Countdown to Kosovo: Opportunities and Perils

Staff-prepared summary of the discussion with Misha Glenny, Noted Journalist and Author. This meeting was co-sponsored by the Southeast Europe Project and East European Studies Program.

Misha Glenny, a former Wilson Center fellow and an eminent author and journalist on the Balkans and Eastern Europe, spoke on the future status of Kosovo and the primary role that the European Union (EU) must play in this process.

Glenny emphasized that the EU is the only international actor capable of offering the kinds of political and economic incentives to Serbia that can convince the government to change its rigid position against independence for Kosovo. If the EU cannot embrace both Serbia and Kosovo, there is little hope for a sustainable and stable solution on the status question, which will strongly influence the permanent stability of the wider Balkan region.

The recent "no" votes on the EU Constitutional Treaty in both France and the Netherlands are worrisome, since in part they reflect the negative reactions toward the last wave of enlargement. Although the reluctance to further enlargement is directed primarily at Turkey, the accession of Southeast Europe may be postponed as well. In Glenny's opinion, this would have grave consequences for the region, since EU membership is the single most important lever in the future negotiations on Kosovo's status. Glenny urged the EU and the international community not to let this opportunity slip by.

Glenny also emphasized that the time has come for negotiations on the future of Kosovo to begin, most likely later this year. The war in Kosovo ended six years ago and the status quo is simply no longer sustainable, given the persistent threat of violence. In March 1994, Kosovar Albanians attacked not only the few remaining Serbs in Kosovo (who comprise approximately 8 percent of the population), but also targeted UNMIK and the international community, which is seen as having failed to resolve the regions problems. It is no surprise that many of those involved in the violence were young people who face a 50 to 60 percent unemployment rate.

The international community has recently initiated a new schedule for evaluating progress in Kosovo. UN Secretary General Kofi Anan has just announced the appointment of Kai Eide, a senior Norwegian diplomat, who will be responsible for conducting a detailed study of the situation in Kosovo this summer, in order to make a determination on whether or not the internationally mandated standards of human rights, minority returns and good governance have been sufficiently met as to warrant the start of official talks on status. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns (speaking on Sarajevo on the same day as Glenny in Washington, DC) had already declared that the US believes enough progress has been made to warrant the start of status talks. However, Glenny warned that it is by no means certain that Eide will have a similarly optimistic view, particularly in light of the fact that two critical elements of the standards—protection of minorities and the return of the tens of thousands of refugees—are far from having been met.

Nevertheless, Glenny believes that the talks must go forward, but he lamented the fact that the Contact Group does not yet have an operational consensus on how to proceed with the dialogue between the two groups. These negotiations, most likely beginning the in the fall, are expected to be difficult and protracted, lasting considerably longer than the six to nine months currently estimated by diplomatic sources. Glenny also stressed the necessity for the talks to be regional in scope, since the status of Kosovo directly affects not only Serbia, but all the countries in the region, particularly Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

The likely outcome of the talks will be some form of independence, perhaps a conditional independence, closely linked to the EU accession process, as outlined by the recent report of the International Commission on the Balkans. To ensure this, it would be best for the EU to offer Serbia some form of expedited membership, which could compensate the Serbs for the formal loss of Kosovo. Serbia has recently made important strides in cooperating with the ICTY, handing over at least a dozen high level indictees this year, with little or no negative domestic repercussions. This bodes well for continued Serb cooperation with The Hague and lays a solid path for EU accession talks.

The recent release on Serbian television of horrifying footage detailing the killing of several Bosnian-Muslim civilians in Srebrenica by Serbian paramilitaries was, in Glenny's view, no accident. He views this as part of the process of preparing the Serb public for the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic. His arrest would remove the primary political obstacle to Serbia's entry into the EU. Glenny is optimistic about the prospect of overcoming the other major political obstacle as well, asserting that Serbs are more prepared for the eventual independence of Kosovo than their official position would indicate. For some time, the Serbian political elite has privately admitted that the loss of Kosovo is inevitable, but no Serbian public official has yet been able to advocate this position publicly for fear of censure or worse. The way must be slowly and carefully prepared.

Over the next few months, Glenny stressed that the EU and the international community face four policy challenges. First, it is necessary to continue to provide incentives to Serbia to compromise on the status issue for Kosovo. Second, it is essential to reject the concept of a greater Albania, which is not a serious threat now, but could possibly be if Kosovo achieves independence. Third, the Kosovar Albanians must take the implementation of UN standards more seriously, particularly the treatment of the Serb minority. It is crucial that Kosovo create the proper conditions for the return of refugees because at present the interim government of Kosovo has no program to re-integrate returning Serbs. Currently, refugees from the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo make up 10 percent of Serbia's population. Therefore, long-term political and economic stability in Serbia depends upon refugee returns. Fourth, it is necessary to create conditions for direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on the future of Kosovo. Currently, there is no incentive on either side to engage in such preliminary talks, and they are vital.

Here, Glenny supports the position of US Undersecretary of State Burns: in the end analysis, the decision on the future of Kosovo cannot be imposed from the outside, but must be the result of decisions made jointly by Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. This is the only way to have a chance for a peaceful and stable resolution of this difficult and protracted problem.