UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari has proposed a plan allowing for phased independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo, which a number of Western policymakers hope will settle the last remaining Balkan security problem. Leading Serbian officials have denounced the plan but were still undecided on negotiating tactics amid the formation of a new government.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, a top official responsible for American policy in the region, says despite the official protests, Serbian opinion is “radically shifted” on Kosovo’s independence. He urged Belgrade to take advantage of UN-brokered talks this month to shape how Kosovo will be governed before the matter advances to the UN Security Council. Without Belgrade’s engagement, Fried says, “Serbia exists in kind of an outer orbit in sullen isolation, and nobody wants that.”
The UN plan for Kosovo has created a fairly strong reaction in Serbia. They’re asking for more time to consider it as they get their government together. But with the current climate in Serbia, how can this succeed?
Well, I’m happy to tell you that your news is just slightly out of date. The Serbian press reaction is not uniformly hostile. And I refer you to a fascinating major piece that appeared in yesterday’s edition of Politika, [a column by Politika foreign correspondent Bosko Jaksic] which is not a marginal but mainstream daily. In fact it is the leading Serbian daily—has been since before World War I—which said basically “it is time for us to join Europe and get over Kosovo.” The reaction to that piece this morning was mixed; in other words, not uniformly hostile. My point is that Serbian opinion is radically shifted. It’s obviously very divided. But many people, including those who don’t follow this, assume that Serbian opinion is what the radicals—that is, the extremist nationalists—want it to be, and that’s not necessarily the case.
Although a lot of people are responding to outgoing Prime Minister [Vojislav] Kostunica’s comments about not having relations with countries that recognize an independent Kosovo.
Well, yes he said that. And he also last week was saying they would not sit down at all with [UN envoy Martti] Ahtisaari until there was a new government. However, today apparently they said other things and suggested that no, they have a slightly different approach and once it convenes, the parliament may give them a mandate to negotiate. So this is a very different position from the one that we were faced with a few days ago, and it’s a more hopeful one. Now, does this mean we know what the final Serbian position is either on procedures or ultimate outcomes? No, we don’t. But it is a mistake to take one set of Serbian positions and then expect them not to change. They’ve already changed. And they’ve changed significantly within a few days.
So is it a matter of, perhaps, ripe timing? The notion of conditional independence has been out there for quite some time.
What [Ahtisaari] has done is come up with a very strong plan, which will, among other things, give strong, enforceable guarantees to the Serbian community, including the Serb majority communities both north of the Ibar [River in northern Kosovo], that’s the Mitrovica area, and south of the Ibar, that’s where two-thirds of the Kosovar Serbs actually live, strong guarantees to the Serbian monasteries and their lands, including protection zones to make sure that their lands are not encroached upon, and other guarantees which make a kind of mono-ethnic state or an extreme nationalistic state much more difficult if not impossible. Moreover, the international community, according to Ahtisaari’s plan, will remain in Kosovo for a considerable period of time after [final] status [is set]. Now, this is not a take-it-or-leave-it plan. Ahtisaari’s been very clear he wants input from the Kosovar Albanians, the Kosovar Serbs with whom he has met, and the Serbian government. And we have confidence in Ahtisaari. But it is also clear that the status quo is not sustainable, and we cannot go back to the situation of 1999. And Ahtisaari—with our full support and the full backing of our European allies and so far, actually, of Russia as well—is looking for a fair solution.
You mentioned the input from Kosovo Serbs and the Serbian community, but really, in terms of all the safeguards you’ve outlined, what more could they ask for that could be obliged? If they came up with a partition plan for the north, for example?
Well, we don’t support partition, and the Contact Group, which includes the United States, the European Union, German, Britain, France, Italy and Russia, has rejected partition. Partition is a bad idea. We understand that a lot of the Serbs who live north of the Ibar are attracted by this, but partition is a bad idea. We have certainly accepted the notion that a nationalist agenda for Kosovo, no matter whose nationalism you’re talking about, is also unacceptable. But there may be suggestions that the Serbs want to make about the municipalities, about security arrangements, and it’s up to them to engage in this process finally. Ahtisaari’s been trying to get engagement for a year. He hasn’t succeeded. And now at this very late stage it is not too late, I’m happy to say. And we hope Serbia and Kosovar Serbs sit down. I think it’s important that Serbia let the Kosovar Serbs sit down. That’s been a problem. And the Kosovar Albanians have already indicated their willingness, in fact their eagerness, to engage with Ahtisaari.
Now one of the plans outlined calls for an international official, appointed by the EU I believe, to have the power to replace troublesome officials and so forth, echoing the Bosnian international high representative. Is the Bosnian model generally seen as a successful one?
