Sorry, Not Interested

There's a dark joke going around Serbia these days: "Russia finished the cold war with America—so Serbia is carrying on with it." Given the hostile stance of the two former superpowers over Kosovo, the assessment may be close to the mark. This week Washington heads to the United Nations Security Council's debate on Kosovo, with most of Europe alongside it, pressing for independence. But Serbia's Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected any future EU-imposed mission in Kosovo, and stands with the support of Russia and a growing list of countries including China, Indonesia and South Africa in its refusal to part with the region—even, according to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, if it means shelving EU membership talks.

Serbia, it seems, has flipped the tables on the EU. For the first time, a European country outside the EU is not clamoring to be let in, but, on the contrary, making demands of its own, insisting Europe continue negotiations over Kosovo until an agreeable solution to all parties is met. To the Serb on the street, it's a perfectly rational move. When they look toward the EU's newest members, Romania and Bulgaria, they see their neighbors, admitted in 2007, with crumbling infrastructure and a lower average monthly income than the Serbs themselves. In a recent poll, 75 percent of Serbs rejected giving up Kosovo in exchange for EU membership.

Now Serbia is demanding Europe line up "with us or against us" on Kosovo, and a number of EU states are leaning Serbia's way. Those opposed to a unilateral Kosovo declaration of independence include Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece. They argue that to forcibly separate the 90 percent ethnic Albanian and largely Muslim province from an unwilling Serbia will undermine stability in the Balkans and set a dangerous precedent for other separatist movements.

For its part, the United States officially supports Kosovo's independence. But opposition has sprouted up. Former Navy admiral and Joint Chiefs of Staff adviser James Lyons warned this month against setting up a "Taliban-like state in the very heart of Europe" that "has known ties to the global jihad movement and organized crime." Its independence, he noted, will lead to a "train wreck" in relations with Russia. Last week former U.S. secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger cautioned against carving Kosovo away from Serbia for the repercussions it would have on future global policy.

At the same time, Belgrade is tipping further from the West. It has recently talked with Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom about selling it 51 percent of Serbia's state-owned oil company. Tomislav Nikolic, a leading candidate in the Jan. 20 presidential election, has been in discussions with Russia about establishing a Russian military base there.

What to do? Serbia could generate some sympathy from the West by handing over war criminals like Bosnian Serb military chief Radko Mladic to The Hague. In return, the West might improvise a diplomatic solution of the sort that already exists in Taiwan and northern Cyprus, says Andrew Denison of Transatlantic Networks, a think tank in Bonn, Germany. "We don't really allow their independence, but they can say they're independent," he says. But until then, the Americans and Europeans will have to play shrewd power brokers and apply the brakes to their stated promise of Kosovar independence—a promise many believe should never have been made.

Meantime, things could become even more volatile. In this weekend's presidential election, Serbs will choose between Boris Tadic and the ultranationalist Nikolic. Tadic has long said Serbia's future lies with the EU. Yet the idea of giving up Kosovo is a nonstarter, even at the risk of further delaying entry into the European club. Nikolic takes a harder line. Kosovo, he says, must remain with Serbia, and he believes the European project is more or less irrelevant to Serbia. Russia is the neighbor that matters. For now, Tadic appears to be the front runner. But an upset victory by Nikolic, and the arrival of a hard-line government, may send negotiations spinning further out of control. His Radical Party could forge an alliance with Kostunica's far-right Democratic Party of Serbia, throwing EU prospects even further into doubt. With so much at stake, the West must ask itself whether a free Kosovo is worth further humiliating a volatile, Russia-backed Belgrade in the heart of the Balkans. This is one small, poor Eastern state that the EU may eventually want more than it wants the EU.