Will Kosovo Independence Hurt Stability?

The UN's plan for the territory's gradual independence will trouble Serbia and other Balkan states, but fears of war or political strife are much exaggerated

Now that the UN Kosovo envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, has presented his proposal for the territory's future status to the "contact group" of international overseers, there is little doubt that Kosovo is going to become independent. Not immediately, though. Ahtisaari's report will not be published before he presents it to Belgrade and Pristina on 2 February. Most leaks accompanying his 26 January meeting with the group (the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K, Italy, and Germany), however, spoke of a mechanism enabling Kosovo to gradually take control of its own affairs and seek membership of international institutions.

This would then create conditions for the Kosovo government to declare independence, which would in turn enable those countries wishing to do so to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. In this way the Western powers, all of whom favor independence, would avoid having to go through the UN Security Council where Russia and possibly even China may block any resolution taking Kosovo away from Serbia.

This kind of a script for Kosovo's endgame is going to let all hell break loose in the Balkans, according to many mainstream media outlets in the West. Kosovo's Albanian majority will just freak out—and likely take their frustration out on the local Serbs—when they officially learn that Ahtisaari is not giving them instant independence; what's more, the proposal doesn't even seem to venture to say the independence word.

But as Ahtisaari's proposal will actually provide for Kosovo's independence in the near future, it is going to aggravate the Serbs in Serbia as well. And the Serbs are "still obsessed with the issue," so much so that their parliamentary elections earlier this month "revolved around it [Kosovo], giving the ultra-nationalist Radical party... a victory," to quote just one of many such news reports and opinions. What will the Serbs actually do? One never knows with them, suggests one columnist gravely, but expert opinion offered on the subject included warnings that the Serbs might even attempt to retake Kosovo.

The trouble does not stop there. There is also this place called Bosnia, where a very nationalist local Serb leader is said to have threatened to call a referendum on independence of the Serb part of the country in case Kosovo becomes independent, a prospect that promises yet more instability, warns the international press.

Luckily, there are far fewer reasons to be nervous about the Balkans right now. The Kosovo Albanians are very unlikely to repeat the violence of March 2004, when independence-demanding mobs attacked Serbs, their property and historic monuments throughout the province. Contrary to some popular assumptions, the Kosovo Albanians are not wild political animals who fly into raging fits every time they are denied immediate gratification of their desires. The March 2004 violence was not spontaneous. It was organized and sanctioned by people inside or close to Kosovo's leading political parties. Those people succeeded in painting a realistic picture for the international community of what they are capable of doing in case they don't get what they are asking for.

The situation is now radically different. To start with, the Kosovo Albanians are undoubtedly getting independence, though not as quickly as some of them might have hoped. Second, while the threat of Albanian mob violence has been an important element in all international calculations about Kosovo, the international security forces in the province are now far better prepared for such an eventuality, so that anyone entertaining the idea would think twice before giving the go-ahead. And all the signs in Pristina are that the Kosovo Albanian leaders understand full well that all they are required to do now is behave themselves for a change.

The chances of a Serbian military invasion of Kosovo in the foreseeable future are precisely zero. To start with, there will be significant international military presence there for many years to come. More importantly, there is very little to suggest that drumming up support for another war over Kosovo is even a remotely realistic possibility.

There are even fewer signs that anyone is really going to try to do so. The Serbian elections did not revolve around Kosovo. In fact, the democratic parties, which together won a decisive victory, had all explicitly ruled out ever using military means to keep Kosovo inside Serbia.

It may be worth recalling here that, unlike the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia's Kosovo adventure in 1998–1999 could hardly be described as a popular war. One reason it went as far as it did is that it just wasn't unpopular enough to gather sufficient resistance among the Serbs.

More than anything else, the Serbs have been pretty confused about Kosovo for a couple of generations now. The reality of a lost demographic battle has dawned on the nation very gradually, with some able to grasp it decades ago, others taking it on board only recently. The bottom line is that those who believe Serbia could and should ever again rule the lives of Kosovo Albanians are now a minority, not a tiny one, not an insignificant minority, but a pretty powerless minority for sure.

It does not follow from this that the Serbs should be able to accept Kosovo's independence easily. The Kosovo most of them now have in mind is not so much a real land with real people going on about their everyday lives. Their Kosovo works primarily as an emotional entity that links them with their past. The ethnic Serbs who refuse to leave Kosovo as well as the numerous artifacts that this emotional entity relates to, however, are physically anchored—and guarded by international troops 24/7—in the territory of that real Kosovo. Obviously, the two cannot be separated and that's what the Kosovo issue is now largely about.

An important element in the Serbian rejection of Kosovo's independence will be the popular lack of respect for Albanians among the Serbs. Ethnic Albanians were close to the bottom of an unspoken yet omnipresent food-chain among the former Yugoslavia's ethnic groups, a rating list whose top was occupied by often antagonistic but largely mutually respecting—if not always respectful—Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. To reward the Albanians, who are still often disdained and ridiculed as backward by the region's nationalists, with something as shiny as an independent new state, on top of the one that they already have in Albania, just doesn't and will not soon make any sense to ordinary Serbs.

Now that Kosovo's independence is officially mapped out, does any of this mean a major destabilization of Serbia is on the cards? Definitely not. Yes, the formation of the next government may be slowed down as the more nationalist part of the democratic bloc does its expected ritual dance around Ahtisaari's proposal to express its alleged disgust and shock. Even small protests in front of some Western embassies in Belgrade shouldn't be ruled out. Anything more than that would be a shock, though. To be sure, Serbia may not recognize Kosovo's independence for many years and it may sulk and start asking for compensation, but it won't go to war, nor will its reform process suffer significantly because of developments in Kosovo.

As for Bosnia, there won't be any immediate Kosovo-related trouble there either. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik never actually said that he would call a referendum on independence if Kosovo broke away from Serbia. He only spoke of such a referendum as a possible reaction to what he sees as attempts by Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) leaders in Sarajevo to use illegitimate means to impose their will on Bosnia's Serbs and Croats. Dodik first raised the issue last year when Montenegro proclaimed its independence, which he supported. As for linking the future of Bosnia and Kosovo, Dodik did say that secession by Kosovo could encourage similar logic across the region, including among the Bosnian Serbs. Last week, he warned his constituents, however, that his government won't hesitate to use force against anyone in Republika Srpska seeking to exploit the expected public dissatisfaction with Ahtisaari's proposals.

While no immediate destabilization of any part of the region should be expected, it is less clear what the long-term effects of Kosovo's independence will be on Macedonia and Montenegro. Both countries have large ethnic Albanian minorities. The big unknown here is whether an independent Kosovo as the biggest prize of them all will relax Albanian attitudes and put a stop to any future secessionist aspirations or whether it will encourage them.

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