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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:151–156.


Hungarian Aspects of the Kosovo Conflict


I wish to survey the Hungarian aspects of the Kosovo conflict. I do not intend to give a historical overview but rather concentrate on the recently emerged and truly decisive situation which is basically the outcome of the failure of the so-called troika talks. I wish to outline what is to be expected now, what kind of scenarios may be elaborated and on which factors Hungarian foreign policy should concentrate in reaction to the events.

The 10 December report of the mediating troika may be regarded as the end of attempts aimed at finding a solution (more or less) acceptable to all the parties. As a result the best scenarios related to Kosovo have failed (one was a Serb-Albanian agreement on the future of the province, or in the lack of such an agreement, at least the passing of a UN SC resolution that would specify and legitimate the tasks by international law). There is no sense in continuing talks, which is pressed for by Belgrade and Moscow, because there is no hope whatsoever for success (they are also pressing for them with the purpose of stalling for time). Progress towards independence, however, is not only an inevitable must and a new international burden (because the international community has to stay there by all means in the interest of building a state and protecting the Serbs) but it is the sole possible practical solution which would be better for Serbia in the long run (because it would be relieved of an insoluble problem and at last could care about itself and about its catching-up) and would open the way to the future Western exit strategy as well. Luckily it can also be stated that the chance for the worst scenario is also minimal because despite the sabre-rattling statements of some advisers, prelates and organisers of guards there is no real danger of war. Local skirmishes and terrorist acts, however, are to be expected by all means and KFOR has to be prepared for them.

From now on it is possible in theory that Kosovo may declare its independence in any moment, but a prolonged scenario is more likely. The European Council would discuss the issue today (14 December 2007) and the UN Security Council on 19 December (and naturally both bodies repeatedly in the coming months) but no meaningful decision is expected as yet. It should also be remembered that the new parliament and government based on the 17 November elections have not yet been set up and it is unlikely that independence would be declared by the present caretaker government. The events may also be slowed down by the announcement of the Serbian presidential elections for 20 January. It is in the interest of all (including the Albanians of Kosovo) that the Serbian presidency should be occupied by the candidate of the democratic side (by the reelection of President Boris Tadić), therefore the US and the EU can obviously persuade Albanians to wait for the outcome of the presidential elections that would be finally decided only in the second round on 3 February. It means that at the moment the most possible date for the declaration of independence would be the middle or end of February. According to Albanian promises the parliament of Kosovo would also request the continued maintenance of international presence in the spirit of the Ahtisaari plan. It may also mean that the de facto timetable of the Ahtisaari plan would prevail envisaging a 120-day transitory period, consequently independence would enter into force sometime around June.

After the declaration the United States would presumably acknowledge the independence of Kosovo fast and among the first ones, to be followed by the Islamic countries and the leading European states. Breaking up the unity of the EU is not in the interest of Member States not favouring independence, therefore they would also acknowledge Kosovo after some shorter or longer period of time. Thus the EU may implement its plans, it can co-ordinate the steps to be taken by the international community in relation to Kosovo, the creation of stability, a state based on the rule of law and a functioning economy, and also the approximation of Serbia to the EU by way of compensation.

Serbia and Russia will not acknowledge the separation of Kosovo and China would bide its time. The Serb majority districts of northern Kosovo will declare its intention to “stay in Serbia”, a new tension would emerge in the relations of the West and Russia, and Belgrade would carry out its threats: it will put Kosovo under blockade, will close down the borders, would ‘call over’ Serbs living in diasporas to the northern districts, there would be a power demonstration in the region of Presevo, and it will limit or even break economic and diplomatic relations with states acknowledging Kosovo. If it does not go beyond these measures (almost surely not towards war but perhaps in the direction of destabilising Bosnia) these reactions will be tolerable and Serbia will not be able to maintain them indefinitely. In fact the problem with the blockade is that if it is a total one it would also hit the northern districts, and freezing foreign relations would mean such an extent of self-isolation by Serbia which cannot be counterbalanced by the Russian contacts.

