Saturday, October 28, 2006

Serbia's delaying tactics

Oct 27th 2006 |
Serbs vote for a new constitution, while trying to delay negotiations on independence for the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo. The political impasse is unlikely to end soon.

THERE has been an aggressive campaign to get out the vote. Serbia's referendum commission has been sending out text messages to remind people to turn out this weekend. So keen are the authorities to make sure that enough people cast ballots, that the process will be held over two days, Saturday October 28th and Sunday October 29th. Why the fuss? Serbia has needed an updated constitution ever since Slobodan Milosevic fell from power in 2000. In fact, the vote has less to do with Serbia and more to do with the independence-minded province of Kosovo.

No one doubts that Serbia needs a new constitution. The old one had many hangovers from Yugoslavia's communist past and was framed for a republic which was then in a federation with Montenegro, which is now independent. The new constitution underlines that Kosovo is an inalienable part of Serbia. Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 it has been under the jurisdiction of the UN. Of its 2m-odd people some 90% are ethnic Albanians who want nothing less than independence. Serbia rejects this and Serbs are being encouraged to go to the polls to tell the world that they reject it too.
Since February Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, has been in charge of negotiations that are supposed to find a solution to the Kosovo problem. To a great extent it has been a charade. No one expected Serbs and Albanians to agree on anything. Mr Ahtisaari was supposed to present his ideas for the future of Kosovo to the UN Security Council about now, but is instead keeping quiet. And as Mr Ahtisaari is known to favour independence, Serbian leaders, anxious not to lose control of land with historic resonances, are eager to do anything to delay the negotiation process. They may also reason that the longer the settlement can be put off, the more doubts can be sown in the minds of foreigners about the wisdom of giving Kosovo independence. They are constantly reminding others of the precedent it might set for everywhere from Catalonia to Chechnya.

Some Serbs even give warning that the loss of Kosovo could mean trouble for this part of Europe. After years of turmoil during the Balkan wars no one wants to see Serbia slip back into isolation. But Serbian leaders are worrying publicly that if Kosovo is lost they would in turn lose control of their own country to the extreme nationalist party, the Radicals, who may try to destabilise the region again.

The Serbs may hope to prolong the negotiations with another vote. After the referendum an election may be called. In this way, Serbian leaders can buy a delay of several months in resolving the Kosovo issue. The chances are nothing will be agreed before March 2007 at the earliest. Even then the solution that appears to be emerging would freeze the issue rather than decide for or against independence. Russian leaders say they oppose Kosovo's independence, although they are unlikely to act to prevent it. But if Kosovo were to declare independence, it is unclear how many countries would recognise it.

Nor is it clear that Kosovo, small as it is, would hold together once independent. The Serbian-inhabited north of the province is vociferously against leaving Serbia proper; locals say they would have nothing to do with an independent Kosovo. The chances are that this bit of Kosovo would continue to be run, in some fashion, from across the border in Serbia. That leaves a messy problem, not unlike the tricky border rows in northern Cyprus or in Abkhazia, a part of Georgia. Another war in the Balkans is unlikely, but there could be small-scale violence and a political impasse for years to come.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Think about life after status

Frank Wisner, the US envoy to Kosovo, visiting a Serb family in the municipality of Klina,Kosovo. While visiting the Pavlovic family,who have recently returned to Kosovo, Wisner praised the Klina municipality as the model how to facilitate the return of refugees to their homes. Daily Express reports that Wisner went out of his way to say that his government supports the conclusion of Kosovo's status by the end of the year. He went on to say that "Everybody should take steps to make the transition (to the new status) as easy as possible".
Source: Daily Express.

Albanian economy: Good times, at last

Oct 26th 2006 | TIRANA
From The Economist print edition
An unexpected boom in Albania will benefit the Balkans

IT IS not hard to find bad news in Albania: the country is corrupt, the state is weak and organised crime is strong. Yet over the past five years the country has undergone a little-noticed but remarkable transformation. The chaos and violence of 1997, precipitated by the collapse of pyramid schemes that wiped out many people's savings, seems unthinkable today.

Brightly coloured blocks of flats and offices have sprouted all over Tirana, the capital. Roads across the country are being rapidly repaired and extended. Even Vlore, once a wretched, pot-holed, crumbling coastal town crammed with Kurds, other foreigners and Albanians—all waiting to be smuggled to Italy—is enjoying a share of the renaissance.
A campaign against people trafficking, including a ban on speedboats, has largely choked off that trade. Some of its proceeds have gone into construction and legitimate businesses. With a reduction in lawlessness, hotels and restaurants now cater to ethnic Albanian holidaymakers from neighbouring Kosovo and Macedonia.

