Thursday, February 23, 2006

A milestone on Kosovo's road to independence

Talks on the future of Kosovo began on Monday February 20th in Vienna. They are almost certain to lead to its independence. If that happens, Serbia may declare its former province "occupied territory"—a move that would probably end its bids to join NATO and the European Union. ( The Economist)


FOR months, diplomats who deal with the issue of Kosovo have been suggesting, first in a circumspect way, recently more openly, that the talks beginning on Monday February 20th on the future of the province will lead to its independence. Their thinking was that with a little gentle persuasion, Serbia's leaders could begin to prepare their public of the final loss of their southern slab of land, which has been under the jurisdiction of the United Nations since NATO forces drove out Serbian ones in 1999. Finally, says a source close to the talks process, “the message is sinking in.”

However, things are not quite that straightforward. While Kosovo-watchers had hoped that Serbia's leaders would blame the loss of Kosovo on the policies of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic—who was tossed from power in 2000—and extreme nationalist parties such as the Serbian Radical Party, this is not happening. Indeed, the Radicals now seem to be setting the agenda for debate in Serbia.

More than 90% of Kosovo's 2m people are ethnic Albanians who have long demanded independence. In the wake of the Kosovo war, tens of thousands of Serbs and Roma fled Kosovo, which remains technically a part of Serbia. The 100,000 or so Serbs who remain live either in the north, in an area adjacent to Serbia proper, or in enclaves scattered across the province. It is they, above all, who fear for their future.

In November the UN appointed Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, to preside over talks on Kosovo’s future. Meeting in London at the end of January, the Contact Group, which represents the major powers that deal with the former Yugoslavia, issued a statement which, reading between the lines, made clear they had decided Kosovo would be independent but that strong safeguards needed to be put in place to protect its Serbs. Emissaries were then sent to the region to explain this.

Serbia's leaders responded angrily. The leader of the Radical Party said that he and Serbia's premier, Vojislav Kostunica, had decided that if Kosovo became independent against Serbia's wishes it should be declared “occupied territory”.

Under the terms of any settlement, NATO troops would remain in Kosovo. The European Union is also planning to play a big role. Thus, if Kosovo is “occupied territory”, they would presumably count as occupying powers, and it would thus no longer be realistic for Serbia to continue talks on joining both organisations. This would mean that Serbia, which has slowly been clawing its way back after years in isolation, would once more become the embittered pariah of Europe.

Only a few political heavyweights in Serbia, such as former foreign minister Goran Svilanovic, have dared to say that Kosovo will become independent at the end of the process that is beginning this week. For that he has been vilified as a traitor in parts of the press. More common have been reactions such as that of Aleksandar Simic, an adviser to the Serbian premier: “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.”

Such talk has been greeted with dismay by many in Serbia who think its leadership has not presented Serbs with all the options. Daniel Sunter, head of the Euro-Atlantic Initiative, a Belgrade think-tank, says there has been no serious debate in Serbia about what its people could expect if Kosovo was not given independence. Quite apart from the demographic issues that come with trying to live in peace with a young, growing and hostile Albanian population, Mr Sunter suggests that “it would take 500,000 [Serbian] soldiers to keep [Kosovo] under control.” Kosovo Albanians have consistently said that any renewal of the link to Belgrade would lead to a new war.

In the past, diplomats have predicted that Kosovo would gain some sort of “conditional independence”. In fact it is likely to have more freedom than this, and now the diplomats talk of “sovereignty with limitations” or “monitored independence”. NATO troops will remain behind, Kosovo may have a “gendarmerie” rather than an army (for the moment), and it may not get a seat at the UN immediately.

With independence in sight, Kosovo Albanian leaders are beginning to think of the future. The province is small and crowded, its resources are limited, unemployment is high and it suffers from a chronic energy shortage. The World Bank says that Kosovo needs some $1.2 billion of investment—substantially more than its entire annual budget—in a new power plant and coal mine alone. For Kosovo, a huge amount of work is needed, and many will see this week as the point at which it begins in earnest.

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