Kosovo: Time for a Decision on Status?
October 20, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES informal discussion with James Pettifer, Professor, UK Defence Academy

James Pettifer, a longtime journalist and scholar on the southern Balkans, addressed the pivotal issue of the future status of the volatile region of Kosovo. He emphasized that the issue is ripe for a decision, since the international community's so-called "Standards before Status" policy is due to be reviewed in spring 2005. According to the policy, the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) will decide if sufficient progress has been demonstrated in the areas of political, social and human rights to warrant a decision on the status of Kosovo. Kosovo's current status is as part of Serbia-Montenegro, but there is strong support for independence from Kosovo's overwhelming Albanian majority. Partitioning the region has been raised by some as another option. Needless to say, any decision on status will be contentious, and many factors will affect the negotiations between the countries involved.

For example, on the one hand, it is likely that independence for Montenegro would add impetus to calls for independence for Kosovo. Currently, support for independence is increasing in Montenegro, which is slated to call a referendum on independence in 2006. On the other hand, Serbia may be less inclined to forfeit Kosovo if Montenegro receives independence. It is clear that the independence of Kosovo from Serbia has evoked and will continue to evoke resolute opposition from most political parties in Serbia, including the Western-oriented Democratic Party. Kosovo's independence is made difficult by the fact that the region is central to the historical memory of the creation of the Serbian nation state. No party or leader in Serbia is willing to risk destroying the myth of Serbia by forfeiting Kosovo, which would mean the end of a political career or worse.

Furthermore, now that Serbia has been reintegrated into most international organizations, including the IMF and the World Bank, the international community has fewer levers of pressure at its disposal, which it could use to bargain with Belgrade on Kosovo. Another vivid problem would be the affect on Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it is quite likely that the independence of Kosovo could set off a similar movement to separate the Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia.

Despite these difficulties, Pettifer stressed that the risks posed by postponing a decision on status are increasing. Although the status quo may seem peaceful, Pettifer asserted that there is a strong social undercurrent of growing frustration and impatience for Kosovo's independence, especially among its youth who have little or no experience with the multiculturalism that existed in Tito's Yugoslavia. It was this group that was responsible for the March violence. Pettifer warned that if nothing is done by the international community to move ahead on the status question by summer 2005, Kosovo could become ungovernable due to the rise of militant groups intent upon forcing the independence issue. UNMIK has little or no respect among this stratum of society, which could potentially use force against the representatives of the international community in Kosovo.
In terms of determining its status, some politicians and experts consider the partition of Kosovo a reasonable policy option, rather than granting independence to the entire region. Indeed, there is already a de facto partition in place in the northern part of Kosovo, which is dominated by Serb communities living north of the Ibar River, which are more or less autonomous from Prishtina. But the problem with partition, Pettifer asserted, is that most Kosovar Albanians will not accept it. He raised the possibility of partition leading to the emergence of a militant rebel movement, similar to the IRA in Ireland, which would continue to fight for the territorial integrity of the region. Partition might also set a regrettable precedent for neighboring regions, for instance leading to calls for partitioning parts of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Pettifer argued that the international community has essentially three options for Kosovo. First, it can do nothing and perpetuate the control of UNMIK indefinitely—an option Pettifer does not believe is viable. Second, it can, as planned, assess progress in the standards before deciding on status in spring 2005, and proceed cautiously. The third, and most preferred option according to Pettifer, is that the international community would seriously take up the issue of independence for Kosovo in summer 2005, the outcome of the Standards before Status process notwithstanding.

As a final note, Pettifer emphasized that whichever political party wins the American Presidential elections in November, the U.S. must remain an active and central player in Kosovo. It is essential that the U.S. remain fully committed to the region, as all parties would like it to stay engaged in the Balkans. This can best be done by deploying a new high-level special envoy for Kosovo, similar to the key role that Richard Holbrooke played as a special envoy for Bosnia in the mid-1990s.