Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister for the past three years, has one of the most challenging jobs in the world. He nevertheless seems at ease with that burden, and appears more confident than while he was Yugoslavia's last president (2000-2003). When we met in Belgrade last week, he was as matter-of-fact about the problems he is facing as ever; but whereas in the past he had occasionally agonized about the magnitude and complexity of those problems, today he treats them as facts of life that neither intimidate nor depress him. It may be telling that in appearance he has hardly aged over the past decade, while in substance he has become the key figure on Serbia's political scene for many years to come.
The most pressing of those problems is of course Kosovo. The United States, NATO and several leading European Union countries have occupied one-seventh of his country's territory for over seven years, and the officials who run the "international community" appear keen -- for now -- to detach the southern province permanently from Serbia. Kostunica's best defense against the pressure to sign Kosovo away -- and that pressure keeps coming from Washington, Brussels, London and other power centers -- has been to insist on the need for any solution to be legal, to conform to the letter and spirit of the international law.
The law is clear: Kosovo belongs to Serbia, and its status was reiterated in the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 that stopped NATO bombing in June 1999. Detaching it from Serbia against Belgrade's will would be an unprecedented violation of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Ahtisaari and his political masters know that, of course, but like to pretend that it is but a minor irritant. As Kostunica says, "When we mention the need for legality, some of these officials become exasperated, even agitated. They respond with various comments to the effect that we should not be bound by 'mere' legality."
This, Kostunica adds, reminds him of the attitude of Yugoslavia's late communist dictator, Marshal Tito. When commenting on how the country's judges should try political cases, Tito famously advised them "not to stick to the law like a drunk sticks to a fence." Such attitude irritates Kostunica -- a constitutional lawyer, whose nickname in Serbia is "the Legalist" -- but it does not surprise him. "The whole negotiating process had been designed from the outset to lead to only one outcome: Kosovo's independence," says he; and the role of the U.N. mediator, Finland's former president Marti Ahtisaari, was simply to choreograph that outcome.
Kostunica's account of Ahtisaari's bungled attempt to "deliver" the Serbs indicates that the promoters of the Albanian cause had selected the wrong person for the job. The Finn came to it as a self-declared proponent of detaching Kosovo from Serbia and an associate of the Soros-funded International Crisis Group, a leading pro-Albanian lobby group. Ahtisaari's opening gambit nevertheless was to try and assure Kostunica of his good intentions: he really wanted to assist Serbia, he said, in ridding herself of a problem -- of Kosovo, that is; and "we" should work together on finding the formula to make it happen smoothly and painlessly, since "we" (men of the world, big-time players in the "international community") surely realize that Kosovo is lost to Serbia anyway.
Ahtisaari's approach may have been based on six years' worth of flawed advice that he and others in the "international community" had received from Western diplomats in Belgrade and from a small but influential clique of "pro-Western" Serbian officials and analysts. All along their assumption had been that Serbia would cave in yet again and agree to Kosovo's detachment, albeit with some meaningless fig leaf ("conditional independence," "international guarantees for minority rights," etc, etc); that Russia and China would endorse the deal at the Security Council; and that the problem would be taken off the agenda by the end of this year with the admission of yet another part of ex-Yugoslavia into the "international community."
Observers agree that the nature of the new entity would be clear not so much for what Kosovo would be (an international protectorate, an EU-NATO condominium, a future province of Greater Albania) but for what it would no longer be: part of Serbia. As a Washingtonian insider has noted, "The UN, the EU, the Contact Group countries, would issue the appropriate guarantees, mainly protection for the remaining Serbs -- and everyone would know the guarantees were just new lies on top of the old. When all the Serbs were cleared out and their holy places destroyed, there would be expressions of regret from Washington, Brussels, London, etc: 'Indeed, how sad. How unfortunate that these Serbs should have made themselves so hated'."
The belief that this scenario might work was reinforced by none other than President Boris Tadic's chief foreign policy advisor Vuk Jeremic, one of very few Serbian enthusiasts for John Kerry's victory in November 2004. Mr. Jeremic (who happens to be a Muslim on his mother's side) came to Washington on 18 May 2005 to testify in Congress on why Kosovo should stay within Serbia; but in some of his off-the-record conversations he assured his hosts that the task is really to sugar-coat the bitter pill that Serbia will have to swallow anyway -- and to ensure that the nationalist Radical Party does not score excessive gains in the process.