It is difficult to assess the effect of separation as a precedent. In 1991– 1992 half the world was worried that the secessions would serve as precedents but we could see that nothing happened after the already disintegrating Central and East European socialist federations fell apart and nothing happened either when Montenegro seceded in 2006. All this suggests that fears related to the domino effect are not necessarily well-founded, are often motivated by domestic political aims as in the case of Slovakia and Romania, or it is exactly Serb nationalism that provokes those kinds of threats as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this respect it has to be stated that the compensation of Serbia cannot in any way mean the transfer of Republika Srpska. In Bosnia the dominant atmosphere recalls the early 1990s after High Representative Miroslav Lajčák’s decisions of 17 October were rejected by Belgrade as well as by Banja Luka.1 Big rallies are held in the Serbian part of the country and Vojislav Koštunica has been promoting tension by an open contempt of the Dayton Accord and often referring to a direct attack against the existence of Republika Srpska.

Separation will have a nationalistic impact on the internal condition of Serbia, this is to be expected (and the campaign for presidential elections would further polarise the political scene). This growing nationalism can only be mitigated but not avoided. In addition today it is almost impossible to help Serbian politics: they entrench themselves and repeat almost like people suffering from autism that “We won’t give up Kosovo, Kosovo is our own.” Practically they do not even notice intentions of help if these intentions do not begin by stating that Kosovo is part of Serbia and should remain so. Yet the process of separation is to be conducted in a way least humiliating for Serbia. One of the most important preconditions of mitigating the experience of defeat is to keep up the so-called European perspective but not only as an abstract and long-term promise but as something that grants rapid and socially tangible ‘common advantages’ (liberalisation of visas, enactment of the Association Agreement).

The drifting of Serbia to the Russian side may continue. Russian–Serbian relations are already close because Belgrade is thankful for political support and economic cooperation is intensive (the Russian share in the Serbian foreign trade is 11%, surpassing all EU states, and Russian interest groups are also expanding in privatisation). As Moscow will not be able to retain Kosovo for Serbia (and because of the fact that Serbia economically also depends on the West), Belgrade will not be its full vassal and a permanent wedge forward for Russian policy in the Balkans. With the passage of time the (nowadays totally forgotten) element of Serb historical memory would awake that remembers that the Russians have many times let them down… Perhaps they will not repeat the ‘Hungarian mistake’, namely that Hungary, in despair because of Trianon, had linked its destiny to a country that was confronted to the West, the result of which was yet another historical defeat in World War II. Now the Serbs have to think it over whether it is in the long-term interest of Belgrade to be totally committed to Russia in every respect.

Now I wish to turn to the other point mentioned in my introduction, namely to the issue of the Hungarian reaction. I am of the view that Hungarian policy related to the separation of Kosovo could have a general and a specific ‘pillar’. On the one hand, we are interested in the stability of the entire region due to neighbourhood, economic reasons, and our Balkan policy in general, and we are also interested in its consolidation laying the foundations of the ability to develop, as well as in its (not accidentally distant) Euro-Atlantic accession. On the other hand we have to see to it that the situation of Hungarians in the Vojvodina should not deteriorate.

Taking all this into consideration, I think that Hungary should acknowledge the independence of Kosovo. One should not go against what is already in progress and should not be opposed to a ‘game’ that is to be decided by great power players at any rate (I am convinced that even the currently so loud Slovak and Romanian governments would sooner or later also acknowledge Kosovo). We do not have to be among the first, but should not wait for the last ones either. It is worth doing it with the majority of EU Member States, with the mainstream of the Union, further on it should be linked to the intention of supporting the European integration of Serbia by all available means. For this purpose Hungary has to give clear indications to Belgrade as well as to the other Member States of the EU that (in the case of the availability of other conditions, such as proper cooperation with the International Court of Justice in The Hague) it would fully support the current Serbian governing coalition in the successful implementation of its timetable of Euro-integration (Serb aims set for 2008 are: the enactment of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement initialled on 7 November, visa liberalisation and the EU candidate status). We could be the front-line fighters of the objective ”visa liberalisation and candidate status for Serbia in 2008”; by which the harmful effects on Hungarian–Serbian relations of the acknowledgement of independence could be mitigated. In fact we have to be aware of the fact that good relations with Serbia are more important from the point of security policy, economic and minority issues than the benefit that the independence of Kosovo may bring about. Moreover, Serbia would remain a more important partner of Hungary even if the joint potential of future relations with the two Albanian states is considered (the issue of Greater Albania not being on the agenda). The acknowledgement of Kosovo, would, of course damage the Hungarian–Serbian relations but we would not be the primary targets of Serbian vengeance. Reprisals may be expected, even the suspension of diplomatic relations, but in the longer run it is not in the interest of Serbia either to make Hungary its enemy.

