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Decision time soon for Kosovo?

By Dick Leonard. Source: European Voice

Serb voters could speed or delay Ahtisaari plan

Next Sunday – 21 January – some six million Serb voters will go to the polls in the first election since the new constitution (which proclaims that Kosovo is an inalienable part of Serbia) was approved in a referendum by 53 per of Serbs last October.

For 99 per cent of non-Serbs, however, independence for Kosovo seems inevitable, the only uncertainties being when, and how. Timing could well be affected by the result of Sunday's poll – it has already caused a delay in the presentation of the report by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari on the final status of the territory.

He had been asked to report by the end of 2006, but in November he indicated that there was no possibility of a consensus being reached in the extensive consultations he had had, and that he would instead be making recommendations for an imposed settlement.

Immediately after the election, he will go to both Belgrade and Pristina to reveal the contents of his report before handing it to the UN 'Contact Group', with a view to its coming up for decision by the Security Council in March.

It does not take a genius to predict what the UN Special Envoy will propose. It will be that sovereignty should progressively be transferred to the elected government in Pristina, with strict safeguards for the Serb minority, and extensive decentralisation to elected local authorities, particularly in Serb majority areas.

There would be no partition, and no change in Kosovo's historic borders. NATO would continue to be responsible for security, and the EU would have a greatly enhanced role, assuming many of the responsibilities currently held by UNMIK, providing greater economic and technical aid, and opening the door to eventual EU membership. Kosovo would also be admitted, in due course as a member of the UN.

All this will be deeply unwelcome to whatever government emerges from next Sunday's election. The major question is whether it will fight the decision tooth and nail, progressively isolating itself further and further from international opinion and fostering the Serbs' victim mentality, which Milosevic did so successfully and so disastrously during his years in power.

Or it could be one which reluctantly accepts the inevitable, and which works to bring back Serbia into the democratic and European mainstream, enabling it to have good relations with all its neighbours, including an independent Kosovo.

Serbian voters have a wide choice, with 20 party lists registering themselves with the Election Commission by the deadline of 5 January. In fact, there are three major players, and another three or four contenders for junior partner status in possible coalition governments.

According to the opinion polls, the front-runner is the Serbian Radical party (SRS), led by Dr Vojislav Seselj, currently awaiting trial as an indicted war criminal in the Hague. An ultra-nationalist party, it is credited with plus or minus 30 per cent of the votes.

A considerable way behind is the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, also nationalistic, but more moderate and more democratic. It has been overtaken in the polls by the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic. The DS electoral list is headed by Ruzica Djindjic, the widow of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated on 12 March 2003.

If these two parties together out-poll the nationalists, the hope is that they would come together and form a moderate coalition government, possibly with Djindjic replacing Kostunica as premier if her party is larger. They would probably need the support of two smaller parties, the Serbian Renewal Movement of Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic and the Liberal Democrats of Cedomir Jovanovic, to be able to govern securely.

As for Seselj, he spurns co-operation with either the DS or the DSS, and is pinning his hopes on the Socialist Party of Serbia, of former President Milosevic, and other minority groups, being able to win enough seats to give him an overall majority.

A Seselj victory could well delay the acceptance of the Ahtisaari plan, with Russia being strongly pressed by the Serbian government to veto it in the Security Council. With a moderate government in power, however, the chances of it being accepted and implemented fairly quickly would be much greater.

12 January 2007

Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union