Ex-CIA officer: Kosovo should be divided along ethnic lines

It has been almost three years since the Brussels Agreement was signed and even longer than Belgrade and Pristina have been negotiating to find a solution to the problem of Kosovo.

Steven MeyerSource: nedeljnik.rs
(Getty Images, illustration purposes, file)
(Getty Images, illustration purposes, file)

So far the Brussels process has produced very little progress and the progress that has been achieved has been mostly on minor issues — such as telecommunications — that have little bearing on the major issues. But, in an act of desperation, these “minor” agreements are treated as major accomplishments by the government in Belgrade. If the negotiations continue to be approached as a series of technical issues it is very unlikely that there will be significant progress on what are truly major issues. It is noteworthy, for example, that there has been no progress on establishing an Association of Serb Communities because of Kosovar intransigence.

So far, the Brussels process has been a failure, just like every other effort since 1999, to find a just and equitable solution. As with past efforts, the Brussels process has failed because the questions of political legitimacy, and authority and mostly sovereignty are ignored. Until these questions are addressed honestly there will be very little — if any-progress on Kosovo.

The Kosovars are working from the perspective that the Serbs will do anything to please the EU and that Pristina can continue to be difficult because time is on their side. Leaders in Pristina believe that they have the West, especially the U.S., on their side and that Serbia has never had the initiative and never will have it. To a large extent, Pristina is right. The Vucic government has been so determined to sacrifice Kosovo on the EU altar that Belgrade has put Serbia on the defensive. Belgrade says Serbs will never surrender sovereignty over Kosovo. But bit by bit that is exactly what Belgrade is doing.

Every effort to “normalize” relations since 1999 has failed — primarily because they have not settled these fundamental questions. Every past effort has tried to satisfy both sides with intricate, complicated, ineffective, convoluted schemes. In 2007-8 the much heralded Ahtisaari Plan failed, as did the 2012 Five Point Plan by President Boris Tadic, which attempted to improve the Ahtisaari Plan. Belgrade’s proposal for “significant autonomy” for Kosovo if the province remained in Serbia was rejected almost immediately by Pristina. In 2010 the International Court of Justice ruled that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence did not violate international law. This not only ended in failure for Belgrade, it was a stinging embarrassment of Belgrade’s foolish strategy. Also in 2012, Prime Ministers Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci agreed on such issues as trade, customs and university diplomas in an effort to start more substantive negotiations. That effort also failed.

Most recently, the Serbian government’s agreement to “bottom-up technical negotiations” required by the Brussels process also has failed. In fact, it is a tacit surrender of sovereignty by Belgrade with nothing in exchange. To be clear, whenever Belgrade surrenders authority over even minor “technical” areas, it is surrendering sovereignty — and this is a violation of the Serbian Constitution as well as being a detriment to Serbia’s national interests. It is ironic that in 2015 Prime Minister Vucic said the Constitution will not change, and yet the government’s strategy so far has been to undermine the constitutional principle of Serb sovereignty over Kosovo. The only Serbian politician who has proposed an idea to move ahead on the major issues was Slobodan Samardzic who, in 2008, recommended a partition of Kosovo along ethnic lines. His recommendation was foolishly dismissed.

There has been significant pressure on Belgrade from the U.S. and members of the EU to “normalize” relations with Pristina and Serbia’s acquiescence to the Brussels Agreement has been rewarded with the opening of the Acquis Communautaire. Using the words “to ‘normalize’ relations between Belgrade and Pristina” sound very much like an arrangement between two sovereign countries. At least publicly that is not what Belgrade wants, but it is what Pristina wants. But, agreeing to the “technical” requirements of the Brussels process is not the only way to “normalize” relations, mollify the EU and still serve Serbia’s interests. After almost three years of nearly fruitless negotiations and strained relations with Pristina, it is time for Belgrade to find a different path.

But, a different path cannot replicate the failed “bottom-up” approach of trying to negotiate “technical issues.” Instead, the Vucic government — which has just received a new mandate — needs to develop a “top-down” approach that will deal with the major political issues. They are, after, all, where the heart of the matter lies.

