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The Language Game of Kosovo Diplomacy

December 21, 2007

By Nikolas Rajkovic*

Three key words have animated the policy-speak on Kosovo to date: “negotiation’, “compromise’ and “solution.’ These terms seem uncontroversial in their literal sense and have been accepted by the parties and the “Troika’ powers (the US, EU and Russia) without dispute. As such, the verbal landscape has been marked by the strategic use of this vocabulary. Yet the professed failure of Kosovo “status talks’ now suggests a profound disconnect between stated and actual meaning. The objective here is to critically examine how these terms have been used in diplomatic practice, with a view to revealing the contradictions between rhetoric and action which have fed this latest Balkan crisis.

Recent “Troika’ talks were grounded on a commitment to negotiation. Washington, Brussels and Moscow agreed that a lasting and sustainable solution was best attained through negotiated consent. However with the proclaimed failure of negotiations, that commitment is wavering in Washington and some European capitals due to the alleged inability of Belgrade and Pristina to make mutual concessions. However, does this depiction place blame on the wrong doorstep?An affirmative answer points to how Washington scuttled negotiations by announcing its intention to recognize Kosovo “independence’ in the event that “Troika’ talks failed. This created the bad faith incentive for Pristina to thwart negotiations and run out the clock until December 10. The “Troika’ negotiations existed in name only.

This point regarding spoiled negotiations brings us to the next term, compromise, and its similar misuse. The most commonly stated storyline is that Belgrade and Pristina failed to compromise. However, does this account match actual negotiating behaviour as seen? When one examines the conduct of “Troika’ negotiations between June and today, a noticeable pattern emerges: Belgrade offered genuine models of far-reaching autonomy (e.g. Hong Kong, the Aland Islands), while Pristina merely reiterated “independence.’ Indeed, Pristina did present a post-independence “treaty of friendship,’ but was that a bona fide compromise? In fact, at a recent summit in Brussels, outgoing Kosovo first minister Agim Ceku made no secret of his unwillingness to compromise when he hailed Kosovo independence as the “most predictable, unsurprising and unremarkable development in south-eastern Europe for generations.”

Thus we come to the final term — solution — and the current efforts to conflate its meaning with independence. The narrative is as follows: failed negotiations and inadequate compromise make independence the only viable solution for European policy-makers. The first problem with this claim is procedural; it runs afoul of the clean hands rule, which states that the Kosovo Albanians should not be allowed to profit from their own misdemeanour of failing to negotiate and compromise in good faith. A unilateral, one-sided statement of independence is perilous in that it provokes foreseeable and dire consequences. Here independence advocates should be taken to task for their ostrich-like disclaimers that they don’t know what will happen after independence is declared.

First, the historical record is unequivocal: defiant secession in most of the ex-Yugoslav republics has produced a series of bloody inter-ethnic wars. Second, one-sided independence is likely to prompt Kosovo’s Serbian-controlled north to “secede’ and rejoin Serbia proper, prompting attacks from the unofficial Albanian National Army and ensuing reactions from Kosovo Serbs. Third, Kosovo secession hands the ultimate Christmas gift to the populist Serbian Radical Party and secessionist forces within neighbouring Bosnia and Macedonia. Finally, the unilateral dismemberment of Serbia would fundamentally change the rules of sovereignty which have maintained precarious stability in the Western Balkans over the past 12 years. Plainly stated, Kosovo independence would herald that “all bets are off’ in the Balkans and elsewhere.

In closing, diplomacy on Kosovo has produced feats of rhetoric unmatched in actual practice. The present crisis on Europe’s doorstep is attributable not to failed negotiations but rather disingenuous diplomacy that has failed to make the ethnic parties ultimately responsible for their future. Such a result can only happen when the “Troika’ powers unanimously and resolutely declare that a true “solution’ only rests in genuine negotiation and real compromise; and anything less is poor fiction. The political end-game which must be sought has no home in the zero-sum theatrics of independence, but rather must be found in the politics of good and responsible government, bearing the flag of prudence and caution.

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*Nikolas Rajkovic is a political sciences researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy.

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