Simon Tisdall: The current decade is drawing to a ragged, tensely confrontational close across the western Balkans

Having started well, the current decade is drawing to a ragged, confrontational close across the western Balkans

In case anybody thought Kosovo was done and dusted, a furious row at the UN this week provided a rude reminder that behind every seemingly benign Balkan exterior lurk dark, tightly held grievances that can and do burst forth at the first provocation. Having started well, the current decade is drawing to a ragged, tensely confrontational close across the western Balkans. That's a big problem for the region and a bigger one for Europe.

The row erupted during a security council debate on Kosovo's progress since its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia just over one year ago. Skender Hyseni, Kosovo's foreign minister, accused Belgrade of interfering in northern areas where many ethnic Serbs live. "Lawlessness, with evident support of the leadership in Belgrade, has turned this part of Kosovo into a safe haven for all kinds of criminal and illegal economic activity," he said.

Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, hit back. "Serbia, together with a number of EU member states, faces tremendous problems arising out of the activities of the ethnic Albanian mafia in Kosovo, which specialises in the trafficking of narcotics, human beings and weapons," he said. Serbia, he went on, would "never" recognise Kosovo's independence. "It is obvious to everyone today that 13 months after the illegal UDI, Kosovo is no state."

From the UN perspective that last statement is legally accurate; Russian opposition has prevented UN recognition of Kosovo's statehood. Under the terms of security council resolution 1244 of 1999, the territory remains under international administration. Europe also is divided. Five of the EU's 27 members do not recognise Kosovo, regarding its unsanctioned secession as a dangerous precedent. Worldwide, only 56 states have opened ties.

Undeterred, Kosovo's leaders are increasingly kicking out against their "protectorate" status, though not against the EU aid and security assistance that helps keep them in business. "The Kosovo authorities... have repeatedly stated during the past months that resolution 1244 is no longer relevant and the institutions of Kosovo have no legal obligation to abide by it," the UN's progress report said.

This attempt to assert sovereign rights suggests Pristina could at some point reject the UN's authority altogether. Another complication is Serbia's move, backed by the UN general assembly, to appeal Kosovo's UDI to the international court of justice. As Birmingham University professor Judy Batt noted in a policy brief for Fride, a Madrid-based thinktank, Belgrade's aim "was clearly to inhibit further international recognitions of Kosovo".

The impasse carries a considerable downside for Serbia, too. While its EU membership hopes are currently held hostage to the long-awaited arrest of indicted Bosnian war criminal Ratko Mladic, Kosovo represents another formidable barrier. "It is inconceivable that the EU will agree to Serbia's accession without a workable and durable settlement, agreeable to all sides including Kosovo," said Batt. As US envoy Richard Holbrooke once told Belgrade: "The choice facing you is: Europe or Kosovo? And if you choose Kosovo, you loose both."

Issues highlighted by Kosovo are replicated across the western Balkans, undermining regional progress. Croatia's EU bid has been delayed by a bitter territorial dispute with Slovenia; its accession to Nato, expected at next month's summit, may be another casualty. Macedonia's hopes of joining the Brussels club have been nixed in part by Greek hostility. And Montenegro, which applied in December, has not even had its application processed. In its case, the main reason appears to be growing reluctance among recession-hit western European states to admit more relatively poor members.

Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, argued recently that the pulling power of prospective EU membership remained "an anchor of stability in south-eastern Europe". But regional analysts warn this may not be the case much longer as Balkan politicians and voters increasingly despair of admission – and an anti-EU backlash ensues, as has happened in Turkey.

In terms of the dash to disintegration, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) remains the Balkan frontrunner. Not unlike Kosovo, leaders of the semi-autonomous Serb Republic want an end to international protectorate status conferred under the Dayton peace agreement that concluded the 1992-5 Bosnian war. There is talk of a break with the Muslim-Croat Federation (the other part of BiH) and a referendum on secession. As elsewhere, economic woes are stoking political tensions.

Fears that Bosnia and Herzegovina could implode, sparking renewed region-wide turmoil, is one reason why a new peace envoy (or "high representative"), the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, will be charged on Thursday with extending the period of international control. But this is only a temporary measure. As in Kosovo, responsibility for BiH is due to shift to the EU, possibly by the end of the year. Brussels might be forgiven for viewing this additional Balkan burden with trepidation.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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