In the vortex of a Balkan tsunami
by Miroslav Filipovic
The international community’s policy on Kosovo has for too long been coloured by complacency. Behind the curtain of seeming peace and success, however, dark clouds have been gathering. The potential for renewed violence remains very real. After a few easy years, ‘bad boys’ are once again sitting in Belgrade wishing to move mountains and rivers to fit their plans. It is not good when a locally powerful state with an irresponsible government thinks of war as a solution to problems. There are many people on all sides who have had enough of a feeble and unproductive peace, of corrupt and sterile police and other forms of administration, and of inordinately patient Western politicians. So the international community needs to decide whether to take control of events or to allow itself to be swamped once again by a dirty and bloody Balkan tsunami.
Although, six years after the NATO intervention, the fog of uncertainty over Kosovo is gradually lifting, there still remains a painful uncertainty not so much about what Kosovo’s final status will be as about when the first qualitative changes will occur that would make life in Kosovo bearable. Although the average Serb, as a result of skilful media manipulation, has long ago been induced to believe that only Serbs suffer in Kosovo while others live well, this is not so. The majority of the 127,000 destroyed Albanian houses have not been repaired, the economy is dead, poverty and lawlessness visibly rule everywhere. The unemployment is staggering, and 98% of all goods sold in Kosovo are imported. Most come from Serbia, usually as contraband, and almost always along the Ibar road. Hundreds and hundreds of articulated lorries cross the notorious bridge on the Ibar [in Mitrovice].
The final outcome of ‘the Kosovo question’ has long been known and accepted in Serbia, even by the most hardline politicians. Belgrade will never again govern Kosovo, its administration will never return there. But the status quo is also unsustainable. The economic situation is catastrophic and cannot be improved without a final solution for Kosovo’s future. The security situation is also catastrophic, and can be improved only by Kosovo’s own police and judicial bodies. Full international recognition of Kosovo’s independence, however, is as unreal as the return of Serbia’s rule. Kosovo can gain independence only with the agreement of the Security Council, which refuses to give this because Russia and China are against. The UN insists that prior to the start of negotiations regarding final status, the Kosovo government should meet European standards - and there is a document spelling out what this means. But if Kosovo is to become a state as good at least as the worst EU state, then we have a long wait ahead of us.
The Kosovo dilemma will be solved, but exactly how will be decided through negotiations among three basic players: the international community, the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian government. Since it is too early to speculate on this process, what follows will set out the problems and ask questions to which we may have answers already this year.
The international community
The world has been hesitating for some time to do what it must, waiting for events to decide. But there is a growing number of those who believe that it is high time to act. The question of final status has been postponed and ignored for almost six years now, while two million people live in an internationally undefined setting. This is not good, and from time to time the tension reaches the point of pain. The bloody events of March 2004 have been ascribed to the increasingly short fuse of an increasing number of Kosovo’s inhabitants, and have convinced the international community that it cannot rely forever on the patience and good will of the local population. What makes matters worse, the people and government of Kosovo do not know the reason for the delay or when it will end. Told that the world is waiting for the ‘fulfilment of standards’, Kosovo politicians reply that this would make sense only if they were indeed in control.
Adem Demaçi has said that ‘Kosovo is governed by the international community, not the Kosovo government’, so that ‘if anyone is responsible for meeting the standards then it is UNMIK. If someone wants to ascertain whether the Kosovo government is capable of implementing the standards, then we must first be given the necessary powers.’
This means that, as Nicholas Whyte [director of ICG’s Europe Programme] has argued, it is necessary to ‘rush through’ four issues. ‘Rush through’ since they are not serious questions; even if they are serious, they have long ago been decided; and even if they are posed, they serve only as empty bombast on the part of Serb nationalists. These issues are: 1. the Kosovo population will never accept the return of the Belgrade government; 2. Serbia, in fact, does not want that, and its politicians insist on this in private talks with their Western colleagues; 3. the idea of a Greater Albania, or some Muslim fundamentalist state, has long ceased to concern the more intelligent and serious; 4. Kosovo’s partition would pose an unacceptable and dangerous precedent for other potential hotbeds.
There must be a solution, and the international community is feverishly looking for it. Gareth Evans, the former prime minister of Australia who heads the International Crisis Group, argues that the world ‘simply must overcome the present deadlock. We can move forward only if we recognise the reality of the movement towards independence, since conditions exists for it to be realised in a manner that would protect Kosovo citizens. The international community would thereby be persuaded that the problem would not be repeated. In my view this can be achieved through international supervision for an unspecified period, combined with international participation in the local judiciary. An additional necessary provision is that an independent Kosovo could not be joined to Albania or any other neighbouring territory. This is why we recommend independence for Kosovo. There is no other option..’
