Holbrooke's Way or the Highway

Published on March 14, 2007, he National Interest

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Four months ago, former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke declared, “The European Union and the United States must make the continued freedom and independence of Georgia a test case of the Western relationship with Russia.” (The Washington Post, November 27, 2006). Today, he has come up with a new priority. “Now, a key test of Russia’s relationship with the West is at hand”—only this time it is over Kosovo. How many “tests” are there going to be?

I wrote an essay in response to Ambassador Holbrooke’s first column (“Georgia on His Mind”); what is amazing is that this second Op-Ed, even if it changes the locale from the Caucasus to the Balkans, still exhibits the same attitudes. It is a black and white world, defined by “good” and “bad” characters, where inconvenient facts that make this so many shades of gray are left aside.

Famous for often arguing that there can be “no debate” once he himself has weighed in on an issue, the ambassador stays true to form by insisting that the only solution possible for Kosovo is the plan being put forward by the UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which calls for “phased independence” for the Serbian province. Russian opposition—including Moscow’s insistence that any final settlement must be acceptable to all parties, including Serbia—cannot be based on any sort of principled position but is simply a result of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s desire “to defy key Western countries . . . Russia is using Kosovo for its tactical advantage, as part of a strategy to reassert itself on the international stage.”

Holbrooke insists that Serbia should recognize that it has “lost” Kosovo as “a result of the policies of the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.” (Interestingly enough, he has never argued that Georgia should accept that it has “lost” Abkhazia or Ossetia as a result of the policies of the former Georgian president and petty tyrant Zviad Gamsakhurdia, he of the “Georgia for the Georgians” fame, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

Perhaps there is a secret protocol to UN Security Council resolution 1244 that I am unaware of and that is not part of the published record. The text of that resolution reaffirms “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, and talks a great deal about substantial autonomy for Kosovo and creating self-governing institutions for the province, but says nothing about independence. He dismisses this resolution as the result of a “compromise”—shades, perhaps, of Condoleezza Rice’s complaint earlier this year that give-and-take in international negotiations is extortion, not diplomacy.

Holbrooke’s real complaint is that Moscow is not going to hand a blank check to Washington on this issue and ratify Washington’s preference for independence. The problem is that without the approval of the permanent five of the UN Security Council, the costs become much higher for the United States to try and impose a settlement unilaterally—costs the United States does not want to pay, just as we never wanted to pay the costs that would be required to seriously transform Kosovo into the multiethnic paradise we were promised in 1999.

It is telling that toward the close of his current Washington Post essay, he mentions that if the Kosovar Albanians were to declare independence without the sanction of the UN Security Council, “Some countries, including the United States and many Muslim states, would probably recognize them, but most of the European Union would not.” Obviously this has nothing to do with Putin’s machinations. A number of European states—fellow Western liberal democracies—are very concerned about questions of separatism and maintaining the territorial integrity of states, not to mention the precedent that could be set—including but not limited to France, Spain and the United Kingdom. Holbrooke dismisses such concerns, insisting that Kosovo sets no precedent, an argument also advanced by others such as CFR’s Charles Kupchan. I understand their point of view, but others are by no means obliged to see things Washington’s way.

I have said before and will say again, I can find no logical way to argue objectively that one formerly autonomous region comprised of an ethnic group different from the titular majority of the larger state and which has enjoyed de facto independence with the support and active intervention of outside powers deserves independence while another one does not. We argue that Kosovo “sets no precedent” precisely because even the United States has extremely contradictory stances based on our perceived self-interest as well as our perceptions of the specific ethnic groups in question. Justice is always going to be in the eye of the beholder.

It is odd that so many Democrats who argued we never had a “real debate” over Iraq now insist that no such process is required for Kosovo. Independence for the province may end up being the best solution, but let’s not dismiss out of hand legitimate concerns raised by other government or create a artificial crisis in both the U.S.-Russia and the transatlantic relationships—and certainly not because we want Kosovo to be “solved” in order to stay on schedule for our 2008 elections.

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