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Beyond the Kosovo elections - the EU needs to act

01 November 2001

The 17 November elections in Kosovo confirmed the prognosis that Ibrahim Rugova and his LDK would win. Two surprising developments that merit attention are the unexpectedly strong showing by Hashim Thaci and his party and the relatively strong participation by the Serbs. The Thaci vote represents a growing frustration among Kosovars that independence could well be a long way off and that a more radical approach is acceptable. The Serb turnout indicates that most Serbs believe, under subtle persuasion from Belgrade, that participating in Kosovo's fledgling democratic structures is the only way to improve their plight. Paradoxically, the willingness of the Serbs to invest in Kosovo's institutional framework could drive the more radical Albanian elements to maintain the independence cause through the use of force for fear that the pre-election accord between the Yugoslav authorities and UNMIK has distanced independence.
In his victory speech, Rugova threw down the gauntlet at the international community by asking for independence. The EU response, for one, was immediate and negative. The fact that the LDK did not win an outright majority and will have to build a coalition with the more radical Albanian parties can only mean that the Albanian position on independence will harden. The same is true for the Serb position if one is to judge the sarcastic commentary by Serb officials upon hearing Rugova's independence call.
The elections reaffirm the fact that the question of Kosovo's status is more pressing than ever. For the EU and the rest of the international community the onus is on the Kosovars to demonstrate that they are capable of cleaning up crime, corruption and violence through their new institutions. The logic being that only a viable functional Kosovo which is not a "failed" state has the right to demand independence.
Is this the right approach though? To say that most of the current difficulties on the ground would not go away the day after any settlement is reached is to justify the non-resolution of the status issue by looking at the question through the wrong lenses. The reality of Balkan politics and the successive NATO-EU politico-military-economic interventions in the region during the 1990s is that the EU will remain involved in one way or another despite its efforts to disentangle. The United States's modest volte-face in FYROM is indicative of the difficulties of disengagement. In order for the European Union to assure the success of its mission civilisatrice in the Balkans via the Stability Pact, the Stabilisation and Association Process, the perspective of EU membership, and whatever new instrument might be invented tomorrow, it has to remain on the ground. In fact, the Kosovo experience clearly demonstrates that the need to micro-manage the establishment of the rule of law along with the local actors by, for example, directing the fight against organised crime is crucial.
Addressing the status issue today does not mean that Kosovo is granted independence but that the prospect of independence is on the table. It also shows that the moderates are being rewarded for their non-violent approach. Does not the prospect of independence ensure the commitment of the local actors in Kosovo to the building of the rule of law and viable institutions?
The problem of imposing a solution that the local actors might not be comfortable with is that, whether one wants it or not, they can provoke greater international involvement through new low-intensity campaigns. In other words, can the EU rid itself of an unstable Balkans by simply proposing and imposing a solution which might be totally logical but impractical in practice and assuming that peace and stability will return to the region? The answer is no.
One of the reasons that tolerance and support for the Kosovars is rapidly diminishing might be the fact that the international community has not done enough to support the moderates in their struggle against the hard-liners by urging them to be more comprehensive and outspoken in their fight against the extremists and the construction of a multiethnic Kosovo which does not pose a threat to its minorities and its neighbours. It was only after the Macedonian crisis took a turn for the worse in the spring and summer of 2001 that the international community began cracking down on the extremists in Kosovo by forcing the resignation of some of them from the Kosovo Protection Corps, barring their entry into the EU and the United States, attempting to regulate diaspora activity, fighting organised crime, and controlling the Kosovo-Macedonia border more effectively. Going back on some of the promises made in the Rambouillet accord (which is considered the point of reference by the Kosovars), in particular the status issue, which was supposed to be resolved by referendum in three years, complicates the bargaining power of the moderates and allows hotheads to keep resolving to use arms given their non-understanding that the setting has changed to the detriment of all Kosovars and regional stability.
In neighbouring Macedonia, the 13 August Framework Agreement was finally ratified by Parliament after a tumultuous and violent three month stand-off between ethnic Albanians and SlavoMacedonians (and among the SlavoMacedonians themselves) amidst stern warnings from the EU, the US, and NATO. Nevertheless, the future is uncertain in terms both of the workability of the Accord and the viability of the Macedonian state. The links to the Kosovo situation are evident.
It is within the aforementioned context that post-election Kosovo needs to be assessed. Their aftermath is unclear given the infighting between Kostunica and Djindjic in Belgrade, the inability of the Kosovar parties to present any clear platform beyond the call for independence, the tense situation in Macedonia, and the reticence of European governments to consider the independence option.
The core concern is not so much the independence of Kosovo, which is more or less a given unless the international community decides very clearly to change its position and go back on its commitments by accepting Serb tutelage over Kosovo despite its likely consequences. The issue is the impact of an independent Kosovo on regional stability. Can an independent Kosovo be a stabilising factor in the region? What kind of provisos can be introduced so that the independence of Kosovo does not lead to further regional disintegration? What kind of pressure can the international community apply to ensure that the Albanians in FYROM will not rise up again and that the Slav majority in that state will fully implement the August Framework Agreement?
To respond to these questions, the European Union needs to stop implementing half-measures and seize the opportunity its diplomatic, military, and economic presence entails. It needs a comprehensive approach by simultaneously pushing for a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade along with a renewed commitment to fighting the forces -- such as crime syndicates, vested economic and political interests of the old regime, and rhetorical chauvinistic state policies – that could wreak further havoc to the region and complicate significantly Kosovo's (and Macedonia's) attempts at normalcy. The comprehensive approach also entails sticking by basic principles such as insisting on multiethnic states, the guaranteeing of far-reaching minority and individual rights and democratic values. Because the promotion of such democratic values can be inherently destabilising, the commitment on the part of the EU needs to be there for the long term and the process needs to be assiduously managed to guarantee that all the resources spent on the region over the last decade actually produce regional stability and prosperity. The Kosovo elections provide the EU yet another opportunity to lead the Balkans on the right track. It should not be wasted.