Comment: Dialogue in Jeopardy

Kosovo Albanian policy of setting preconditions for dialogue with Belgrade could prove to be disasterous for the province

Comment: Dialogue in Jeopardy

Kosovo Albanian policy of setting preconditions for dialogue with Belgrade could prove to be disasterous for the province

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

When is the right time to begin political dialogue between the new Yugoslav leadership and those who claim to represent the people of Kosovo?

From statements issued by Kosovo's main political parties and articles written by some commentators, most seem to be agreed that dialogue can only begin once certain basic preconditions have been met.

All remaining Albanian prisoners still being held in Serbia must be released; all indicted war criminals extradited to The Hague; and recognition of Kosovo's right to self-determination.

These preconditions are sometimes accompanied by demands that Serbia apologise for the Kosovo "genocide".

The terms for dialogue demonstrate the limited scope of political debate in Kosovo today. The fundamental failure of the province's political leadership is that it has not realised that dialogue is a precondition for the achievement of its goals, and not vice versa.

Failure to discuss these issues with Belgrade will only lead to the marginalisation of Kosovo - a process that has already begun.

Many in Kosovo, including the International Crisis Group, have warned the West against "rushing towards Belgrade". But almost as soon as it became clear that Slobodan Milosevic had gone from power, the international community set about reintegrating Yugoslavia.

First Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, was invited to the European Union summit in Biarritz, where EU member states pledged an instant aid package of $173 million as a "strong signal of support".

Then the United Nations special envoy to the Balkans met Kostunica, specifically to discuss cooperation with the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, and ways of enhancing Yugoslav participation in international organisations.

And Belgrade officials have now been invited to attend the November 27 meeting of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, foreign ministers in Vienna, paving the way for the restoration of Yugoslav membership.

The reason for this frenetic diplomatic activity is easy to identify. The United States, the EU and the OSCE have an interest in investing quickly in Serbia both politically and economically.

This is in recognition of the fact that Serbia is the key to the political stability of the entire Balkans, as well as the economic motor for the region.

The hope is that this investment will stabilise the situation, shoring up Kostunica's position at the same time as rewarding the people of Yugoslavia for removing Milosevic.

There's little doubt that Kostunica needs this support. He may be firmly installed as federal president, but Milosevic supporters still control the government of Serbia and the Montenegrin leadership has not given up its calls for independence.

This epidemic of diplomatic initiatives leaves the Kosovo Albanians in a difficult position. Despite assurances that support for the province will continue, it is clear that Serbia is now the flavour of the month.

So what has been the reaction in Kosovo to these developments? It can best be summed up as a state of extreme denial.

Following the line adopted by Agim Çeku that "Kosovo has separated from Serbia forever", Albanian political leaders began by trying to ignore what was happening in Yugoslavia, claiming that these events had nothing to do with them.

This sentiment extended to the media, which, with a few exceptions, has consistently failed to report on these developments; an editor went on the record to say that he edited out of his paper those statements by US and European political leaders with which he disagreed.

This situation has now changed slightly, as Kosovo Albanian leaders realise slowly that the changes in Yugoslavia require a response from them. Their position now is that while there may have been "developments" in Belgrade, they are not substantial enough to be considered positive and definitely not enough to justify the international community's unseemly haste to begin talking to the Kostunica leadership.

Kosovo Albanian leaders needed Milosevic as their nemesis to ensure that international support for Kosovo would continue.

With Milosevic gone they are now trying to paint a picture of Kostunica as Milosevic by another name - an AK-47 brandishing nationalist who would like nothing better than to begin oppressing Albanians again as soon as he can.

A review of this opinion of Kostunica would require a review of policy - something that Kosovo Albanian politicians appear to be unwilling to consider.

This has hamstrung attempts by UNMIK chief Bernard Kouchner to begin securing Kosovo's position by initiating dialogue with Belgrade. For his troubles Kouchner was lambasted by the Interim Administrative Council and backed away from the issue until things cooled down.

Kouchner has since proposed that the UN and Yugoslavia begin talks on the future of Kosovo in Zagreb on November 24, suggesting Kosovo be represented by himself - and possibly Kosovar political leaders.

More than one voice in Kosovo has expressed concern that embracing Belgrade without reassuring Pristina could radicalise Kosovo. It could also lead to an increase in violence, directed this time towards the international presence, particularly if the UN allowed Serbian troops and police to return the province.

However, given the security risk that this would represent, K-For chiefs are unlikely to allow it in the near future.

The concerns of Kosovo's leaders, nevertheless, are legitimate and must be addressed if there is to be lasting settlement.

So what is the nature of these concerns? The question of Albanian prisoners in Serbia would seem to be the most straightforward to resolve. Where their detention is not legitimate they must be released as a priority.

The trial of indicted war criminals must be a priority for the international community but not as a precondition for dialogue. Many have expressed concern over Kostunica's position on this issue, fearing that he will not hand over those indicted by The Hague tribunal.

Yet Kostunica has not ruled out the possibility of co-operation with the international court in future, which leaves an opening for negotiation. Based on the examples of Bosnia and Croatia, prompt extradition of indicted war criminals does not look likely.

If the Kosovo Albanian leadership waits until Yugoslavia complies fully with the tribunal before initiating dialogue, there is a good chance that the important discussions on Kosovo's status will have already passed them by.

The question of Kosovo's final status is the one that is most problematic. Kouchner has actually expressed his wariness over the issue, believing that to try to define Kosovo's final status could create more problems than it solves.

NATO intervened for humanitarian reasons - not to demonstrate international support for Kosovo Albanian independence claims. It is worth revisiting Security Council Resolution 1244, which calls for "substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration" for Kosovo while reaffirming the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia".

Despite wishes to the contrary of many in Kosovo, this is the context in which Kosovo Albanian approaches to Belgrade must be played out. Continued insistence on rapid recognition of Kosovo as an independent state (a position which is now so entrenched that even the Green Party lists it as one of their main platforms in the municipal elections) could lead to a situation that forces the West to choose between Serbia and Kosovo.

What should Kosovo Albanian leaders be working towards, given these developments?

While not giving up claims for independence, Kosovo Albanian political leaders should begin to think more strategically about the issue of what "substantial autonomy" might actually mean in practice and how they can carve out the most substantial autonomy they can.

This will not be an easy task but the Kosovo Albanian people have already demonstrated that they possess the resourcefulness and the resilience to take on that task.

The first step should be to normalise relations between Pristina and Belgrade, using the UN to facilitate those relations as a way of emphasising that Belgrade does not have administrative control over the province.

At any such discussions - whether in Zagreb or elsewhere - the key issues mentioned above should be placed on the table at the very beginning. The Albanian position should be made clear as a starting point, not as an ultimatum.

Setting preconditions for dialogue is an effective way of ensuring that dialogue never takes place. The preconditions already discussed here are particularly likely to close off Kostunica's options for a negotiated compromise.

Given that the international community is rushing towards Belgrade, the likely outcome of imposing such preconditions will be that Kosovo isolates itself even further.

The fundamental problem is that both sides see the situation as a struggle in which the winner takes all and the loser is left with nothing. The political vision is lacking on both sides to search for other ways of dealing with the situation, of reaching a modus vivendi that goes some way towards satisfying the demands of both without generating further conflict with which to curse future generations.

Time will tell if Kostunica can bring the Serbian people out of their state of suspended animation; in the meantime, will Kosovo Albanian leaders demonstrate that they possess the vision their people need? Or will they play for all or nothing - and end up with nothing?

Paul Currion is an NGO consultant based in Kosovo

Support our journalists