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As Kosovo’s Quest Progresses, Can the Way Open with Serbia?     Print Email
By Garret Martin

During a recent trip to Albania, it was striking to notice the number or of Kosovars spending their summer holidays on the Ionian Sea stretch of the Adriatic coast. Many of these tourists were predictably drawn by the beautiful beaches, scenery and pleasant weather but, perhaps unconsciously, they were also celebrating the emergence of their landlocked homeland, Kosovo, as an independent nation enjoying growing world acceptance. It got a boost from the July ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law. See recent European Affairs blogpost. This unambiguous statement at the core of the court’s finding went further, in Kosovo’s direction, than many observers had anticipated. Even so, in its quest for legitimacy and viability, Kosovo still faces formidable obstacles ranging from the need for recognition by more states to the challenge of making a peace with Serbia -- and domestically, the requirement of tackling widespread corruption.

The ICJ’s verdict could certainly be viewed, on the surface, as a simple acknowledgement of the facts as they have developed on the ground. Since it declared independence in early 2008, Kosovo has acquired the main trappings of a state, including a constitution, an army, an anthem and intelligence agency, and it issues its own passports. Last year it became a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. As of now, it has been recognized by 69 nations, including some very influential backers – the U.S., 22 of 27 EU states and 24 of 28 NATO members.

According to Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, the ICJ was essentially confirming what all Kosovars knew -- “that their country is independent and sovereign”. In the wake of the court verdict, Thaci went on to call on other states to recognize Kosovo,  reassuring them that his country’s declaration of independence did not constitute a precedent liable for separatism in established states. Instead, he argued that Kosovo constituted a special case and that the ICJ’s ruling constituted “an opportunity to put the past behind us and to move forward with all the countries of the Balkans, including Serbia, towards Euro-Atlantic integration.”

Notwithstanding Thaci’s optimistic view, Kosovo’s path towards Euro-Atlantic integration is likely to prove anything but smooth or straightforward. As a EUobserver article rightly pointed out, the ICJ’s verdict may have been clear but its impact is lessened once you scratch the surface.

First, the 10-4 majority non-binding ruling was something of a fudge,  positing that Kosovo was neither abiding nor violating international law, because there are no provisions in international law restricting independence declarations. Second, whether or not new states decide to recognize Kosovo will depend primarily on realpolitik considerations rather than international law. Kosovo will need to obtain recognition from other influential quarters, and that will not be easy. Russia remains closely tied to Serbia by virtue of their shared Slavic and Orthodox Christian traditions. China and the reticent EU states – Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Greece – fear that Kosovo’s case could embolden secessionist movements within their own borders, and for Cyprus legitimize the occupation of the northern part of the island. Other states have underlined their full commitment to the principle of territorial integrity and their preference for a negotiated solution between Serbia and Kosovo.

Ultimately, Kosovo’s road to full legitimacy and stability will still need to go through Belgrade. As a recent insightful report from the International Crisis Group makes clear, Kosovo will surely need to obtain Serbian consent to its independence in order to sway those countries holding out on recognition.  Gaining Serbian support, however, will require resolving some significant disputes, and especially the fate of “the Northern communities” (of the Serbian minority that remains in Kosovo)  and the status and security of the Orthodox Church in what is now a dominantly Muslim nation.

Kosovo’s population of two million includes an estimated 120,000 ethnic Serbs, most of whom live in some areas in northern Kosovo, bordering Serbia, where the Serbian minority populations dominate locally. In these communities, hard-line Serbs refuse to cooperate with the Kosovar local government or with parliament in Pristina, the nation’s capital.. Instead, these ethnic Serbian “Kosovars” have established their own rival assembly in Mitrovica, the town straddling the two ethnic zones. It wields no real power, but still constitutes a symbolic and practical challenge to the authority of Kosovo’s government. With regard to the Serbian Orthodox Church, many of its most important churches and monasteries are located in Kosovo, and the Serbs fear a repeat of the 2004 mob violence that destroyed a number of these religious sites.

