Serbia Hones Negotiating Position

Politicians in Serbia are straining to persuade the world not to grant the Kosovo Albanians statehood.

Serbia Hones Negotiating Position

Politicians in Serbia are straining to persuade the world not to grant the Kosovo Albanians statehood.

While the leadership of Serbia and Montenegro prepares its platform for negotiations on Kosovo's future status, it is clear now that Belgrade is ready to accept any solution that does not involve international recognition of Kosovo's independence.


A meeting of the leaders of Serbia and Montenegro on developing a strategy on Kosovo, scheduled to take place behind closed doors in Belgrade on May 18, will be the fifth such meeting in two months.


However, details about Serbia's strategy will not be made public until the autumn, when the negotiations are expected to begin.


After several years in which the various political blocs have proposed a number of different options, the leadership now stands united around the platform that Kosovo's independence would contravene international norms on the inviolability of state borders.


They also maintain it would provoke instability in the region as well as in Serbia.


While that constitutes the official position, officials privately admit they will accept almost any solution except independence as that would constitute political suicide for the leadership as well as radicalising the public and distancing Serbia permanently from Europe.


Although Serbia is not willing to take up arms over the territory and has no interest in refusing cooperation with the international community, that does not mean it will ever voluntarily endorse recognition of Kosovo. As a result, such a solution can be enforced only from outside.


CLOSING RANKS IN PREPARATION FOR TALKS


Until March this year, official Belgrade repeatedly released dissonant messages on Kosovo, both to the Kosovo Serbs and to the international community. One bloc urged the Serbs to vote in last autumn's parliamentary elections in Kosovo, for example, while another urged the opposite.


Such disputes were abandoned this March, after the announcement that negotiations on the final status of Kosovo might begin as early as the second half of this year.


The first meeting of the state leadership on Kosovo took place on March 14 behind closed doors. The public announcement that followed stated an agreement had emerged on the formula "more than autonomy, less than independence". Before the March meeting, Serbia's deputy premier Miroljub Labus commented, "It is good that Belgrade finally managed to speak out with one voice."


The leadership has held regular meetings since then, bringing together Svetozar Marovic, President of the State Union, Boris Tadic, President of Serbia, Vojislav Kostunica, Prime Minister of Serbia, Vuk Draskovic, state union foreign minister and Nebojsa Covic, president of the government's Coordination Center for Kosovo and Metohija.


Covic revealed some details of the March meeting to a press conference of his Social Democratic Party, when he said they had agreed a team of consultants should come up with "a draft document, containing tactical moves by the government" by the end of March.


Covic added that this draft document would be based on the principles of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo and on the government of Serbia's own recent Plan for Kosovo, among others. Covic said this coordinated approach would mean the end of individual actions and personal initiatives.


Significantly, the establishment of this joint position was first disclosed by Labus and Covic, who have advocated very different positions on Kosovo in the past. Last November, Labus suggested Belgrade should request the organisation of an international conference on Kosovo's status, to be held this November.


He said Serbia should put forward a plan for an autonomous status for Kosovo and that if Albanians then rejected it, Kosovo should be divided.


Covic, on the other hand, last December published a book, On a Difficult Road, that was forwarded by the well-known nationalist writer, Dobrica Cosic. In it, he proposed a united Kosovo, comprising two entities.


WHAT SERBIA CAN OFFER


Over the last month, the Serbian leadership has clarified that it is open to all options as long as they do not include independence.


In an interview with the daily Vecernje Novosti on May 7, for example, Draskovic suggested the “South Tyrol model” might be applied to Kosovo, referring to the autonomy enjoyed by this German-speaking region in northern Italy. This model, he said, embodied "the principle of virtual sovereignty… with an obligation of positive discrimination towards the Italian minority….Such solution could be applied in Kosmet".


Draskovic said Serbian-Albanian talks would only yield results if "an agreement is achieved from the Serbian side to restrain from using the word 'sovereignty' and from the Albanian side on use of the word 'independence'. Future status must be unconventional and extraordinary because we have here an extraordinary situation".


The foreign minister added, "We seek no sovereignty over the territories in Kosovo inhabited by Albanians…We just want to protect our people and cultural and historical monuments. What is the exact word for this solution? It is open for discussion. What we want is full protection of the Serbian people and protection of the present borders with Macedonia and Albania."


Draskovic denied that the international community was ready to give Kosovo independence, adding that such independence could not be implemented easily.


"The UN Charter does not allow for the establishment of sovereign states through the application of force," he said. "Without the consent of Serbia, a declaration of independence for Kosovo would constitute an act of violence."


Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has also suggested that unconventional, atypical solutions are possible for Kosovo, such as the solution provided for Bosnia and Hercegovina, where separate entities have been established. Another example he mentioned was Macedonia, where the conflict between Albanians and Macedonians in 2001 ended with the Ohrid Agreement, granting decentralisation and broader rights to the Albanian minority.


At a meeting of his Democratic Party of Serbia held on May 14, Kostunica said Serbia would oppose both conditional and unconditional independence for Kosovo and would strive instead for a solution based on broad autonomy in Serbia, guaranteed by the international community.


Serbian president Boris Tadic, emphasising that the legitimate rights of both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs must be accommodated, also warned against the idea that independence was the simple solution for Kosovo.


"An independent Kosovo with a separate seat at the UN or its own army could cause instability and such a solution is not possible," he said. "But it is also not possible to go back to the old times of [Slobodan] Milosevic. We must find a realistic and peaceful solution between these two extremes."


Some of the solutions put forward in recent years by Serbian intellectuals have also entered the arena of public discussion.


To recall two on them, in 1996, Aleksandar Despic, then president of the influential Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, SANU, suggested drawing a dividing line between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, with extra-territorial provisions for Serbian monasteries along the lines of the autonomy enjoyed by the monasteries of Mouth Athos in Greece.


In 1998, before the armed conflict erupted in Kosovo, Dusan Batakovic, now ambassador in Greece and counsellor to President Boris Tadiç, suggested the establishment of cantons, so both peoples could have their own administrations.


KEY ARGUMENTS AGAINST INDEPENDENCE


One of the main arguments that Serbia's leaders put forward when opposing independence for Kosovo is that Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo is internationally recognised, regulated by UN Resolution 1244,and that there is, therefore, no reason to surrender this territory.


As Misa Djurkovic, an adviser to Kostunica, told IWPR, "It must be clear that no state will give up a part of its own territory just like that. Citizens want their state to observe international law."


He added, "Independence for Kosovo would constitute not only a violation of the UN Charter, but of international order. In addition, Kosovo is not party to the Badinter criteria [drawn up during the conflict in former Yugoslavia to regulate the conditions by which the former republics might obtain international recognition] and it is clear Kosovo was not an independent entity in the former federal Yugoslavia and cannot claim independence on these grounds."


Serbia's next argument against independence is that it would provoke instability both in the region and in Serbia itself.


"Any violent or forced modification of internationally recognised borders might endanger the stability we have achieved," said Djurkovic on May 14, at the Democratic Party of Serbia meeting presided over by Kostunica.


At a press conference on May 12, after a meeting with the Contact Group, Nebojsa Covic, president of the Coordination Centre for Kosovo and Metohija, put the same case even more forcefully.


"An independent Kosovo … will be a constant source of possible conflicts," he said. "We will not accept any forced solution for the status of Kosovo. We do not want to preclude a possibility of Kosovo being returned to Serbia some day, through our efforts or the efforts of some other party."


Other Serbian officials warn of a so-called domino effect, in which Kosovo's independence would endanger the security of other neighbouring states such as Macedonia, which has a large Albanian community. They also mention its potential impact on Bosnia, where the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, could demand the same treatment as the Albanians in Kosovo and request independence.


As Cedomir Antic, adviser to Miroljub Labus, put it, "If Kosovo becomes independent, and that is what I personally wish for, why cannot Republika Srpska be independent also?"


Finally, Serbian officials point to the added danger of radicalising the political situation in Serbia itself.


Misa Djurkovic, Kostunica's counsellor, told IWPR that a decision to grant Kosovo its independence would radicalise the Serbian political scene to a degree that would be difficult to control.


"Double standards, resulting in different interpretations of the same problems, and the lack of a clear strategy and principles on which the solutions are based, all provide grounds for radical forces to say 'the world is still against us'," he said.


"And when Albanian frustration is cited as an argument for independence of Kosovo, I want to reply that there is a lot of frustration among people in Serbia as well."


The hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party is, indeed, already scenting an opportunity to capitalise on public fears over Kosovo's future. Aleksandar Vucic, the party's general secretary, on May 5 said the Kosovo situation was "growing more difficult and more unfavourable for the Serbian people and government bodies are doing nothing about it.


"The government must not play around with Kosovo and Metohija. This is state territory. They must insist on this fact and not negotiate behind closed doors on how to facilitate the creation of an independent Kosovo."