The Bosnian model is reasonably successful, though not complete. We’re not happy with some of the constitutional arrangements of Bosnia that have prevailed. And we’re encouraging the Bosnians themselves to make Bosnia a little more functional as a government, as a country. But Bosnia has worked out reasonably well. It is far more peaceful. The economy is somewhat more developed. There have been more returnees than people expected. And certain institutions like the military have really changed. It is true that Ahtisaari’s proposals envision a period of international supervision over a post-status Kosovo. The Kosovars have accepted this principle. It also envisions a continued presence of KFOR, the NATO-led security operation that has maintained the peace these many years, with one terrible outbreak of violence in March 2004, but it has been generally a successful operation. And this means that the extremist Kosovar position of unconditional, immediate independence and presumably a nationalist flavor to that independence will not be realized.
Getting back to the Contact Group, obviously Russia’s opinion is important.
Well, the Contact Group supported Ahtisaari’s mission. Russia has its own views and they should speak for themselves. I’m not going to speak for Russia, but we’re in close touch with our Russian colleagues about this.
Speaking for the U.S., though, are you troubled by a looming Russian blockade of this in the UN Security Council?
I think it is certainly in everybody’s interest, including Russia’s interest, that there be a peaceful, sustainable settlement in the Balkans. It is in no one’s interest to provoke instability. And I hope that Russia behaves in a way that allows a settlement to take shape that is respectful and protective of the Serbian population—that’s critically important, and we agree that there have to be strong guarantees put in place—but also respects the interests and ultimately the will of the 95 percent of the population that is ethnic Albanian. And I think we’re discussing this with the Russians. They have the ability to play a very constructive role, and their Balkan experts are very skillful and knowledgeable people.
Russia last year raised the point that independence for Kosovo may set a precedent for breakaway regions like those in Georgia, such as Abkhazia and so forth. Is there concern of creating this type of precedent?
Well, separatists may claim this as a precedent, but separatists have existed for a long time. The fact is Kosovo is not a precedent for other conflicts at all. It just isn’t. Kosovo is a unique situation, because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized effective Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations, not by Serbia. UN Council Resolution 1244 also stated that Kosovo’s final status would be the subject of negotiation. Those conditions do not pertain to any of the conflicts that are usually brought up in this context. It’s not applicable to Abkhazia, or South Ossetia, or Transdniester. Nor is it applicable to Chechnya or to any separatist conflicts in Europe.
Why is it important to get this settled now?
Well, we found out, and we found out the hard way, that war in the Balkans was nothing we could simply draw a red line around and ignore. That’s where we started in 1991 and 1992 as Yugoslavia broke up. We found that security in Europe required us to go in and stabilize the situation in the former Yugoslavia, first to help end the war in Bosnia, and of course, [Richard] Holbrooke [former U.S. special envoy] played a major and laudable role in bringing about the solution at Dayton. In 1999, Madeleine Albright led NATO, and NATO allies contributed to a campaign which forced [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic’s predatory armies out of Kosovo. And the fact is that security to Europe is important to American security. That isn’t theory. We found that to be true in practice.
So the Balkans can still be the ‘soft underbelly’?
Well, metaphors. Take your pick. If Kosovo can be resolved, the last major unsolved issue of European security will be done. And then the Balkans can become sort of the new Central Europe; that is, an area rapidly converging with Europe. Serbia needs a European future. Otherwise, Serbia exists in kind of an outer orbit in sullen isolation, and nobody wants that. The Serbian people deserve a European future. And to get there, Kosovo has to be resolved. So if we can resolve Kosovo this year, all of the Balkans can start moving into Europe, and we will have fixed a major problem in wars throughout the twentieth century and the threat of war in the twenty first. This is important. And Europe and the United States are determined to see this through in a way which is respectful both of our security interests and our values, and we have an opportunity to do so.
To come back to your original point, you’re heartened by seeing some signs that [Serbs] see it in their own interest to now embrace this, or if not embrace it to accept it and accept what it ultimately means for Euro-Atlantic ties?
Well, I don’t want to exaggerate Serbian willingness to engage seriously. My point was that they are now debating what their stance should be. After basically a long time, a year or more, of simply denial and refusal to engage, they’re now debating this. And I think wise Serbs understand that nationalism has brought nothing but ruin and misery to Serbia. And they’re looking down this pit again and listening to the same tired voices of nationalism make the same tired arguments. And some Serbs, at least, reject this. I have said before that nationalism is like cheap alcohol. First, it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, and then it kills you. And I think the Serbs have woken up to that, or at least some of them. And they deserve a better future. I lived in Serbia for three years. I like Serbs. I want them to find a European future. They deserve a European future. It’s up to them, though. It’s not up to us.