Dec 13th 2007-The Economist.
The delicate diplomacy over the handling of Kosovo's looming independence
A JOKE has been circulating among diplomats concerned with the Balkans. The reply to the question, “what comes after December 10th?” is “December 11th.” And so it has proved. The 10th was the deadline for a mission led by ambassadors from the European Union, America and Russia to report to the United Nations on the outcome of negotiations between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo. In the event, the talks produced so little that the report was handed in early.
It would be wrong to conclude that nothing has changed after the failure of the troika's talks. The end of almost two years of diplomatic efforts to find an agreement means that one chapter on Kosovo has closed and a new one is opening. A period of turbulence lies ahead, and it could even be accompanied by a few spasms of violence. But it is almost inconceivable that there will be a general return to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Kosovo is the last remaining piece of the former Yugoslav jigsaw. Some 90% of its 2m people are ethnic Albanians who have long demanded independence. Unlike the six countries that have already emerged from the old Yugoslavia, Kosovo was not a republic but a province—and one with a special historical significance for Serbs. Serbia's present leaders have offered maximum autonomy, but Kosovo's Albanians have said they will settle for nothing less than independence.
On December 19th the UN Security Council will take up the question. Russia, Serbia's backer, will demand that talks continue. This will be rejected by America and the EU countries, who say there is nothing left to discuss. At the same time, Western diplomats are working out next steps. Serbia is to hold a two-round presidential election in January and February. The Kosovo Albanians are being asked to hold off declaring independence before then, in a bid to boost the chances of the pro-European incumbent, Boris Tadic.
The diplomats are trying to find a legal cover to replace the UN mission in Kosovo with one from the EU. This is proving hard. Kosovo is governed by the Security Council's resolution 1244, which says it is part of Yugoslavia, to which Serbia is the legal successor state. “On this the Serbs and the Russians probably have the law on their side,” sighs a top European diplomat. “But then this is a political decision, not a legal one.”
Once Kosovo declares independence, it is likely to be recognised by the Americans, most EU members and many Muslim countries. Serbia may try to blockade the new country, apart from the Serb-inhabited part of Mitrovica and the north that it already, in effect, runs. So this may turn into Europe's newest “frozen conflict”. Kosovo exports nothing to Serbia, but Serbian exports to Kosovo amount to €200m ($280m) a year. This trade may be diverted through Montenegro and Macedonia.
The biggest worry concerns the 50,000 or more Serbs who live in enclaves scattered across Kosovo proper. Most, but not all, seem to be staying put. If the birth of a new Kosovo is accompanied by violence these are the most vulnerable targets.
As for Serbia, it is at a fork in the road. The EU's leaders may soften the blow over Kosovo by waiving a precondition that the country co-operate in full with the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague before signing a stabilisation and association agreement that would bring it large sums of aid. But Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, says it is insulting to believe that his country would trade Kosovo for eventual EU membership, and even hints that his country might refuse to sign the deal. Others close to Mr Tadic retort that Serbia has nowhere else to go.