What Will an Independent Kosovo Mean?

On Dec. 10, three international mediators -- U.S. envoy Frank Wisner, Russian representative Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and European Union envoy Wolfgang Ischinger -- will submit their report on Kosovo's status to Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, after two years of negotiations aimed at settling the status of Serbia's southern province ended in failure.

And without a small miracle in the next few days, a mutually acceptable solution looks as far away as ever.

Kosovar Albanians, who form 90 percent of the population, want a fully independent Kosovo. Serbia, which was given this southern province in 1913 by the five big European powers at the time (Britain, Austria, Germany, France and Russia), does not want to relinquish Kosovo, which it regards as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

This question became of international interest again after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove Serbian security forces out of the province.

Belgrade is proposing a system of maximum autonomy for Kosovo, agreeing to everything (including membership in the IMF) except for Kosovo becoming an independent state with its own membership in the U.N.

The next steps seem quite clear: Within the next three months, Kosovo is to declare independence, which will be immediately recognized by the United States, most of the EU, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Hashim Thaci, guerilla fighter-turned politician, whose party won Kosovo's Nov. 17 elections, and who is to become the next prime minister, has said that Kosovo will declare independence immediately after Dec. 10. In private, however, he has been telling diplomats that he is willing to hold on until spring.

The reverberations of Kosovar independence not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council could be felt far beyond the Balkans. In the Caucasus, for instance, Abkhazia could follow the example to proclaim its independence from Georgia. Nobody, even in the West, wants Kosovo to become an international law reference.

Many territories in the world encompass a national minority; if some of these are moved to demand independence, the U.N. could face scores of new complicated and dangerous requests.

The West is putting pressure on the Kosovar Albanians to delay declaring independence until well into the New Year. Some think reason for this is that the West wants to create favorable conditions for the re-election of pro-Western democrat Boris Tadic as president of Serbia. The only other serious candidate for the presidency is Tomislav Nikolic, the acting leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose founder, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in the U.N. war crimes tribunal in Holland.

If Nikolic was to win the presidential elections, the West fears there will be a serious danger of "losing Serbia," but if Tadic wins a second term in his office, then there is a chance for Serbia, after a period of anger over losing Kosovo, to stay on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration. And, if Tadic can win, then he should be in a position to finally assert some serious influence in government, which he has not done in the last year.

The current prime minister in Serbia, Vojislav Kostunica, is a democrat and a moderate nationalist. But on the issue of Kosovo, he is unyielding.

Later in 2008, the current U.N. administration will be replaced by the EU mission, to implement Martti Ahtisaari's "supervised independence" plan.

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