By Yevgeny Primakov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences
A few days ago, I returned from Belgrade, where I had attended the jubilee, 150th session of Serbia's Chamber of Commerce, a partner organization of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. My visit to the Serbian capital gave me an opportunity to meet with both President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Russian Ambassador Alexander Alekseyev, well informed about the situation in and around Serbia, also offered some interesting insights.
My general impression is that Kosovo is the central issue for Serbian society today. I don't think everyone, primarily in Washington, understands just how deeply ingrained this problem is in the minds of Serbs. Aware of this mood (no one in the Serbian leadership can possibly ignore it), both Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Tadic categorically reject independence for Kosovo.
Some Western politicians may have hoped Mr. Tadic would put European Union membership above Serbia's territorial integrity. That did not happen.
Today, the two Serb leaders oppose the plan proposed by Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations secretary general's special envoy for Kosovo. As the Serbian president told me, this plan is not based on compromise: It provides for the separation of Kosovo, turning 15 percent of Serbia's territory into an independent state. I understand there are three main points in the position of the Serbian leadership:
(1) A fundamental solution to the Kosovo problem should be based on preserving the province's de jure status as part of Serbia with maximum independence (autonomy).
(2) This position does not mean Serbia is turning its back on the West. According to Mr. Kostunica, the country's course toward integration into the EU is still on. However, this should not impede relations with Russia. According to Mr. Tadic, Serbia has three foreign policy priorities: rapprochement with the European Union, the United States, and Russia.
(3) The Serbian leadership (and I would like to stress this) is striving to continue negotiations with the Kosovo Albanians, harmonize positions and achieve a compromise acceptable to both sides. The submission of the Ahtisaari plan in its present form to the U.N. Security Council is viewed as completely unacceptable.
The impression I got from my meetings in Belgrade is that not all negotiating avenues have been exhausted. I have often heard the question: Why act in such haste in dealing with this complex, longstanding problem? Unsurprisingly, many see "PR moves by the U.S. administration" behind this haste.
After leaving office, President Bush will go down in history not just with an "Iraq stigma" but also with victory in the Balkans, meaning the air strikes on Belgrade eight years ago were not in vain: As a result, Serbia has attained democracy, while all those who sought independence have acquired it; and now Kosovo, with its Albanian population, is also acquiring it, which only shows that the approaches and actions by the Bush administration were correct.
This PR campaign comes at a heavy price to the Serbs. Belgrade is especially worried by a possible outbreak of violence against Kosovo's Serbian minority.
As President Tadic said, "We cannot and will not fight against NATO, but this does not diminish our concern about the situation in Kosovo."
While I was in Belgrade, Richard Holbrooke made a statement, predicting that delay in resolving the Kosovo issue would lead to more bloodshed.
"This is not an analysis, but a scenario," a senior Serb government official said. "As soon as Washington issues a threat to the Kosovo Albanians, to the effect that in the event of anti-Serb violence they would lose Western support once and for all, everything will return to normal in Kosovo." But will Washington ever do that?
I do not agree on this with Mr. Holbrooke, whom I know very well. Furthermore, this scenario seems to be absolutely not in the U.S. interests.
Should, heaven forbid, the scenario be played out, many questions are bound to arise. One will be as follows: NATO forces and police have been deployed in Kosovo for the last eight years. Therefore, has this entire international operation, initiated by the United States, failed to establish stability in the province? Or, another question: If anti-Serb violence is possible even in the presence of international forces, what will be in store for the Serbian minority if Kosovo gains independence?
Finally, I would like to draw attention to yet another problem. Once Kosovo is granted independence, the Bosnian state, created with so much difficulty, could start coming apart at the seams. It cannot be ruled out that centrifugal trends will re-emerge and accelerate. Bosnian Serbs could gravitate toward Serbia, while a similar trend among Bosnian Croats with respect to Croatia could result in their secession from the Croatian-Muslim federation in Bosnia.
In this situation, Bosnian Muslims will perforce reach out to independent Kosovo, which will further radicalize politics. Under the Ahtisaari plan, Kosovo will not join other states, but others could join Kosovo. All of this requires thinking.
Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences