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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:157–164.


What Do Neighbours Think?

The Position of the West Balkan Countries and Serbia


The Serbian Position

The immediate antecedent of the present situation was a series of armed conflicts that had broken out between Serbs and Albanians in 1997 and 1998. The Serb armed forces did not spare the civilian population either in their measures against revolting Albanians. From September 1997 on the great powers made efforts to end the clashes and to solve the problem of Kosovo at the negotiating table. The series of talks held in February–March 1999 for this purpose failed. Nevertheless, Russia continued to press for political solutions. The Western powers were of the view that it was not worth negotiating any further and they wanted to force Serbia to make allowances and to stop the atrocities committed against Albanians by air strikes. As a result of the air strikes launched by NATO without UN authorisation on 24 March 1999, Serbia was forced on 9 June 1999 to accept military conditions dictated by NATO (it had to pull out its armed forces from Kosovo) and to accept Resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council. In keeping with the latter one an international force (KFOR) arrived to the territory of Kosovo and the province became an international protectorate under the control of the UN. The Resolution acknowledged the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, at the same time it authorised the UN Secretary-General to place Kosovo under interim administration by involving international organisations “under which administration Kosovo may enjoy substantial autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. According to the Resolution the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) was to be disarmed, the return of refugees was to be ensured and later on “an agreed number of Yugoslav and Serbian personnel will be permitted to return to perform certain functions”. According to the Resolution of deliberately hazy wording a final settlement was to come later on. The UN Secretary-General set up the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) among the numerous tasks of which the performance of the functions of civilian administration was prominent as well as helping the creation of the above-mentioned autonomy. The head of the mission was the Special Representative, appointed by the UN Secretary- General.

The vast majority of the Serb society considered it totally unacceptable that the NATO force attacked the sovereign republic of Serbia without UN authorisation, as well as the fact that civilian establishments were also damaged by the air raids, and civilians died and were wounded. As a result they regarded the above-mentioned UN Resolution as a dictate forced out by arms and that approach was still alive among Serbs even after the fall of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. The offended behaviour of the Serbs, which was further enhanced by the fact that after the withdrawal of the Serb army grave atrocities were inflicted on the Serb population by Albanians, can be observed even today. After some time the Serb political elite recognised that they should change their behaviour. From the summer of 2001 on they demanded with increasing vigour from the international community to respect the contents of the above UN Resolution in the spirit of their new approach. They objected to it that a significant part of the armed troops of UÇK, regarded by the Serb political elite as terrorists, could become members of the new armed forces of Kosovo. They also criticised the fact that the Kosovo authorities did not establish a secure environment for the return of the large number of Serbs who had fled as a consequence of atrocities in 1999. They held that the time had come for the return of the Serb personal to Kosovo as specified in the UN Resolution and demanded the protection of Serb cultural establishments in Kosovo. After some hesitation they supported the strategy outlined by Special Representative Michael Steiner, according to which at first certain standards should be accomplished in Kosovo (ensuring the democratic state based on the rule of law) and the final status of the province can be determined only afterwards. At the same time they thought that processes were pointing towards the independence of the province during the interim administration and they regarded it unacceptable.

Though the Serbs could achieve some results during talks with the UNMIK, in the renewed atrocities against Serbs they saw the proof that the interim administration of Kosovo was inefficient, it did not protect Serbs and was not respecting the rulings of Resolution 1244. According to their assessment the solution should be sought for in the development of substantial autonomy and in the decentralisation of the province. They held about Kai Eide’s report of October 2005 that it partly listed the shortcomings they had mentioned (though the report should have been far tougher in its wording), on the other hand, they objected to the replacement of the earlier idea of first realising standards and then talking about status by the parallel mentioning of standards and status. Therefore they were already of the view in October 2005 that it would be rather difficult to assert basic Serb national and state interests at the talks beginning as a result of the Eide-report. The major aim of the Serb negotiating group was to represent earlier concepts such as: Kosovo cannot become independent, it should be given a status of autonomy vested with extremely broad rights within Serbia, and decentralisation should be implemented in the interest of the Serb community. The authorisation of the negotiating group given by the Serbian parliament vigorously emphasized that the community of states known under the name Serbia and Montenegro was an internationally acknowledged sovereign state, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of which was made impossible to challenge by international law and several international contracts. It can be stated that the basis of Serbian position is constituted by those principles since then.