This year is bound to be decisive, when we shall probably see the beginning of a resolution of final status. If for some reason this does not happen, Kosovo could once again become the site of an armed conflict that would be difficult to contain within its borders. According to the latest news, the Contact Group is meant to determine as soon as possible the framework and time-table of the process at the end of which the province would become independent. One principle has already been accepted as basic: the protection of Serb minority rights will largely decide whether there has been real progress in meeting the standards.
The international community has a clear aim. The creators of the new world order will not permit the exposure of its citizens to TV images of mass suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians caused by monstrous crimes. This is why they wish long-term stability for Kosovo rather than a return to the earlier conflicts. They wish to find a lasting solution, and are left with few options. Due to the relative failure of its mission the UN is now at a standstill, which has led to the proposal that Kosovo become an EU protectorate, with the proviso that its formal status remains unchanged: i.e. that it continues to be part of Serbia-Montenegro. But the EU is hesitant to accept this role. The least likely outcome is Kosovo being returned to Serbian rule. The reasons for this are obvious. Serbia maintains that no mass crimes were committed in Kosovo, its courts ignore the existence of mass graves in Serbia itself, and there is a general atmosphere of hostility towards Albanians of the kind that prevailed at the time of the war. Belgrade repeats with moronic insistence that ‘Kosovo is Serb’, which is manifestly false, and refuses to contemplate any measure that would make the Albanians feel at home in Serbia.
‘Is Serbia prepared’, asks Alex Anderson, head of the Kosovo Project, ‘ to see Albanians return to Niš and Belgrade, buy firms as part of the transition, be equitably represented in the police and government? I believe not. Given this, the only alternative is Kosovo’s independence, with protection for minorities. Our proposal is that the Kosovo nation-state be defined in agreement with the international community and hopefully also with Belgrade, with both taking part in the drafting of the Kosovo constitution and negotiating the form of guarantees for national minorities.’
Serbia has no plan for Kosovo, not even a wrong one. Its occasional moves are those of a desperate man, and are directed at the domestic public, or alternatively are moves which the politicians believe will help keep them in power. The ‘strategists’ from Nemanja Street [seat of Serbian government] are quite indifferent to the suffering, blood and tears of the Kosovo Serbs. A flagrant example of this is the government’s response to the Serb population’s discomfort caused by being cut off from the electricity supply. It is immaterial here that they were cut off because they had not paid their bills, and that things like this are an everyday occurrence in Serbia. If the government really wanted to help the Kosovo Serbs, it would have paid their debt and the electricity would have been restored. Instead, it encouraged them to protest and block the roads, brought them to the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe and exodus, and then publicised their suffering as part of its election campaign. The sooner that Belgrade accepts that Kosovo is lost, rather than fantasising about its return, the sooner it will be able to concentrate on its duty as ‘home country’ [matična država] to do what it can for the Kosovo Serbs.
Serb nationalists, in fact, have nothing to look forward to. In contrast to the Albanians, who benefit from peace and gradual improvement of their everyday life and look forward to independence, nationalist Belgrade would profit most from a shoot-out between armed Albanians and international forces. This would be unmistakable proof that the ‘savage and uncivilised Albanians’ have not reached ‘the standards’; it would bury for a long time the Albanian people’s hopes for the future. It is difficult, of course, to believe that the Albanians would be foolish enough to do something like that, but it is quite possible that someone else could set off a new spiral of violence. This, after all, is what happened first in Croatia and then in Bosnia. There was then, as now, a dirty media campaign and daily bombardment of the Serbian population with declarations by important people that Kosovo will ‘flare up again’, that war is inevitable, that we Serbs must close ranks and forget such unimportant and minor things as freedom, bread and jobs.
The best thing for the Kosovo Serbs, wherever they live, would be for the Serbian government to establish close daily contacts with the Kosovar government, since it is precisely the latter that alone can solve their problems. But the Serbian government seems determined to make life hard for them, as hard as it can. The last message that Belgrade sent to the Kosovo people was contained in the solemn send-off of a man [General Vladimir Lazarević] who has been charged with committing the most serious war crimes against Albanians in Kosovo.
There is also a worst-case scenario for Serbia and the Serbs, It is called ‘better war than pact’, or as the former president [Milošević] said, ‘if we are not good producers, at least we can make war’. If someone in Kosovo decides to do a little shooting at Albanians and then at KFOR and then hide to await results, and then a police or military vehicle drives over a land mine in the Preševo valley, we would again, I fear, have blood and tears and tens of thousands of Albanian refugees going south or west. Maybe also elite tank units on the famous bridge over the Ibar. And, of course, live TV coverage. To be sure, this is not likely to happen, but on 17 March last year many important peoples sitting in important offices were not proposing but demanding this very outcome.
