ISN Security Watch’s Igor Jovanovic talks to Balkan expert Dr. James Lyon, the Serbia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, who says independence is the most “workable” option for Kosovo and is not likely to lead to regional instability.
ISN Security Watch: The ICG recently said Kosovo’s potential independence would contribute to stability in the region. However, would that independence stir similar demands from Albanians in Macedonia, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungarians in Serbia’s Vojvodina province? Is an independent Kosovo a potential danger for further disintegration in the region?
DR. JAMES LYON: We have discussed this question in many of our reports over the previous five years. In spite of the desire of some inside Belgrade to push the idea that Kosovo independence would have a spill-over effect in other areas of the Balkans, we have been unable to identify such a potential. However, the Balkans have changed in the last five years, and the threats to regional security and stability are no longer the same. First and most noticeably, the “domino effect” is no longer a genuine issue.
Bosnia and Herzegovina - although still fragile - is for the first time since 1995 seeing significant progress in its internal politics, with Bosnian politicians beginning to shoulder some of the responsibility for change, as opposed to shrugging it off onto the international community. Their recent agreements on police and state-level constitutional reforms suggest they have concluded that the stakes for European integration are too high to continue digging in their heels on the nationalist agenda.
Most importantly, there is no direct parallel between Kosovo and the Serb-inhabited areas of Bosnia. The Republika Srpska [Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity] was founded on genocide and ethnic cleansing; although it was legitimized as a sub-state entity by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement [which ended the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia], it has no justifiable claim as a potential sovereign state. At present, only Belgrade seems interested in mentioning a possible partition of Bosnia. Banja Luka [the Republika Srpska capital] is silent on the matter.
Similarly, Macedonia is quite different from what it was when conflict broke out in 2001 and had to be contained by the international community. The country appears to have resolved its internal differences in a manner that will permit it to continue to make progress towards the EU. A positive recommendation from the European Commission on its membership application is on the agenda of the European Council’s mid-December meeting. Fears of a “domino effect” from Montenegrin independence no longer stand up to serious scrutiny.
For that matter, [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina is an area that should remain peaceful, provided Belgrade does not curtail the rights of the province’s ethnic minorities [mainly ethnic Hungarians]. Belgrade also needs to crack down on the numerous anti-minority incidents inspired by the Serbian Radical Party [SRS] and other factions close to the Orthodox Church. If it does this, Vojvodina should remain a non-issue.
SECURITY WATCH: The Kosovo society has not demonstrated tolerance toward minorities over the past six years. During that time, several dozens of Serbs were killed, around 150 Orthodox churches were torn down or destroyed and a very small number of non-Albanian refugees returned to their homes. Do you think the treatment of minorities can change if Kosovo gains independence?
LYON: At present, the Kosovo Albanians view the Serb presence as an obstacle to achieving their independence aspirations. They view Serbs as agents of the Serbian state that for so long repressed them and conducted an official policy of state terror against them. As long as Kosovo’s status is unresolved, the Albanians will treat them as an unwelcome foreign organism that represents policies of a Greater Serbia. When Kosovo’s status is resolved in favor of independence, then it will be logical to expect that the Albanian majority will no longer view the Serb minority as a threat. Are your numbers correct on the churches?
SECURITY WATCH: How could Kosovo’s possible independence affect the political situation inside Serbia? Would it bring on the threat of radical parties coming to power?
Kosovo independence should have little effect on long-term political trends inside Serbia. The failure of Serbia’s “democrats” to remove [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic-era structures and counter the Milosevic-era propaganda are the biggest threats to the development of democracy in Serbia. Unfortunately, after deposing Milosevic, many of these democrats then proceeded to defend his policies regarding ethnic minorities, the wars of the 1990s, and Serbia’s relations with its neighbors. The result is that the Serbian Radical Party already exercises significant informal [power] within the current government and the country. Because many of the “democrats” bought into Milosevic’s interpretation of events and policies, they laid the groundwork for the rise of the Radicals. There is little the international community can do to combat this, other than opt for a strategy of containment.
SECURITY WATCH: Do you think Kosovo could survive as an independent state?
LYON: Of course.
SECURITY WATCH: Possible violence against Serbs, the same as back on 17 March 2004, is given as an argument backing Kosovo’s independence. Can violence serve as an argument for granting Kosovo independence?
LYON: The argument is that the current status of Kosovo is so unworkable and unable to create a stable economic, social, and political situation, that a new status must be found. Of all the available options, independence is the most workable.
SECURITY WATCH: When do you expect the final status of Kosovo to be resolved? How do you expect the situation to unravel if the Serbian authorities refuse to sign such a resolution?
LYON: The final status of Kosovo will probably be decided sometime in 2006. It is widely expected that Belgrade will refuse any outcome that gives independence to Kosovo. Should Belgrade refuse to sign off, independence will proceed without Serbia, which could have negative repercussions for Kosovo’s Serbian minority and give them far fewer privileges than should Belgrade participate. In any event, Kosovo will be offered a highly conditional road map that leads towards independence. Should Belgrade not participate in the process, the process will go ahead nonetheless.
SECURITY WATCH: Should Serbia get some concessions if Kosovo becomes independent, primarily concerning the tempo of accession to the EU?
LYON: Serbia could perhaps be given a speed-up on achieving candidate status. However, given the current climate inside the EU, this is not likely. There should not be - and probably will not be - any concessions on meeting membership requirements.