In an interview conducted shortly before Kosovo gained independence from Serbia, Daniel Serwer discussed the possible impacts of this development and Serbia's recent elections.

Note to reader: This interview was conducted shortly before Kosovo declared independence.

Image on right: Rioters protesting Kosovo's recent declaration of independence attack the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, on February 21, 2008. (AP Photo)

Kosovo has formally declared independence from Serbia. Meanwhile, in the recent Serbian presidential elections, pro-European candidate Boris Tadic won a narrow victory over Radical nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. To further entangle matters, the current Serbian government is split between President Tadic and the nationalist sentiments of Prime Minster Vojislav Kostunica.

How will this complex bundle of issues play out?

Daniel P. Serwer is vice president of the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations and the Centers of Innovation. Serwer has been deeply engaged in facilitating dialogue between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

He came to the Institute as a senior fellow working on Balkan regional security in 1998–1999. Before that he was a minister-counselor at the Department of State, where he won six performance awards. As State Department director of European and Canadian analysis in 1996–1997, he supervised the analysts who tracked Bosnia and Dayton implementation as well as the deterioration of the security situation in Albania and Kosovo.

Serwer served from 1994 to 1996 as U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation, mediating between Croats and Muslims and negotiating the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks. From 1990 to 1993, he was deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, where he led a major diplomatic mission through the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War.

In this interview, Serwer analyses the Serbian elections, their potential impact on Kosovo, and larger international dynamics.


Image on right: Belgian NATO soldiers in Kosovo stand in front of posters for the recent Serbian elections. (AP Photo)

How will the recent collapse of the Serbian government impact Belgrade's situation with regard to Kosovo and EU membership?

Serbia is essentially being given another opportunity to decide whether it prefers to try to hold on to Kosovo (Democratic Party of Serbia - DSS - and the Radicals) or to move as quickly as possible into the EU (Democratic Party and the G17 Plus party). Unfortunately, the issue is not likely to be posed as starkly as this: the DSS will also say it wants to get Serbia into the EU, and DS will also say it wants to hold on to Kosovo. But in the end, a government led by DSS or the Radicals means one thing, while a government led by DS or G17 Plus would mean another. We'll have to wait and see what the result is.

Since Kosovo declared independence, spasms of violence have broken out, most notably the attack on the American Embassy in Belgrade. What is the likely consequence of such actions?

The host country is always responsible for the security of embassies. In this incident, the U.S. embassy appears to have been left unprotected, despite being an obvious target of troublemakers.

The attack was a spin-off from a rally supported by the Serbian government and addressed by the prime minister, as well as the presidential candidate whom he supported in the recent elections. The prime minister in particular has been stoking the fires of resentment of the U.S. for weeks.

The consequences for Serbia are clear: its behavior has become the subject of international concern, not its protests against Kosovo independence. Serbia has seriously damaged its own standing and credibility. This contrasts sharply with the restraint—at least so far—of the Kosovo Albanians, who have gained in standing and credibility by behaving correctly toward Kosovo's Serb citizens. I hope they continue to do so.

Is there any precedent that Kosovo independence might be likened to? How will this process develop?

There are precedents: ideally, the separation of Kosovo and Serbia would be by mutual consent, as happened with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which quickly found themselves without a hard international border once both countries were in the European Union.

The issue is not really independence—Kosovo is already independent in the sense that its Albanian population will never again allow itself to be governed from Belgrade, and everyone in Belgrade understands that.

The issue is recognition. Kosovo declared independence in the early 1990s, but no one paid any attention, except for Albania. States do not recognize independence; they recognize sovereignty. Every sovereign state has the right to recognize other sovereign states.

What they are recognizing is the monopoly on the use of force that sovereign states reserve to themselves. This is what Kosovo lacks today: recognition by other sovereign states that in principle the government in Pristina has a monopoly on the means of violence within the territory known as Kosovo.

If Kosovo becomes sovereign, Serbian security forces can never again enter its territory legitimately without the permission of the Pristina government. Likewise, NATO forces would have to be in Kosovo as part of an agreement with Pristina, unless there is a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing their presence.

Some have argued that if Kurdistan can remain part of Iraq in a federal state, then Kosovo can remain part of Serbia as well. What is your opinion of this stance?

The deal between Kurdistan and Iraq is this: the president, foreign minister and deputy prime minister—as well as several other ministers—are Kurds. In addition, Kurdistan has its own military forces, and Iraqi military forces are not permitted on the territory of Kurdistan without permission of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The police in Kurdistan are entirely independent of Iraq’s police.