The first step must be for the Vucic government to inform the EU and Pristina that it is suspending participation in the Brussels process because, after three years and constant Kosovar intransigence, it has failed to produce meaningful results. In addition, Belgrade must make it clear that Serbia is eager to engage in negotiations and will do so when a new, more fruitful framework has been established. Pristina will denounce this announcement and will seek to have the EU and the U.S. pressure Serbia. And, for certain, the EU, individual European states and the U.S. will pressure Serbia to reverse course. But, once the announcement has been made, Belgrade should not back away.

Second, Belgrade needs to establish a framework for negotiations that will serve Serbia’s interest, but one that also will be fair and just to all stake holders. In short, Belgrade needs to take a leadership role in the process, not assume the position of a weak supplicant. A new approach needs to establish a framework that actually engages the question of sovereignty. This approach has not been tried. The result has been to turn Kosovo into just one more unending “frozen conflict.” The Vucic government certainly has shown courage in defying the EU and the U.S. by refusing to apply sanctions against Russia. It must show the same courage in dealing with Kosovo.

At the same time, Belgrade’s framework must deal with two points of reality. First, Belgrade must accept the hard fact that Serbia will not get most of Kosovo back. Any attempt to do so would reignite war — a war Serbia could not win. Recently, according to the media, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said that he did not think that President-elect Trump would return Kosovo to Serbia. This is certainly correct. In the first place, Trump does not have the power, authority or right to return Kosovo to Serbia. Moreover, there would be no incentive for the new administration to try to do so. I know how important Kosovo is for Serbian history, culture and religion. And I know how very difficult it is for Serbs to accept the fact that sovereignty is lost over the area south of the Ibar River. But sadly, it is a fact that must be accepted if Serbia is to move on in a positive direction. Second, there are still about 150,000 Serbs living in Kosovo who deserve the support and protection of Serbia.

Of course, it must be the Serbian government that proposes a new framework. Nonetheless, allow me to recommend a potential course of action. To begin, Belgrade should pick upon Samardzic’s 2008 recommendation to divide Kosovo along ethnic lines. Accordingly, Serbia would exercise full sovereignty north of the Ibar River, where Serbs constitute more than 90 percent of the population. It is a chronically depressed area — characterized by high unemployment and poverty. This situation likely will get worse without a settlement of the sovereignty issue. It is a fate the people of Kosovska-Mitrovica do not deserve and a shame that the government of Serbia allows to continue. The suspension of participation by the Serb List in the Kosovar Assembly should demonstrate again how dire the situation is for Serbs in Kosovo and how urgent it is to find a solution.

At the same time, the region south of the Ibar River should be under Kosovar sovereignty. Any Albanians north of the Ibar River who do not want to live under Serbian sovereignty should be moved to the south as a humanitarian action that would be funded by the United Nations. Albanians who want to remain in the north must be guaranteed the right to a safe and prosperous life. This could be accomplished by an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that is supervised and guaranteed by the United Nations and would include regular on the ground inspections to ensure the safety and prosperity of the Albanian population.

There also must be provision made for the Serb-majority communities and the historic and religious sites south of the Ibar River. These are primarily in the areas between Prizren and Urosevac and south and east of Pristina and the sacred sites in Pec, Decani and elsewhere. Serbs in these regions must be guaranteed the right to a safe, prosperous life and the sacred and historical sites fully protected. This process would be guaranteed by the same process of on the ground inspections to ensure the safety of the Serbs that is proposed for Albanians staying in the north. Any Serbs who do not want to live under Kosovar sovereignty should be move to the north or to Serbia proper as a humanitarian action funded by the United Nations. Further, all Serbs must have free, open and safe access to the Serb communities and sites anywhere in Kosovo — again, guaranteed by the United Nations.

An approach such as this would require extensive negotiations. Any negotiations should exclude direct U.S. or EU participation, since this would only lead to unnecessary pressures, cause delay and complicate the resolution of the issue. But, if such a political agreement could be reached, it would pave the way for multiple economic arrangements that would benefit both Serbia and Kosovo and might just pave the way for a new relationship between Serbia and the Republika Srpska. And, of course it would satisfy the EU’s requirement of a normalization of relations between Belgrade and Kosovo.

Dr. Steven Meyer is the National Security Program Chair at the Daniel Morgan Academy. He served 25 years in the Central Intelligence Agency as a senior intelligence analyst and manager and as Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Balkan Task Force in 1990s

This article, written exclusively for Nedeljnik, first appeared on the magazine's website

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