The International Crisis Group's James Lyon
December 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- No breakthroughs regarding Kosovo's future status have been made as the "troika" of international mediators prepare to report to the UN secretary-general. Representatives of the United States, Russia, and the European Union on December 10 will issue their reports on the latest round of negotiations regarding the breakaway Serbian province. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asks Belgrade-based James Lyon, the special Balkans adviser to the International Crisis Group, for his predictions on what the coming days and weeks might bring.
RFE/RL: Kosovar leaders have said they are prepared to declare unilateral independence, while Belgrade has said it will use all diplomatic and legal means to annul such a declaration. Considering the two positions, how severe is the threat of violence breaking out?
James Lyon: Well, right now we'd have to say that the big threat would not be from what we would consider to be formal military movements - that is, the army of Serbia moving in to Kosovo. Rather, what everyone is concerned about is the possibility for low-level insurgency or for attempts by Albanians to ethnically cleanse Serbs. Perhaps people are concerned about the spillover effect into northern Macedonia, among the Albanian sections there; the potential for spillover into southern Serbia's Presevo Valley region, which is Albanian majority; and then the question of whether or not there might be some spillover into Bosnia. In all of these cases we're not talking classic, mass military movements but rather -- perhaps low level -- insurgencies, paramilitary organizations, the remnants of former guerrilla organizations, etc., etc.
RFE/RL: What's likely to happen if and when Kosovo declares independence? How do you see the days immediately following such an announcement playing out?
Lyon: Well I think Belgrade will probably respond by announcing measures against the Albanian parts of Kosovo. I suspect that Belgrade will declare that the Albanian parts of Kosovo have violated the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and that they have seceded from the sovereign country of Serbia. And this will then bring into much sharper focus the partition that has already occurred in Kosovo, where the northern parts of the country will maintain their adherence to 1244 and to Serbian sovereignty, whereas the Albanian majority parts of the country will claim to be an independent country. At that point we should expect to see Belgrade consider a series of measures. Will they find a way to cut off telephone services? Will they find a way to perhaps reduce or cut off electricity that might be going through there (Kosovo)? Would they be tempted perhaps to shut down the borders? The answers to some of these [questions] are not yet known, others we are getting some ideas, but it's still unclear. And then how would Belgrade respond to the countries that go on to recognize an independent Kosovo? Will it withdraw its ambassadors? Will it close its embassies and cut off diplomatic relations? Will it ask its citizens to boycott the goods that those countries-- have trade embargoes with those countries? We aren't yet certain how far they're prepared to go on these, but we should expect Belgrade to react quite angrily and the international community should not underestimate Belgrade's willingness to respond.
RFE/RL: The United States has said it will recognize an independent Kosovo. Do you still expect that to happen and, if so, how long will it wait to make that move?
Lyon: We expect to see the U.S. recognize Kosovo independence in a rather rapid fashion, along with Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. After that, the remainder of the EU countries will slowly follow suit with the exception, probably, of Cyprus, Greece, and Romania. Maybe Bulgaria.
RFE/RL: So, you don't see the EU acting as a unified body to recognize an independent Kosovo, just its member states individually?
Lyon: The EU as a body will not be able to recognize Kosovo independence because it will not have unanimity among its members. It operates on a consensus basis. However, the vast majority of EU members will recognize Kosovo bilaterally.
RFE/RL: Do you see any way Russia could be persuaded to support Kosovo's independence, considering they have remained staunchly opposed to such a scenario throughout the negotiations?
Lyon: There are a lot of questions that have been asked about what can Russia be given to persuade Russia to support the international community on Kosovo? The answer to this is: no one knows what Russia wants. If we have a better idea what Russia wants, then we might be able to offer it something. The question is whether the West has anything at all that it can offer Russia. It may not have. There may be nothing Russia wants. Russia may feel that this is a position it wants to hold the line on because if the West moves ahead, outside of the Security Council, then Russia feels it might be able to then take similar actions in its own backyard. The crux of the matter is, Russia is essentially in a win-win position -- it has nothing to lose over this issue.
RFE/RL: Given the difficulty Kosovo has had with imposing rule of law and keeping its democratic institutions functioning, how viable is an independent Kosovo?
Lyon: Well, Kosovo obviously has a long, long way to go. Its institutions, I think, could be characterized right now as barely functional. And even in that functionality there's a great deal of dysfunctionality. We don't see any real signs that there is yet a rule of law in place, or that there will be one for the foreseeable future. And we don't see any signs that Kosovo's institutions are going to be at a level that would be acceptable to permit them to move toward the EU within the near future. Keep in mind that Kosovo culture and society among both Serbs and Albanians has always been quite primitive and that it's a part of the world where there's never been highly developed institutions. And so there's very little experience with creating institutions. Family ties and loyalties are usually far more important than institutional or national loyalties. And this is going to play a considerable [role] over time and it's going to take Kosovo a long time to modernize and to move forward.
RFE/RL: You're based in Belgrade. What is the mood there in these days leading up to the December 10 report?
Lyon: I think there's a sense of nervousness. I think most Serbs are fed up with the Kosovo question -- they want it to just go away, they've been hearing nothing but Kosovo since 1987. And Kosovo is dominating the political debate and dialogue. There is no reform going on, there is no significant political movement on any major issue. Kosovo monopolizes everything and drains all the political energies. And so in that regard, I think a lot of Serbs would just be glad that it will be a resolved issue, one way or the other. But on the other hand, that doesn't mean Kosovo is going to disappear from the public debate. I think Belgrade will go through a very traumatic and cathartic experience over this and it will probably flail around wildly and try to find blame, and place blame, and it's very possible that Belgrade may decide to go into a self-imposed period of isolation for a while afterward, until it comes to grips with what happened. In other words, the impact on Belgrade may be far more serious in terms of Belgrade's short-term political prospects than it will on Kosovo. Kosovo seems to have a clear idea where it wants to go and how it's going to get there. Belgrade really doesn't, at this stage.