I doubt the Kosovo Albanians would accept such a deal, but the more important question is whether anyone in Belgrade would offer it. The answer is "no." To my knowledge, in the almost nine years since the UN and NATO took over Kosovo, no one in Belgrade has offered any incentive to the Kosovo Albanians to reintegrate into the Serbian state. And when it came time to pass a new constitution by referendum, Belgrade struck the Kosovo Albanians from the voter rolls, in order to ensure that 50 percent of registered voters would be counted as having voted, as required. Serbia does not want the Kosovo Albanians to remain inside Serbia; it wants sovereignty over the territory on which they live.

What is the importance of a Security Council Resolution on Kosovo’s independence?

The eventual outcome in Kosovo is clear—internationally supervised sovereignty. The best way of getting to this outcome is a Security Council resolution, which would provide protection for the Kosovo Serbs, Russian approval and a firm legal basis for the European Union, while not requiring any agreement on Belgrade’s part.

I think there is in the aftermath of the Serbian elections a tremendous opportunity to revisit the question of a Security Council resolution that backs the plan that former Finnish President Ahtisaari prepared. The Ahtisaari plan provides for extensive protection of the Kosovo Serbs as well as Serbian churches and monuments, separate municipal governance for Kosovo Serbs and direct relations with Belgrade—in short, everything Belgrade asked for in terms of guarantees for the Kosovo Serbs. The Ahtisaari plan itself would not have determined Kosovo’s status, which it left up to individual states, but Ahtisaari made it clear in his transmission to the U.N. that he anticipated supervised sovereignty as the outcome.

What about the impediments to such a solution, namely a Russian Security Council veto?

The Russians have made it quite clear that they will follow Belgrade’s lead on this issue. This stance is unbecoming for a great power – it delegates a Security Council veto to another state. Moreover, it is in Russia’s interest that the decision on Kosovo’s status not be taken outside the Security Council, since that might set a precedent. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to have sold their veto in exchange for a good price for Serbia’s energy industries.

If Serbia, Russia, and other countries refuse to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence, what further developments to you envision?

This is an unhappy situation but not an unmanageable one. I don’t expect it to deteriorate into violence. Both Serbs and Albanians seem determined to maintain peace and stability, despite hot heads on both sides who might like something else.

Belgrade has made it absolutely clear that it intends to maintain its de facto control over the North and some of the Serbian enclaves in the South of Kosovo. I expect that such control will continue until there is a gradual re-integration of those territories into a sovereign Kosovo.

I don’t expect that Belgrade will forever see the issue of Kosovo as more important than the issue of the EU. The recent election suggests that the majority of Serbs have already come to the conclusion that they value the EU more than Kosovo.

Is there a realistic possibility that Serbian forces will enter Kosovo after a declaration of independence?

Serbian security forces are already deployed in the North of Kosovo and in the larger Serbian enclaves south of the Ibar River. It is possible that Belgrade will want to increase the number of agents it has deployed but it is likely that they will also want to keep them under cover, which is the situation today. NATO has been unwilling to challenge the Serb forces in Kosovo for almost nine years. I don’t expect them to start doing it now.

After Kosovo’s independence is gained—on paper—what steps will need to be taken in terms of real-world policy decisions?

There’s a great deal of work that needs to be done to implement the Ahtisaari plan. Those in Kosovo who think that independence is a big party should remember that that’s not the way it works. There is a lot of responsibility involved here. The most immediate requirement is for the Pristina government to make it absolutely clear to the entire population of Kosovo that violence against Serbs and other minorities will not be tolerated.

Will an independent Kosovo acquire a seat in the U.N.? What about the prospects of eventual EU membership?

A seat in the General Assembly is the ultimate certificate of sovereignty, which explains Serbia’s vehement resistance. As long as Serbia has in its pocket a Russian veto in the Security Council, Kosovo will not be able to take a seat in the General Assembly.

Serbia can expect EU membership much more quickly than Kosovo, provided it finds a way of reconciling itself to Kosovo sovereignty. It is a matter of a few years for Serbia, while Kosovo is likely to wait a decade or more. Even now, Belgrade can hope for visa-free travel for citizens of Serbia proper, a privilege not likely to be extended to Kosovars.

How do you evaluate Tadic’s victory over Nikolic?

