A painful birth

Eight years after the war finished, Kosovo wears its poverty on its sleeve. The capital Pristina is an eye-sore. The place is strewn with refuse. Its streets are clogged with rubble and double-parked cars. UN   has done nothing to invigorate its stagnant economy.

The spirit of the place, however, could not be more different. There is now an air of expectation so heightened that further delay is almost unthinkable. The genie of independence is out, and it can’t be put back into the bottle of Serbian sovereignty. It is now the settled view of the western allies – the US, the EU, most of NATO – that hesitation would be more destabilising than a rapid move toward independence.

There is a view, attributed rightly or wrongly to Paddy Ashdown, which western diplomats in Kosovo reiterate, and it’s this: that some nations, by dint of what they themselves have done, forfeit the moral right to govern. They lose their claim to sovereignty because of what they’ve done. This applied to the British in Ireland in the 1920s. It applies to Kosovo now. It puts moral muscle behind the western consensus that Kosovo can’t do anything about economic development until its “final status” is resolved.

The timetable is agreed. There will be a declaration of intent by the Kosovo parliament early in 2008. The preferred date was the third week in January, just after the Orthodox New Year. Serbia’s presidential election campaign probably means that will now be delayed. So early to mid-February seems more likely.

“This won’t be a Unilateral Declaration of Independence” the incoming Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told me, with his now impressive command of English. “It will be a Co-ordinated Declaration of Independence”. Indeed: it is a measure of the extent to which the internationals are running the show that the timetable has been drawn up in Brussels and Washington and not Pristina.

After the February declaration, there will be a four month transition period, as laid down by the UN-sponsored plan drawn up by the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. The UN operation will wind down and the EU will send in a team to start running the police and the judiciary. NATO will keep its 16,000 strong presence and reinforce if needs be.

In May or June, if all has gone to plan, there will be a wave of recognitions. The US will recognise. Most NATO allies will follow suit. Twenty six of the 27 EU member states will recognise (only Cyprus will refuse, for reasons that have nothing to do with Kosovo).

Russia will veto Kosovo’s application to become a member state of the UN, but it’s hard to find anyone in (Albanian) Kosovo who cares about that.

In Northern Mitrovica there is much talk among local Serbs of the Hong Kong model. Serbia (belatedly and grudgingly according to western diplomats) offered the Kosovars a deal: sweeping autonomy, the freedom to run everything except foreign affairs, under formal Serbian sovereignty – two systems, one country. Like Hong Kong.

They cannot understand why this generous offer was instantly turned down. The only explanation, they conclude, is that the Albanians were under no pressure to compromise because they had secretly been promised independence by the Americans from the beginning.

In fact, the Kosovars have compromised – quite a lot. The independence they will be getting is not of the kind that prevails in the old democracies of Western Europe. For a start they’re not allowed to have their own army: a defence force of two and a half thousand lightly armed men is all they will be entitled to under the Ahtisaari Plan. They’ve also agreed to radical decentralisation that will give the Serbian populated areas strong local autonomy. And the internationals will retain widespread powers to intervene in the political life of the country. All this the Kosovars have accepted: the independence they will get is known as “supervised independence”. It will remain “supervised” until Kosovo is a mature, western-style democracy that has met all the criteria for EU membership, political as well as economic. That will take years. For the foreseeable future Kosovo will remain a most intriguing experiment: it is, in effect, going to become a little colony of the EU.

What can go wrong? There will be popular fury in Serbia. The Serbian government will be under huge pressure to act in the defence of this latest assault. It is, after all, only 15 years since Serbian public opinion walked hand-in-hand with an aspiration to redraw the borders of Serbia to incorporate two-thirds of Bosnia and one third of Croatia. I remember the unfurling of maps by bearded men in World War Two Chetnik uniforms. All the lands west of the Drina as far as Zadar on the gleaming Adriatic were to be known as “Western Serbia”.

The western gamble is this: that there will be no war because the political environment is radically different to what it was in the 1990s. For a start there is no Milosevic. There are paramilitaries on both sides who are capable of provocative atrocities, but they are no longer state-sponsored. The Albanians know they must be on their best behaviour not just for the four month transition period but for years to come. And Serbia? Serbia too wants to get on with the business of becoming a normal European country. What Serbian government will want to set that whole process back by yet another generation in order to fight an ultimately unwinnable war for a province almost wholly populated by hostile Albanians?

But it is a gamble. It is a gamble that Serbia will act rationally. Here the analogy with Ireland is invoked again, rather hopefully: Ireland, after all, joined the European Community at a time when its constitution still refused to recognise the legitimacy of the 1922 partition; technically it refused to accept the legality of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland while getting on with the pragmatic business of forging a modern, mutually beneficial relationship with the old enemy. Can’t Kosovo and Serbia, ultimately, do something similar?