LONDON — The Serbian presidential election last Sunday was a near-run thing, but in the end the good guy won. Not that President Boris Tadic is all that wonderful, but he positively glows with virtue in contrast to his opponent Tomislav Nikolic, an ultra-nationalist who served as a government minister under strongman Slobodan Milosevic and has been accused of war crimes during the Serbian occupation of eastern Croatia in the 1990s. Tadic ended up with 50.5 percent of the votes to Nikolic’s 47.7 percent.
This means that the elaborately choreographed diplomatic dance to give Kosovo its independence can go ahead without unleashing a Balkan war, for Tadic, while he opposes Kosovo’s independence as much as any other Serb, has promised not to use force to stop it.
The European Union took the first step in the dance the day after the Serbian election, announcing that an EU “peace and justice mission” made up of 1,800 European police and legal officials will take the place of the existing United Nations mission in Kosovo.
A good many of these officials are already in Kosovo wearing U.N. hats, but they have to change headgear because what’s about to happen in Kosovo is illegal under U.N. rules.
Although more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people are Albanian-speaking Muslims (Kosovars), the province has legally been part of Serbia since 1912. Even if the Russians were not there to veto Kosovo’s independence, the U.N. Security Council has no authority to dismantle a sovereign state.
So it is being done outside the U.N. rules. Indeed, almost everything in Kosovo in the past decade has been done outside U.N. rules, including the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1998-99 that forced Milosevic to withdraw the Serbian army from the province.
There was strong humanitarian justification, for Milosevic was applying the same brutal ethnic cleansing tactics to the Kosovars that he had previously used against the Croatians and the Muslims of Bosnia, but the NATO campaign was illegal under international law.
The subsequent military occupation of Kosovo by 16,000 NATO troops (who are still there) got some legal cover when Russia supported a Security Council resolution setting up KFOR, as the force is now known. But Moscow never envisaged Kosovo as an independent country — and to be fair, neither did the NATO countries at the start.
NATO’s brief air war against Serbia nine years ago was not really a calculated thing. It was a final, exasperated lashing out against the demonic Milosevic, who had been sponsoring bloody campaigns of ethnic cleansing against various non-Serbian peoples of former Yugoslavia for almost a decade.
But the big NATO countries that drove the policy (if you can call it that) had no clear idea what they would do with Kosovo afterward. That left the field clear for the Kosovars themselves, who almost unanimously wanted independence from the hated Serbs.
The NATO powers were mindful of the need to protect the Serbian minority (about 5 percent of the population) that still remains in Kosovo, but basically they accepted the U.S. and British position that the occupation could only be ended by granting Kosovo independence. If that means the partition of the sovereign nation of Serbia, so be it.
U.S. President George W. Bush and then Prime Minister Tony Blair didn’t much care about international law and the authority of the U.N., or else they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. It all seemed quite straightforward to them. But this policy did cause anxiety among NATO members like Cyprus and Spain, where the notion that aggrieved ethnic groups with a local majority can simply dismantle long-established states — and get international support for the enterprise — set off all the local alarm bells. It did the same in Russia, which has plenty of aggrieved minorities of its own.
Once the Kosovars had open Western support for full independence, they had no incentive whatever to make compromises with the Serbs, so two years of U.N.-backed negotiations on some halfway-house deal that would save Serbian face failed conclusively late last year. Russian opposition made a U.N. resolution authorizing Kosovo’s independence impossible.
So the U.N. mission in Kosovo is being turned into an EU mission, and in a week or two Kosovo will unilaterally declare its independence (with promises of security for the Serb minority, of course).
The big EU countries will all recognize Kosovo’s independence at once. The Serbs and the Russians can complain all they want, but they won’t do anything. And that’s the end of the story, apart from the collateral damage to international law and the West’s relationship with Moscow.
Tadic’s narrow re-election victory was helped along by EU promises of more aid for Serbia, visa-free travel in Europe for Serbian citizens, and the prospect of eventual EU membership.
It’s a shabby, shady business, but at this point it may be the least bad solution to an insoluble problem.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.