Serbia: Belgrade’s Options on Kosovo

Stratfor,  February 12, 2008 | 1534 GMT

Serbia’s National Security Council is meeting Feb. 12 to examine options for retaliatory actions should the separatist province of Kosovo declare independence. While it wants to take action against those who recognize an independent Kosovo, its options for doing so are limited.
Serbia’s National Security Council is meeting Feb. 12 to evaluate Belgrade’s options should the wayward province of Kosovo declare independence. Serbia fought — and lost — a war in 1999 with NATO that resulted in Kosovo’s de facto independence under NATO and EU protection. The question now is whether Kosovo will make a declaration formalizing its status. Serbia wants to be able to punish anyone who recognizes such a declaration, but its options are limited.

Until now Serbia has largely relied on Russian diplomatic assistance in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), where a Russian veto has blocked any action on the topic of Kosovo. But a Kosovar declaration is something the UNSC cannot stop, and the conventional wisdom in Europe is that such a declaration is days away. That might not actually be the case, but the Serbs are attempting to prepare for the worst.

Serbia faces some pretty hefty obstacles to penalizing states. It lacks a navy — indeed, a coastline — so blockades are out. It borders three NATO states, four NATO applicants and one NATO protectorate (two if you count Kosovo) — essentially eliminating all military options. It has been locked in international isolation ever since the Balkan wars began in 1992, resulting in a withered economy.

There are no good options. The quick and easy step of reducing or severing diplomatic relations will have no practical impact. Pressing cases at the International Court of Justice could actually result in a formal ruling of Kosovar independence — and the last thing Belgrade wants to do is become the vehicle for granting the Kosovars legitimacy. Serbia really only has two options, neither of which is consequence-free.

First, it could interrupt the two key trans-European traffic corridors that transit Serbia. The Danube serves as a major maritime shipping route for Central and Southeastern Europe, while a highway connects Greece to the European core. Both pass through Belgrade.

The second “punishment” option would be to set the Balkans on fire. Despite four lost wars in the past 16 years, there are still Serbian enclaves beyond Serbia. An enraged Belgrade could use military and paramilitary tools to assist those enclaves in either attempting to merge with Serbia proper or simply to throw off the existing political order. Such efforts would bear the most fruit in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Both such disruptions would certainly “punish” NATO and the European Union, but they also would come with more consequences than benefits. In addition to killing Serbia’s own economic lifeline, disrupting transit corridors would most injure Bulgaria and Greece — two states that boast significant cultural ties to Serbia and tend to argue for Serbian positions within both NATO and the European Union. Mucking about in Bosnia might regenerate Serbian hopes, but it also would induce NATO to react firmly to protect its own forces — and the last thing an already isolated Serbia needs is another war with NATO.

Consequence-free options are much less dramatic. They largely consist of attempting to integrate the Serbs of northern Kosovo — who constitute about 5 percent of the rebel province’s population — into Serbia. The only way that NATO or the Albanians could prevent this from happening would be to instigate a fight, and it is far from clear that this is a fight NATO is remotely interested in.

Additionally, Serbia can be expected to completely sever all ties with an independent Kosovo, forcing the province to get everything from food to electricity from other sources. That would transform Kosovo — an already dysfunctional territory — into an economic disaster and force NATO and the European Union to initiate a years-long humanitarian aid program in even the best of circumstances.

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