Hungary has to set certain expectations in accordance with the EU towards an independent Kosovo (such as the acceptance of international presence, building a democratic state based on the rule of law and a clear economic framework, the acknowledgement of minority rights) but it also has to press for the opening up of the European perspective for Kosovo too, in proportion to the fulfilment of those requirements.

Our responsibility for a common Europe is very important. Therefore Hungary should constructively participate in shaping the Kosovo policy of the EU and in the work of the Union mission replacing UNMIK. In the context of these questions one should see that it is not only the issue of Kosovo that is at stake here. The settlement of the situation of the province is going to be the hitherto greatest enterprise of the common European foreign and security policy, therefore failure would do much damage to the credibility of the Union, to the political dimensions of integration and to the perspectives of the CFSP, since Europe already failed in the management of the post-Yugoslav crisis in 1991.

The settlement of Kosovo is going to be a rather difficult process taking a very long time; but if it is successfully kept under control and guided in the proper direction it can have several important benefits for us as well, namely:

– With the emergence of a normal state structure in Kosovo one of the ‘black holes’ of security policy may disappear from the region within a foreseeable time and dangers of trafficking in drugs, arms and people may be reduced. Surely, many people are doubtful about the viability of an independent Kosovo, and not without reason, but by and large I think that in this respect Kosovo has by no means less chance than any other state of the region.

– The safeguards to be granted to the Serbs of Kosovo may, in a way, serve as a basis of reference to the improvement of the situation of Hungarians in the Vojvodina (and of Hungarians living beyond the borders in general) even if not entirely, and surely not now, because of the different position of Kosovo and the Vojvodina and their different assessment by the great powers. But under the pretext of the settlement in Kosovo the rather narrow minority norms of the present international law could be widened. Therefore the autonomy of Serbs in Kosovo and its international safeguarding is in our interest.

– If Hungary perceives the separation of Kosovo in a manner reflecting their understanding of the trauma, the image of Serb politics and public opinion about Hungary may improve. This is all the more important because no matter how things would change, it is only the (relatively) westernised-democratic actors of Serb politics that can be the most important allies of Hungary and of the Hungarian parties of Vojvodina in the improvement of the situation of Hungarians living there.

– Further on, one may assume (but only in the longer run) that Serbia, getting rid of the burden of Kosovo and having overcome its primary trauma could at last concentrate on itself and its catching-up.

As a primary effect in the short run (which is, unfortunately, only short in a historical sense and not politically) it can also be assumed that Serb nationalism may take revenge for its frustration because of the secession of Kosovo on the minorities ‘at hand’, like the Hungarians living in Vojvodina. It would not mean retaliation organised by the state or an open discrimination limiting rights, but rather that the ‘spontaneous outbreak of repressed anger’. The danger for this happening is enhanced by the possible wave of refugees from Kosovo (though not larger than ten or twenty thousand) and the agreement on the return of illegal immigrants (making it obligatory for Serbia to accept its citizens illegally staying in the EU from 1 January on, who, in order to get back to the territory of the Union as early as possible would mostly set Vojvodina as a target). Therefore Hungarian foreign policy has to prepare itself for an international action to counterbalance losses.


* Senior Researcher of the Institute of History, HAS