The relative stability of the past few years has helped Albania attract foreign banks. These have introduced such novelties as mortgages, which in turn have helped fuel the construction boom.

When politicians from the European Union talk of halting enlargement, or announce restrictions on workers from prospective new members, Albanians don't worry much. Although there are few reliable statistics, about a third of its population of just over 3m is thought to be living abroad, mainly in the EU: at least 600,000 in Greece, more than 200,000 in Italy and probably another 200,000 elsewhere. Expatriates are believed to be sending home some €1 billion ($1.25 billion) a year, and their cash has financed construction as well as consumer spending. So have the proceeds from organised crime, though police sources say education campaigns have sharply reduced the number of girls sold into prostitution abroad, having been duped into believing they would work as cleaners or nannies.

Unemployment officially hovers around an uncomfortable-sounding 15%; but joblessness is twice as high in Macedonia, and even higher in Kosovo.

Today the big worries are the future of the economy—remittances may not create many sustainable jobs—and the behaviour of Sali Berisha, the prime minister. Critics complain that, since his return to power last year, he has been attempting to control public life, for instance by trying to sack the prosecutor-general. “Berisha does not care about either the law or democracy,” argues Mustafa Nano, an influential Albanian columnist. But some of Albania's institutions seem more capable of withstanding the pressure these days.

Tensions in the Balkans will rise in coming months as Kosovo, inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians, moves towards independence. But in Albania itself there is little interest in the notion of a Greater Albanian state. Given that the collapse of 1997 had a direct effect in igniting war in Kosovo, greater wealth and stability in Albania is important for everybody in the Balkans.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Troubling times in the Balkans

Oct 5th 2006 | SARAJEVO
From The Economist print edition

The future of both Kosovo and Bosnia gets murkier

THE Balkan endgame is starting to look messy. Expectations that Kosovo would be independent by early next year have just suffered a blow. Over 1.8m of the Serbian province's 2m people are ethnic Albanians who will settle for nothing less than independence. Yet the UN talks on Kosovo under Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, have got nowhere. Two weeks ago Mr Ahtisaari was given the go-ahead to draft his own plan for Kosovo's future. On September 22nd the UN Security Council said it hoped that the talks would finish by the end of the year.

Mr Ahtisaari, who is likely to propose some form of independence, was expected to present his plan later this month. But on September 30th the Serbian parliament adopted a new constitution that declares Kosovo to be an inalienable part of Serbia. This was a shrewd delaying tactic on the part of Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister. The constitution must be ratified in a referendum at the end of October, and it will be followed by an election. Mr Ahtisaari can hardly put forward his plan before then, as the voters might react by switching in droves to the extreme nationalist Radical Party. That could destabilise the whole region.

Diplomats dealing with Kosovo prefer Serbia to have its election first, in the hope that democratic forces will win and then come round to accepting Kosovo's independence. But the election could be delayed. And if Kosovo's Albanians then start fretting that Serbia is successfully outmanoeuvring them, there is a risk that extremists among them will return to violence, which would not do their cause any good.

Voters in Bosnia also caused an upset on October 1st. A majority chose to put Bosnia's wartime foreign minister, Haris Silajdzic, into the Bosniak (Muslim) presidential seat in Sarajevo, turning out Sulejman Tihic, who was seen by Western diplomats as a moderate with whom they could work. Mr Silajdzic wants to scrap the Bosniak-Croat federation, as well as the Serbs' Republika Srpska. That upsets the Croats, who form a 14% minority, mostly in the south and west of the country. It also ruffles Milorad Dodik, who was easily re-elected as prime minister of Republika Srpska.

Many Bosnian Serbs see their republic as a legitimate legacy of the war. Mr Dodik has been making secessionist rumblings, claiming that, should Kosovo gain independence, his republic should be allowed to do so as well. The election of Mr Silajdzic will encourage more such talk, even though Bosnia's international overseers firmly reject the idea.

Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the German who now wields the power of international proconsul, has said that his office should be closed in mid-2007. It will be replaced by a lower-key European Union mission (and some of the 6,000 soldiers of the EU peacekeeping mission will stay). Although most parties in Bosnia say they want to get into the EU, one analyst, Senad Pecanin, fears that the necessary reforms could be blocked by the political radicalisation that is splitting the country into opposing camps. It does not help the moderates in Bosnia and Kosovo—nor in Serbia, for that matter—that the mood in Brussels and other EU capitals has recently turned against letting any more countries into their club.