Yes, it’s Kosovo again: a modest proposal
I'm sorry to come back to this so soon. But I don't really apologise for going into print yet again as another bloody Balkan conflict looms and our own government, along with the Americans and some others, shows every sign of trotting self-righteously towards the abyss. The Guardian of Saturday, 8 December 2007, generously published another in my series of Kosovo letters:
Russia remains the key to Kosovo
The Guardian, Saturday December 8, 2007
Timothy Garton Ash (The best answer for Kosovo is EU membership, December 6) proposes a solution, EU-supervised independence by easy stages, which would reproduce the fatal flaw in Nato's strategy in 1999, ie the doomed attempt to impose a durable settlement strongly opposed by Russia and Serbia, two countries with vital interests in the region, one of them a security council permanent member able to veto any arrangement, thus depriving it of UN legitimacy.
Serbian forces were withdrawn from Kosovo in 1999 not as a result of any "Nato invasion" as Garton Ash suggests, nor of the bombing of Yugoslavia, but as part of a settlement achieved by the quiet diplomacy of the then Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, the US — and Russia. It was only when Russia backed new settlement proposals that the Serbs had no choice but to accept them. Any plan launched now without Russian (and consequently Serbian) consent and participation, and therefore without UN approval, will only promote further regional conflict, as well as setting a potential precedent for other secessionist movements demanding independence. More Balkanisation can't be the answer; nor can it be right for Nato to carve off an important part of a UN member state's territory without either its own or the UN's consent. Trying to bypass both Russia and the UN is a sure recipe for failure.
I have already been reproached privately by an old friend for being purely negative in my Guardian letter. I would indeed have wished to add to the letter not just a positive alternative proposal but also a comment on the implication in Tim Garton-Ash's article that the EU exists to cure the ills of failed states in Europe and the near east by bestowing membership on them after imposing stiff democratic conditions. The effects on the EU itself of this high-minded recruitment drive are easy to see. Place-names such as Cyprus and Turkey come to mind. But any such additions would have made the letter much too long for any UK newspaper to consider publishing it.
The positive proposal that I (diffidently, as always) offer depends on the proposition that something akin to the status quo is less harmful to all concerned, including all the people of Kosovo, than the situation likely to result from a unilateral (and arguably illegal) declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians followed by recognition of their independence by some western governments, likely to include the UK and the US, but not all the rest of the EU, and certainly not including Serbia or Russia. The new self-proclaimed 'independent' state would stand no chance of acceptance for membership of the UN (because of the Russian and probably Chinese vetoes), its already shaky economy, hugely dependent on Serbia, would be at the mercy of Serbian sanctions, and the opportunity would probably be taken by (e.g.) the Serbian minority in Bosnia and several other secessionist groups in nearby countries to rack up their demands, on the principle of sauce being good for both goose and gander. The fate of the (now small) Serbian minority in Kosovo itself would be extremely precarious and armed intervention by Serbia, nominally or even genuinely to protect them, couldn't be ruled out. Is NATO really ready for an all-out land war with Serbia on such an issue?
What are the aims for an alternative outcome? A durable solution, which means a solution internationally and locally accepted, not regarded by anyone as perfect but simply as the least bad that can be devised, and capable of lasting unchallenged for a period of years. Complete internal autonomy for Kosovo just marginally short of full independence. A continuing international civil and police or military presence in Kosovo under UN auspices. Internationally monitored guarantees for the Serbian minority (what's left of it) in Kosovo, accepted and policed by Serbia and Russia among others. An international development aid programme for Kosovo. Institutional links (short of membership) for Kosovo with the UN and with the EU, formal institutional links with Albania and with the rest of Serbia. Perhaps a formal review of Kosovo's status by the Security Council five years from the inauguration of the new compromise settlement.
Nothing in this would appear to be inherently objectionable either to Russia or to the Serbs. No western interest would be damaged by it. The only party to the dispute that has so far rejected anything like it, as being short of full independence, is the Kosovo Albanians. The efforts of the EU and the US should be directed at persuading the Kosovo Albanians that it represents the least undesirable and the least dangerous solution for them as well as for everyone else. Everyone should stop trying to persuade Russia and the Serbs to agree to full recognised independence, a hopeless and ultimately irrational exercise. The first step should be to work out quietly with Moscow the just-short-of-independence outcome just outlined, and to leave it to the Russians to sell it, once agreed with them, to the Serbs (probably not a difficult task). The entire international community should then put it to the Kosovo Albanians that this is the best they can hope for; that it gives them all the substance that they want, and that all it's missing is the outward show; that a half-recognised or unrecognised self-declared independence would give them neither security, nor autonomy, nor prosperity, nor permanence. It should be made clear to them that if they agree to it, every effort possible will be made to meet all their legitimate concerns; but that if they continue to reject it, they will have the worst of all possible worlds — no recognition of any unilateral declaration of independence, no protection from Serbian hostility, no international recognition of their new status and no international guarantees of it. They will be in limbo. What better test of their political judgement and maturity?
But perhaps the first who would need to be persuaded would be the Americans, alas.
I have discussed some of the background to all this in a recent post, here.
PS: What on earth was that "NATO invasion" of Kosovo that Tim Garton Ash was writing about?