What is necessary to stress here in particular is that Serbia’s citizens aspire to quite different aims from those of their government. The citizens desire peace, the government a ‘small controlled war’. The citizens would like Serbs to be peacefully included in the Kosovo governing bodies, while the aim of their government is for them to suffer in order to make ‘good TV’. The citizens crave for a wealthy society, the government for an impoverished quasi-patriotism which, it believes, helps them win elections, even though hundreds of thousands of children go hungry. The aim of the citizens is to travel abroad freely, learn foreign languages and computer science; that of the government is to have various semi-literate clerics bully their children. The citizens would like to see an open, modern and smiling state, while the aim of the government is to fence off Serbia and turn it into an obscurantist and collectivist Orthodox state in which only the church authority exists between the paterfamilias and God and in which order would be maintained by gangs of armed religious zealots. The citizens desire to live in a state in which murder is prohibited and punishable, the government to hide from the UN-established court those charged with murder - or, if it cannot, to organise a splendid send-off for them. Finally, the aim of elderly Serbs is to raise grandchildren and potter about in their gardens in fertile Š umadija; that of the government is to use those same grandchildren to liberate Đakovica from Albanians, just as it tried to liberate Varaždin from Croats and Višegrad from Bosniaks.
The Kosovo Albanians are, in fact, neither naive nor wholly innocent. Due to the terrible crimes committed against them and the stupidities on which Belgrade has been insisting for years, they can still shelter behind their status as victims. Were it not for this, and were it not for the fact that nationalist Belgrade hands them a new alibi each day, a reason and an excuse for mistakes, it would be difficult for them to justify themselves before their mentors.
Far from the public eye, the international community is working closely with the Kosovo Albanians, helping them to prepare for the coming independence. Dozens of international experts work in coordination with their local colleagues. Following their advice, the government has been trying to improve its relations with the Serb minority. A joint campaign ‘Prishtina - Open City’ has begun, intended to attract the inhabitants of the nearby Serb enclaves to the capital and local centres. Work on the Kosovo constitution is apparently well advanced, and its text contains all the recommended guarantees, such as minority rights, and the provision that judges in the Kosovo higher courts should be nominated by the international community. Documents are being prepared which would regulate the presence of the Kosovo Monitoring Mission, which will report to the international community and recommend further necessary measures, if Kosovo after acquiring conditional independence does not meet its obligations.
The interests and aims of the Kosovo Albanians, moreover, are very clear. They want independence and know very well that they will have it only if they prove able to protect, above all, Serbs’ lives and property. If there are those in Kosovo who stand most to lose from a Serb being hurt or from the smallest damage to Serb property, it is the Albanians. This is why wise analysts seek the eventual instigators of fresh unrest not in the province but further north, carefully watching the Serbian government’s ‘working groups’ in Brzeć and Raška. The government in Prishtina is determined that there should be no unrest.
The disputed Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj [now indicted and at The Hague] earned much praise for his - in the circumstances - good stewardship, and practically all analysts agree that he was something of a discovery. This was not true at the time when he was appointed prime minister, when he was much attacked by Belgrade and rudely ignored by the West. Working in conditions that would paralyse most people, he succeeded in winning Western respect . With his wartime record and the aura of a romantic avenger, he alone among the Albanians was given carte blanche to do what he thought was right and to take initiatives to protect the Serb minority, which had not been true of any previous government. The parties that grew from the former KLA are much more pragmatic and better in working with the Serbs than the parties of pacifist orientation who did not participate in the war.
Following in Milošević’s footsteps
It is difficult to know what the Serbian president Boris Tadić plans to do. If ‘Kosovo’s independence is unacceptable’, then it is part of Serbia and he is president of all its citizens, including the Albanians. However, he has not made clear what his attitude is to the fact that Kosovo also contains Albanians. Milošević’s solutions to the ‘Kosovo question’ - of the fizlik and potkovica [horseshoe] type - are currently being discussed in Sheveningen and The Hague, so another way will have to be found. Dialogue, for example! This is something that the president avoids, however. It is not clear whether Tadić recently visited Kosovo as president of Serbia or of his party. It is most unclear why he did not meet any Kosovo leader. He showed that he does not shy from shaking hands with people indicted for crimes when he met [Veselin] Š ljivančanin. In this way Belgrade has once again sent a message to the Kosovo Albanians that the planned murder of Albanians is no great crime and that the people who did it are no great criminals. Belgrade, on the other hand, is insisting upon being included in the negotiations regarding Kosovo’s final status. After this visit it is not clear who on the Serbian side should be talking to the Albanians other than the president. It is possible that someone has gained something from his visit, but it was not Serbia.
This article has been translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), January-February 2005. The author, correspondent in Kraljevo (Serbia) of the Belgrade daily Danas and of Agence France Presse, was arrested in May 2000 and sentenced by a military court in Niš to seven years imprisonment for ‘spying and spreading false news’, but was pardoned and released after the fall of Milošević.