By David L. Phillips/
AFTER months of talks mediated by the European Union, Serbia andKosovo signed an agreement last month to resolve disputes dating from the 1990s, when Kosovo, a former province of Yugoslavia, effectively won independence following a Western-led military intervention.
But the deal won’t reconcile the two Balkan nations or help them gain admission to the European Union. To make matters worse, the two nations said this week that they could not agree on a timetable for implementing the agreement.
This setback is nothing on the scale of Balkan massacres in the 1990s, but it represents a continued failure to put the region’s troubled past behind it through integration with the rest of Europe.
Most of Kosovo’s 1.7 million people are ethnic Albanian and Muslim, but a substantial Serbian and Orthodox Christian minority in the north receives NATO protection and is effectively autonomous from the national government.
The agreement, signed April 19, accepts that Serbia — which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008 — has a continued role in protecting the interests of Serbs in northern Kosovo. In effect, it divides Kosovo into an Albanian heartland with a Serbian appendage.
Far from overcoming ethnic and sectarian divisions, the deal validates the violent nationalistic agenda of a “greater Serbia” advanced by Slobodan Milosevic, who died in prison in 2006 while facing war crimes charges. It also encourages aspirations for a “greater Albania” among ethnic Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Grievances date to the era of Ottoman rule. They were suppressed under Communism, only to flare up after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991-2. While Western military intervention helped stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in 1995 and of Kosovars in 1999, it has not resolved the Balkans’ political disagreements.
The lure of European Union membership was supposed to overcome those enmities. Of the former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia joined first, in 2004. Croatia will join on July 1. But the others aren’t close to satisfying the terms of membership, even though Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are officially “candidates,” and Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are “potential candidates,” as is Albania.
As Turkey has learned well, some European nations just don’t want a majority-Muslim country in their club. Some also disparage the Balkans as bastions of fiscal instability and as havens for drug traffickers and criminal gangs.
There has been a renewal of unsubstantiated allegations, dating from the 1990s, that the Kosovo Liberation Army, including some current leaders of Kosovo, was involved in trafficking human organs. Last week in Pristina, the capital, a panel of European Union and Kosovo judges convicted a Pristina urologist and four other men of involvement in more recent organ trafficking.
So while the goal of a “Europe united and at peace” endures, Serbs and Kosovars have become cynical about their chances of admission. Hence the street protests that engulfed Belgrade and Pristina after last month’s deal was signed.
The West needs a fresh approach for the Balkans, an arrangement somewhere between partition into monoethnic mini-states and a continentwide superstate.
This middle way — call it “interest solidarity” — would preserve national sovereignty and borders, while enabling members of ethnic and other groups to cooperate with their counterparts in the region, in fields like trade, transport, education, media and the arts. In 2007, the envoy Martti Ahtisaari included, in his final status proposal for Kosovo, extensive minority rights — including local autonomy in economic, cultural, environmental and other areas. Serbia rejected the plan. But its principles still represent the standard for a lasting settlement.
Building ties of common interest beyond its borders has helped stabilize Northern Ireland since 1998. It could improve relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, and offer new outlets for the dreams of “stateless” Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
This will work only under governments that promote minority rights, and among parties with leaders ready for peace.
An overwhelming majority of Albanians support democracy, human rights and free markets. They are pro-Western and pro-NATO. In contrast, Serbs have had a history of intolerance against non-Serbs and Muslims, and of aggression and forced expulsions to create a Serbian homeland in territories where they have historical claims — notably Kosovo, but also Bosnia.
For sure, this plan for a peaceful “Albanian neighborhood” — or a “Serbian neighborhood,” for that matter — could be manipulated by extremists. It would be up to responsible local leaders and the international community to prevent that.
But “interest solidarity” offers real hope of reducing sectarian tensions. It is certainly preferable to further subdividing the Balkans.
David L. Phillips, a program director at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, is the author of “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.”
* The New York Times, May 10, 2013
By David L. Phillips/