The talks launched in early 2006 justified their fears. Ahtisaari actually raised the possibility of the independence of the province early in the year, which was resolutely rejected by Serbia. It also objected to the manner in which Ahtisaari was conducting negotiations about the status of Kosovo and criticised some of his statements. First of all, they often referred to the incident when Ahtisaari said in August 2006 (referring to Milošević’s policy of Kosovo) that the Serb nation was guilty and that was the basis of Kosovo’s independence. This was more or less the period when Serb politicians, facing the possibility of the independence of the province, but also being aware of an ever growing Russian support, began to be increasingly resolute, at times even taking a threatening tone at the talks, in international diplomacy and in the domestic and international media. According to their view they had not heard a single convincing argument that would lay down the foundations of Kosovo’s demand for independence.

From the autumn of 2007 they objected to the US and NATO abusing their significant military superiority wanting to establish a puppet state in the given part of the territory of Serbia. The related rhetoric curiously relies on some elements of the anti-American rhetoric of Tito’s times. Simultaneously the formerly repeated Serb position was supplemented by new elements. They said that by redrawing the borders the West wanted to violate the international legal order, whereas Serbia appeared as its protector. In the spring and autumn of 2007 they made vigorous propaganda to prove that today it was Serbia defending the principles of Western democracies valid for about two hundred years and it was exactly the behaviour of Western democracies that is inconsistent with those principles. Trying to prove that the illegal acknowledgement of Kosovo’s independence would, in several neuralgic points of the world encourage ethnic groups striving to secede was also part of the Serbian propaganda; in addition it would make the Balkan region utterly volatile. Before, however, entering into detail of the latter one, three other Serb statements are worth mentioning. First of all the statement of the Serbian President and the Minister of Defence made after some earlier sabre-rattling, according to which Serbia will make it clear by various means that the independence of Kosovo is unacceptable to it but would by no means take arms to protect its interests. Secondly, Serbia has been repeating it for quite some time that it would take certain counter-measures against countries that would acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. They have never detailed what kind of steps they had in mind but one thing was becoming visible: with the passage of time threats of this kind were worded ever more mildly. Obviously, if Serbia really took serious diplomatic measures, its consequences would be graver for itself than, for instance, for the United States in the vanguard of acknowledging Kosovo, or for the Western powers cooperating with it. Considering the events of the past weeks and days Serbia would probably indicate to the powers mentioned, by using minor diplomatic steps that it regarded their policy unacceptable. This is also confirmed by the fact that at the session of the Serbian parliament held on 18 February 2008, the Serbian Prime Minister stated that they had called back the country’s ambassador to Washington and they would apply the same measures against all the countries that would acknowledge the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo. The leader of the faction of the Democratic Party of the governing coalition said that Serbia had to react on the independence of Kosovo without emotions, with responsibility and rationality.

The third (unofficially floated) Serb statement was that Serbia would place Kosovo under blockade as a result of which the operation of the infrastructure of the new state may become extremely difficult. Theoretically Serbia may take this step, but in that case it has to face several difficulties. First of all, the blockade would also affect the Serb population of Kosovo and causing them damage cannot in any way be in the interest of Belgrade. All the less so because Serbia called upon the Serbs of Kosovo not to leave their homes since their presence in the province was one of the necessary preconditions for gaining back their sovereignty later on. Another difficulty would be that the blockade would have a negative effect on a good number of Serb companies as well, for according to some data they supply goods to Kosovo to the value of about 500 million euros. The third difficulty would be the statement of Albania according to which in case of a blockade it would spare no effort, in cooperation with international organisations, to help Kosovo. If this happened, Serbia, which has been proclaiming for long that the establishment of an independent Kosovo would be the first step towards the creation of Greater Albania, would paradoxically promote a closer cooperation between Kosovo and Albania. If Serbia chose the rational path proposed by the Democratic Party, it would be among the first to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo and would make efforts to link Kosovo to itself by a plethora of (formerly existing economic and various other) contacts thus diminishing the significance of relations with Albania. This rational position, however, would be rather difficult to develop because, according to one of the most often repeated views of Serb leaders, Serbia would not accept the independence of Kosovo and would never acknowledge it. Yet there are signs that a rational approach to the issue is finally finding its way in Serbia. In all probability the realisation of the above thoughts is behind the announcement of the Serbian Minister of Trade made on 18 February 2008. While there was a rather irrational mood dominant in Serbia, the Minister stated clearly that Serbia would not introduce any trade embargo or any other economic measure against Kosovo. Apparently there has been a struggle going on between representatives of the rational and irrational views in Belgrade, and one can only hope that after passions are vented, a growing number of politicians would recognise that politicking based on the above radical political slogans would do most harm to Serbia itself.

