Building on the Airlie Agreement

The Airlie Declaration, by Kosovo Albanian and Serb representatives, has raised hopes for reconciliation. But only the participants can make it work.

Building on the Airlie Agreement

The Airlie Declaration, by Kosovo Albanian and Serb representatives, has raised hopes for reconciliation. But only the participants can make it work.

Wednesday, 16 August, 2000

The 40 Kosovo Serb and Albanian representatives gathered at Airlie House outside Washington in July achieved something of a breakthrough. The meeting, facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), produced a joint declaration praised by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson as an "important step towards reconciliation."

Kosovo Orthodox Bishop Artemije, one of the participants, called the final statement the first positive document between Serbs and Albanians in a hundred years.

But what was really accomplished? And what concrete results can be expected?

The Airlie Declaration certainly did not solve the fundamental problem - Kosovo's future status. That wasn't even on the agenda. (See:

The Serb representatives - and only the relatively moderate ones came to Airlie - want to see Kosovo remain part of Serbia. The Albanians want Kosovo to be independent. No effort was made at the Airlie meeting to bridge this gap. Such efforts would be futile.

What the participants - 26 Albanians and 14 Serbs - did do was seek out limited areas where common interests could be identified. USIP set the initial agenda: one working group was assigned elections, media and civil society; the other security, returns of displaced people and refugees, and local governance.

But the participants were explicitly asked to reshape this agenda - and provide the meat - to suit their own interests. No draft declaration was prepared in advance, and it was not clear that one would prove either possible or desirable.

Seated in alphabetical order, participants spoke as individuals in the meetings, though there was a good deal of consultation, intra- and inter-ethnic, in the corridors. The American chairs set the tone and moved the discussion along, but the participants chose the problems to be addressed and what to do about them.

One former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader proposed a "Day Against Violence" to inaugurate the "Campaign Against Violence" proposed by an Albanian colleague. One Serb leader made it clear the Serbs would not take part in elections, but would participate in local governance if given an opportunity. Another insisted on acknowledgement of the right of return.

The basic bargain that emerged was this: the Albanians, realising that violence against Serbs only hurts prospects for independence and may lead to partition, said they wanted Serb re-integration. The Serbs, anxious to maintain access to all of Kosovo and hoping for it to remain in its entirety part of Serbia, asked for protection.

While the working groups made substantial progress, approval of the final document was not easy, for two reasons. Participants inevitably examined each word and phrase for bias on the question of Kosovo's final status, even though this issue was not on the agenda. And then there was the enormous emotional burden of the conflict, which bore down heavily on many.

The second problem was profound. There was a thorough airing of guilt and responsibility issues, but some participants wanted more time and space for witnessing the conflict and giving an account of the harm that had been done.

The result was a late-hour rebellion that led to strong language in the Declaration on the rawness of wounds.

"Implementation" of the Airlie Declaration is not automatic. Many have questioned the participants' sincerity. This too was discussed extensively at Airlie House and the organisers repeatedly urged participants not to include items in the declaration they did not intend to implement. Next week a joint US State Department and USIP mission plans to visit Kosovo to spark some follow-up activity.

The critical first step is the Campaign Against Violence, which the Albanians see as a way of burnishing their democratic credentials and the Serbs see as a test of whether the Albanians really want reintegration. If the participants launch this campaign with real fanfare before the beginning of the electoral campaign and calm interethnic relations, a great deal more could follow.

Likewise, successful elections and participation of appointed Serb members in municipal councils would create the institutions required for multiethnic governance. These are the two critical tests: will the Albanians make the Campaign Against Violence work? And will the Serbs join the United Nations mission's, UNMIK, governing structure at the municipal level?

Planning for implementation is still in the preliminary stages, but both the US Office in Pristina and UNMIK intend follow-upon the Declaration. The Waitt Foundation's donation of laptops to all the participants was intended to give them the means of communicating and to enable the building of a network to continue the dialogue.

USIP plans to support this virtual diplomacy, along with other efforts called for in the Declaration.

Future meetings are likely, though who, when and where remains undecided. Without papering over differences, what best serves the interests of both Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo? That is the decisive factor.

Daniel Serwer is Director of the Balkans Initiative at the US Institute of Peace and acted as executive director of the Airlie House meeting and chair of the second working group. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Support our journalists