Why does a country want discontented citizens?

Back in April, when a so-called “landmark accord” was signed between Serbia and Kosovo, I was a bit of a wet blanket. In contrast to the enthusiasm of most commentators, I expressed the view that there was less to it than met the eye, and that “The fundamental political problem has been postponed, not solved.”

I’m now claiming vindication. Local elections in Kosovo at the weekend show that nothing substantial has changed and that the problem of the Serb-majority districts in northern Kosovo is not going to be solved by the current approach.

The basic idea of the agreement was that Serbia would give up its active protection of the northern Kosovo Serbs – who for practical purposes have just carried on as if they were still part of Serbia – in return for the creation of local institutions there that would deliver a sort of de facto autonomy.

Serbia appears to have kept its side of the bargain; it helped organise a ticket for the local elections and encouraged the Serbs of the area to vote. The BBC’s Guy Delauney takes up the story:

Then it started appealing to people’s pockets – suggesting a high turnout of Serb voters was the best way to ensure Belgrade continued payments to public sector workers.

As polling day approached, the arm-twisting became ever more explicit. The implication was that if the people of North Kosovo were so proud to be Serbs, then they should follow the instructions of their government – or pay the price.

But the attempt failed miserably. The local Serbs boycotted the election in droves, then late in the day a polling place was ransacked by masked intruders and polling was abandoned. All sides condemned the violence, but there’s been no announcement so far on whether the existing votes will be counted or if (and when) the election will be re-run.

In the rest of Kosovo, polling was very successful. Two things in particular were positive: firstly that Serb minorities outside the north generally participated, raising hopes that they can be integrated into an independent Kosovo; and secondly that the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo of prime minister Hashim Thaçi appears not to have suffered politically from making a deal with the Serbs, suggesting that hardline nationalism has limited appeal for most of Kosovo’s Albanians.

But the problem of the north just isn’t going away. More than ever, the solution seems obvious: accept the reality of people’s preferences, re-draw the boundary along the River Ibar and let the Serb-majority districts be part of Serbia.

One of the boycott organisers, as quoted by the BBC, put it clearly:

I invite all sides – the Serbian government, international community and Kosovo institutions – to understand the reality on the ground. Ninety-five percent of Serbs don’t want to live in the state of Kosovo. We demand the same rights that the ethnic Albanian people had when they declared independence from Serbia.

Of course, the Serbs at the time weren’t at all keen on self-determination when it was the Albanians exercising it. But if we demanded that each side come to this sort of issue with clean hands before its case could be listened to, we’d never get anywhere.

I can understand why the international community is cool on the idea of border revision (often misleadingly called “partition”). There are a lot of debatable boundaries, in Europe and elsewhere, and if a precedent is set for changing them there will be fears of opening the floodgates.

What’s really puzzling, though, is why the Kosovo government is so keen to hold onto a small strip of territory whose inhabitants so clearly don’t want to go along. It was wrong but at least comprehensible for Serbia to try to hold onto the whole of Kosovo (a substantial province with a long Serb history), but for the Albanians to invest emotional capital in an area of marginal importance (less than 500 square kilometres, according to Wikipedia) that is giving them so much trouble seems completely pointless.

Sadly, this is how international relations so often work. Prestige matters more than logic; positions once taken develop a life of their own, and compromise becomes impossible even when it would clearly work to the benefit of both sides.

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