BELGRADE – Chasing impossible dreams has driven Serbia and Kosovo into a corner. A return to armed conflict may be impossible – at least for now – given NATO’s military presence in Kosovo (though it will be halved in the next few months to only 5,000 troops). But the lack of effort on all sides to find a lasting compromise to the dispute over Kosovo’s independence threatens to undermine much of the progress made in the Western Balkans towards stability and democracy.
An opening for talks between Serbia and Kosovo was created by a joint European Union-Serbia resolution at the United Nations, which sets out a framework for dialogue. This was a triumph for the EU’s foreign-policy chief, High Representative Baroness Catherine Ashton, who secured the backing of EU member states (even from the five that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence), the United States, and both Serbia and Kosovo.
The resolution reflects the stark reality that Serbia now faces. Much as Serbia still considers Kosovo to be one of its provinces, key parts of the international community have invested too much financial and political capital in Kosovo to want to reopen the question of its political status.
Serbia also must face the fact that EU membership is impossible until the dispute is resolved. The EU wants to avoid another Cyprus, where a candidate country partly occupies a member country. Closer to home, the recent spat between Croatia and Slovenia over their maritime border almost scuppered Croatia’s accession plans.
But Kosovo’s government also has an interest in a settlement. In its haste to declare independence unilaterally, Kosovo condemned itself to an uncertain future internationally. The UN resolution pushed by Ashton neither refers to nor endorses Kosovo’s independence. Indeed, as things now stand, Kosovo cannot join the EU, NATO, or the UN, two-thirds of whose members, including two permanent Security Council members (Russia and China), do not recognize its independence.
Despite their harsh rhetoric, both sides know that they need to give ground – and not just figuratively. A formal, mutually acceptable partition of Kosovo – a territorial exchange of the type that almost everyone concedes is the only viable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict – could achieve a full and final settlement.
Apportioning to Serbia three municipalities in the north of Kosovo (Leposavić, Zubin Potok, and Zvečan) around the town of Mitrovica, and the town itself north of the Ibar River, would remove a major obstacle. This ethnic Serb-majority area of some 70,000 people has become increasingly restive since Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Kosovo could probably never govern this territory, whose ethnic Albanian inhabitants have mostly left.
Indeed, there is little goodwill towards Kosovo’s government in the Serb-dominated North (Ibarski Kolašin), partly because it failed to prevent the area from being overrun with criminal gangs. Moreover, the UN and EU contingents, and the NATO forces in Kosovo, have been unable or unwilling to enforce the government’s writ in Ibarski Kolašin, and scant attention has been paid to its shambolic economy.
In contrast to this neglect, Serbia’s government – at considerable cost – maintains a large public payroll and parallel administration so as to retain its influence. Local Serbs fear that the government in Priština simply wants to impose its will on Serb-majority areas rather than engaging with them as Kosovo citizens equal under the law.
The case for partition is historical as well: these districts were part of Serbia until Tito redrew Yugoslavia’s internal borders in the 1950’s. If Serbia were to gain parts of northern Kosovo, its government would have to concede sovereignty over the isolated parts of southern Kosovo where Serb communities still live, such as Strpce and Novo Brdo. Guarantees of minority civil and political rights would be required, as well as assurances for the preservation of Serbian Orthodox religious sites such as the Pec Monastery.
What might clinch a final, mutually acceptable settlement would be an offer by Serbia to hand over a part of its territory in the Albanian-majority Preševo valley, on Kosovo’s eastern flank. Such a courageous and forward-looking demonstration of Serbia’s willingness to swap land for peace would arouse nationalist sentiment at home, but it would put enormous pressure on Kosovo to offer its own concessions.
The idea of partitioning Kosovo in this way is not new. Dobrica Ćosić, a Serbian writer and political theorist, proposed it in the 1970’s, perhaps mindful of the inevitable fragility of post-Tito Yugoslavia. Since then, the idea has been largely dismissed by Western powerbrokers. Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President and Nobel laureate, who could claim to be the father of the Kosovan nation, dismisses the idea out of hand.
Only such international intransigence – and that of the Kosovo government – stands in the way of partition as an equitable and fair solution. Serbia’s dynamic and mainly youthful mainstream political elite appears prepared to turn a corner and make sacrifices to secure Serbia’s long-term future in the EU (and possibly NATO).
Kosovo’s apparent unwillingness to compromise until now can be partly blamed on its unstable political landscape (the government collapsed in late October and fresh elections were called). Moreover, northwestern Kosovo is potentially an important mining area, and thus a source of employment and revenue that the government is understandably loath to surrender.
Opponents of partition fear opening a Pandora’s Box of other Balkan issues. Republika Srpska would seek to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina and join Serbia, they say, and northern Macedonia would try to join Albania. But these countries’ territorial integrity and international borders, unlike Kosovo’s, have been settled and recognized around the world for 15 years.
The status quo is untenable in the longer term. Both sides will undermine their own strategic interests if they maintain an all-or-nothing approach. And Kosovo officials should consider that if the impasse continues for much longer, the West’s massive financial support for their state will become increasingly difficult to defend, especially given fiscal austerity at home.