Slow progress in Kosovo, but at least it’s not Chechnya

Everyone is going to be talking about Chechnya this week. You could do worse than start with the Onion, which reports satirically but no doubt truthfully that “efforts to thoughtlessly stereotype the alleged terrorists were impeded by the majority of Americans’ lack of basic knowledge about Chechnya or the Chechen people.”

But I thought I’d start by talking about another small Muslim country in eastern Europe that’s had to fight for its independence in controversial circumstances – namely Kosovo. The BBC reported on Friday what it called a “landmark accord” between Kosovo and Serbia; its limited nature suggests that there’s a long way to go in the Kosovo story, but it least it’s in a happier position than Chechnya.

Kosovo, whose people are mostly ethnic Albanians, declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 (it had spent the previous nine years as a sort of United Nations protectorate following the Serb withdrawal in 1999). Two years later the International Court of Justice ruled that the declaration was not prohibited by international law. Kosovar independence has been recognised by about half the international community, including Australia, the United States and most other western countries, but not by Russia, China or Serbia.

And in a strip of northern Kosovo, inhabited almost entirely by Serbs, the declaration has been ignored; its people regard themselves, and to a large extent still function, as part of Serbia. A substantial contingent of NATO forces keeps the peace between the two sides. The Serbs even held a referendum last year to prove they don’t want to be part of Kosovo, in much the way the Falkland Islanders this year rejected union with Argentina.

To an outside observer, the way forward is fairly obvious: the Kosovo-Serbian border should be redrawn so that the Serb districts of the north become part of Serbia. That would not give either Kosovo or Serbia what they really want, but it would open the way to a workable compromise.

But NATO and the European Union have set themselves firmly against what they call “partition” (even though it would just be revising an existing boundary, not creating a new one). Instead their solution is apparently endless talks between Serbia and Kosovo, occasionally producing a limited sort of agreement.

Last year, following “two months of tortuous negotiations”, there was an agreement to allow representatives of the two governments to sit in the same room providing Kosovo’s nameplate had an asterisk on it. (The asterisk still duly appears in EU statements.) Last week’s deal, which comes after talks that were often reported to have broken down, seems about equally substantial.

The ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, according to the BBC, “will have their own police and appeal court,” but no official autonomy. Nor is there any prospect that Serbia will recognise Kosovar independence. Neither country will oppose the other’s application to join the EU, but membership is clearly some way off for Serbia and much further for Kosovo. And it looks as if the NATO troops will be staying for the foreseeable future.

According to Le Figaro, Serbia has “de facto renounced the exercise of its sovereignty” in Kosovo. But in reality its agreement to stay out of northern Kosovo is conditional on the Kosovo authorities letting the area retain its practical autonomy. The fundamental political problem has been postponed, not solved.

Nonetheless, whichever side of the Ibar you’re on, it’s still a lot better being in Kosovo than in Chechnya. We’ll talk about that a bit later.

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