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Kosovo: Final Status Back on the Agenda

Everyone, except the Albanians, has tried to avoid it, but now Kosovo's long-term future is at last being discussed.
By Tim Judah

Ever since the end of the war in Kosovo, the question of the final status of the territory has been the great woolly mammoth of Balkan politics. That's to say it's been deep-frozen. However, a sudden flurry of activity in and around Kosovo indicates that a thaw has begun.


In the last few days and weeks, Pristina and Belgrade have played host to both UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Security Council ambassadors. Michael Steiner, the head of UNMIK, has been to discuss Kosovo in Washington with the US administration and in New York at the UN.


Steiner also recently caused a stir when he unveiled his proposal for the European Union to take over the UNMIK - but only after the final status of the protectorate had been decided.


In Pristina, Albanian politicians have been sputtering with rage as Serbia and Montenegro agreed on December 7 to a constitution for their new forthcoming union. The preamble states unequivocally that Kosovo is part of Serbia.


So what is going on? The first reason for the thaw is the warm wind of Iraq. The US wants to concentrate on the war on terror and the looming war with Saddam Hussein. So powerful voices in Washington want to reduce the American commitment in the Balkans to free up resources for points east.


One way to do this is to prompt Serbs and Albanians into thinking, and talking, about their future. But they also want the Europeans to do the same. At a recent high-level conference at the influential Washington think-tank the US Institute of Peace, American voices made clear that one way Europe could help the US in Iraq would be to shoulder more of the Balkan burden.


Interestingly, the USIP (www.usip.org) has done more thinking about options for Kosovo's future than any organisation in Belgrade or Pristina.


A second reason why Kosovo's final status is moving up the political agenda is that, as far as UNMIK is concerned, it is simply the next issue on its order of business - as laid out by its mandate, Security Council Resolution 1244. Now that the Provisional Institutions for Self-Government are up and running, UNMIK's duty is to facilitate "a political process designed to determine Kosovo's future status".


A third reason why politicians and analysts are beginning to look at Kosovo relates to the EU. The whole region desperately wants to begin moving towards membership but the organisation is a club for states, not territories with an undefined status.


Until now, Serbia and Montenegro could not even begin to think about opening discussions on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, with Brussels since they did not know if they were even part of one country or not.


An SAA is the first major step towards EU membership and outlines the processes that a country needs to make to bring its legislation into line with it.


The forthcoming union of Serbia and Montenegro means that this question has been resolved, at least for now.


But what about Kosovo? The SAA question has set alarm bells ringing in the Yugoslav foreign ministry. It now believes that the issue of Kosovo needs to be clarified so that Serbia and Montenegro can begin the SAA process.


Luckily for all concerned, the EU, in the words of one official, is "endlessly inventive". On November 6, many of the members of the government of Kosovo were flown to Brussels for a meeting with the European Commission. This would appear to herald the birth of a twin-track policy for Serbia and Kosovo.


The idea is that Serbia and Montenegro begin the SAA process, which would be officially "suspended" for Kosovo pending a resolution of its final status. At the same time, Kosovo would still begin the process by itself, even if not quite officially.


The USIP meeting, meanwhile, revealed several other things. Firstly, that US officials and analysts are far more likely to favour an independent Kosovo than their European counterparts, and that they are far more impatient to get the talks process going.


However, both sides are keen to get Serbs and Albanians talking about concrete issues such as trade, transport and power as soon as possible. UNMIK officials say that early next year they will invite leaders from Pristina and Belgrade to do just this.


The whole question of proposed talks has resulted in quite some alarm amongst Kosovo Albanian politicians, who fear an attempt to eventually force them to accept something less than independence, for example some form of formal relationship with the new union of Serbia and Montenegro.


In Belgrade, where the issue of Kosovo has been absolutely taboo since June 1999, very few people are beginning to discuss the question again. Officially, the policy is "no partition, no independence". However, Serbian strategists have a problem. If they won't countenance either of these options then what can they propose short of eventually reintegrating 1.8 million Albanians who hate them and who would then have to be represented in the governments and parliaments of Serbia and the union?


In the last few months, Nebojsa Covic, the president of the Coordination Centre for Kosovo-Metohija, the body which deals with Kosovo, has been talking of regionalisation. This is code for giving Serbian areas de jure autonomy. But, it's not a long-term plan.


On November 22, however, he wrote an article for the Belgrade daily Politika, which looks suspiciously like an opening gambit. He appears to suggest (his argument is a little unclear) that Kosovo remain within Serbia although it, or perhaps just Albanian areas, have the same status as Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Hercegovina.


Covic's mentor is the writer on Kosovo, Prof Branislav Krstic, his deputy at the coordination centre. Krstic admits to being an admirer of Lord Owen - who has suggested redrawing the borders of the Balkans. Covic could be laying down an early marker. That is to say that he is putting forth a maximalist position, which he knows will be unacceptable to Albanians, while signalling his last minimum position - some form of eventual partition of Kosovo.


Between now and final status however, there are bound to be a good many years. Talks on the issue, as opposed to more mundane questions, are unlikely to start next year but those who like to gamble might well like to lay bets for 2004.


Tim Judah is the author of Kosovo: War and Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.


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