by Elizabeth Pond
Remember Kosovo? Serbia's province of 90 percent Albanian population that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic tried to "ethnically cleanse" in 1998/99 to reclaim the Serbs' 14th-century patrimony? The Kosovo that NATO—shamed by its earlier inaction when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica—went to war over? The Kosovo that finally declared its independence unilaterally in 2008 and that Serbia still says is its rightful territory?
Well, 13 years after the war and four sleepy years after independence "supervised" by European Union teams, Kosovo is finally entering its endgame. And nobody is more relieved (and nervous) about this than the EU, the moderates in Serbia who are trying to join the EU, and the Kosovars who are still the only Balkan people who must procure hard-to-get visas before they can travel in EU countries.
The trigger to the endgame was the Serbian election announced on Tuesday just after the EU finally granted Serbia its coveted status of candidate for EU membership. If all goes well, a coalition of moderates will win a clear mandate on May 6. Belgrade will cut its sentimental losses in Kosovo in order to join the modern, rich, and peaceful EU. And the European Union will demonstrate that, even in the midst of an existential financial crisis, its soft power still has enough magnetic attraction to make would-be members gravitate toward the democratic political culture that is a prerequisite for accession.
Harbingers of this shift came just hours before Serbia's President Boris Tadic announced that parliamentary and local elections would be held on the day of the Serbs' patron St. George. Serbia "may encounter certain obstacles on its EU pathway," warned former Deputy Premier Bozidar Djelic in Belgrade's Danas newspaper. “There are no ultimatums," continued Djelic, who headed Serbia's efforts to join the EU until the end of last year and now holds a senior post in Tadic's Democratic Party. However, "some [EU] countries may request that Serbia's influence in northern Kosovo be reduced, and some institutions financed by it abolished."
Indeed, North Kosovo—the one part of the new state of Kosovo in which Serbs outnumber ethnic Albanians—is the nub of the problem. Until very recently, top Belgrade officials have been calling for a partition that would award Kosovo's northern tip to Serbia. Unlike the Serbs in the center and south of the country who accept broad local self-government under Kosovo's decentralized system, the third of the Serb minority in Kosovo that lives in the north has never become reconciled to Kosovo's independence.
In the past seven months, Serbs in the north have been constructing ever more roadblocks to bar access to Kosovo-registered cars (and often EU team vehicles). They have also built more than 20 two-lane asphalt roads that bypass border customs posts and enable a fleet of large trailer trucks loaded with fuel and other contraband to evade paying taxes to either Kosovo or Serbia. They are well organized and networked on Serbian bandwidths and can summon armed compatriots to any confrontation within half an hour. Last summer, in a dispute over a border post on the dividing line between Serbia and Kosovo, they shot and killed a Kosovo policeman and got into a firefight with NATO peacekeepers who arrived to restore order.
In the aftermath, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a breather from rescuing Greece and the euro to pay her first visit to Serbia—and, uncharacteristically, to read the riot act to offended Serbs. As the aggregator serbianna.com summed it up, she issued a "blunt dictate" that if Serbia wants to join the EU, it must somehow normalize relations with Kosovo and stop funding "parallel structures" in north Kosovo. The parallel structures are the Serbian security forces, some uniformed, some plainclothes that constitute the underground power in north Kosovo and are linked closely to ultranationalists in Belgrade. The EU estimates that Belgrade spends some €200 million a year on this shadow government (including those costs for heavy road-building machines), about equaling the financial aid Serbia receives from the European Union every year.
"In 15 minutes at a press conference in Belgrade, Chancellor Merkel did more than Brussels in three years," marveled one Kosovo official in admiration. He blamed excessive fear of provoking instability in Serbian politics for the EU's timidity in those previous three years as Belgrade consolidated parallel structures in north Kosovo, blackballed Kosovo's participation in regional Balkan meetings, campaigned for the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice to outlaw Kosovo's independence, and floated proposals for Kosovo's partition. (The Serbs' appeal to the ICJ flopped as the court's non-binding opinion two years ago declared Kosovo's declaration of independence legal.)
Now, it seems, the era of EU passivity on Kosovo is over, not least thanks to Merkel's new-found bluntness. Germany has vetoed partition or any further border changes in the Balkans. It has also vetoed the status quo that creates a haven for organized crime in northern Kosovo. At this point, observes Ivan Vejvoda, one of the stalwarts of the democratic resistance to Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s and now the vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, all the politicians in Belgrade now know they have to deal with the issue of Kosovo.
Ex-Deputy Premier Djelic's new warning to fellow Serbs that they will have to compromise on northern Kosovo reflects this dawning recognition. And the EU is signaling that it intends to use its leverage and postpone an opening date for membership negotiations until Serbia somehow establishes good neighborly relations with Kosovo short of full recognition.
So will the best-case scenario of a clear victory for Serbia’s moderates come to pass after the parliamentary elections?
So far, so good. Membership in the EU is just beginning to trump the old default norm of ultranationalism in opinion polls in Serbia. The number of Serbs approving the EU in March rose 3 percent over February to 54.2 percent after Serbia finally achieved the status of a candidate for EU membership this month, while those "opposing the EU" dropped 1 percent to 31.8 percent. The just-published hardline manifesto by former President Vojislav Kostunica, "Why Serbia and not the EU"—along with the pointed reminder by the Russian ambassador to Serbia that Belgrade has an altervative to its EU path in Moscow—probably came too late to revive the ultranationalist agenda that drove policy in the eight years before Belgrade finally extradited Ratko Mladic, the "butcher of Srebrenica," to the Hague war-crimes tribunal last May.
As of today, the best bet is that the opposition Progressives—a more pragmatic and pro-EU faction that split off from the then dominant ideological Radicals three years ago—will win a plurality but not find a coalition partner to give them a majority. President Tadic's Democratic Party centrists could then form a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (who have been saying for years that Serbs should write off Kosovo and join the 21st century). The EU could apply its leverage in the course of Serbia's application for membership to ease Belgrade's parallel security structures out of north Kosovo. If this succeeds, Kosovo could then exercise its sovereignty in the north as well as in the rest of the country.
The only remaining tasks for Kosovo in the endgame then would be to cajole the five out of 27 EU members (and 105 out of the United Nations' 193 members) who have not yet recognized it to do so, to start jailing the ethnic Albanian mafiosi who also profit from north Kosovo's no-man's-land, and to catch up with all the other Balkan states that are already standing in the queue ahead of it waiting to join the European Union. The endgame, it seems, won't be much easier than the rest of Kosovo's history.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.