You are here

Endgame in the Balkans - from fragmentation to integration

01 January 2006

2006 looks set to bring another round of state fragmentation in the Balkans. Negotiations on Kosovo's 'future status' are widely predicted to result in a transition to independence under international supervision. Meanwhile, Montenegro's government is preparing a referendum on independence in late spring. 'Balkanisation' of the region continues. Many ask why the EU should tolerate further fragmentation that seems at odds with recent encouraging signs that the region is now ready to move forward to EU integration. Some - and not only the Serbian government - argue that giving Kosovo independence from Serbia would set a precedent for re-opening border questions elsewhere, for example, in Bosnia or the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Although the latter two states remain fragile, both have made important strides towards internal consolidation of their constitutional arrangements, and should withstand a revival of secessionist tendencies. Another worry is that Kosovo and Montenegro could turn out to be 'failing states' that will threaten the stability of the region.
<br />EU integration presupposes functional states. The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro has not helped to accelerate these republics' progress towards the EU. In fact, the EU has had to devise an unprecedented 'twin-track' approach for negotiating the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), to cope with the huge disparities in size and economic structure of the two republics, and the lack of political will of either to compromise for the sake of the Union. Pro-independence Montenegrins argue that they could go faster towards the EU on their own. Serbian sympathisers agree, and are convinced that Serbia itself could also go faster, given its greater state capacities and pool of experts - provided, of course, that Serbia does not squander these assets by failing to deliver the indicted war criminals such as Ratko Mladic, which could lead to a suspension of the SAA process.
Montenegro is indeed tiny, but, with a population of 650,000, it is larger than Malta, and has been governing itself quite separately from Serbia for many years. Nevertheless, it is hardly a functional state. The current ruling elite has a bad reputation for corruption and links with organised crime - unhappy by-products of Western economic sanctions in the 1990s that have only slowly been tackled by the government. Future stability depends on a clear result in the referendum that will be accepted by all sides. But society is deeply divided and the likely outcome will be a rather narrow vote for independence. International legal experts have recommended suitable rules for the conduct of the referendum, but these will require some modification of the current law. As the government has only a slender majority of seats, dialogue and compromise with the opposition will be essential. In late December, the EU stepped in to promote negotiations, and stop the strident brinkmanship that has polarised the situation. A messy outcome will disrupt the SAA negotiations. At worst, Belgrade could challenge the result, deepening tensions between the two republics and within Montenegro itself.
Unfortunately, Montenegro's referendum seems likely to coincide with the Kosovo negotiations, thus entangling two very different issues. Belgrade does not contest Montenegro's right, as a former Yugoslav republic, to determine its future by referendum, but it insists that independence for Kosovo is unacceptable on any terms, because it would mean partition of Serbia. The Albanian population (some 90 per cent of the total) are dead set on independence, but have hardly demonstrated their readiness for it, especially with regard to the security of the dwindling Serbian and other minorities. Can Kosovo be made to work as a state? What is clear is that as long as it remains even nominally attached to Serbia, matters will not improve - indeed, the international community has recognised the status quo is unsustainable, threatening the stability of the whole region.
So, can Serbia be persuaded to change its mind? The huge burden of maintaining Kosovo's security and weak economy is currently borne by the international community, but the status quo is costly for Serbia too. It has perhaps two million additional citizens among the Kosovo Albanians that it plainly does not want, and who feel no attachment or loyalty to Serbia. Serbia is still responsible for Kosovo's external debts, without receiving any revenues from it. Insisting on its legal sovereignty over Kosovo leaves Serbia formally accountable for matters over which it does not have the practical capacity to deliver. It is trapped by its entanglements with Montenegro and Kosovo in a fuzzy, dysfunctional quasi-statehood with dim prospects of advancing towards the EU. The 'final status' of Serbia - by far the largest country in the region - is now the key question.