Thursday, December 29, 2005

Will the Serbs be safe when Kosovo becomes independent?

In a recent interview James Lyon, the Serbia project director for the International Crisis Group claims that
At present, the Kosovo Albanians view the Serb presence as an obstacle to achieving their independence aspirations. They view Serbs as agents of the Serbian state that for so long repressed them and conducted an official policy of state terror against them. As long as Kosovo’s status is unresolved, the Albanians will treat them as an unwelcome foreign organism that represents policies of a Greater Serbia. When Kosovo’s status is resolved in favor of independence, then it will be logical to expect that the Albanian majority will no longer view the Serb minority as a threat.

He goes on to say that the present situation is onworkable and that independence is the best solution (without saying why). But in the end it appears that he is perfectly prepared to sacrific Kosovo's Serbs for that "best solution":
The final status of Kosovo will probably be decided sometime in 2006. It is widely expected that Belgrade will refuse any outcome that gives independence to Kosovo. Should Belgrade refuse to sign off, independence will proceed without Serbia, which could have negative repercussions for Kosovo’s Serbian minority and give them far fewer privileges than should Belgrade participate.

But let's go back to the question whether the position of the Serbs will improve if Kosovo becomes independent. In Bosnia and Croatia the situation is rather negative. Many refugees have returned, but very often only to sell their property. And many of the people who do stay are older people. In areas that were still multi-ethnic at the end of the war - like Sarajevo - the minorities are still leaving. But Mr. Lyon does not want to see this.

But let's not be too negative. Bosnians lived peacefull together before the war and at some point they will find common ground again - allthough I doubt if that will be in a common state. For Kosovo the history is much more negative. And I fear that Kosovo's Serbs waits the same fate as Turkey's Greek minority (at about 1/3 of the page), that was slowly driven out until long after the 1922 war. The worst times were probably the anti-Greek riots in 1955, that had much similarity to Kosovo's march 2004 riots.

Allthough many newspapers like to use terms as "revenge attacks" for the Albanian attacks on Kosovo's Serbs they date from far before the war. Edith Durham described allready in 1908 in her book High Albania (chapters 9 and 10) a delicate position for the Serbs. After 1913 (when Serbia conquered Kosovo) the position of the Serbs improved (and the position of the Albanians worsened), but as soon as the Albanians got more power in the 1960s the Serb position worsened again. The 1999 war only made a bad situation worse.

In both Turkey and Kosovo the hostility is based on the desire to rob the minority of their property. Remember the names with claims on the houses in Svinjare after the 2004 riots. This should not be confused with the pilfering that happens in nearly every war. That is stopped once the violence is over and the rule of law is re-established.

The situation is Kosovo and Turkey reminds me more of the anti-Jewish pogroms in 19th century Russia and the anti-Christian pogroms in the Ottoman empire. In all those cases you had a situation where the rule of law was not valued and instead a zero-sum view of society prevailed: "if the others get rich it must be at our expense. And so we are entitled to take it back.".

After the march 2004 drownings one saw in the first 2 days many conflicting versions of what had happened. Only later some standard story appeared. But just as with any pogrom many people were not interested in what really happened. They had a reason to "teach the Serbs a lesson" and that was all they wanted. Even now it is hard to find an Albanian who really regrets the riots - except that it spoiled their image with the foreigners.

But pogroms are just the tip of iceberg. They are used when the minority is getting too self confident. More usually is a situation of harassment and discrmination. In Kosovo many of those incidents happen - not daily, but often enough to prevent people from having a normal life. Things are stolen or destroyed, people beaten up, houses or barns set on fire, occasionally someone is murdered or simply disappears. And usually the Albanian neighbours pretend never to have seen or heared a thing. In this type of climate biased justice and police are the norm. And Kosovo's politicians do just enough to keep the internationals content (usually just some cheap talk), but they don't seem motivated to really improve the situation.

I do believe that Kosovo should become independent. But I am very pessimistic about the future of the Serbs there. The scenario is too predictable:
- the first wave of Serbs will leave Kosovo once it becomes independent
- next we will see the Albanians taking control of Northern Mitrovica and adjacent Zvecan. As there is at the moment no city in Kosovo where still live more than a handfull of Serbs the result is predictable: slowly all Serbs will leave the city.
- this will rob the Serbs in the rest of Kosovo of their nearest shopping and services centre. As many still don't trust to be safe in Kosovo's cities, they will have to drive an hour more for Kraljevo or Nis. This will lead to another wave of departures.
- the remainder is predictable. The pressure will keep on and slowly more will leave. Kosovo's government will very probably play an active role in this. We might even see a "development plan for the North" in order to stimulate Albanian settlement in this now predominantly Serb area.