It was narrow but important. It suggests that a majority of Serbs want to move towards the EU, and I think it’s particularly significant that he seems to have been aided by a very high turnout, which is a sign of enthusiasm for the perspective he put forward. Nikolic was pro-Russian and Euro-skeptical.

How might the election of Tadic impact future prospects for Kosovo independence?

Some in the international community will argue for a decent interval after Tadic’s re-election before proceeding with a decision on Kosovo’s status. But the delay is not likely to be more than a couple of weeks. I don’t think there will be any impact on the ultimate solution of supervised sovereignty. But there may be some delay while the Kosovars put a new constitution in place (as required by the Ahtisaari plan) and the Europeans get ready to deploy their Rule of Law mission, also a part of the plan.

My guess is that Kosovo’s independence will be a two-step process, beginning with a declaration of intent to declare independence after a transition period of 120 days, also provided for in the Ahtisaari plan.

Kostunica is opposed to the EU, while Tadic supports further European integration. How will this split impact Serbia’s relationships with the EU and Russia?

It’s hard to tell. The president obviously wants to go one way, while I’m afraid that Kostunica and the government want to go another. This is an issue for the Serbian institutions to resolve.

What I would like to see is people in Serbia thinking harder about what ultimately is in their best interest. Is holding on to Kosovo going to improve Serbia’s prospects for getting into the EU? Is holding on to Kosovo but eliminating Kosovars from the voter rolls in Serbia going to help Serbia consolidate its democracy? Is keeping the issue of Kosovo open going to help Serbia modernize?

Is there any signal that Serbia might moderate its stance?

Not really. The logic of Tadic’s position is that the EU is the first priority. Serbs have to decide what’s more important—Kosovo or the EU. Tadic won the election by the narrowest of margins, but he won it.

Kostunica isn’t going away, and the Radicals are well-ensconced in the state-owned industries. The fact is that there is very broad agreement in Serbia over maintaining sovereignty over Kosovo. Tadic agrees with that position as well.

The question is what the Serbs they going to do about it at this point. I think that they know where things are headed, and that, as time passes in a year or two, people will begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. In the end, I think Serbia will move to the E.U. much faster with Kosovo detached rather than attached.

Is it possible that there will be a governmental crisis in Serbia between the president’s and the prime minister’s factions? Could such a situation delay Kosovo’s independence?

Certainly a government crisis is possible. And there will be some European countries that will argue for further delay. But I think most of Europe and the U.S. are committed to moving ahead, knowing well that further delay will only increase the likelihood of violence and instability.

How would you assess the U.S. response to the election of Tadic?

Americans are happy the elections were conducted well, efficiently, and fairly. Serbia has consistently undertaken good elections since the fall of Miloslovic, a testament to the strength of the country’s institutions.

Tadic has a lot of sympathy in Washington. Nikolic presented problems for the U.S. because he sought to turn Serbia in the Russian direction and was less enthusiastic about the E.U. and Western institutions than Tadic. Kostunica basically has sided with Nikolic.

What about the question of Serbian war criminals who are still wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and seemingly protected with Serbian connivance? With the EU’s recent gestures toward Serbia, is this issue being "swept under the carpet?"

There are many who would like to sweep the issue of war criminals under the carpet, but fortunately there are some in Europe—right now the Dutch—who refuse to forget that the Serbian government appears still to be protecting Ratko Mladic. The Dutch have been holding up signature of Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU over this issue.

Nor should Americans forget: we have done everything possible to normalize relations with Serbia and even allowed Serbia into Partnership for Peace—NATO’s non-member circle—despite the continuing failure to fulfill its obligations to the tribunal in The Hague. It is more than time that we got as serious as the Dutch.

Recent reports have surfaced about major Russian energy deals with Serbia. How does the issue of Kosovo’s independence play into all of this?

Serbia seems to have sold its energy resources cheaply to the Russians in order to ensure Moscow’s intransigence in the Security Council. A shabby bit of business in my view, and one that Serbs are likely to regret.

If Kosovo does become independent, are there other regional issues pertaining to the death of Yugoslavia that need to be resolved? Or are we at the point of defining the Balkan map for some time?

I think this is it. There will be some who will want to reopen the question of Republika Srpska in Bosnia, and others who might want to reopen the question of the Albanian-majority municipalities in Northwestern Macedonia. But the international community will reject both propositions.

Remember though: the map will change—at least in some functional respects—as Serbia and later Kosovo develop stronger relations with the EU. Ultimately, there will be an unguarded border between Kosovo and Serbia, once again, but only in the context of EU membership.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of USIP, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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