Athens stuck in a tough spot over Kosovo

In the spring of 1999, as NATO bombs were falling on Serbia, the West imposed a de facto secession of Kosovo. Now, it is trying to finish the job that it had originally set in motion in order to destabilize the Milosevic regime. A year ago, both the Americans and the Europeans believed that by June 2007 the region would have acquired internationally supervised self-rule according to a plan presented by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari. The Serbs rejected that out of hand, but the only real obstacle was a veto by Russia, although the West believed the Kremlin would eventually yield. That has not happened. The landscape changed when the Ahtisaari plan was officially presented to the UN Security Council last April 3. In the preliminary talks between the permanent members on March 19, it appeared that Russia would not be an easy interlocutor. The West agreed to a round of talks between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars mediated by the «troika» (the US, the EU, and Russia). As was to be expected, the talks broke down on December 10. With Washington behind them, the Albanian Kosovars dug their heels in, demanding «independence and nothing but.» On the other hand, Serbia stuck to the line «Something more than autonomy, something less than independence.» The Ahtisaari plan was not a compromise, but essentially a maneuver to legitimize the de facto secession, hence its acceptance by Pristina. The West is talking about building a multiethnic and multicultural, democratic society in Kosovo, but reality is negating that rhetoric on a daily basis. The region is gradually becoming an ethnic Albanian enclave. Russia’s decision to exercise its veto at the Security Council and stymie the Ahtisaari plan has left American policy in a political limbo. Kosovo’s future has become a political arm-wrestling match between Washington and Moscow, part of the wider conflict involved in shaping their new balance of power. In its attempt to get the Serbs to agree, American diplomats have since early this year been trying to persuade them that in return, their EU accession talks will be speeded up. Belgrade has not taken the bait, however. Serb Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has made it clear that his country will not sacrifice Kosovo in order to join the EU. In fact he attacks all those who link the two issues, reminding them that the accession process does not demand territorial concessions of any candidate country. That scenario was raised once again during the past few days when the European Council made the same offer; Serbia’s leaders once again rejected it as an insult. The stalemate became official on December 19 when the Security Council could not agree after listening to both the Serbian prime minister and the (ethnic Albanian) Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu. Belgrade and Moscow suggested extending the talks, but the West refused. The Americans have for some time been working on bypassing the Security Council and by extension, bypassing international legality. First they gave the Albanian Kosovars the green light to declare independence for the region; the declaration is to come before next May but after the presidential elections in Serbia on January 20 so as not to strengthen the anti-West mood. Secondly, they have announced that they will recognize the unilateral declaration and will encourage other countries to do so too, particularly Europeans, who are directly involved. Initially, several EU member states had reservations. They believed that recognizing a unilateral declaration by Kosovo would open a Pandora’s box, that it would have a destabilizing effect, sending a message to other minority groups to follow suit. This led to a statement last spring from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Kosovo is a special case and would not constitute a precedent. With Britain, Germany and France on its side, the US eventually won Europe over to its point of view. Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus fear that giving independence to Kosovo without the Security Council’s seal of approval will indeed act as a precedent and harm their own interests. Only Nicosia has shown it will stand firm to the end. Given its problem with the Turkish-Cypriot pseudo-state, it is refusing on principle to agree to such an arbitrary action that could backfire on Cyprus itself. At the recent EU summit earlier this month, there was no decision as to whether the EU would recognize a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. However, the intentions of the majority were quite clear. It is no coincidence that Rice’s statements of last spring have been adopted, i.e. that Kosovo is a special case and will not serve as a precedent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, has warned the West that this will trigger a chain reaction in the Balkans and elsewhere. The EU decided to send 1,800 police and judicial officials to Kosovo to ensure stability, obviously an indirect move to give the imminent declaration some legitimacy. Both Belgrade and Moscow have observed that such a mission is illegal without the approval of the Security Council, stressing that the issue of independence comes under UN, not EU jurisdiction. Skopje issue Athens finds itself in a difficult position. If it follows the West’s line, it jeopardizes its relations with Serbia and indirectly with Russia. But most importantly, it will be party to creating a precedent that could backfire on it not only in Cyprus but in Thrace. After all, Ankara is not only using Thrace’s Muslim minority as a lever for exerting pressure, but is making a systematic effort to use it to destabilize Greece’s sovereignty in the region. It would be a mistake for Greece to simply hide behind the EU, as it usually does when it finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It only makes sense for Athens to agree if enough is given in return. Since it is giving the Albanian Kosovars its support on what is such a crucial issue for them, why doesn’t Athens ask them to get their counterparts in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to make an official statement that they agree to the name «Upper Macedonia» for their country? When the Americans ask Greece to abide by a policy which is counter to Greece’s interests, why don’t they make it conditional on US support in Greece’s dispute with FYROM over its name? Instead of encouraging UN envoy Matthew Nimetz to come up with the dubious solution of a double name, what about the «clean» solution of a single name which denotes a geographical definition for use by everyone. Unfortunately, according to reliable reports, the only thing the Karamanlis government is seeking is tolerance on the part of the US for a Greek veto on FYROM joining NATO.