Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Balkan Taiwan
The first law of the Balkans is to expect the unexpected. In the wake of the seismic, and unexpected, changes in Serbia and Kosovo last month, both Serbs and Albanians have high expectations of how their relations will now develop.
President Vojislav Kostunica for example made a point of saying in his inaugural address that he intended to restore Yugoslav sovereignty to Kosovo. In the wake of his triumph in the local elections, Ibrahim Rugova called on the world to recognise Kosovo's independence.
In fact neither are likely scenarios. Kosovo looks set to become the Taiwan of the Balkans.
Unfortunately for Kosovo, becoming the Balkan Taiwan does not mean the territory will suddenly develop a booming high-tech driven economy. What it does mean is that, over the next few years, Kosovo looks set to develop (almost) all the institutions of self-government, and indeed become independent in all but name. However, like Taiwan, it will be unrecognised by most countries around the world and may linger for generations in this international no-man's land.
With the success of the municipal elections in Kosovo, talks will now start on creating the first elected Kosovo-wide institutions. At the centre of these will be an assembly and a government. But the powers of these bodies will be circumscribed by a veto, which remains with the head of the United Nations administration in Kosovo, a post currently held by dynamic Frenchman Bernard Kouchner. As Kosovars take over the everyday running of the territory, the UN administration will be scaled down.
Kosovo will probably have some form of "interim" constitution, which may, at the insistence of Kosovo's protectors (the NATO member states and Russia), deny the assembly the right to declare independence. In any event, such a declaration would remain as irrelevant as Kosovo's last declaration of independence in 1991, if no major countries recognise it.
Kosovo's elections look set to be held sometime between spring and autumn of next year. Unlike the recent municipal elections it is possible Kosovo's Serbs, including those refugees now in Serbia, might participate.
After the elections, Kosovo's leaders might well turn to demanding independence. But there seems little reason to suppose any country would back them in the future if they do not do so now.
Thus, apart from the Serbian-run north and the Serbian enclaves, Kosovo will be independent in all but name, although its security will continue to depend on K-For, the NATO-led peace force.
At first glance this would seem unacceptable to any new authorities in Belgrade, and of course, in theory it is. In fact, overwhelmed by so many other problems, there will be little Belgrade can do to change this state of affairs, other than ease the return of some of the Serbian refugees, where their security can be guaranteed.
Although Kostunica has ruled out Kosovo's independence and has a track record of nationalism over Kosovo, it is significant that privately the new authorities have been signalling to western foreign ministries that they do not want anyone to raise the issue of Kosovo for now.
It is not hard to see why. Kostunica needs to consolidate power at home, a process that won't be complete until well into early next near, after Serbia's December 23 elections.
Secondly, of far more pressing importance than Kosovo, is resolving Serbia's relationship with Montenegro.
Indeed the question of Kosovo hangs to a great extent on its outcome. If some form of joint state is salvaged then Pristina's path to independence will be far harder, but not impossible.
If there is no more joint state it is impossible to imagine a post-Yugoslav Serbia regaining any sort of control over the province, whatever the legal niceties about Serbia in its pre-1999 borders being the successor state.
Enter the diplomats. In Britain's Foreign Office, the United States State Department and the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, the air is thick with dust as officials pull out all sorts of old plans for the compromise three republic solution - a confederation of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, or variations on the theme.
Meanwhile in Kosovo, in the wake of Rugova's election victory, the hard men of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, are down, but not out. Rugova knows perfectly well that if he is seen to accede to unpopular western demands for a confederation with a link to Belgrade, the former KLA men will pick up more votes next year - or may even see it as a reason to return to war.
Pleurat Sejdiu, the former KLA spokesman in London says simply, "There will be no links with Serbia in any confederation. End of story." There is no reason to doubt his sincerity.
The people whose job it is to keep day-to-day control of Kosovo have, of course, already begun thinking about all these possibilities.
Brigadier Robert Fry is the Briton in charge of K-For troops in the Pristina region. He is currently relishing his success in a series of major raids his men have participated in to smash the murderous grip of the mafia in Kosovo.
But, he has clear warning for the future - unless Kosovo is handled with kid gloves it could turn very nasty again, very fast. "The greatest achievement of the last fifteen months," says Brigadier Fry, "is the demilitarisation of the KLA." Up to 5,000 of the former guerrillas are now part of the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC, which is supposed to be a civilian emergency force. But, warns Fry; "the greatest risk of the next twelve months is the remilitarisation of the KPC."
Brigadier Fry is proposing a carrot and stick approach. That means foreign training and other inducements for KPC men coupled with simultaneous crackdowns on any KPC-linked misdemeanours and a continued policy of rooting out secret arms dumps.
In the meantime though, as Serbia grapples with its own domestic problems and Montenegro and Kosovo concentrate on the question of institutions, tensions should relax somewhat between ordinary Serbs and Albanians.
Following the release of the Albanian human rights activist Flora Brovina, it seems only a matter of time before the rest of the Kosovo Albanian prisoners are released. Absolutely inconceivable only a month ago, Adem Demaqi, once a leading player in the KLA, was in Belgrade giving a talk this week.
A relaxation of tensions has no fundamental implications for the future though. Which is why, as Kosovo Albanians busily rebuild business links with Serbia and some Serbian refugees filter home, Kosovo will become more normal, if not completely so. Just like Taiwan then.
Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge published by Yale University Press.
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