Kosovo's quiet victory over violent ethnic nationalism

Conflict-ridden world take note: Soft power and elections can work.

Soft power works. So do democratic elections. And it is possible to de-escalate longstanding violence and hate. These are the lessons of that forgotten corner of the world, Serbia-Kosovo.

In this case, soft power is the allure of the European Union (EU). It makes other countries in the region want to join the EU club of peace and prosperity – even at the cost of making painful democratic reforms and ending feuds with neighbors.

The key election here for Serbia came last May, when for the first time in five years the Serbs' desire to join the EU won priority over ultranationalist resentment at the impending "loss" of Kosovo, Serbia's 90 percent Albanian province. A much disputed declaration of conditional independence – under EU supervision – finally took place just before the Serbian election. The electoral campaign featured the prospect of violence, including the threat to murder moderate Serbian President Boris Tadic, just as reforming Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was murdered in 2003.

After the election, Mr. Tadic was able to bring together a pro-European government that within days arrested war-crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslims. And the stunning aftermath was the no-show rate at the hard-liner street protests against the arrest. The organizers expected 300,000 to answer their call; only 10,000 turned out. Subsequently, the ultranationalist Radical Party, which for five years had set the political agenda, sealed its impotence by splitting in two.

Belgrade's new government, while still insisting that Kosovo's independence is illegal, has detoxified this issue and is now acting pragmatically rather than ideologically. It has renounced the use of force. It has moved the dispute from the hot political to the cool legal arena by appealing it to the International Court of Justice. It is giving top priority to finishing Djindjic's initial legal and institutional reforms in order to qualify for EU membership.

Further proof of this dramatic shift came at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 in the most violence-prone part of Kosovo – the Serb-majority northern tip. For the past nine years, this territory has been run de facto by Serb bosses in the Serb-populated northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica. These bosses have links both to ultranationalists in Belgrade and, ironically, to Albanian smugglers in heartland Kosovo. After Kosovo declared independence they mobilized young Serb toughs to burn down Kosovo-Serbia customs posts, to fire automatic weapons at NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers in north Mitrovica, and kill a United Nations policeman, and to intimidate the few international civilian observers into retreating from north Kosovo to south Kosovo.

For nine months last year, Belgrade refused to let the EU deploy its supervisory rule-of-law mission in northern Kosovo. In plain English, that meant that Serb rowdies might once again intimidate any EU mentors to Kosovar police, judges, and prosecutors who showed up there – or even any executive EU police officers. But in December, after some UN diplomatic fudging, the new Serbian government agreed to the deployment and signaled that it would do its part to provide a permissive rather than hostile environment in north Kosovo.

That is when tacit cooperation between Belgrade and the EU in Kosovo became concrete. If past patterns had been repeated, both Serb and Albanian hard-liners – and the mafias that smuggle through Kosovo the bulk of the heroin that reaches EU territory – would have exploded the patient peacemaking of Serb and Albanian moderates. They would have orchestrated "ethnic" mob clashes that would have quickly started a fresh cycle of revenge and retaliation.

This time around, though, that dog didn't bark. When hotheads staged repeated low-level brawls in late December and early January – arson of the Albanian shops, Albanian stabbing of a young Serb, a grenade thrown at Serb firefighters – police and others kept the brawls from escalating into large-scale riots, even in rent-a-mob Mitrovica. Serbian plainclothes agents quickly broke up groups of Serb troublemakers. Reciprocally, the Kosovo police, EU executive police, and – despite its aversion to getting sucked into static policing – even KFOR peacekeepers restrained Albanian hotheads and provocateurs.

Moreover, for the first time media in Serbia and Kosovo – at least the most responsible ones – did not treat the disturbances as ethnic clashes, but instead asked pointedly which mafias were instigating them and why.

And why isn't this success story more widely known? Precisely because of its success. It has not produced the bloodshed that wins headlines. Kosovo's obscurity in the rest of the world is a very good sign indeed.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist and former Monitor correspondent, is the author of "Endgame in the Balkans."

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