Settling these thorny problems will not be easy, but the report by the crisis group suggests that the ICJ ruling may actually provide Kosovo and Serbia with a good opportunity to negotiate. The road ahead could lie, for example, in expanded autonomy for the ”Northern communities” or even in a land-swap deal in which Pristina would trade the Serb-dominated north for a part of southern Serbia that is predominantly Albanian-populated. As for the Orthodox Church sites, international protection and treaty guarantees could be enough to reassure all parties.

The international community, and especially the EU, can play a positive role in moving these talks along. This will surely include using Serbia’s application to join the EU as leverage for concessions on Kosovo, a connection that was made quite explicit by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, during a recent visit to Serbia: “A day will come for representatives of Belgrade and Pristina to sit at the same table and speak about the EU…Reconciliation can succeed if you face reality. Independent Kosovo is a reality and the opinion of the International Court of Justice has uniquely confirmed it. The map of southeastern Europe has been laid down and completed.”

Recent reports suggest that this message is coming through to Serbia, which is showing small signs of changing tack and shifting towards a more pragmatic approach on the Kosovo question. Ivan Vejvoda, the executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Balkan Trust for Democracy, says that we are witnessing “a return to the position that European integration is Serbia's first priority. It has become clear that the politics of confrontation with the EU and the most influential Western countries are harmful for Serbia, for the region and in the long run also for the EU.”

In addition to striving for legitimacy and stability, Kosovo’s future viability will depend largely on whether or not it can tackle the widespread corruption that pervades the country. Despite some progress since independence, a crisis group’s report in May underlines that Kosovo continues to struggle with its legacy of an uneven rule of law and a very weak judicial system. This reputation for lawlessness is very damaging for the country’s international standing, not only scaring off potential foreign investment but also providing ammunition for those states that are holding out on recognition

And, of course, corruption undermines the Kosovars’ trust in their government. Lawrence Marzouk, the Kosovo Editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, points out that ordinary Kosovars are angry with their politicians, frustrated by the their large-scale larceny and dismayed by the underwhelming performance of their country’s economy.

The international community is assisting Kosovo in its efforts to stamp out corruption. The EU, for its part, deployed a rule of law mission, named EULEX Kosovo, in December 2008. The 3,000 strong civilian force has not only worked to train the judiciary, the police and the custom officers, but has also the power to take on cases that the local judiciary and police are unable to handle. In recent months, EULEX has stepped up its role and made a number of high profile arrests on corruption charges, including most recently the governor of the Central Bank.

Yet the high-minded drive to strengthen the rule of law has at times collided with more pragmatic realities about stability. Last spring when EULEX raided the offices and properties connected to the Transport Minister Fatmir Limaj on charges of corruption and fraudulent road tenders, Prime Minister Thaci and other senior members of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo reacted rather badly. “Limaj is a war hero, very popular in the ruling party and a close ally of Thaci, which makes it very difficult for the Prime Minister to sack him,” explains Marzouk, who has also investigated wrongdoings in Limaj’s ministry.  Influential Western diplomats have not helped either by continuing to associate with Limaj, thereby undermining their seeming commitment to transparency and the rule of law. Often these influential outsiders shrug off their behavior with the excuse that “politics are very, very competitive in Kosovo and Thaci has to maintain a political machine.” They argue that it will take time to instill better governance in Kosovar politics. But it is also fair to ask “how much time?” and “if not now, when Kosovo depends on Western help, when will there be a better moment?”

Even with these unanswered questions in the air, no one can completely ignore the real progress that Kosovo has made since independence. Nor should one ignore the evidence that Kosovo is embarked on a genuine quest to become an accepted member of the international community. All this holds promise. But there are still many potholes in the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration – just as in the actual roads in Kosovo. See, for example, the sudden presidential resignation and possible resulting political turmoil.

Garret Martin is Editor at Large at European Affairs