According to Djurkovic, western analysts are mistaken in anticipating any significant shift among either the Serbian public or their parties over Kosovo.


"The expectations of Western lobbyists that a shift of consciousness in Serbia will lead to a position that Kosovo should be given up are delusions," he said. "Those who reckon Serbia should enter negotiations and accept a trade-off, such as 'If you give up on this one, you will be rewarded with this or that', are making a mistake. We will not play this game. This government has no mandate from the people to do so."


FEARS OF POLITICAL SUICIDE


Apart from their publicly stated principles for rejecting Kosovo's independence, another factor is that the leadership knows it would mean their own political suicide.


In an interview with the daily Blic, for the April 30 – May 2 edition, President Tadic admitted this, "If the province becomes independent, all the government bodies, including the President of the Republic, will have to reconsider their functions."


This view is confirmed by research published on May 11 by the Belgrade Centre for Marketing Research. Asked whether government officials should be allowed to call for the separation of Kosovo, 90.2 per cent of respondents said "no" and only 1.2 per cent "yes".


Cedomir Antic, Labus's adviser, says Serbia's political parties have little room for manoeuvre on the subject of Kosovo. "On the one hand, the international community wants full independence for Kosovo and is aware that the return of the province to Serbia is not possible," he told IWPR.


"On the other, we have the public, which in 2003 [in a survey] answered with 62 per cent saying Kosovo and Metohija was lost for good, while 70 per cent said this fact should never be acknowledged.”


Antic added, "This is typical of societies in transition - a willingness to accept virtual reality. Unfortunately, for certain reasons major forces and political elites support this virtual reality for their own benefit."


Antic said such an approach in the long run was "highly damaging for Serbia, because Kosovo and Metohija already resembles a state, rather more than Serbia does."


Antic concluded by criticising both Kostunica and Tadic for what he called their weakness and unwillingness to develop realistic, long-term policies on Kosovo.


Dusan Janjic, director of the Forum for Interethnic Relations in Belgrade, agreed that Serbs tend to accept a "virtual reality" when it comes to Kosovo. "All three perceptions [of Serbs and Albanians and international community] are virtual," he said. "Although they know the reality, they do not know what to do with it, except to keep running round in circles."


AVOIDING CONFRONTATION WITH THE WORLD


Although Serbia cannot afford to surrender Kosovo, the leadership is not devoid of political realism when it comes to appreciating the international environment. According to Djurkovic, Serbia knows the Serbs have been almost expelled from Kosovo.


"This is a fact but we still do not want to accept a fait accompli," he said. "We want to recall to attention that Europe and the western world are based on strict observation of norms and international agreements."


Asked what would happen if Kosovo's independence was declared against Belgrade's will, or the admission of Serbia and Montenegro to the European Union was made conditional on acceptance of independence for Kosovo, Djurkovic answered, "If they apply force, which is contrary to their basic principles, they can do so. Serbia is in no position to prevent the independence of Kosovo; it cannot send in troops, nor is willing to do so."


But he added, "Serbia will not accept such an act and will insist on its rights through diplomatic channels. We do not want confrontation with the international community. All we can do is appeal to the international community to observe its own principles."


Some government advisers, such Djurkovic, and several in Tadic's cabinet, believe Brussels will not make Kosovo's independence a condition for admission to the EU anyway. One source from Tadic's office said, "Negotiations [over Kosovo] will not unfold under the pressure of blackmail. The process pertaining to Kosovo is complex and the international community wants a consensus among the parties.Blackmail could only damage the European idea in Serbia."


Djurkovic also believes Europe is not united on Kosovo. "In talks with officials behind closed doors, I get the impression nobody really wants independence for Kosovo," he said.


"Wherever the borders are drawn, huge problems will remain, such as economic backwardness, demographic expansion, criminality...and these problems flow across borders…The European future of this region is forcing us to cooperate. The borders will be a minor issue."


Covic says he also has an impression that members of the Contact Group do not have a united front on Kosovo and "display evident differences".


Antic agrees. "Serbia has just enough of international support to prevent Kosovo and Metohija from ever gaining formal independence," he said. Antic says Russia will not vote for it in the UN Security Council because of its own problems in Chechnya, while China will also oppose it.


As the negotiations loom ahead, Serbia's politicians are aware that there can never be a return to the past. But they still hope they can avoid international recognition of Kosovo's independence.


This is the line that they cannot and will not cross.


Vesna Bjekic is an IWPR contributor and BIRN Serbia associate editor. BIRN is a localised IWPR Balkans project.


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