Saturday, October 28, 2006

Serbia's delaying tactics

Oct 27th 2006 |
From Economist.com
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.

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