Position of the Former Yugoslav Republics

Though the former Yugoslavia has disintegrated and several formerly functioning connections were loosened or terminated, all the former Yugoslav republics are affected by the solution of the Kosovo conflict even if to different degrees. One thing is common in the behaviour of all: namely that they have to coordinate their own interests as members of the Euro-Atlantic integration or as states striving for it with the position of the US and of the EU.

In this respect the situation of Macedonia is the most sensitive one. Macedonia, having a populous and often rather militant Albanian minority has been looking upon the independence of Kosovo with great fear but has chosen the most acceptable solution in the given situation. It strove to establish regional cooperation between Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. On the one hand, it is in perfect harmony with the expectations of the EU and NATO, on the other hand it creates hopes in Skopje that good relations with Kosovo may mitigate the possible separatist efforts of Albanians in Macedonia. Nevertheless, Macedonia is quite anxious about the fact that the secession of Kosovo may create unrest among Albanians living in Macedonia. The country stressed that it was not involved in the Kosovo problem therefore it would not participate in its solution. It is also a fact, however, that as the time of the acknowledgement of Kosovo was approaching fears grew among Macedonians. Partly because they failed to draw the borderline unambiguously between Macedonia and Serbia before Kosovo became independent, and partly because there was no uniform EU position that could be safely applied by the country. Therefore the reaction of Skopje was extremely cautious on the day the independence of Kosovo was declared. It was stressed that there was no reason to worry because the event was in line with Macedonia’s interests. The primary concern of Macedonia will be the settlement of the border issue in keeping with the Ahtisaari plan. They wished to acknowledge Kosovo together with other states and not among the last ones.

The situation of Montenegro is not easy either. About 30 per cent of the country’s population regard themselves as Serbs and identify with Serbia’s opinion in the case of Kosovo. Therefore they demand the Montenegrin government to shape its stand accordingly. At the same time the government of Podgorica has to consider the Albanian minority living in the country as well. On the one hand because the Albanians supported the independence of Montenegro at the 2006 referendum; on the other hand because militant elements have also appeared among Albanians living there. Due to these reasons as well as with regard to the Euro-Atlantic orientation of the country Montenegro’s position had been continuously modified. In March 2007 it wished to remain neutral, but by November it officially stated that the independence of Kosovo was inevitable. In the wake of the declaration of Kosovo’s independence the Speaker of the Montenegrin Parliament announced that Montenegro would adhere to the position of the EU. It remains to be seen what it would do now as the EU left it to the Member States how they shaped their official attitude in relation to Kosovo. The official Montenegrin authorities do not fear that Kosovo’s independence could endanger the security of the country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina also has its special features. In fact the Bosnian Serbs, having an autonomous entity (Republika Srpska) are increasingly turning against the stand of the international community according to which Bosnia and Herzegovina should become a more centralised state, corresponding to the European requirements. Reference to Kosovo is an important means of this confrontation. The Bosnian Serbs say that there is significant similarity in many respects between the position of Kosovo and Republika Srpska regarding constitutional law. On the other hand, they have been repeating for two years that if Kosovo becomes independent, they will hold a referendum and may secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Members of the international community governing Bosnia and other Western politicians have called attention to the status of Republika Srpska (as contrasted to its name it is not a real joint republic, only an entity of the uniform Bosnia and Herzegovina), which does not permit a referendum on secession. They say that the example of Kosovo cannot be of precedent value and the situation in Kosovo cannot affect Bosnia and Herzegovina. This position is in accordance with the opinion of the Bosnian Muslims. The Bosnian Serbs, however, do not at all accept this argumentation. For some time they warned that the declaration of Kosovo’s independence may destabilise the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And even if responsible Serb politicians presumably do not accept the demand of extremists wanting a referendum on the separation of Republika Srpska from Bosnia, they have already made it clear that they would not consent to Bosnia and Herzegovina acknowledging Kosovo’s independence.

