Here's a short comment on the beginning of the status talks on Kosovo. I wrote it for NIN, the Serbian weekly, but they decided against publishing it in the end.
Substance or Status?
The beginning of final status talks is an acknowledgement that democratization, minority rights and economic and social development in Kosovo cannot be advanced without resolving the status and local authorities taking more responsibility. While timing matters, there was never much doubt outside of Serbia itself since June 1999 that Kosovo would not return under Serbian rule. At the same time, the failure of both the international presence and the political elite (Kosovo Albanian and Serb alike) to promote a democratic society, a vibrant economy and a functional political system, suggest that ‘independence’ (with or without qualifiers) is not going to resolve the problems of Kosovo, but without a resolution of the status question, non eof the real issue will be tackled.
So where to go from there? The formula of the Serbian authorities “Less than independence, more than autonomy” does not help much and is in fact as little of a compromise (why would one side propose a compromise?), as complete independence from the Kosovo Albanians side. Even in the worst repression under Milošević, Kosovo was conditionally independent in the sense that Serbia did not control the social, political, cultural and economic life of the Albanian majority other than by repression. It is hard to offer less independence to a population and government who will act as if they have that independence (consider Montenegro).
What is lacking, both on the Albanian and on the Serbian side, however, is a discussion on the substance, not the form of the final status. What should be the substance of Serbia’s interests in Kosovo? Here are some suggestions: a) the rights of Kosovo Serbs should be secured and displaced Serbs and Roma should be able to return in Kosovo (or receive support if they want to stay in Serbia); b) the border should be open and there should be a free flow of goods and persons between Kosovo and Serbia, c) the cultural heritage in Kosovo, including the Serb heritage should be protected (argubly the cultural heritage is European, not only Serb). d) Kosovo should be stabile, with strong institutions and a vibrant economy. Such practical goals, rather than symbolically clinging to formal status, are much more likely to yield results and provide both security for Serbia and a future for Serbs in Kosovo.