After several false starts, Serbia’s restive province of Kosovo declared independence February 17 (NYT). The declaration marks the end of an era for Kosovo, which erupted in ethnic violence in the late 1990s, prompted a U.S.-led intervention in 1999, and has been a protectorate of the United Nations ever since. It also closes a chapter for the Balkan region, in all likelihood marking the final splintering of what was once the confederation of Yugoslavia.
Yet Kosovo’s secession opens as many questions as it resolves. First there is the matter of Kosovo’s own stability. Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority, numbering at least 100,000, remain scattered in pockets throughout the province. Some observers fear these communities may yet face violence from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Serbia warns that an exodus of Kosovo’s Serbs northwards into Serbia might prompt additional ethnic fighting (Guardian). Further complicating these scenarios is turnover in international oversight of the province. A looming Russian veto threat in the UN Security Council means the United Nations is unlikely to officially recognize Kosovo as independent and must withdraw its mission there. The European Union has readied a replacement mission (Reuters), but questions linger over how smoothly a transfer would take place. For starters, Russia recently questioned the legality (RIA Novosti) of EU or NATO forces operating in an independent Kosovo without explicit authority from the UN Security Council.
The stakes are also high for Serbia. Belgrade recently held presidential elections, with the more moderate of two runoff candidates, Boris Tadic, winning narrowly. Yet nationalist pressures on Tadic remain strong. Analysts say EU offers for fast-track membership in exchange for cooperation on Kosovo seem all but dead in the water, and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica recently blocked talks on EU-Serbian cooperation (AP). Tadic, for his part, immediately moved to annul (B92) Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The Economist says Kosovo’s break could precipitate the crumbling of Kostunica’s ruling coalition. Should Serbia veer away from Europe, Belgrade might seek to strengthen its economic ties with Russia—a concern for EU ministers (AP) highlighted recently when Belgrade signed an energy pact with the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Kosovo’s break could also bring broader geopolitical shifts. In a recent CFR.org online debate, Kosovo expert Alan J. Kuperman says U.S. recognition of Kosovo’s independence could establish a dangerous precedent if it encourages other separatist regions to press independence claims. A handful of provinces in former Soviet republics threaten to do this—notably the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions in Georgia. Russian officials raise this scenario as a warning, though CFR’s Charles Kupchan says Moscow’s more general desire to stand up to the United States and Europe also factors in to its opposition on Kosovo. In either case, Richard C. Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says disputes over Kosovo threaten to further strain tensions between Washington and the Kremlin. Yet for all the potential pitfalls, many experts urge moving forward. Holbrooke concludes that Western policymakers can still prevent worst-case scenarios and calls for them to adopt a course of “preventative diplomacy.”