotovina, a former Croatian general, has at least crossed one item off the list. Mr Gotovina was the only Croat fugitive still wanted by the UN's war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. He faces charges of murder and ethnic cleansing during the operation to end Serb rule in Krajina in 1995 that saw the flight of up to 200,000 Serbs. That he was picked up in Spain, after a tip-off from the Croatian government, suggests that it has at last regained control over its security services, which have helped Mr Gotovina in the past. The threat of suspending Croatia's talks on EU accession, which began in October, for failure to co-operate with The Hague tribunal has now been lifted.
Such a threat still hangs over Serbia and Montenegro. All six remaining fugitives from The Hague are Serbs. It seems more than likely that some parts of the country's security services know the whereabouts of the two biggest fish, Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs in the war of 1992-95, and Ratko Mladic, his military commander.
In October Serbia and Montenegro began talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, a prelude to membership talks. With Mr Gotovina behind bars, pressure to find the other fugitives will increase—and, if the Serbian authorities are not judged to be doing enough, the talks could halt. They may in any case have to pause for the country to disintegrate. A commission of the Council of Europe has just written a draft opinion finding Montenegro's referendum law acceptable. Montenegro may hold its vote next April. If the opposition boycotts it, independence (and instability) may be the result—though, with luck, not violence.
Few would be so sanguine about Kosovo. Since the end of the war in 1999, it has been under the jurisdiction of the UN even though it is technically part of Serbia. A large majority of its people, over 90% of whom are ethnic Albanian, want full independence. Serbia's leaders are against. A UN-led group under the leadership of Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, has now started discussions on Kosovo's future status. He may recommend “conditional independence”, ending the sovereign link with Serbia and offering a form of independence to Kosovo, but with residual powers being given to an international mission that would take over from the UN.
The EU does not want to run Kosovo but it knows it must play a big role in its future and may have to pay a lot of the costs of running the place. Javier Solana and Olli Rehn, respectively the EU's foreign-policy supremo and its enlargement commissioner, have begun planning. In a recent letter to colleagues, they have given warning of the need to make “adequate” provision for Kosovo, although nobody knows how much it might cost.
Equally, nobody knows what would happen if the “disaster scenario” struck, with the talks led by Mr Ahtisaari stalling and hard-line Albanian (or Serb) nationalists provoking violence. That could conceivably lead to the flight of the province's entire Serbian population of 100,000 people (out of some 2m). As one western diplomat says, “we're terrified silly.”
Meanwhile Macedonia, which in 2001 almost descended into civil war between the majority Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians, is on tenterhooks. Only the prospect of EU membership now holds the country together. This week's EU summit will decide whether to give Macedonia the prize of candidate status. In advance of the meeting, France has signalled its opposition, on the grounds that the EU needs to sort out its budget and future direction before expanding any more. That may just be negotiating tactics, but a failure to win candidate status would be a heavy blow for Macedonia—and for the rest of the western Balkans, which will be watching the Brussels summit unusually closely this week.