Kosovo independence

An optimistic look at the Balkans

Wednesday 2 May 2007, by Adam NOVAK

In the next few weeks, the United Nations is likely to approve the independence of Kosovo. This Albanian-speaking province of Serbia has functioned as a UN protectorate since 1999. Some Serbian leaders say Kosovo independence will plunge the Balkans into new wars. But there are also several factors that could contribute to a peaceful evolution.

It seems, at last, that the European Union has a clear, responsible, foreign policy. EU leaders recently agreed that Kosovo can become independent, and can start negotiations on future membership in the EU. But Brussels also made it clear that each step towards integration will be conditional on respect for the Serbian and other minorities, who make up 20% of Kosovo’s mostly rural population of 2m. The EU will finance both police observers and ’soft’ education and NGO programmes to promote reconciliation and integration of the minorities. If Serbia sticks to verbal protest but does not send troops to attack the new Kosovo, then it too will benefit from accelerated integration into the European club.

More carrot, less stick

Throughout the dissinegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, Washington has tried to push the core republics -
Serbia and Russia - into a corner, and recruit the newly-independent states as allies. In contrast, the EU refuses to humiliate Serbia, and is offering all ex-Yugoslav states the carrot of future EU membership, provided they recognise each others’ borders and rebuild regional economic cooperation. Rather than the threat of force, Brussels is counting on the power of positive attraction, economic cooperation and the patient negotiations that characterise all areas of EU policy. The recent bloodless secession of Montenegro from the Yugoslav federation was in all respects a success for the EU. Not spectacular perhaps. But infinitely preferable to the Bush doctrine in foreign policy...

The UN is also showing a rare ability to deal with complex situations on a case-by-case basis. The non-permanent members of the Security Council have rejected Serbia’s plea that national borders may never be changed. The French and British have committed to an ambitious reconstruction package for both Kosovo and Serbia (through the EU). Russia would prefer the UN to limit independence to recognised constituent territories of multi-national states (like Croatia, the Ukraine or Quebec) rather than sub-national territories (like Chechnya, or the Kurdish region of Turkey). However, Russia accepts that Kosovo will never return tor direct rule from Belgrade. The Americans, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, are letting the Europeans take the lead.

Responsible leaders

Regional leaders are also behaving responsibly. Fifteen years ago, communist leaders in each part of ex-Yugoslavia seized on nationalist demagogy to carve out little empires. Today, their main concern is convincing Brussels to accelerate their country’s integration into the EU, and competing with tax cuts for West European multinationals. Each presents itself as the best gateway to the Balkan market, and the Balkan consumer. As a result, each country has more to gain by peace than by a new round of conflict. Even Serbia, which has lost most in the disintegration of Yugoslavia, can use the Kosovo precedent to win greater autonomy for the Serbs living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a protectorate of the EU.

Integrating all these states as a new low-wage region of the EU, and NATO membership for everyone is certainly not the best regional system we could have hoped for the Balkans. But at least it gives a common framework, in which regional cooperation, and respect for human rights are reinforced by incentives, rather than threats.

Civil society

There has also been a display of intelligent politics at the national level. Kosovars are obstinate - they survived a decade of oppressive rule under Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic by creating a parallel underground network of schools, clinics and municipal councils, and they have used the EU protectorate years to eliminate the vestiges of Serbian sovereignty - the younger generation actually speaks better English than Serbian. But they have recognised that their treatment of the Serbian minority is the main question on which they will be judged in international forums. Kosovo’s minorities will therefore have one of the strongest legal protection frameworks in Eastern Europe.

Liberal Kosovo politicians, like the former dissident Vetton Surroi, have worked hard to encourage local Serbs to see themselves as part of Kosovo society, rather than as a colonist fringe of a greater Serbian nation. "By letting Belgrade authorities speak in their name, Kosovo Serbs were perceived by the Albanian majority as a colonial fifth column, which poisoned relations," Surroi explains . "It is in the interest of our Albanian-speaking majority for our Serbian neighbours to develop strong municipalities, cultural associations, and to participate in every area of government. It is the only alternative to further conflict."

And Kosovo certainly has more than its share of extremist and irresponsible politicians. This is the most violent society in Europe, and in both Albanian and Serbian regions people are still lynched for speaking the ’wrong’ language in public. But continued UN protectorate status can only encourage irresponsible and demagogic politics among the ’natives.’ Precisely because responsibility is denied to them. Only sovereignty will oblige Kosovo’s politicians to face up to the challenges of statesmanship, and enable the Albanian and Serbian communities to overcome their demons and prejudices...

The benefit to Europe

Kosovo’s integration into Europe will be good news for inter-religious and inter-cultural relations. Together with their co-religionists in Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia Kosovo’s Moslems have developed a theological and cultural expression of Islam that is impregnated by European values. Compared to the shameless manipulation of religious symbols and prejudices by Serbian orthodox and Croatian Catholic priests, or the foreign-born imams who dominate Islamic life in Western Europe, Islamic spiritual leaders in the Balkans are strong supporters of ecumenical respect and tolerance.

Over half a million migrants from Kosovo (1/4 of the nation) have already established themselves in Germany, Switzerland, and other West European countries, many opening shops, restaurants and small businesses. Normalisation of Kosovo’s status will improve the integration of these workers, and increase their ability to contribute funds and know-how to the reconstruction of their country of origin. As in most poor countries, remitances from emigrants are much more important, financially, than the "development aid" from countries like Canada.

The main losers from independence will be the 300,000 Serbs who have left Kosovo since NATO expelled Serbian forces in 1999, and those who will presumably leave if the province becomes independent. After two decades of turmoil, Serbia is unable to generate the jobs and opportunities they need to make a new life. And, like the half million Serbs who fled Croatia and Bosnia during the bloody dissintegration of Yugoslavia, they have little chance of returning to their homes. Their humiliation is a timebomb for the region. Lasting peace in the Balkans will only come when the European countries stop demonizing Serbia, and help it rebuild its economy - formerly the strongest in the region.

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