Time is running out in Kosovo. If a United Nations-backed settlement is not reached by early December, the province’s majority Albanian population is likely to declare independence unilaterally—a move that the United States has announced it may support.
That would be a disastrous step. Russia would be furious, because it fears that Kosovo’s secession—whether or not it is internationally recognized—might fuel separatist movements in the former Soviet empire. Serbia is even more strongly opposed. Dusan Prorokovic, Serbia’s state secretary for Kosovo, has said that his country might use force to maintain its sovereignty. Even if the government hesitates, ultranationalist groups might push Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to send in troops: the current UN presence in Kosovo is very thin (only 40 “military observers” and 2,116 policemen) but the stationing of 15,000 NATO troops could make any armed clash very dangerous.
After eight years of international administration, Kosovo’s Albanian majority has tasted freedom and is eager for full independence. But Serbia claims that the province remains an essential part of its historical and cultural tradition. Moreover, independence would not be accepted by the Serbian public, which has already watched in dismay as “Great Serbia” has been gradually whittled away, most recently with the secession of Montenegro. Serbia is prepared to concede only “enhanced autonomy” to Kosovo, and some capacity to enter into international agreements.
Yet, while the two parties now seem irreconcilable, it is not too late for compromise. But this is possible only by resuscitating—and updating—an old institution of the international community: a confederation of states.
By means of a binding UN Security Council resolution, Kosovo could be granted full and exclusive authority over its citizens and territory, as well as limited capacity for action on the international scene. It could be authorized to enter into trade agreements as well as agreements concerning individuals (for example, admission and circulation of foreigners, or extradition), plus the right to seek admission to the UN (which does not require full sovereignty and independence).
Kosovo would thus gain some essential trappings of statehood. However, a decision-making body consisting of delegates from Kosovo, Serbia, and the European Union would be given full authority over major foreign policy issues (for example, alliances and relations with international economic institutions), defence, borders (in case Kosovo wished to join with Albania), and the treatment of Kosovo’s Serbian minority. As a result, Kosovo and Serbia would constitute two distinct international subjects, bound by a confederation hinging on a common decision-making body.
Of course, this confederation would be asymmetrical, because the Serbian government’s sovereignty over the rest of Serbia would remain intact and unlimited, whereas the Kosovar government’s “sovereignty” over Kosovo would be restrained. To avoid one of the two parties getting the upper hand and imposing arbitrary decisions, the common decision-making body should consist of four Serbian delegates, two Kosovar delegates, and three representatives of the EU, thus requiring both sides to gain the support of the European delegates. In addition, the EU should create a small but effective military force (say, 5,000 troops) to back up the common body’s decisions.
As with any compromise, the contending parties would both gain and lose from this arrangement. Serbia would save face, and would continue to have a say on crucial matters concerning Kosovo, including the treatment of the Serbian minority. Kosovo would acquire limited independence, with its status rising from a province of a sovereign state to an international subject capable of entering into certain agreements with other states and even joining the UN.
The EU would benefit as well, by contributing to the stabilization of a highly volatile area. Subsequently, the EU would monitor Kosovo and prevent any dispute that might turn violent.
A final advantage of this solution is that it would be temporary. Historically, confederations sooner or later either become federations (as occurred in the US, Germany, and Switzerland) or, pushed by centrifugal forces, split up (as with the United Arab Republic, established in 1958, which split three years later into Egypt and Syria).
The confederation I advocate would thus constitute an intermediate stage (lasting five or ten years), at the end of which Kosovo is likely to become fully independent. Delaying a final solution in this way would provide time to verify Kosovo’s prospects of joining the EU and thus eventually sharing “sovereign authority” with other independent states, which could deflate Kosovars’ dangerously robust nationalistic demands.
Antonio Cassese, the first President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and later the Chairperson of the United Nations’ International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, teaches law at the University of Florence.
This article is published through the kind permission of Project Syndicate.
Related Materials on the Atlantic Community:
- Nikolas Gvosdev asks Will Kosovo End the Transatlantic Honeymoon?
- Lack of EU Solidarity Jeopardizes Kosovo Independence