The attitude of Croatia is partly shaped exactly by worries about the unity of Bosnia. In the present situation it would not at all suit Zagreb if the Bosnian Serbs somehow succeeded in seceding from Bosnia, therefore the Croat politicians also stress that the independence of Kosovo cannot influence Bosnia. In addition, as it was said by the Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader “one should strive for Serbia joining the accession talks with maximum speed”. The preservation of regional stability is in the interest of Zagreb which is progressing relatively well on the way towards Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time Croatia has been making efforts for quite some time not to disregard the American position, but hoped for the elaboration of a common EU position to which Croatia would safely join. President Stjepan Mesić went a bit further by saying that Kosovo was a constitutional part of the Federation in the sense of the 1974 Yugoslav constitution therefore it had just as much right to secede and to independence as any other constitutional unit (viz. the Republics) of the Federation. At the same time Mesić emphasised that one should understand that the secession of Kosovo was extremely painful to Serbs therefore they should be supported in overcoming this problem. On 18 February 2008 the topmost Croat state dignitaries stated their position in a joint declaration. According to that statement it was of major importance that the position of the Kosovo minorities should be settled according to the Ahtisaari plan. Croatia, while keeping in mind the common foreign and security policy of the EU, would follow its own national interests in the issue of acknowledging Kosovo.

Though Slovenia does not belong to the group of the so-called West Balkan countries, it is worth considering its stand due to several reasons. Partly because it is one of the biggest investors in the Balkan region, therefore the preservation of regional security is its basic interest; and secondly, because it has been actively contributing to the settlement of the Kosovo problem for a long time. The most prominent event in this process was when the then Head of State Janez Drnovšek came forward with his own proposal in the autumn of 2005 (after the conference with the ambassadors of the countries of the International Liaison Group accredited to Ljubljana). It had two key points: firstly, it was clear that Kosovo essentially existed as an area independent of Serbia already at that time (with this statement he provoked the anger of Serb politicians) and secondly, Drnovšek elaborated a plan for the protection of the interests of Serbs in Kosovo which can in many respects be related to some points of the Ahtisaari plan. At the same time Slovenia was in a curious position. While being the republic first seceding from Yugoslavia it did not feel to have a moral base for opposing Kosovo’s independence, its economic interests related to Serbia made the country cautious. All the more so because when the Slovenian Foreign Minister and Jelko Kacin, Serbian rapporteur of the European Parliament, who extremely vigorously pressed for accelerating Serbia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, wanted Serbia to accept the fact of Kosovo becoming independent, they were most resolutely rejected by the Serbian side.

The EU expects Slovenia (the only EU member of the former Yugoslav member states and a country performing the role of EU presidency) to help in the solution of the problem. It is in the interest of Slovenia to evolve good relations with both parties and to integrate the entire region into the Union as soon as possible. Slovenia stresses the significance of talks and resolutely stands for the case of Kosovo as being a European affair and not an American or Russian one. Striving for European unity and for the development of the common stand of the EU they do not wish to take unilateral steps. At the same time there are some people in economic as well as political circles who warn the Slovene politicians to be cautious. They want a more vigorous consideration of the economic interests of Slovene companies in Serbia. They also call attention to the fact that the Slovene-Serb relationship had a major significance for the Slovene national development during the past one hundred years. Finally, in my view, totally overestimating the situation, they called attention to the fact that the alteration of borders that would emerge with the independence of Kosovo might encourage Austrian politicians of the Haider kind to challenge the borders drawn after World War II. Though mistakes may occur in every political decision making so in Slovene politics, I think the accusations that Slovenia as president of the EU acted as an executor of the will of the US are totally wrong. In my view it did make efforts to create balance between the extremely resolute position of the US and the discordant behaviour of the EU Member States. If it failed it was not the fault of Slovenia but the result of objective conflicting interests.


* Senior Researcher of the Hungarian Institute for Foreign Affairs