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An independence foretold - and a foregone conclusion

Western Balkans / COMMENTARY
Antonio Missiroli

Date: 04/03/2008
It is tempting to borrow from the title of the famous novel by Gabriel García Márquez to describe recent events in Kosovo as a chronicle of an ‘independence’ foretold. Indeed, the declaration from Pristina on 17 February came as no surprise to Europe and the world. Yet it is making waves across the region – and potentially beyond.
For one, it triggered a fundamental debate among the EU-27 foreign ministers which led to a two-pronged agreement between them. On the one hand, they gave the green light to the civilian mission, EULEX, which is meant to support the establishment of a well-functioning administration. On the other, they agreed to disagree on the issue of recognition – which formally is a national, not an EU, matter – but without making it a source of internal controversy between them.
In other words, since the 2007 Ahtisaari Plan was supported by all 27 EU Member States, the Union will play its part in the de facto implementation of the plan, which is also accepted by Pristina (although not by Belgrade or by the United Nations Security Council, due to Russia’s opposition). At the same time, those few EU countries which – mostly for domestic reasons – do not want to recognise Kosovo as “an independent State under international supervision” will be free to act accordingly.
The irony is that Kosovo is not going to be ‘independent’. A robust NATO military mission will remain on the ground, now backed up by an EU police force and a contingent of European judges, administrators and custom officials who will retain significant supervisory and even executive powers.
As a number of countries (including some within the EU) are unlikely to recognise Pristina, the new Kosovo will be unable to sign international agreements (including with the EU) and its population will have limited freedom to travel abroad. Pristina may set up an embryonic foreign service, but it will not have a fully-fledged army. It will also be heavily dependent on international aid and assistance, with sky-high unemployment and a rampant illegal economy making it more difficult to attract foreign direct investment.
For its part, Belgrade seems bent on a bitter recrimination and retaliation campaign, a sort of scorched earth policy that could have grave implications for its future relations with Brussels. The first consequences of the inflammatory rhetoric of recent days have already been seen in the streets of the capital, and condemned worldwide. As a result, paradoxically, Serbia could find itself equally isolated internationally, economically depressed and politically reliant on a fiction of sovereignty – a sort of Belarus in the Balkans, so to speak.
In other words, things may have to get worse before they get better. Will Kosovo be partitioned de facto? Will Russia encourage the breakaway territory of Abkhasia to secede from Georgia (in part in retaliation for Kosovo and in part to block Georgia’s NATO membership ambitions)? Will violence on the ground escalate and require a stronger international presence? Will EULEX fail to get an explicit endorsement from the UN?
These are the nightmare scenarios which no one really wants to see become a reality. Preventing them, however, will require a combination of wisdom and decisiveness on the part of the EU.
It requires wisdom because the current tensions must be endured without further dramatising the inevitable aftershocks of a decision that was a foregone conclusion and long overdue: in truth, Kosovo was ‘lost’ (politically as well as morally) by Slobodan Milošević in 1999, not by Boris Tadić in 2008.
This is why the EU door must remain wide open to Belgrade, although certainly not at any price. The conditionality related to full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, for instance, was arguably not strictly necessary at this stage (in the case of Croatia, after all, it was applied to the opening of accession negotiations, not to the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement). Now it cannot be simply set to one side
or ignored.
The EU must be decisive, too, because it needs to inject new impetus into its ‘soft’ (or transformative) power in the region, which has lost much of its steam lately. In fact, the prospect of the Balkan countries joining the Union – opened five years ago in Thessaloniki – seems now to be receding, thus significantly weakening Europe’s hand in dealing with them.
The Union’s promises must be made more credible – and sooner rather than later – by, for example, opening accession negotiations with Macedonia, stuck in a limbo for too long, and by clearing the way for Albania and Montenegro to move in the same direction, with Bosnia-Herzegovina next in line.
Such negotiations may prove much longer and harder than they currently expect (as Croatia is discovering right now). But at least they would send a clear message to both Serbs and Kosovars, from Brussels and from their own immediate neighbours, that integration into the EU is a possible, tangible perspective. Both may also come to understand that integration – in Europe as well as in the region – goes hand in hand with reconciliation.
If so, when the dust eventually settles, the current crisis may even prove to be a salutary one, with all the main players finding themselves in a positive sum game at last – and one which may even reverberate well beyond Europe’s (uncertain) borders.
Antonio Missiroli is Director of Studies at the European Policy Centre.

The issues raised in this Commentary are being addressed by a dedicated EPC Task Force on the Balkans in the EU, run in collaboration with the King Baudouin Foundation, which  is focusing  on the prospects for – and problems involved in – integrating the Balkans into the Union.

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