Monday, August 29, 2011

Kosovo's unwise strategy

After the "technical negotiations" had achieved some results the most visible reaction in Kosovo was one of disappointment and protests. Kosovo had accepted some aspects of the Serb parallel structures and it had given up on some symbols of its independence. According to the protesters this put the universal recognition of its independence further away.

The reasoning behind this is that there is only one way to achieve full recognition: getting Serbia to accept it step by step. As Kosovo doesn't have much means to pressure Serbia this strategy relies heavy on international pressure on Serbia. It is a strange strategy for conflict "resolution" as it totally gives up on compromise and mutual interests.

As a consequence the prospect for further "technical negotiations" is bleak. Kosovo has already announced that it will not change its custom stamp. Not even a symbolic change as a face-saving gesture towards the Serbs. This is not negotiating: this is dictating. It is a strategy born out of fear as it is feared that any concession might harm Kosovo's prospects. But no concession often means no agreement and as a consequence Kosovo is now in many areas more handicapped by its dubious status as necessary.

One has to wonder whether this strategy has any chance. It is basically a continuation of Kosovo's strategy since the beginning of the Ahtisaari negotiations and it hasn't brought much. Recently Kosovo has raised the stakes by using its special police while also KFOR has used the threat of violence. But is a risky strategy. Jeremic will not hesitate to use the violent character of Kosovo's present strategy as an illustration of the illegal character of its independence. And if Serbia doesn't give in enough it will simply mean a continuation of the stalemate of the previous years. If there is one lesson from Bosnia it should be that the stronger the international pressure to solve a conflict in a lopsided way the more unsolvable that conflict becomes.

In my opinion the wiser alternative would be to embrace the "technical negotiations" and accept that it will occasionally have to make minor symbolic concessions and accept the status quo in the North until status negotiations result in a final solution. It looks likely that Kosovo can achieve a lot in that way. Nearly all costly workarounds of the present situation could be repaired. However, two prices would evade Kosovo: official recognition and control over the North. Those could only be solved in status negotiations.

Kosovo's status could easily be solved with some kind of deal where Kosovo accepts border changes in the North and some additional rights for Kosovo's Serbs. However, the greatest obstacle are the Western countries who oppose even extra autonomy for the North on the pretext that that would have consequences elsewhere in the Balkans. The West posts as Kosovo's friend but with this position I think the old saying applies "with these friends, who needs enemies?".

I find the international position on border changes hypocrite. Kosovo cannot be compared to Bosnia. Its history of ethnic relations is much worse and unlike Bosnia there is a linguistic gap between the communities. Multi-lingual countries usually have one of two properties to make it work: either there is a lingua franca like Hindi and English in India or it is beneficial to learn the main language because it offers good job perspectives. In the case of Kosovo there is no lingua franca - although Gemana and English slowly get some of that status - and neither learning Serbian nor learning Albanian offers good perspectives for a job.

My advise for Kosovo would be:
- Act in good faith in the "technical negotiations" and be prepared to compromise. Don't worry too much about symbols. Solve all the major points like telecom, customs and energy. With some Hong Kong-like status you might even participate in sports events. Make also agreements on property rights.
- Accept that the North will stay separate for the time being and that the status will stay unresolved for some time.
- Concentrate for the time being on economic development
- Nobody expects EU membership to become an option even for Serbia before 2020. So don't worry too much about it. Tell the EU instead that more trust needs to built between Kosovo and Serbia before a final solution is reached.
- Become more serious about refugee returns. I still see regularly Kosovo Albanian posters on the Internet claiming that expelled Serbs "deserved" it. This should stop and Kosovo's leadership is responsible for that. This is not only about minorities: it is also about the rule of law and openness to foreigners. Consider the position of an American who thinks about investing in Kosovo. When he looks at how the Serbs are treated and how Kurti is talking about Americans he will inevitably conclude that one day he may be targeted too and robbed of his investments while Albanian nationalists cry that he deserves it.
- Stop with unilateral moves like we have seen with electricity, mobile telephone, the border posts and the trade boycott. They signal to local Albanian nationalists that Serbs are fair game, they lead to an increase of harassment - both by nationalists and by government officials - and they destroy trust between the communities. This kind of moves may provide some minor tactical wins but for the long term they mean strategical losses. These moves go also against the rule of law. This may seem counterintuitive to some - given all the propaganda that the Pristina government is restoring the rule of law - but one of the main functions of the rule of law is to make life predictable. From that point of view these measures are major violations. No one wants to invest in such a climate.
This doesn't mean that everything in the present situation should be accepted. No electricity without paying and no smuggling are general principles. But there should be flexibility in the implementation.
- From the Serbian perspective Kosovo's recognition is its negotiation chip. In return it mainly wants protection of Kosovo's Serb minority. So if Kosovo wants Serbia to do concessions on the symbolic level it should be prepared to give hard guarantees that for example exclude unilateral actions like the recent ROSU intrusions in Kosovo's North.
- One day the status will come up for resolution. By then Kosovo should at least have a stronger position so that it is less dependent on internationals. By then also other regions in the Balkans might have become more stabilized so that "precedent" fears regarding border changes will be less important. There would be more trust between Serbs and Albanians. At that time it might either be decided to have border changes in exchange for recognition or the existing position of Northern Kosovo might be formalized as some kind of far-reaching autonomy in a recognized Kosovo.

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