When confronted with Kostunica's polite but firm refusal to operate on those assumptions, Ahtisaari tried subterfuge, suggesting tête-à-tête off-the-record conversations with individual Serbian leaders. Aware of the potential for intrigue and double-dealing contingent upon such arrangements, Kostunica refused. All his meetings with Ahtisaari were strictly official, on-the-record, minuted, and attended by advisors. In the meantime the negotiations between Serbs and Albanians in Vienna, supposedly mediated by Ahtisaari, failed because they were doomed to fail. As Kostunica says, the Albanians were led to believe that they would get independence anyway, and therefore had no incentive to negotiate.
The biggest internal challenge for the prime minister was to ensure coherence of the official Serbian position, between himself, President Tadic, and foreign minister Draskovic. That has not been easy, and may have become impossible were it not for the remarkable unity of the country's public opinion on this issue, manifested in the referendum on Serbia's constitution last October that reiterated Kosovo's status as integral part of Serbia. Confronted with the strength of popular sentiment, Kostunica's coalition partners and Tadic -- whose Democratic Party is not in government -- realized that breaking ranks would be tantamount to political suicide. Some of the lingering ambiguities in Belgrade's leadership remain, however, and became apparent only days after our meeting when President Tadic announced that he would fight to save Kosovo -- but added that he does not believe that the fight would be ultimately successful.
Kostunica disagrees with that assessment, and believes that the chances of success -- of a compromise that would give self-rule to the Albanians but keep Kosovo within Serbia's boundaries -- are better now than at any time since 1999. The fact that Ahtisaari felt compelled to move the deadline, long set for the end of this year, has tremendous psychological and political significance: the surest means of denial is delay. Many proponents of Kosovo's independence now realize that setting a firm deadline was a grave mistake. We are witnessing a shift in momentum that does not work to their advantage.
The shift would not have been possible without Russia's firm and unambiguous commitment not to support any Security Council resolution that is not acceptable to Serbia. We can only speculate whether Moscow's stand would be so solid had the United States promised to treat Kosovo as a valid precedent for Transdnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh; but having rejected any such possibility out of hand, Washington has ensured that Putin has no incentive to play ball. As for China, the danger works in the opposite direction: had Peking supported Kosovo's independence, it could have facilitated the creation of a precedent that could be and therefore would be used against it vis-à-vis Taiwan (or even Tibet) at some future date.
Option B for the proponents of Kosovo's independence was stated by the province's "prime minister," war criminal Agim Ceku, earlier this week: Albanians proclaim independence regardless of the UN and invite bilateral recognition by individual countries, most crucially the United States. The trouble is that the Europeans hate that option, even those (notably in London and Berlin) who are supportive of independence. Option B cannot work unless the European Union supports it as a whole, and within the EU so many countries have announced their opposition -- Spain, Greece, Rumania, and Slovakia unequivocally -- that it is not practicable. No individual EU country will recognize a self-proclaimed "state" in Kosovo unless it is an agreed policy consensually approved in Brussels. Ceku et al may try it nevertheless, but Washington is certain not to extend recognition that bypasses the Security Council if that risks a rift with the Europeans: the U.S. needs them on board to manage the mess in Afghanistan, and for the forthcoming disengagement from Iraq.
In conclusion, the untold news is that Kosovo will not become independent. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of the Western "mainstream" will go on huffing and puffing and pretending otherwise, but there is not much they can do: Kostunica will not be duped, Serbia will not cave in, Russia will not relent, and the Albanians will not give up on what they had been promised by those who had never had the right to make the promise in the first place. They threaten renewed violence, but the threat only serves to reinforce the argument that they should not be allowed to get away with it. As Russia's ambassador to the U.N. told his Western colleagues last Wednesday, "you may be willing to give in to Albanian blackmail, but we are not."
As Kostunica says, once the reality sinks in we'll finally have some real negotiations. We do not know what the end result will be, but that is in the nature of all genuine negotiations: their outcome is unknown. Ahtisaari has failed, and his supporters are getting very nervous. As Misha Glenny confided to the former U.S. ambassador in Belgrade William Montgomery on December 7, "I am seriously worried about the Kosovo situation . . . entre nous, I am very disappointed with Martti's performance."
Good. Very, very good.
Srdja Trifkovic is the foreign-affairs editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and director of The Rockford Institute's Center for International Affairs.
Read the entire article on the Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.