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Whose Kosovo is it anyway?

The Serb government's restated claim over Kosovo was more a symbolic gesture than 'war talk'.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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The announcement by the Serbian government that there will be a national referendum on a new constitution, which will declare Kosovo to be part of Serbia, has caused a flurry of international criticism. The international press portrayed the Serbian government’s statement as a sign of Belgrade’s belligerence and as an indication that the Balkan state is still trapped in the language of ethnic nationalism (1). Yet once the rhetoric and reality are disentangled, it is clear that neither of these conclusions is correct.

The new constitution recognises Serbia as a separate and independent state after the dissolution of the federal Yugoslav state and Montenegro’s independence in June. It asserts in its preamble that the province of Kosovo is a constituent part of Serbia’s territory (2). It would be strange if it did not. Despite being under United Nations administration, Kosovo is formally part of the Serbian state according to international law. Many international declarations and agreements with the Serbian government, and previously with that of Serbia-Montenegro, expressly mention Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo in the preamble.

However, while there is no problem if international institutions or Western states pay lip service to the legal fiction that Serbia has sovereignty over Kosovo, it is considered a controversial act for the Serbian government to do the same. It is held to be particularly controversial for the Serbian parliament to make declarations over Kosovo now, because Belgrade is currently engaged in negotiations over the province’s final status with the government in Pristina.

Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica claims that the parliament’s consensus of support for the constitution ‘underlines the truth that Kosovo has always been and will always remain a constituent part of Serbia’s territory’, and says ‘Serbia will defend Kosovo with all democratic and legal means’ (3). However, the Serbian parliament’s near unanimous support for asserting its sovereign claim over Kosovo is purely a symbolic one.

Opinion polls show that only 12 per cent of the Serbian public believe that Kosovo will remain part of Serbia (4). Far from the Serbian government asserting itself over Kosovo, the symbolic declarations of Serbia’s unity and of the importance of Kosovo are a direct reflection of the parliament’s weakness and irrelevance when it comes to questions of concern to the Serbian people.

Kosovo is not the only issue where the Serbian government has little real say. The process of government policymaking has increasingly been subordinated to the requirements of the European Union. Even the newly revised constitution was essentially part of the external programme set down by Brussels requiring the ‘revision of the constitution in line with European standards’ (5). The Serbian parliament’s role has become one of merely rubber-stamping legislative reform proposals stemming from Brussels and coordinated by the Serbian government’s EU Integration Office, responsible for preparing and amending government legislation (6).

The irony is that the inequality of power and influence between international institutions, such as the UN and the EU, and Balkan states, such as Serbia, has created a context in which the rhetoric on all sides loses its relationship to reality. Nowhere is this more the case than over the final status of Kosovo.

Serbia has formal sovereign rights over the Kosovo province, yet cannot exercise them. Kosovo looks set to gain its ‘sovereignty’ at the end of the current negotiations, yet this sovereignty will be equally constrained, with elected officials subordinate to internationally appointed interlocutors from the EU and NATO (7). The Kosovo question reveals the lack of content behind traditional conceptions of sovereignty in the Balkans.

This is highlighted in the ‘negotiations’ allegedly taking place between Belgrade and Pristina over the future status of Kosovo. In fact, there are no direct talks between the Serb government and the Kosovo-Albanian one; this has been formally prevented by the UN’s chief negotiator, Martti Ahtisaari, who has insisted on the UN’s intermediary role (8). Not only are external agencies developing the proposals for the future status of Kosovo; they are also the key actors in the negotiating process.

The key negotiations on Kosovo’s future status are taking place between the US, the UN and the EU. The government in Belgrade has little say over Kosovo’s future and the UN is in the advanced stages of preparations for handing responsibility for Kosovo over to the EU (9). Despite the rhetoric, the Serbian government is not even planning to use the referendum on the constitution to strengthen its hand in the negotiating process.

The outcome looks likely to change little in Kosovo, for either the Serbs or Kosovo-Albanians, as the UN Mission will effectively become that of the European Union. The future quasi-independent status of Kosovo will enable international institutions to run Kosovo at arm’s length, rather than taking direct responsibility for protectorate powers as it does at present.

It seems that in the near future Kosovo will take over Montenegro’s title of being the newest sovereign state in the Balkans (10). However, the increase in sovereignty in the region has not been accompanied by any increase in political independence. The existence of sovereignty without policymaking independence has undermined the public sphere, reducing parliaments in the region to stages for formal gestures and reducing politics to empty rhetoric. When international administrators and policy advocates mistake this rhetoric for strength and influence, they are not just mistaken in their understanding of the region; they are also seeking to exaggerate the role of local actors to evade responsibility for their own actions in the Balkans.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, London. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building. He is speaking on the panel discussion Empire of Regulation or Lawless World? at the Battle of Ideas festival of debate in London in October 2006.

(1) See, for example, Nicolas Wood, ‘Serbia reasserts claim to rule over Kosovo’, International Herald Tribune, 1 October 2006; ‘Serbia claims Kosovo sovereignty’, BBC News, 30 September, 2006

(2) ‘Parliament unanimously adopts Serbia’s new Constitution’, Serbian Government Office, Belgrade, 30 September 2006

(3) Douglas Hamilton, ‘Kostunica sets Serbia on course for early polls’, Reuters, 30 September 2006

(4) ‘Serbs see Kosovo lost, despite wishful thinking’, KosovaReport, 29 September 2006

(5) ‘Council Decision of 30 January 2006 on the principles, priorities and conditions contained in the European Partnership with Serbia and Montenegro including Kosovo’, Official Journal of the European Union (L 035, 07/02/2006 P.0032- 0056), p.5

(6) See, for example, the short- and medium-term priorities, set out in the 97 page table, Plan for the Implementation of the European Partnership Priorities (adopted on 7 April 2006), Serbian Government

(7) See, for example, the conclusions of the report of the International Commission on the Balkans, The Balkans in Europe’s Future, 12 April 2005, pp.19-23

(8) ‘Only direct talks can produce solution for Kosovo’, Serbian Government Office, Belgrade, 25 September 2006

(9) This was signalled in the EU Thessaloniki Declaration of June 2003 and confirmed with Kosovo’s adoption of European Partnership agreements in June 2004. See A European Future for Kosovo, Communication from the Commission, Commission of the European Communities, 20 April 2005.

(10) On Montenegro’s independence, see, for example, Neil Clark, ‘Montenegro had more independence as part of Yugoslavia than it will as an EU-Nato protectorate’, Guardian, 23 May 2006

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