Europe must halt the last 'Battle of Kosovo'
by Andrej Nosov, Belgrade
When the Serbian director Zdravko Sotra produced the feature film Battle of Kosovo in the early Nineties in Serbia, the aim was to reinforce the myths surrounding Serbia's historic defeat in 1389 at the hands of the Ottomans. Although the battle ended with a Turkish victory, the event has long since become the principal red-letter day in Serbia's history. As Serbs drew pride and consolation from their resistance to the Turks, they fashioned an image of themselves as the shield of Christendom that had blunted the force of the Ottoman invasion.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the film was shown once more on television on 29 October, on the second day of a referendum on a new constitution that is closely linked to the Kosovo issue. It was as if voters were being encouraged to see themselves as warriors, coming to the battlefield to save Kosovo from loss once more. When turnout was lower than the authorities had expected, rumours even spread in Belgrade that Agim Çeku, Kosovo's pro-independence leader, was about to let off fireworks in Prishtina to celebrate the referendum's failure. That alone prompted some Serbian nationalists to rush to the polling stations, if only to prevent Kosovo's Albanian majority from having the last say.
The links between Serbia's constitution and the crisis over Kosovo are explicit, for although Belgrade effectively lost control of the territory in 1999, the document describes it as an ‘integral and inalienable part’ of Serbia. Belgrade's argument at home and abroad is that a new constitution was needed as a kind of backbone to save Kosovo and in order to prepare the country for the final ‘Battle of Kosovo’. By restating its claim to the territory in the new constitution and by calling early parliamentary elections, the government hopes to postpone the need to face up to difficult decisions concerning Kosovo's final solution and, at the same time, deal a blow to the new democratic and civic forces inside Serbia.
This is why the earlier pressure from the European Union for Belgrade to abandon its mythical claims to Kosovo and embrace reality were conducive both to Serbia's genuine democratisation and to Kosovo's peaceful resolution. Sadly, the EU and other important international factors are abandoning this principle and making the stability of Vojislav Koštunica's government their priority. Koštunica is taking advantage of this situation to strengthen his position and to come up with new mathematical formulas to win the incoming elections. His strategists believe early general and presidential elections will slow down the decision-making process on Kosovo's final status.
The government has successfully intimidated the international community over the issue, threatening them with the possible rise to power of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Koštunica's team believe both the elections and the new constitution will galvanise his centrist bloc and bolster his own position in any new government. Their entire approach to the Kosovo talks can be summed up as ‘the longer, the better’. And while Kosovo is the crucial issue on the agenda, the everyday problems of Serbian citizens can be put on the back burner.
Serbia has dragged its feet on the Kosovo negotiations ever since they started on July 24. It is still searching for some kind of ‘third way’ on Kosovo, after the international community ruled out any return to the status quo before 1999, and also rejected partition. Montenegro's exit from the state union with Serbia in May has only reinvigorated its determination to keep Kosovo, as the idea of losing two chunks of territory within only one year appears unbearable. Belgrade wants retention of Kosovo to offset the ‘loss’ of Montenegro, which is partly why Belgrade is demanding the creation of as many new Serbian municipalities in Kosovo as possible, in the hope that they might follow in the footsteps of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina and create their own semi-independent entity.
The increasingly close bonds between Koštunica and Republika Srpska must be seen in this context, for these links present yet another option in case Serbia does lose Kosovo, which is to deconstruct Bosnia-Herzegovina by encouraging the break-away aspirations of Republika Srpska. However, the new constitution is not intended solely to address the issue of Kosovo. It is also intended to dismantle the autonomy of the prosperous northern province of Vojvodina and damage the civic political option in Serbia.
The civic option
The Kosovo constitutional conundrum is closely linked to the civic option in Serbia, which is led by such experienced fighters against the Milošević regime as Čedomir Jovanović. A former key member of team of the late Zoran Đinđić, Jovanović has become the focus of liberal and democratic forces that hold clearly defined views. This is the bloc that wants Serbia openly to accept the independence of Kosovo and to face up to the Milošević's crimes and accept responsibility for the atrocities committed under his regime. Given its potential in a future parliament to ‘tip the scales’ one way or the other, the current government sees this option as a particular obstacle, which is why they prefer to rely in parliament on the support of the Radicals and Milošević's Socialists.
With their evident reluctance to embrace European democratic principles, Belgrade must be pressurised into turning over a new leaf on Kosovo and into taking up a more constructive approach towards the building of this new state in the Balkans. There is no a rationale for Kosovo to remain under the Serbia's jurisdiction, whatever new draft constitution says. It is crystal clear that Kosovo has been independent from Belgrade for seven years already. The only issue for Belgrade is to negotiate a new position for the Kosovo Serbs with its counterparts in Prishtina.
Isolated in their remote enclaves, the Kosovo Serbs have been left to their own devices, to be used as pawns in Belgrade's power games. There is even a danger that Belgrade may encourage them to pack up and flee to Serbia proper in keeping with its own internal agenda. The EU has a big role to play here. It must make it clear that Serbia will never be a candidate for membership if it retains its old attitudes towards its neighbours and keeps on manipulating the Kosovo Serbs. It is somewhat disappointing in this respect that Europe has instead welcomed the new constitution, although it contains provisions clearly contrary to EU policy on Kosovo.
Belgrade ought to acknowledge that the domestic public opinion is gradually coming round to accepting Kosovo's independence and that within only one year, the percentage of Serbs prepared to recognise this has increased from 18 to 32. These people may believe that Kosovo's independence is undesirable, but they accept that is the only solution. Brussels needs to adopt a clearer and less ambiguous policy if it wants to aid this transition process in Serbia. It must also make sure Kosovo's remaining Serbs do not pay too high a price for the province's inevitable independence.
Andrej Nosov is director of Youth Initiative for Human Rights, an NGO dealing with war crimes and transition issues. This comment appeared in Balkan Insight, BIRN's online publication, 9 November 2006.