So I think that we should secede Northern Kosovo from the rest (the Albanians could have a part of the Presevo Valley in return). And if we are really serious about minority right we should use the only type of sanctions that works: territorial sanctions. According to this Kosovo would have to give Serbia some territory if after 10 years more than a certain amount of Serbs have left.

Will a split of Kosovo have negative consequences for the stability of the rest of the Balkan? That depends on how the West behaves. As for mr. Lyon, he should stick to the title of his interview: "Kosovo 'domino effect’ no longer genuine issue".

Monday, December 12, 2005

Is it really better if Kosovo is not united with Albania?

Up until the 1999 war many Kosovo Albanians saw unification with Albania as the ultimate goal. In the time of Tito the propaganda from communist Albania was quite strong in Kosovo and it promissed a golden future.

Then came the war and many Kosovars landed as refugees in Albania. It was a sobering experience that undid much of Enver Hoxha's propaganda. The Kosovars found Albania poor and chaotic (it was only 2 years after the pyramid riots). And the Albanians found the Kosovars ungrateful and a bit arrogant. The disappointment is reflected in opinion polls, such as a recent poll that showed that only 8% of Kosovo's citizens supports unification.

Western leaders - with their fear of a great Albania - see this as a positive sign and want to fix the situation in a Kosovo treaty. I think that this fear is more destabilising than the possibility of a greater Albania itself. Even if all Albanians were united in one state it would be only 6 million people - less than in Serbia or Greece.

But a public opinion is volatile. In 10 years the Kosovars may think very differently. I see good reasons to expect that in 10 years Albania will be richer than Kosovo and that might very well change Kosovo's public opinion in favor of a union:
- A look at the map learns that Albania borders Greece and Italy while Kosovo is surrounded by poor contries. So Kosovo will have to try harder just to achieve the same result.
- Everyone who regularly visits Albania knows that the country is modernising fast. In contrast to this the Kosovar leaders are used to blame all Kosovo's problems on outsiders, in the past the Serbs - now the internationals.
- Albania's citizens are better educated. The decade of home education in Kosovo under Milosevic has left a whole generation undereducated.
- Kosovo's bad treatment of its minorities may very well continue after independence - leading to international sanctions. It will also negatively cloud its relations with its neighbours - resulting in bad commercial relations.
- The territories have been united in the past: both in the Ottoman empire and during World War II.
- I estimate that at least a quarter of Kosovo's population descends from people who immigrated into Kosovo during World War II. You can't expect those people to feel very much attached to a seperate Kosovar identity.

If Kosovo's citizens at some time really want to unite with Albania there is nothing that will stop them. If the international community tries to stop them it may very well have a destabilising effect on the region.

The thinking seems to be that if their is no unification there will be no trouble in Macedonia. I think this is naive. Once Kosovo becomes independent you can expect trouble in Macedonia.

The international community tends to work with very rude guidelines in the Balkan: it's favorite of the moment is "no borders should be changed". Unfortunately you can't guide a region through a a turbulent period with such abstractions. Instead you need to look at the details of what both parties want and believe and what seems fair. "No borders changed" is miles from what the local people believe to be fair.

I am fully aware that a unification has some disadvantages too. My point is that the international community should not set this kind of restrictions unless it has very good arguments and it is sure that it can enforce them. Otherwise we are only creating camera opportunities for some rogue local politicians.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Albanian leaders on stability: A warning or a threat?

In the recent months Albanian leaders from around Kosovo have repeatedly warned that splitting up Kosovo would lead to seperatist demands in Macedonia. Among them were Macedonian (Albanian) party leader Xhaferi and Albanian foreign minister Mustafaj.

When in the past Serb leaders warned that independence of Kosovo would lead to demands for independence for the Serbs in Bosnia they immediately got a reprimand from the international community. Nowadays such statements are not even taken seriously. The Albanian side is now playing it more subtle: instead of suggesting that THEY will make demands if Kosovo is split up they just suggest that SOMEONE will make those demands. They sound like worried outside observers when they talk about the stability of Macedonia.

Of course this is mostly a cultural difference. Serbs tend to be outspoken and tell you what they think - even if you don't like it. Albanians tend to be more polite and to put much effort in hiding the differences - often by simply denying that they exist. Both Xhaferi and Mustafej are influential figures and if Albanians in Macedonia would make an effort to become independent one can be sure that they have been involved. In a later interview Xhaferi has called Macedonia artificial and pleaded for unification of Kosovo with Albania. So much for his neutrality.

In that light the recent statement by Ahtisaari in which he praised the position of the Albanian government as "the best possible" seems rather naive.

A split of Kosovo seems improbable at the moment. Yet the West is making a big mistake by ignoring those "warnings". The underlying message is that the allegiance of Macedonia's Albanians is conditional. If Kosovo is not split they will find another excuse tomorrow.