January 15, 2008
The fault lines generated by the conflict over Kosovo’s future continue to spread. Originating with the residents of the region, which is formally a Serbian province though populated predominantly by ethnic Albanians demanding autonomy, they extend to the Serbian and Albanian governments, which have periodically struggled over territory in the Balkans for almost a century. In the late 1990s, the Serbian government waged a brutal war against the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, which resulted in over 10,000 deaths and accusations from the international community that Serbian forces engaged in ethnic cleansing.
More recently, the conflict has created a diplomatic struggle that has widened far beyond the Balkan region. Last February, after more than a year of fruitless negotiations, UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari released a Western-backed plan for “supervised independence” in Kosovo. The Serbian government immediately rejected the plan outright. Russia, backing its close ally Serbia and wary of any precedent that would bolster its own separatist groups, refuses to support the Ahtisaari plan or any other that grants Kosovo independence without Serbia’s prior consent.
Given these enduring setbacks, the deadlock over Kosovo continues with no end in sight. Why has the issue proven so intractable, despite months of negotiations involving such powerful mediators? As in many of the world’s most difficult conflicts, the most important reason is the lack of potential for compromise among the populations involved. As such, Gallup World Poll data from the Balkans reveal just how deep the divisions run among the residents of the region.
Support for Compromise Proposals
Respondents in Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian communities were asked to choose from a list of possible outcomes, ranging from full independence within Kosovo’s present borders to the continuation of Kosovo’s status as a Serbian province. In between were three compromise proposals: 1) “conditional” independence, without an army or membership in international organizations for a specified adjustment period, 2) the partitioning of Kosovo between Serbia and a new independent state, and 3) the reorganization of Kosovo into two entities within Serbia, with broader autonomy for the Albanian population.
The results indicate a complete absence of support for compromise solutions among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians; virtually all said Kosovo should be an independent state within present borders. For their part, Kosovo’s Serbs were only somewhat more likely to consider compromise options: 77 percent said Kosovo should remain a Serbian province, while 13 percent said it should be partitioned.
Perhaps even more telling is the poll’s indication that there is little practical recognition of even prospective compromise among either group. In fact, as the following graph indicates, strong majorities in each population – 87 percent of Kosovar Albanians and 64 percent of Kosovar Serbs - fully expect their preferred outcome to triumph.
Attitudes toward UN, EU intervention
Given the lack of support for compromise proposals, the only guarantee at this point seems to be the inability of all groups to view a solution as fair. That leaves the international community with little choice but to continue with a custodial arrangement -- like the current UN supervision of Kosovo -- that forestalls open conflict and maintains enough stability to foster the region’s economic development and increase the pressure on all parties to work for peace.
But even that strategy seems increasingly unworkable. Poll results within the Balkans indicate that involvement by the UN and the European Union has itself become divisive. Ethnic Albanians—both inside and outside Kosovo—are far more likely than Serbians to view such intervention positively. Just over half of Albanians say they feel the current UN Mission in Kosovo, which has administered the territory since 1999 under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, is fair and impartial. Just 8 percent of Kosovo’s Serbs agree, and Serbs outside Kosovo are only somewhat more likely to do so, at 23 percent.
Under the Ahtisaari Plan, the European Union would play the foremost supervisory and peacekeeping role in helping Kosovo move forward. As with opinions of the UN, Albanians are far more likely than Serbs to view EU involvement positively; in fact, almost two-thirds of Kosovar Albanians (63 percent) say they think the EU plays a “very positive” role in the Balkan region, compared to just 3 percent of Kosovar Serbs. Among Serbs living in Serbia, however, perceptions of the EU are much more positive, probably a reflection in part of the Serbian government’s aspiration to become a EU member by 2015.
The tenuous positions of the UN and EU in the region would be further complicated if Kosovo’s government unilaterally declares independence, as the Prime Minister Agim Çeku has repeatedly threatened to do. Not only would such a move heighten existing tensions within the UN Security Council, but it may also create a split within the European Union itself. Already, German officials, wary of how the United States and Great Britain might respond to such a declaration, warned against taking any position that was not agreed to by Russia and the UN.
How do the region’s inhabitants view the prospect of Kosovo’s independence and its possible effect on the region? As would be expected, the majority of Serbs polled living in Kosovo, 75 percent, think an independent Kosovo would destabilize the Balkan region. Among Serbians outside Kosovo, the proportion is somewhat lower, at 59 percent. In sharp contrast, only 8 percent of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority share that view, while 76 percent disagree.
The least desirable outcome of the current situation is a return to war. But, as shown in the graph below, a significant proportion of Serbs – 15 percent of those living in Kosovo, 16 percent elsewhere in Serbia – feel there will be a return to war in Kosovo. Furthermore, a far greater number of Serbs are unwilling to say one way or another. In fact, just 44 percent of Kosovar Serbs disagree that there will be a return to war. Kosovar Albanians on the other hand, perhaps assured by the support of UN peacekeeping forces, are far more unified in the belief that war is unlikely.
Whether or not there is a return to open conflict in the region, these polls give an indication of just how unlikely it is that people of different origins in Kosovo can be persuaded to adopt a spirit of compromise. The lack of dialogue was again apparent when large numbers of the Serb minority boycotted the parliamentary elections on November 17th, 2007 in Kosovo. The deadline for settling Kosovo’s final status expired on December 10th, 2007 as EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss what the next steps should be. But, while satisfying the UN Security Council and other big players in international relations is important, the much more difficult task is to find a solution that brings the people of Kosovo closer together rather than dividing them further.
Results are based on face-to-face interviews conducted in February 2007 with nationally representative samples of residents aged 15 and older in each country. For results based on the sample of 1,509 Serbs, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. For results based on the sample of 714 Kosovar Albanians, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. For results based on the sample of 257 Kosovar Serbs, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±7 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Steve Crabtree has developed and produced publications for The Gallup Organization since joining the company in 1993. He contributed to writing Building Engaged Schools, Gallup's book on education reform. Crabtree currently leads the production of published material for the Gallup World Poll, a groundbreaking worldwide survey launched in 2006. He is also a regular contributor to the Gallup Management Journal.
Zsolt Nyiri is Regional Research Director for Europe for the Gallup World Poll.