Balkans: The Kosovo countdown


Time is running out for finding a compromise on Kosovo. The 120-day period of negotiation, an extension after failure to agree on the Ahtisaari plan for the Serbian province earlier this year, expires on Dec. 10, and the current situation is one of stalemate.

The parties do not seem any closer to an agreement than they were before the final status talks started in January 2006. To many this is no surprise. Kosovo will accept nothing short of independence, whereas Serbia is ready to accept everything but that. Kosovo has been under United Nations mandate ever since the NATO humanitarian intervention in 1999. The United Nations asked former President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland to run the negotiations and propose a solution. Ahtisaari’s plan, presented earlier this year, proposed an internationally supervised independence, without actually using the word “independence.” The plan failed because of Russian opposition in the United Nations Security Council. Russia, a traditional Serbian ally, said it would not endorse a solution that is not accepted by Serbia.

The United States supports independence for Kosovo and wants a resolution shortly. Russia seems very adamant in opposing this. Yet, some analysts say that the two countries have come to agreements over even more complicated deals before. The European Union, as usual, is divided. Some members would endorse independence for Kosovo, whereas others fear it is a dangerous precedent for their own minority issues. Slovakia and Romania, both with sizable Hungarian minorities, were the first to distance themselves. Germany, which has a strong voice in the European Union, still does not seem to have a stand. Germany has made it clear that it is against sidestepping Russia and the UN. However, some analysts say the last thing Germany wants is another row with the US.

The critical dimension is one of time. Kosovo is tired of waiting and wants a solution now. Since Serbia lacks much room to maneuver, it would prefer to delay the issue, if possible indefinitely. To some in the EU, a prolongation would feel like relief. A few weeks ago, Kosovars grew scared that the US might also decide to consider such an alternative, given the impasse with Russia. The State Department denied media rumors about the existence of an idea to freeze the status until 2020 in exchange for massive economic assistance to the province. According to others, it is the delay that made things so hard in the first place. Veton Surroi, Kosovo’s unofficial foreign minister, says that if the solution had not been delayed until now, Kosovo would not be the hostage of other tensions between the United States and Russia, among them the US-Czech radar issue. Analysts say the Bush administration should have reacted much earlier—in 2002. According to many, dealing with Russia may have been easier back then. Russia today, say analysts, is using Kosovo to reclaim its superpower status. They say Russia also wants payback for 1999, when it couldn’t stop NATO’s bombing of Serbia. Perhaps things would have been easier back in 2002, but it should be kept in mind that the United States also placed greater priority on other things back then.

The deadlock has even made the West speak the unspeakable. The EU’s envoy in the new troika that manages the 120-day negotiation, Wolfgang Ischinger of Germany, was the first to “imply” earlier this year that a partition would even be considered if accepted by both Kosovo and Serbia. (The other members of the troika are Frank Wisner of the US and Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko of Russia) Although all the major players denied that they encouraged the parties to make such a move, the "in-between words" were clear: in the absence of other options, that concession was on the table. The message from the US was that the concession is an offer of limited duration; “During this period of engagement, the United States is prepared to accept any outcome to which the parties agree,” officials said. Russia was also on board. However, both Serbia and Kosovo turned down the idea of partition. “We are against any partition,” said Kosovo negotiator Veton Surroi.

Putting the borders in the Balkans up for redrawing would have been easily the worst solution possible. Neighboring Macedonia, a quarter of whose population is Albanian, and which also underwent a confined ethnic clash in 2001, would have been the first to suffer. “That would be akin to stumbling 200 years of Balkan history on our heads,” commented Denko Maleski, the country’s former ambassador to the UN. Great powers have done this several times in the past. As it goes, each redrawing contains the seed for a future conflict. With the Russian veto impeding the possibility for recognition of independence by the Security Council, Kosovo is striving for a unilateral declaration of independence after Dec. 10. The hope is that many individual recognitions would follow and that the US would take the lead.

Despite being a strong supporter of Kosovo, the US warned the government of Kosovo against any unilateral moves. There is no consensus on this issue among Kosovo’s leaders either. Whereas one block pushes for recognition of independence after Dec. 10, another block feels things should not be rushed. This latter block feels that unilateral action would delay the process of recognition for many years and isolate Kosovo. Nevertheless, the critical issue concerns what happens with the northern part of the province, which is populated by Serbs. If Kosovo’s parliament declares independence (and some say the paperwork is done already), the Serbs from the North could respond with secession and a new boundary would be delineated. If this happens, the US and Russia will stand on opposite sides. As for the EU, such an outcome would probably be a nightmare. Everybody says that resorting to violence is the best way for either Serbia or Kosovo to lose support and position in the negotiation.

The biggest fear, however, is exactly that. Prolonged tension and deadlock could eventually overheat the powder keg. A few Macedonian police officers have been killed in its border areas with Kosovo over the past several months. On Nov. 7, Macedonian police raided the village of Brodec, killing 6 men and arrested 13 others from a larger armed group. The leaders of that group recently fled in what seemed coordinated prison breaks in both Macedonia and Kosovo. Many of the men are former guerilla fighters from the Kosovo and Macedonian conflicts. Many of these small militant groups appeared after final status negotiations began last year, Even if they do not have the capacity to cause a stir on a larger scale, as officials like to say—Macedonia even tried to dismiss some earlier incidents as the work of smugglers—these groups should not be underestimated. After all, this is how the trouble started the last time in the Balkans. (

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