Feb 1st 2007
From The Economist print edition
FOR the eight years since NATO aircraft bombed Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia into submission, the Serbian province of Kosovo has been in a state of suspended animation. Some 90% of its people are ethnic Albanians, almost all of them determined to achieve independence from Serbia. But for many people in Serbia the idea of Kosovo slipping formally away into independent statehood remains an anathema. And in the province itself some 17,000 NATO troops are still in place to preserve a grudging peace between the Albanian Kosovars and the remaining Serb minority.
Given the horrors that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia through the 1990s, it is understandable for outsiders to be wary of upsetting this precarious peace. One sign of how dangerous that could be was the outcome of last month's general election in Serbia. The greatest share of the vote was won by the Serbian Radical Party, which insists that Kosovo will remain an integral part of Serbia. Indeed, the Radicals' leader is an indicted war criminal awaiting trial in The Hague.
But the Kosovars are impatient, and their status cannot be left hanging forever. In 2005 the United Nations appointed Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, as its special envoy. Last week he presented his plan for the province's future to the six-nation “contact group” of America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. This week he told the Serbs and Kosovars themselves what he has in mind. This is a form of supervised independence, similar to the status Bosnia was given in 1995. Ultimate authority for Kosovo would be transferred from the UN to a special representative of the “international community”, and Kosovo would be able to join international organisations.
This falls short of full independence. But for Serbia it may go too far. Although it softens the blow by promising autonomy to the Serb areas of Kosovo, and safety for Serb religious sites, it still offers a platform for Kosovo to declare independence and so will please no Serbian politician. Nor does it sit well with Russia, which has said that it will block in the UN Security Council any deal which does not have Serb approval. Nonetheless, it may yet succeed, with the right diplomacy.
Entice Serbia—and, if necessary, ignore Russia
One reason for optimism is that the position of the Radical Party inside Serbia is weaker than it looks. Kosovo was not the overriding issue in the recent election; corruption and economics probably swayed more votes. The Radicals, moreover, will not be the government. They collected fewer votes than the combined total of two other parties, the Democratic Party led by President Boris Tadic, and the Democratic Party of Serbia, led by the outgoing prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. Both of these parties are well disposed to the European Union. Assuming that they form the government that will emerge from the horse-trading now under way, they are likely to have some understanding, albeit tacit and grudging, of the EU's determination to solve the Kosovo problem by supporting some form of independence.
The prospect of joining the EU is a carrot to dangle in front of Serbia as some compensation for the eventual loss of Kosovo. Last year the EU suspended talks on an association agreement—the first step towards membership—because of Serbia's failure to arrest Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general wanted for war crimes. If the Serbs renew their co-operation with the war-crimes tribunal, those talks should now resume—with the warning that their progress will be limited while Mr Mladic remains at large.
The Russians may be harder to entice. They argue mischievously that if Kosovo is allowed to become independent, so should South Ossetia and other pro-Russian enclaves in the Caucasus. And if Russia wants to, it can of course veto any UN resolution that sets Kosovo on the path to independence.
In that case Kosovo will have to go forward without the whole Security Council. Let America and European countries recognise an independent Kosovo, while the EU does what it can to calm the Serbs. Too much blood has been shed in the Balkans to allow prickly nationalists in Belgrade or muscle-flexers in Moscow to block progress towards a stable future. Fair use.