Posts Tagged 'Prelec'

Pandora in Kosovo

Photo by Matt Lutton

By Harry van Versendaal

A ruling by the United Nation’s highest court last week on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 prompted frustration in Belgrade and triumphalism in Pristina but legal experts remain uncertain about the exact meaning and the implications of the decision for the divided region and beyond.

The much-anticipated decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the judges, had a Delphic quality: While saying that the declaration of independence was not in violation of international law, it stopped short of stating that Kosovo is a legal state.

“The ruling in fact has very little real meaning. In fact, we are not clearer on whether Kosovo’s secession is legal than we were before. The court simply said that the declaration of independence as a statement did not infringe any international laws. Anyone can declare independence, in other words. What matters is the act of recognition – an issue that the court steered well away from,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Athens Plus.

Lack of clarity did not stop Pristina from hailing the decision, which is non-binding, as a victory. Serbs, their fortune and confidence tarnished by a series of lost wars in the 1990s, reacted angrily at the prospect of giving up this chunk of land traditionally seen as the nation’s historic heartland. Lawmakers this week passed a resolution that their country will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while the government launched a diplomatic marathon to halt further recognitions by foreign states. Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since a NATO air raid in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, has so far been recognized by 69 states, including the US and most EU governments – but not Greece. It has a population of 2 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians.

Pandora’s box

Analysts had warned that a pro-independence ruling would have a Pandora’s box effect, emboldening separatist movements in areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland and northern Cyprus. In a nod to such concerns, shared by states like China, Russia, Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, the court deftly fought shy of a political decision.

“The ruling has very little effect on separatist movements – and that is where the judges have been particularly shrewd. Again, anyone can declare independence. It is whether it is recognized that matters,” Ker-Lindsay said.

For Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, the ICJ did not rule on whether the declaration of independence had any legal implications, which is essentially what other secessionist movements would need to make Kosovo’s case a precedent. But legal technicalities, he warns, will not be enough to stop the trend. “There is little doubt in my mind that secessionists elsewhere will interpret the court opinion in their favor,” Wolff said.

Might is right

Does Cyprus have reasons to worry? Ker-Lindsay says that the ICJ ruling will have no immediate effect on Cyprus, as the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriots was in fact explicitly declared to be illegal by the UN Security Council. “Had it happened today, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But it didn’t and we aren’t,” he said.

Despite successive UN resolutions, Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern third of the island since 1974. During a visit to Nicosia last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was at pains to reassure Cyprus.

“This was very specific expertise, it has nothing to do with any other cases in the world… It’s a unique decision, in a unique situation with a unique historical background,” he said.

LSE historian Svetozar Rajak is more skeptical, suggesting that a lot depends on your friends. “As the case of Kosovo has shown, if there is enough backing from the international community, any situation, in existence today or in the future, including Cyprus, may end up before the ICJ,” he said.

What next for Serbia?

Analysts agree that instead of wasting time and energy on what seems to be a lost cause, Belgrade should engage in practical cooperation that will allow it to one day join the EU.

But a pragmatic shift won’t come naturally. Reacting to the ruling of the ICJ earlier this week, Belgrade said that it will not change its policy of treating Kosovo as its territory, while it vowed to continue its fight to reopen status negotiations at the UN’s General Assembly.

Fortunately, this time war is not in the cards. Rebuffing nationalist calls for a military response, Serb President Boris Tadic this week said Belgrade will seek a compromise. “We are in a very difficult situation… but we won’t beat the war drums,” he said. “We cannot protect our interests in Kosovo without integration into the European Union and good relations with the United States, Russia and China.”

That does not mean that Belgrade will not be tempted to block Kosovo’s membership of regional organizations and even block the free movement of people and goods. But it’s hard to see how it will stick with a policy that undermines its EU hopes for too long.

“Given the catastrophic economic situation Serbia is in and obvious inability of the government in Belgrade to offer solutions, it may be tempted to accept any and every carrot from the EU, in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo independence,” Rajak said, adding that there seems to be little effective opposition from the existing political factors at home.

Some observers, including Rajak, are rather concerned about Pristina’s unilateral action in northern Kosovo. “I am afraid that the ICJ decision may encourage some in Pristina to contemplate forceful reintegration of the territories north of the Ibar River,” he said of the ethnic-Serb-dominated region that has effectively been under Belgrade’s control.

A considerable number of Serbs live on territory controlled by Pristina, in the south, in enclaves like Strpce near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina. Analysts agree that the court ruling has not reduced the need to discuss the future of these populations — it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. “After the ICJ opinion, Serbia is no longer in a position to dictate terms and should approach Kosovo as an equal partner,” Marko Prelec, an expert of the International Crisis Group, told Athens Plus.

