Nov 17th, 2007 | NEW YORK
Kosovo at the polls, as tension grows over its future
OUTSIDERS can be forgiven for not being able to tell much—from the names at least—about the Democratic Party of Kosovo, the Democratic League of Kosovo, the New Kosovo Alliance and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. The main four parties competing in an election on Saturday November 17th are in fact quite different from each other. One is dominated by former guerrillas; another is run by a man indicted for war crimes; another was founded as the non-violent opposition to Slobodan Milosevic; a fourth is run by a construction tycoon promising investment and jobs for Kosovo.
The parties do, however, agree on the most important thing about Kosovo: that it should become independent. Whichever party wins is likely to declare Kosovo’s independence after December 10th. That date marks a deadline for mediators who are trying to get Serbia and Kosovo, the latter still technically a province of the former, to agree on the Kosovars' future status. The Serbian position has been that Kosovo could have “more than autonomy” but “less than independence”, citing Hong Kong as an example. For most in Kosovo independence is the one thing not negotiable.
The fate of Kosovo’s 2m people, 90% of whom are ethnically Albanian, matters to the outside world mainly because of the great powers paying it attention. NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 until Milosevic withdrew his soldiers from the province. Since then, it has lived in limbo under international supervision. But Russia, Serbia’s ally (partly because of their shared eastern Orthodox Christian tradition), has vetoed any UN approval of independence.
For Europe, too, Kosovo matters for foreign policy. Some guilt persists for past indecisiveness, when Europe's leaders were divided over how to react to the Yugoslav wars. Wider concern is how Kosovo's future could affect the whole Balkans now. Some in the Serb dominated part of Bosnia, for example, give warning that if Kosovo declares independence from Serbia, then they, too, will secede from the rest of Bosnia. No wonder the European Union takes a close interest as it ponders possible enlargement to include parts of the Balkans.
But ahead of the December deadline, talks remain deadlocked. The UN’s special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, has proposed a form of “supervised independence” for Kosovo. This would make it sovereign, but within certain limits, including some that already exist. A chunk of seats in the parliament would be reserved for Serbs (and another chunk for other minorities); the Serbian Orthodox church would get special protection; Serbian would be a co-equal official language with Albanian. The whole arrangement would be overseen, as with Bosnia, by an official from the EU with the power to annul laws or dismiss officials if they violate the agreement.
Russia is insisting that any status change must have the agreement of all parties. But for Kosovo’s Western backers it seems that more talks are unlikely to produce progress. Kosovo cannot remain in limbo forever, and its population will never consent to remain part of Serbia. Yet given a newly assertive Russian foreign policy, under Vladimir Putin, it will be difficult for Kosovo, backed by Western allies, simply to push on for independence regardless. It is not clear how many countries would recognise Kosovo as an independent country if the declaration lacked UN approval.
The election is unlikely to help much. Serbia and the Orthodox church have urged Serbs in Kosovo not to take part in the election as that would legitimise the poll. The prospects of effective dialogue either within Kosovo, or without, look dim indeed.