WORLD POLITICS WATCH
Kosovo's Status Potential Flashpoint in Balkans
Damir Cosic | Bio | 07 Nov 2006
World Politics Watch Exclusive
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- Apparently, this is a year for close
referendums in the Balkans. Earlier this year, Montenegrins voted for
independence from Serbia with a 0.5 percent margin of victory. The "yes"
vote needed to be 55 percent for the tiny republic to become an independent
state. The "yes" campaign carried the day with 55.5 percent. On the weekend
of Oct. 28-29, the citizens of Serbia voted in a referendum to approve
Serbia's first non-communist constitution in 60 years. It was another close
For the constitution to be approved, at least 3.3 million people needed to
vote for it, or 50 percent plus one vote. Some 6.6 million people were
registered to vote in the referendum. According to Serbia's Election
Commission, 51.4 percent of the electorate voted to approve the new charter.
The statisticians have calculated that the margin of victory was about
100,000 votes. The lawyers have pointed out that this is Serbia's 13th
constitution in two centuries of Serbian statehood, with an average life of
16 years each.
The most important and most controversial part of the new constitution is
its preamble, which enshrines Kosovo as an "inalienable part of Serbia."
This comes at a time when the U.N.-sponsored talks on the future of the
Albanian-majority province are nearing their end. Kosovo has remained a U.N.
protectorate since June 1999, after NATO fought a 78-day air campaign
against Slobodan Milosevic's forces. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244,
which established the protectorate, stated that Kosovo is formally a part of
Serbia, but also said Kosovo's "final status" would be determined at a later
Despite Serbian leaders' eagerness to claim Kosovo as a part of Serbia, they
excluded some 2.2 million Albanians living there from the voter registration
lists. Had they included them, the Albanians in all probability would have
boycotted the vote, and the Referendum would have failed, as the turnout
threshold would not have been met.
The reactions to the results were predictable.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian President Boris Tadic
congratulated the public. "This is a historic moment for Serbia. . . . This
is a beginning of a new era," said the Prime Minister. The President called
the results, "very good news."
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Kosovo's leaders and head of the U.N. mission in the province claimed that
the referendum would have no legal impact on the U.N.-led negotiations over
establishing Kosovo's final status. Joachim Ruecker, head of U.N. mission in
Kosovo, said that the referendum and the final status negotiations are "two
Serbia's opposition Liberal Party, which led the boycott of the campaign,
claimed that "massive fraud" occurred at polling stations in the final hours
of voting, with individuals allegedly voting several times and without
So, the stage has been set for the final resolution of the political map of
the Balkans. The negotiations on the final status of Kosovo will end the
process that began with the break up of former Yugoslavia 15 years ago,
which led to wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and,
The negotiations, led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, were
supposed to see the parties come to a mediated settlement. But they were
doomed from the start. Serbian leaders were ready to offer Kosovo Albanians
the highest form of autonomy within Serbia, short of independence. But
Kosovo Albanians want nothing short of full independence. If the parties
don't agree on a solution, Ahtisaari has the authority to propose one. What
happens next will be critical for the future of this unstable region.
The process is supposed to unfold as follows:
Over the next couple of months, The Balkans Contact Group -- the United
States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- will consider
Ahtisaari's recommendations and possibly propose a solution to the Security
Council for a final decision. The United States and some its allies have
informally told the two parties that they will propose independence this
year. Russia and China are opposed to an imposed solution, and few
governments favor dividing up another country's territory, whatever the
The new constitution, with its preamble, serves two purposes for Kostunica.
Domestically, it is intended to show voters that his government did
everything it could to "save Kosovo." Otherwise, his party might loose the
upcoming elections to the ultra-nationalistic Radical Party. That party's
leader, Tomislav Nikolic, has already asked the military to draw up plans to
"defend" Kosovo should it get independence. Internationally, the vote on the
new constitution can be used to ask for postponement of the Contact Group's
decision until after the planned Serbian elections in December 2006, to
avoid the Radicals' taking power. Moreover, the Serbian government has
encouraged the leaders of Bosnia's Republika Srpska to threaten their own
referendum on a separation from still fragile Bosnia and Herzegovina. This
enables the Serbian government to claim that granting independence to Kosovo
will destabilize the region. Just this past week, Kostunica accused
Montenegro's leadership of violating Serbia's sovereignty "in a most direct
way" by treating Kosovo as an independent neighbor during a recent visit to
Montenegro by Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku.
Serbia's delay tactics might be working.
Over the weekend, U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan said the United Nations
"might not stick to the deadlines as we had originally planned." The
interview was published Nov. 4 in Vijesnik, a Croatian Daily. He went on to
say, "Considering the referendum, and the fact that they want elections in
Serbia, we have to be cautious. Ahtisaari also has to be cautious so that
the issue of the final status of Kosovo is not used for pre-election
purposes. . . . A proposal on Kosovo must be presented at the right time,
that's the key."
Kosovo Albanian leaders will not welcome such intimations of delay, as they
worry that impatience for independence and high unemployment might spark
violence in Kosovo. Should any delay prove more than a short term pause, the
Kosovo leadership might declare independence unilaterally and force
countries to decide whether they will recognize the new country. At minimum,
the Serbs of North Kosovo would then declare their own independence and
Serbia would campaign strongly against recognition of Kosovo as an
The delicate balancing act of the Untied Nations and Western diplomats will
be even harder to sustain in the future. Any action -- or inaction - on the
question of Kosovo's status risks sparking outbreaks of potentially violent
Damir Cosic is an Economic Analyst for the Central Bank of Bosnia and