Kosovo’s Ticking Clock

The government of Kosovo has threatened to declare independence unilaterally on December 10 should the Security Council not come to a final decision on Kosovo’s status as a sovereign country. With the clock ticking, UN Dispatch talks to Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute of Peace who catches us up with the current state of the negotiations, and lets us know what the world might look like on December 11 should Kosovo make good on that promise.

What is the current state of play of the negotiations over Kosovo’s final status?

We have been through a period of intense negotiation under the auspices of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. [In March 2007] Ahtisaari presented his plan–which provides for an independent Kosovo under intense international supervision and with robust requirements for the protection of Serbs and other minorities–to the Security Council. But the council decided this fall that rather than act on the proposal, it would ask for another 120 days of negotiation.

It is a little bit hard to tell what is going on inside the negotiations, which are being overseen by the Kosovo “troika” of the United States, Russia and Germany (on behalf of the EU). There is no indication of any significant progress on the fundamental issue — which is whether Kosovo’s sovereignty will reside in Pristina or Belgrade. The United States and most of the European Union–as many as 22 of the 27 EU countries–have decided that sovereignty should reside in the future in Pristina. Belgrade, which had been the sovereign power until its sovereignty was suspended in 1999, wants to preserve sovereignty, even if it gives up any pretense of governing the territory. It is important to remember that in Kosovo, there are perhaps 1.8 to 1.9 million Albanians, and probably 120,000 Serbs.

And the Kosovo Government has said that it will declare sovereignty unilaterally on December 10 should the troika not reach a conclusion?

What they have said is that this current round of negotiation is the final round. They haven’t said exactly what they will do on December 10—actually December 11 more likely. In fact, on December 10 something rather un-dramatic will happen: the troika will report to the Security Council. What happens then is the big question mark in my mind.

If I were in charge, I would want a Security Council resolution at that point, and want it badly enough that I would be prepared to take it to a vote–even if Moscow has indicated it would veto. The reason I say that is that from my point of view, and this also true from Moscow and Belgrade’s point of view, it is really much better to settle this on the basis of a Security Council resolution than without a resolution. You want to do whatever you can to have a Security Council resolution.

What would the fallout be from a Security Council resolution that is blocked by Russia?

My reading is that the Americans are not prepared to bring it to a vote if they think it will be vetoed by the Russians. They don’t want a clear defeat for a Security Council resolution because that would make it difficult for the Europeans to deploy the civilian presence that is required for the peace implementation process.

I am not exactly sure what the Kosovo government will do on December 11, but I don’t think anything should be done unilaterally. What has to be done is that the countries that want to recognize an independent Kosovo as a sovereign state have to confer with Pristina on a roadmap. That road map has to include accepting the Atisaari plan. And in exchange for Pristina accepting that plan, the international community—that is, the United States plus as many EU members as possible—agrees to deploy a civilian presence to implement that plan. This is quite different than a “unilateral declaration of independence” which is being talked about in the press.

If they Security Council route is stalled, how much patience do you expect from Pristina to remain in this pre-final status limbo?

Little. These guys have gone through over a year of negotiations. The relative moderates who control the government in Pristina today went out on a limb because they have said to their people that they were going to have independence this year. From a political point of view, therefore, they are pretty exposed. Also, there are nasty people in Kosovo, as there are in most places, some of whom are vets and impatient young people who will launch attacks on Serbs if they feel independence is not forthcoming.

What would happen, then, if Kosovo’s government on December 10, or sometime soon thereafter, simply declares independence?

What is the fallout? It could be bad. You could have efforts by Belgrade to grab the northern piece of Kosovo, which has a Serbian majority, and declare its own independence. And perhaps even Republika Srpska (the Serbian half of Bosnia) as well. Belgrade is in a position to make a lot of trouble in the aftermath of a Kosovo declaration of independence.

Moreover, a declaration of independence isn’t worth the paper it is written on unless you get international recognition. That is the key issue: how many countries will recognize a sovereign Kosovo?

Which countries do you expect would recognize that?

The United States has made cleat that it will recognize a sovereign Kosovo.

And the European Union?

The European Union is split. A number of countries, for their own reasons, are very hesitant to recognize Kosovo absent a Security Council resolution. The European Union has also agreed to deploy a civilian presence to Kosovo, the primary purpose of which would be strengthening the rule of law in a newly independent Kosovo. And insofar as it is a rule of law issue that affects minorities, the focus would be on the Serbian communities and protecting their rights.

It is ironic that by blocking a Security Council resolution, Russia — acting on behalf of Belgrade–would be effectively blocking a peace implementation force that would be deployed to protect Kosovo’s Serb minority.