Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kostunica Should Look to de Gaulle

COMMENT: Just as former French President Charles de Gaulle renounced claims on "French Algeria" so Vojislav Kostunica should let go of Kosovo
By Jacques Rupnik

(A longer version of this article first appeared in Liberation, 3 November, 2000)


(BCR No. 200, 1-Dec-00)


When asked about his nationalism Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica likes to draw parallels with former French leader Charles de Gaulle.


Yet instead of a dubious comparison with the leader of the French war-time Resistance, Kostunica would do better to look to the de Gaulle of the post-war era, the president who presided over French decolonisation, who put an end to the war in Algeria and to all talk of a "French Algeria".


After all, back in the 1960s André Malraux, the famous writer and de Gaulle minister, told a Yugoslav interlocutor: "Kosovo is your Algeria".


Election victories for Kostunica in Belgrade and Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo indicate moderate nationalism and democracy are finally in the ascendancy.


But competition between Pristina and Belgrade over their democratic credentials, although infinitely better than that between radical and violent nationalisms, creates two dangerous illusions.


First is the misconception that where authoritarian nationalism brought separation, so democracy will bring people together. This is clearly not the case.


In Montenegro, President Milo Djukanovic boycotted the Yugoslav elections. In Kosovo, Kostunica does not recognise Rugova's victory. Kosovo Albanians boycotted the Yugoslav elections, and Kosovo Serbs boycotted the province's municipal poll.


In fact, the democratic process is consolidating the lines of ethnic divide and will not help to bridge them until a consensus is reached on the territories involved in that process. The territorialisation of politics remains the precondition for a consolidation of democracy. And the quicker this issue is addressed, the quicker the Balkans can put an end to its history of wars.


Kostunica's arrival has disorientated his neighbours in the former Yugoslav and complicated their agendas. Now that the Belgrade menace is no more, Montenegro's president is faced with doubts over his plans for independence. Djukanovic was flabbergasted by the alliance formed in the Yugoslav federal parliament by Kostunica's allies and his pro-Milosevic rivals from Montenegro.


But it is in Kosovo that the "Kostunica effect" is most keenly felt. His election has provoked a pretended indifference and genuine worries. The Kosovo Albanian plan for independence, bolstered by ten years of apartheid and violence perpetrated by the Milosevic regime, has apparently lost its justification, at least in the eyes of the international community, now democracy has prevailed in Belgrade.


Moreover, the victory of moderates in Kosovo - Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo - must not hide the fact that independence was the only issue under debate during the municipal elections, and the only reason so many Kosovo Albanians turned out to vote.


The second illusion is for the international community to imagine that now Milosevic is in retreat, a form of Yugoslavia (if only residual) can be revived. Even if it remains possible to negotiate a confederate relationship between Serbia and Montenegro, the question of Kosovo has to address certain stubborn facts of life. Since NATO's intervention, Kosovo has totally lost its dependence upon a Serbo-Yugoslav administration. To consider a return of Serbian officials, soldiers and police to Kosovo is clearly a dangerous game.


As Veton Surroi, publisher of Koha Ditore, put it Kosovo Albanians will never again accept Belgrade rule, even if Mother Theresa were to be elected president in Serbia!


It seems obvious when next year's elections in Kosovo create a democratically elected assembly its first decision will be to declare independence. Compelling Kosovars to accept "substantial autonomy" within Yugoslavia could be enough to compromise the victory of moderates grouped around Rugova and make way for a new avalanche of violence.


But can Kostunica free himself from the Yugoslav fiction and help Serbian (and Albanian) nationalism break free of the Kosovo issue?


Kostunica is a nationalist at heart, not a political opportunist like Milosevic. He is a lawyer by profession and has just taken an oath to defend the Yugoslav constitution. He could just content himself with repeating the principle of a Kosovo within Yugoslavia, according to the United Nations' resolution 1244, in the hope that time will play into the hands of Serbia. Should George W Bush finally win the United States presidency, he is likely to pull US forces out of the region.


But Kostunica may also harbour more strategic considerations. His victory rests on votes previously secured by the nationalists' Vojislav Seselj and Vuk Draskovic.


Kostunica will try to avoid changes in the coming electoral timetable: Serbian parliamentary elections are planned for December and presidential elections next year. He will therefore be careful not to make any inconsiderate moves. Kostunica may say, like former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that he has not been elected in order to "preside over the dissolution of the Yugoslav 'empire'".


But the Yugoslav president should use the strong legitimacy surrounding his election victory to make a brave decision, even if it goes against his voters' expectations. He must anticipate an event that seems unavoidable - Kosovo's independence, on condition, of course, that Kosovars respect minority rights, and that all plans for a 'Greater Albania' are abandoned.


Kosovo's independence is the price to pay in order to free Serbia's new democracy from the burden of war and of nationalist ideology. Kosovo's independence would open Serbia's way to reconciliation with its neighbours and a return to Europe.


Serbia is exhausted. Its people are tired of Milosevic's arbitrary deeds and of their role as eternal, self-proclaimed victims, shunned by civilised nations. After ten years of defeat in war, Serbian society is desperate for 'normality'. The last thing the young people of Serbia have on their minds is a desire to "die for Kosovo". Kostunica owes his victory to them. He has been granted an unprecedented democratic mandate and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has just been admitted back into the United Nations. This is the time for its president to take a leaf out of de Gaulle's book and declare that construct a thing of the past.


Jacques Rupnik is research director at the CERI, co-author of the Report of the International Independent Commission on Kosovo, published by Oxford University Press.