Kosovo: Quo Vadis

A Kosovo Serb prepares to vote on Sunday at a polling station in Zvecan. (Photo: Armend Nimani / AFP-Getty Images)

As expected, Serbian nationalist Tomislav Nikolic won 39 percent of the vote in Sunday's presidential poll, beating "pro-western" candidate Boris Tadic (35%), but falling short of the 50% needed to carry the election. The stage is set for a runoff on Feb. 3. Tadic favors further neoliberal economic reforms; Nikolic is depicted as a hard-line nationalist shaped in the mold of Slobodan Milosevic. Whoever wins, one issue is likely to stand out in the minds of both men: Kosovo's fate.

The ultimate status of Kosovo, the "renegade" province still seeking independence, is yet to be settled. It is currently under the administration of the United Nations and is still militarily speaking being policed by NATO troops on the ground. However, a casual observer following the international mainstream media might be forgiven for thinking that Kosovo is already independent, as if this is all a done deal—a fait accomplice. Of course, that's not the case. Russia has sided with Belgrade, opposing any moves toward succession from Serbia by the mainly Albanian-Muslim populated province.

Both the European Union and the United States— the other two members of "the troika"—favor a separate state solution. Nevertheless, Belgrade has never hidden its determination to keep Kosovo as an integral part of the state, and it is seemingly prepared to protect its Serb minority living there.

"If any violence were to break out in Kosovo, and if KFOR [the NATO-led Kosovo force] could not react and protect the Serbs in an appropriate way, we are ready, and I underline with the agreement of competent international institutions and exactly in respect for international law, to help and provide protection to the threatened population," the incumbent Serbian president intoned firmly at an address in front of the United Nations Security Council last week.

The Serbian message to the international community—the United States and other Western powers pushing for Kosovo's sovereignty—is clear: any destabilization of the situation could lead to Serbian military intervention in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence. Yet despite plenty of talks and plans the main parties—the Serbs, the Kosovars, the European Union-United States duo, and Russia—remain at loggerheads with one another.

Seeking to break the impasse, the United Nations has proposed a plan named after its special envoy Martti Ahtisaari calling for "limited independence," which sounds like diplomatic gobbledygook for a kind of "sovereignty association" between Kosovo and Serbia. This somewhat muddled solution is unlikely to temper the nationalist yearning of Kosovars or satisfy the Serbs.

Is Berlin Busy Slicing and Dicing the Balkans?

Germany's Balkan adventurism overshadows the final outcome of the Kosovo question. Ironically, given its own reunification in 1989 after 41 years of being a divided country under foreign (United States and Allied) occupation, Germany has been instrumental in dismembering the former Yugoslavia. Berlin was one of the first European Union states to recognize Croatian independence in late 1991 and pushed Brussels to do likewise in early 1992 following the implosion of the Yugoslav federation.

Moreover, overcoming some deep-seated domestic taboos about foreign military operations for the first time since the end of World War II, the German Luftwaffe participated in the aerial bombardment of Serbia during the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia. Fifty-three years on, the aerial attack brought back memories for some Serbs of the 1941 bombing of Belgrade, which Hitler ordered as punishment for Serbian resistance to Nazi wartime aggression.

Is the EU Germany's Trojan Horse in the Region?

Much more recently, a top German diplomat appointed as the European Union's main negotiator on the Kosovo issue alluded to the possible partition of the Serbian province. "It is the principle of the troika to be prepared to endorse any agreement which both parties manage to achieve. That includes all options," German diplomat and European Union envoy Wolfgang Ischinger said in a BBC interview last year ("Kosovo Partition 'on the Table'," Aug. 12, 2007). The further fragmentation of the Balkans is arguably in Berlin's interest as it would further weaken its old-time historical foe Serbia and provide Germany with a firmer foothold in the region.

For its part, Belgrade seeks to join the European Union and depend on its largesse (since 1991 the union has poured almost 7 billion euros into the region). Brussels has also held out the promise of membership to Belgrade.

As a major contributor to the European Union's coffers, "paymaster" Berlin plays a vital role in the enlargement process. It also determines who gets in and when—another powerful tool to exert over the war-torn European Union aspirant. Thus, the final moves in the Kosovo end game will impact Serbia's future European Union chances and Balkan stability in general. Meanwhile, Germany is holding several trump cards at the negotiating table.

EU Split on Kosovo's Future

Despite heavy lobbying from Berlin for Kosovo within the European Union, the 27-nation bloc appears deeply divided. Those European states with their own secessionist movements are wary of seeing Kosovo breakaway from Serbia: Spain is dealing with the Basques, Greece, an orthodox ally of Serbia, with the Macedonians, the divided island of Cyprus has to contend with a Turkish minority, Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, now has a significant restless Hungarian minority to handle. All these European Union states are perhaps reluctant to go along with Germany, France or the United Kingdom, each of which are cheering for a "free Kosovo," for fear that an European Union endorsement of Kosovo's independence might trigger the Balkanization of their own countries.

Yet even the big powers are not immune to independence stirrings. For instance, what if Corsica declared unilateral independence with the sponsorship of a foreign interventionist power? How might the French government, let alone the French people, react? Britain went to war in order to insure its territorial claim over its far-flung overseas possession in the Falkland Islands. Russia has mercilessly crushed the independence aspirations of Chechnya in the name of territorial integrity.

All these big powers are, of course, nuclear nations, so they get to make their own rules. Yet in the case of the Serbia and Kosovo showdown, they are part of the little leagues; it's another ball game altogether.

My point is this: no nation stands idyll when a province, contiguous region, or overseas territory seeks to go its own way without its consent. Then there is, of course, the explosive ethnic dimension to the Kosovo conundrum. In any case, however the newly elected Serbian president handles Kosovo, his country is unlikely to remain passive if trouble erupts in a post-independent Kosovo. Let's hope it does not come to that stage.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.