10 July 2007

In Defence of Kosovo's Serbs

TIMES (UK), February 17, 2007 LEADER


There must be no return to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans


It is eight years since Nato halted Slobodan Milosevic's persecution of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, in an onslaught that emptied and torched villages, killed about 100,000 and forced almost a million to flee. Returning Albanians turned on their persecutors, killing 1,000 Kosovan Serbs; 200,000 left the province, never to return. Kosovo became a UN protectorate, administered and policed by foreigners, including a 17,000strong Nato contingent whose thankless job has been to hold the ring between two embittered communities, 90 per cent of them Albanian and 10 per cent Serb.


Morally, the Albanians have a strong case for full independence - provided that the Serbs among them are properly protected from physical danger and economic discrimination. Legally, Kosovo is a province of Serbia, which argues that to give the territory independence would be an attack on Serbia's territorial integrity, and thus a violation of the UN Charter.


Politically, the vital thing is to prevent Kosovo, where ancestral memories of conflict reach deep into medieval history, from becoming, once again, the tinder-box of the Balkans. So the UN and Nato put Kosovo's future on hold until a compromise could be reached that all parties were prepared to accept.


The idea was reasonable; but because compromise is not a word in the Albanian and Serbian vocabularies, it was not feasible. Eight years on the remaining Serbs, heavily dependent on subsidies from Belgrade, live in segregated enclaves, protected by Nato troops, from which most do not dare to emerge. Continued assaults on their ancient churches intensify their fears for the future. The Albanians retort that the Serbs cut themselves off by choice, dealing only with Belgrade, and that they should blame Mr Milosevic, not their Albanian compatriots, for their present plight. The risk of conflict is almost as high as it was when Kosovo was taken under Nato's wing.


Doing nothing is no longer an option. Kosovo could erupt if Albanian demands continue to be shunted into the "too difficult" file; meanwhile, much of Western Europe quietly hopes the remaining Serbs will ethnically cleanse themselves.


On behalf of the UN, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President and a veteran of Balkan negotiations, has come up with a plan for a form of Kosovan independence, supervised by the EU. The word does not appear, but Kosovo would have the trappings of statehood, including its own army and the right to join international organisations. The plan goes too far for the Serbians and not far enough for the Kosovans. They meet next week in Vienna for supposedly "final negotiations". No one expects progress. The buck then passes to the Security Council, where Russia could use its veto.


This plan offers Serb communities considerable autonomy. They would be unwise to refuse. But they need better guarantees, equal citizenship and opportunities. An incentive to good faith would be an offer, made now, of EU membership for both Serbia and Kosovo, if they jointly ensure the welfare of all Kosovans. So bold a step would be out of character for the EU. But it could hold the key to a durable Balkan peace.