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Who can govern Kosovo? - Implications for regional stability

On May 24, 2005, East European Studies and the Southeast Europe Project hosted a conference titled "Who Can Govern Kosovo? Implications for Regional Stability." This meeting was borne out of a concern that macro-level debates about borders and status have been overshadowing the micro-level reality faced by the people living in the region. This is not to say that status and governance are unrelated--indeed they are inextricably linked. However, whatever the faults of the Standards before Status policy (and there are many), the policy inherently employs a bottom-up approach for determining status. That is, the political forces best able to deliver public goods and to make progress in bringing local governance to a European standard will have greater legitimacy in deciding Kosovo's status. Thus, this meeting attempted to assess the local conditions and political will to govern Kosovo responsibly, effectively and legitimately.

An Emerging U.S. Policy on Kosovo

Charles L. English, director of the Office of South Central European Affairs at the Department of State, launched the meeting with a keynote address. His description of the Slobodan Milosevic-led former Yugoslavia as a brutal regime replaced by chaos, and of Kosovo, where the tyranny of the minority was succeeded by the tyranny of the majority, recalled the intractability of the problems in Kosovo and impossibility of laying blame solely on one party.

In response to the question posed by the conference title, English responded that the experience in Kosovo has shown clearly that without the consent of the governed, no one can govern the region. To that end, elections were held in 2001 to elect leaders to Kosovo's Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG). The voting resulted in an extremely diverse assembly, with no single party able to form a governing coalition. The international community, represented by the head of the UN Mission to Kosovo (UNMIK), eventually stepped in to force inter-party cooperation to form a government, but the result was an extremely ineffective government. Thus, a further refinement of English's answer to the "who can govern" question is, "not everyone at once."

English asserted that the international community had taken to heart the general criticism of the Standards before Status policy--that there can be no standards implementation until the status of the region is determined and legitimate institutions are in place--and described U.S. and international efforts to make the policy operational. First, the achievement of standards would be met when there was evidence that Kosovo leaders had made "sufficient progress" toward achieving the standards. Next, the many general standards that were demanded were clarified and were prioritized according to which were most important for the development of an effective, multi-ethnic state. The highest priority is the protection of individuals' rights and, specifically, minority rights. Therefore, the acid test for whether the standards have been met, the "super-standard" in his words, will be determined by how the Serb minority is treated in Kosovo. In this regard, English emphasized that the progress so far is still not satisfactory.

Improvement on this situation is necessary if there is to be a positive decision on initiating talks on status. This summer, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in consultation with the U.S. and the Contact Group will send an ambassadorial emissary to Kosovo (likely to be Norwegian diplomat and Ambassador to NATO, Kai Eide) to evaluate the progress of UNMIK and the PISG. The resultant report will then be assessed by the UN and the Contact Group, which will decide whether to recommend the start of negotiations on future status. English asserted that a positive decision on starting status negotiations is not a foregone conclusion. Not even 5 percent of Serb refugees have returned to their former homes in Kosovo. Moreover, those who have returned do not feel secure enough to move freely within the region and fear that they are targets of the Albanian majority. If and when a decision to move forward on status is made, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in consultation with the Contact Group, will appoint an envoy to lead negotiations on status. English explained that the envoy would be a senior European political figure (rather than an American) since Kosovo's future lies in Europe, with a U.S. appointee likely taking the deputy post.

English stressed that the future of Kosovo lies in Europe. "Both Kosovo and Serbia-Montenegro need to understand that the end solution to the question of status lies less in the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina and far more in their position relative to Brussels," he emphasized.

The Solution for Kosovo: European Integration

Following the keynote address, the first panel's presentations focused on micro-level effects of international policies in Kosovo. The first to speak was Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies and member of the International Commission on the Balkans. The Commission, chaired by Giuliano Amato, recently published a report titled "The Balkans in Europe's Future." Jackson based his presentation on that report. He began by warning that international policy in Kosovo risks falling into the social work trap, in which paternalistic policies lead to complacency among aid recipients. Moreover, the lesson from the divided town of Mitrovica (in northern Kosovo) is that there is a real danger that the situation in the region could worsen. In order to avoid these dangers, Jackson asserted that the international community must resolve the status issue(s) in Kosovo, that it must put the region on a path that has a European destination, and that the policy must focus on solving the problems of the entire region, not just in Kosovo.

Jackson believes that the wide gap between Serbia and Kosovo over independence can best be bridged by the prospect of membership in the EU. From his perspective, the best solution for the region would be to launch a "Western Balkan Regatta," modeled on the so-called "regatta" that launched EU enlargement to post-communist Europe in the late 1990s. This model, in which the timing of a country's accession to the EU depends on its progress in adopting the acquis communautaire (rather than a queue in which certain countries must enter first), would help create a virtuous competition in the region and foster cooperation between countries in an effort to support the greater goal of EU accession.

