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Serbia’s Fateful Choice

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated January 22, 2007

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The endgame for Kosovo’s final status and, to some extent, the closing chapter on the late 20th-century’s Balkan wars, began with Serbia’s parliamentary elections (ElectionGuide) on January 21. UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari is waiting until after the elections—in which the debate over Kosovo’s future plays a key role—to announce his recommendations on the province’s future. Following the report, the UN Security Council will hold deliberations and is expected to grant some form of “conditional independence” to ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo under international supervision (Independent).

Sunday's election provided a mixed picture of how ready Serbs are for such a course. The Serbian Radical Party—whose leader Vojislav Seselj sits in The Hague accused of war crimes—won the election with 28.3 percent of the vote (TIME). But that may not amount to enough to gain control from a reformist coalition, says Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty analyst Patrick Moore. The reformist Democratic Party, led by President Boris Tadic, pulled in about 22 percent of the votes. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) landed in third place, with about 16 percent. Kostunica embraces both nationalistic and democratic views, summed up in a campaign statement in which he said “building a democratic and stable Serbia” was inconceivable without Kosovo because “without Kosovo we would need to rewrite our whole history and we refuse to do that.” Kostunica’s support, seen as crucial for a governing coalition, is not entirely clear, but Transitions Online does not envision a major role for the ultranationalist Radical Party.  

Serbia, a country seen as teeming with promise, was the last in the region to initiate a market economic transition and grapples with high unemployment and meager per capita income. It continues to struggle with obligations to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and in 2006 endured a split with Montenegro, the sixth state to emerge from the former Yugoslavia in the past fifteen years. Aware of the tough road ahead on Kosovo, transatlantic bodies are offering inducements: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has invited Serbia to participate in its partnership for peace program and the European Union has promised progress on membership (FT) if the country pursues pro-European policies.

An easing of pressure on Serbia’s failure to arrest indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic is believed to be under consideration by the European Union for gaining Serbia’s cooperation on Kosovo’s new status. But such a deal is by no means assured. Erstwhile moderates such as Kostunica have been adamant about refusing to cede Kosovo, which they say would deprive Serbia of a further 15 percent of its territory. Just as powerful are the province’s symbolic implications—Serbs suffered a great defeat to the Ottomans in Kosovo Polje in 1389 and it plays a central role in the story of Serb resurrection (BBC). But since the retreat of Belgrade’s forces after NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign, more than two hundred thousand Serbs have fled the UN-administered province. Reprisals against Serbs and non-Albanians remain a major concern of international advisers even as many stress the importance of quickly settling Kosovo’s status. A United States Institute of Peace report on Kosovo’s security sector reform says stability throughout the region will “hinge on Kosovo’s ability to maintain security for all its citizens.”

In the event of a “conditional independence” recommendation by Ahtisaari, a battle still looms between Russia and other veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. Russian officials this month said they will only back a decision on Kosovo’s final status if Serbia supports it (RFE/RL). Meanwhile, NATO’s sixteen thousand forces in the province are preparing for any violent response (AP) to the UN proposal.

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