It may sound unbearably cliche when it comes to the Balkans but experts urge both sides to set their differences aside and look ahead.

“In the end, both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU and neither can really have an interest in mutual hostility,” Wolff said. “It is important that leaders on both sides calm down now, make a realistic assessment of the situation and figure out a way forward.”

Clean sound from Croatia

By Harry van Versendaal

Having just won Croatia’s presidential election on Sunday, Ivo Josipovic went on to compare his performance to “a victorious symphony.” The triumph of the 52-year-old classical music composer and legal expert was music to the ears of Croatia’s European friends as well.

Spain, the country currently at the helm of the European Union’s rotating presidency, hailed the nomination of a “pro-European personality” and returned the gesture by pledging to do everything it can “to advance the negotiations” with the Balkan nation. EU heavyweight France followed suit on Tuesday.

Only the third president since Zagreb’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Josipovic claims to be up for and up to the task. “I want a European Croatia, a Croatia that will be one of the shining stars in the European sky,” the soft-spoken, bespectacled politician says. “[This will be] not only through EU membership but by values that we stand for – democracy, freedom, human rights, rule of law, minority rights, religious freedom.” He will have to do some serious polishing work.

It was a surprisingly comfortable victory for Josipovic, who garnered a convincing 60.3 percent of the vote against Milan Bandic’s 39.7 percent. Bandic, 54, a three-time mayor of Zagreb, left the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to run as an independent, a decision he should have regretted by now.

“The election shows that it is still very hard to win office without the support of an organized party,” says Marko Prelec, a Balkans expert from the International Crisis Group. “Bandic ran against his own party’s candidate, Josipovic, and didn’t have his own organizational base.”

It wasn’t Bandic’s only mistake. His conservative populism (an ex communist and ex SDP member, Bandic went as far as to invoke the communist boogeyman against his rival), his coziness with the religious far-right (his only idols, he once proclaimed, are god and his mother) and sleazy reputation (a BBC report dubbed him the “Al Capone” of Croatian politics) all worked in favor of the unassuming Josipovic.

“Josipovic managed to present himself as Mr Clean, gentleman-composer, dull but representative, good for all,” says Ivo Banac, a prominent Croatian historian and commentator. While Bandic looked to god – and his mother – the cool Josipovic played the transparency and Europe cards.

It just proved to be the move a new generation of more mature, moderate voters, waited for. “Josipovic plainly ran as the EU candidate and his victory is a strong sign that the electorate is psychologically moving out of the Balkans and into Europe,” Prelec says.

Many analysts say he is the right man for the job. “Josipovic, a distinguished legal scholar with impeccable international credentials – he favored cooperation with the ICTY [the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] early on, when it was deeply unpopular – should be able to steer Croatia through the final twists and turns of its road to the EU,” says Prelec.

Skeptics, however, point out that the squeaky-clean image is not enough to guarantee success. For Banac, “much depends on his proclivities.” Banac, a professor at Yale University, says Josipovic is in fact deeply connected –personally and through family – with Croatia’s communist past. In the first official press conference, the president-elect said that “anti-fascism” is one of the pillars on which Croatia stands (the other being the Homeland War, an official reference to Croatia’s war of independence in the early 1990s). “Josipovic is perceived as moderate but one is permitted to be skeptical,” Banac insists.

Croatia aims to become the EU’s 28th member by January 2012. But a number of issues remain. Unlike with other countries in the region, Europeans are generally warm to the idea of taking Croatia on board. But they have stressed Zagreb must do more in reforming its judiciary, cooperating with The Hague tribunal and fighting graft. In one of the most notorious corruption cases, a senior government official was found siphoning tourism funds spent on a bogus jam factory into the pockets of family friends.

Croatia, also suffering from the effects of the global economic downturn, has finally started to deliver. Jadranka Kosor, the conservative prime minister who took over after Ivo Sanader quit unexpectedly last year, is viewed as being outside the mob structure. A prospective Josipovic ally, Kosor has stepped up the fight against graft, backing a series of corruption probes into public companies that has seen dozens of officials being sacked or arrested.

And, of course, there is Slovenia. The first former Yugoslav nation to join the bloc, Slovenia has been blocking talks with Croatia over a dispute concerning a small bay in the Adriatic. Last year saw some progress as the two countries agreed to put the issue to international arbitration. The two premiers said this week they are ready to clear the way for Zagreb’s EU talks next month.

Josipovic has said that he intends to use what spare time he has to write an opera on John Lennon. He may find the inspiration; but he will hardly find any time for it.

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