Interview with Balkans Expert Cornelius Adebahr: ‘Serbian Isolation Won’t Bring Back Kosovo’

Serbia’s coalition government has collapsed over differences on whether to link EU membership and Kosovo’s declaration of independence. SPIEGEL ONLINE speaks to Balkans expert Cornelius Adebahr about forthcoming elections and Brussels’ hopes for a more conciliatory government in Belgrade.

The Serbian coalition government collapsed this week over differences on whether to link prospective European Union membership and the declaration of independence by Kosovo.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica pulled the plug on a shaky coalition of pro-Western and nationalist parties after the Democratic Party, led by President Boris Tadic, refused to back a resolution that would have blocked Serbia’s membership in the EU as long as many of its member states backed Kosovo. The EU is planning a mission to the breakaway state to monitor its transition to independence. On Tuesday, Serbia and Russia demanded that the United Nations administration halt the transfer of authority to the EU mission, calling it illegal.

Although both the pro-European and nationalist parties in Serbia oppose Kosovo’s independence, there are sharp differences about how much the issue should be allowed to interfere with Serbia’s path towards the EU. The elections on May 11 will provide Serbian voters with a stark choice between closer EU ties or increased isolation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Cornelius Adebahr, a Balkans expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) about the current Serbian political crisis and how it will affect the wider Balkan region and EU plans for enlargement.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think the collapse of the Serbian coalition was inevitable in light of the differences over linking EU membership and Kosovo?

Cornelius Adebahr: It wasn’t so clear that Prime Minister Kostunica would take the course so decisively in favor of Kosovo and virtually against the European Union. But the way things developed after Feb. 17, it was clear that there was no other issue in Serbia other than that of Kosovo, and this was an issue that the government couldn’t agree on, that the two parties couldn’t agree on. … Now it must be decided upon democratically, and voters are going to be asked which direction they want to take.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The EU is hoping for a repeat of the presidential elections, which saw the pro-European President Boris Tadic win out over a nationalist rival. But what impact will the subsequent declaration of independence by Kosovo have?

Adebahr: Now independence is there and most of the EU states have recognized Kosovo, which brings clarity — also to the Serbs. … Now voters will really have to take a stance. The problem that we are going to have now is that the presidential election was narrowly won by the pro-European people, but it was one-on-one — in the second round you only had two candidates. Now there are more than just two parties. The really pronounced pro-European parties are not in the majority. The narrow victory of Tadic in the presidential election shouldn’t make us complacent in the parliamentary elections.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it will be possible to form a working coalition after the elections?

Adebahr: The strongest party has always been (nationalist party) the Radicals in the past elections. And the two second and third parties formed a coalition because they were the only ones who could govern this country, and bring it on the path to the European Union. If Kostunica really goes in the other direction, he might not be a coalition partner for Tadic after the election. It’s a bit too early to say what coalition will be possible afterwards — it depends on the result. Maybe it will give a boost to Tadic’s Democrats, so that he will come out strongest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The foreign minister of Slovenia, which is currently president of the EU, said on Monday that Serbia had no other choice than the EU. Do you think this kind of rhetoric might actually backfire, that Serbs might resent being put under pressure to vote for pro-European parties?

Adebahr: They might. But it might also help those who are undecided. The problem that we have now is that the EU has tried to keep these two issues separate: the independence of Kosovo and membership in the EU. But they themselves were the ones offering the second-class stabilization and association agreement in order to help Serbia get over Kosovo’s independence. So the link is obviously there.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does it help that a fellow Balkan state is current holder of the EU presidency?

Adebahr: I have been positive about the Slovenian presidency so far with regard to Kosovo and Serbia. It may actually help that this is a former Yugoslav republic. For better or for worse, they can talk to each other. Not that the Slovenes and Serbs always got on well in the former Yugoslavia, but there is a common link and this may actually be for the good of Serbia and the EU.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Tadic said on Saturday that if Serbia joined the EU it could make sure that Kosovo never became a member. Yet it would be very difficult for Serbia to join the EU while insisting that Kosovo is still part of Serbia. How do you think that is going to play out?

Adebahr: I think it’s a very bold statement. It would mean that Serbia enters the EU before Kosovo in the first place, otherwise they couldn’t block membership. It’s his way of trying to link both EU membership and Kosovo in a positive way. He is saying such a thing to play his card that, yes, you can be pro-European and at the same time not give up Kosovo and there may be ways EU membership helps us in even getting back Kosovo. That is an argument he can make, but it’s not a policy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In a way the pro-Western forces are arguing that it’s better not to push Serbia further into isolation, if it wants to have any impact on the question of Kosovo.

Adebahr: Certainly. What does isolation achieve? Isolation won’t bring Kosovo back, to say nothing of its effects on the economic or social situation. The only way they could really get it back when they are in isolation is by military means, and this is ruled out. It is not even an option, technically or politically. In the four weeks since the declaration, the diplomatic pressure they have tried to build up hasn’t resulted in anything. Those who have recognized Kosovo will not go back on that. Instead the Serbian government has crumbled. So they must be disappointed and angry now, but isolation is not an option and they know this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: On Tuesday the Serbian foreign minister asked the UN to halt the transfer of authority in Kosovo to the EU. Can Serbia make things difficult for the European mission in Kosovo?

Adebahr: They can make things difficult, no doubt. First of all at the UN, with Russia backing them up, but also on the ground in Kosovo. Everything that goes on in northern Kosovo, north of Mitrovica, is still ruled by Belgrade. And the EU claims that its mission will have authority throughout the whole of Kosovo, so probably there will be a showdown. It will come to the point where either the EU has to assert its authority and Serbia has to withdraw, or the EU says: Not now, let’s give it a bit more time. If Serbia wants to play the bad guy in Kosovo, it can do so by simply not letting go of northern Kosovo.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think if pro-Western forces were to win the election convincingly that this problem might be eased in some way? Might Serbia then back down on northern Kosovo?

Adebahr: Yes, certainly they would cooperate. That’s the hope and maybe the gamble of the European Union: that if only the Belgrade government were more conciliatory, or more pro-European, then things would also become easier for the mission in Kosovo. And it certainly would. Then you could start establishing bilateral relations between Serbia and Kosovo at some point. Because looking at the wider picture, the whole Western Balkan stabilization, integration and membership process is about regional cooperation. All the countries there should cooperate with one another.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what do you think the implications of the current crisis are for the EU in general, in terms of its policy of enlargement?

Adebahr: (Enlargement) Commissioner Olli Rehn has said 2008 is the year for all the enlargement countries. At the end of this year we will see whether the countries in general and the two here in particular have made progress. The question of Serbia poses a problem in that one can see that the attraction of the EU — the magnet — has become weaker at least on the Serbian population. So far the EU could be sure that all the countries who were offered membership would eagerly go for it. So maybe this will also start a bit of rethink on the EU side: What is its real attraction and how can it impose its attraction upon a reluctant population?

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International:
http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,541008,00.html

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