Jackson was critical of the international community's use of conditionality, particularly vis-à-vis ICTY compliance, stressing that conditionality (especially regarding Serbia) has come to be nothing more than a thinly-veiled policy of punishment. He asserted that this sort of conditionality punishes people who had nothing to do with the crimes committed and can do nothing about bringing the war criminals to justice. It is, in effect, an excuse by the international community to do nothing. The price of doing nothing is being paid by the citizens of Serbia, who have no freedom to travel to the West and cannot benefit from much-needed foreign aid and investment. He urged EU countries to offer zero-cost "backpacking" visas for students from Serbia, 90 percent of whom have never left their country and therefore have had limited political exposure to anything other than domestic nationalism.

Governance, Legitimacy and Functionality in Kosovo

Paula Pickering, assistant professor of Political Science at the College of William and Mary, presented a record of governance in Kosovo based on the general standards used by the World Bank. First, Pickering pointed out that the electoral system in Kosovo, which is marked by a single voting district and a closed-list, proportional system that gives political parties (rather than the electorate) the ability to change their party's composition, creates accountability and responsiveness problems. Thus, although the plebiscite gave Kosovars the opportunity to choose their leaders, politicians' responsiveness to the electorate was limited both by the electoral system and by the fact that UNMIK's head enjoys greater power than the democratically elected officials in the PISG. Pickering cautioned that we can hardly expect the PISG to formulate and implement policy if it does not have the capacity to do so. Legitimacy, therefore, has not led to accountability because elected officials can always blame someone else for what does or does not happen on the political stage.

The standstill at the political level has not improved the economic situation in Kosovo, where unemployment is staggering and productivity is nil. Pickering contended that the dismal economic situation creates deep frustration among the people. This frustration combined with an unresponsive government creates a situation where people who are not invested in the governing system are likely to cause trouble by instigating violence, as happened in March 2004. Moreover, political parties represent ethnic groups rather than ideological differences, so that party competition only exacerbates the ethnic conflict. In this situation it is easy to imagine that, in the absence of functioning governmental structures, parallel, unauthorized governing methods may arise in their place. Pickering predicts that the status quo will lead to just this sort of corrupt governing system. At the moment, Kosovo seems stuck in between the inability to make progress on standards and the unresolved status issue.

Borut Grgic, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana, addressed the issue of governance in Kosovo from the two components that contribute to making states strong: legitimacy and functionality. Yet, maximizing legitimacy may negatively impact government function and vice versa. The Kosovo case clearly shows that greater legitimacy, in the form of an inclusive government, can be detrimental to the government's ability to function and that UNMIK's efforts to aid functionality is detrimental to the efforts to strengthen legitimacy.

In an effort to ascertain Kosovo's ability to govern itself, Grgic measured Kosovo against the defining characteristics of strong states. The results were mixed. Strong states have a monopoly on the use of force, but this is clearly not the case in Kosovo given the continued need of KFOR. Yet, the strong foreign presence helps resolve another issue by reducing the chances that the government is hijacked by a nonstate actor. In addition, states gain strength from the legitimacy of their governments, which tends to be stronger in democracies. The fact that free and fair elections have been held in Kosovo regularly, indicates that the Kosovar government does enjoy a certain amount of legitimacy. However, it is important to note that voter turnout has declined over time, most visibly in the last elections in which the Serbs were encouraged by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to stay away from the polls. Crime rates in Kosovo have been on a steady decline over the last few years, which may indicate that Kosovo is now better able to enforce the rule of law. There is no indication, however, that Kosovo is better able to protect minorities, which has become the most crucial issue in the process of evaluating standards.

Grgic asserted that Kosovars are deeply dissatisfied with the leadership and legitimacy of their government. While the international community has been focusing on resolving the status issue by encouraging improvement of standards, local leaders have dug in their heels and refrained from implementing reforms in protest of this policy. Meanwhile, Serbs in Kosovo have been pressured to boycott the elections, which also calls into question the legitimacy of the PISG. As a result of this conflict between the international communities and local leaders, there is a leadership vacuum in Kosovo, in which no one is willing or able to actively promote a rational political agenda toward reform and good governance.

Pointing to the situation in Bosnia, Grgic cautioned that efforts by the international community to build domestic capacity from the outside have little hope for success. He gave the example of the international community's "bulldozer" approach to privatization, which aims at pushing through privatization quickly in an effort to boost the economy with increased foreign investment. While this could help Kosovo economically, privatization is a critically sensitive issue there. Grgic argued that moving too quickly on privatization and other issues would further diminish the legitimacy of the government, and therefore urged the international community to find the right balance between pushing for reform and developing local approval for these policies.

Regional Implications of Kosovo's Status

The second panel focused on the regional implications of resolving the Kosovo issue. Steven Meyer, professor of Political Science at the National Defense University, offered some optimistic news from Serbia, where Kosovo is very much on the political agenda. For the first time, there is a healthy debate going on in Belgrade about how to resolve the Kosovo issue, with people debating various proposals internally. However, the international community, Meyer asserted, is inhibiting this debate by forcing a decision that would maximize expediency. Meyer pointed out that the Balkans are not the Bush administration's favorite policy priority and that the U.S.'s current interest in the region is to exit quickly. By contrast, Serbia and the other countries of the region will need to live with the results of negotiations and are therefore interested in finding an outcome that best fits the realities on the ground. Meyer commented that if the Balkans are a powder keg, then the U.S. has not been paying enough attention to the fuse.

European integration has been touted as the solution for the Balkans. However, Meyer contended that EU accession is too distant to be relevant today, and therefore will not be a strong enough carrot to influence reform. He deemed NATO accession to be irrelevant to the security of the region. Moreover, Meyer asserted that insisting on cooperation with the ICTY as a precondition for European integration has hindered the region's ability to clean its own house. He echoed Grgic's appeal that the U.S. and the West focus on legitimacy rather than expediency.

More specifically, Meyer condemned the West's strong stance against partition in Kosovo (most recently articulated by under secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns), while subtly supporting independence for Kosovo. He argued that the international community is in denial about the fact that the pro-independence stance would in fact mean the partition of Serbia, especially in the minds of those directly affected, i.e., Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Greeks and Albanians. Meyer urged the U.S. to pay greater attention to what is best for the region and allow leaders in the region to take charge of its own destiny.

The Need for a Regional Solution

Echoing these sentiments, Steven Burg, chair of the Political Science Department at Brandeis University, stressed the importance of process in conflict resolution. Process is important because it is instructive in revealing the values and concerns of the conflicting parties and is therefore an essential part of the solution. The international community's active role in Kosovo cuts out the Kosovars and Serbs from the process of agenda setting and debating solutions, which, Burg asserted, will not result in a lasting solution. Burg sees a role for the international community in creating positive incentives for the parties to cooperate on conflict resolution. There is a need now to focus on the art of making a deal and letting diplomacy do its work in the region.

Burg asserts that by focusing on the process, we are more likely to build long-term peace in the region, rather than reaching an imposed solution that requires a long-term international security presence in Kosovo. It is essential that the international community abandon its one-sided pro-Albanian approach and continue the process more even-handedly. Finally, Burg urged the international community to include all of Kosovo's neighbors in the debate, as they all have a clear stake in what happens there. Kosovo will not be resolved in a vacuum, but only as part of a carefully calibrated regional settlement. The negotiations on the future of Kosovo will be extremely complicated and difficult, requiring much time and patience. There will be no quick fixes.

Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, noted that the fact that we are still talking about Kosovo shows the international community's lack of realism in 1999. It is difficult to be pleased with the outcome in Kosovo, where people continue to suffer with crime, violence and social instability and are unhappy with the region's status. Bandow called for a "solution without illusions," by which he meant that we must realize that it is unlikely that any solution will please all groups and that a just settlement is unlikely. Both status outcomes--independence and inclusion in the Serbia-Montenegro federation--have intrinsic value; one of the solutions may be more practical, but neither is ultimately just or fair.

While neither solution has greater intrinsic value, independence for Kosovo seems to Bandow to be the "cleanest" and therefore most likely solution. Yet, it is not unproblematic. Kosovo's independence would mean the forcible dismemberment by NATO of a nation state. Moreover, it is unlikely that the standards demanded by the international community will be met before status is determined, which would not bode well for the long-term stability or governability of the region.

Bandow urged the U.S. to give the lead in the process of conflict resolution to the EU, which has the most to offer the region and the most to gain by achieving peace there. Like Meyer and Burg, Bandow urged the U.S. to abandon its search for solutions from precedents and international juridical principles: after all, the U.S. has never been consistent in its approach to dealing with the Balkans. He asserted that in terms of governing Kosovo, it is time to give locals a chance to lead in the region. To that end, the international community should not say what is on or off the table before peace negotiations commence, including possible border adjustments. By bombing Serbia, the U.S. gained credibility in the region, but it has not yet begun to walk the path towards resolving this conflict. As a result, the U.S. is now seen as not only a reluctant, but also an incompetent imperialist.