Another Balkans battle?

Published on December 18, 2007, The Washington Times

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

By Doug Bandow

The Bush administration has badly botched U.S. foreign policy. But the administration isn't finished: Another potential crisis looms in Kosovo.

The latest negotiating round over Kosovo's final status has finished. The ethnic Albanians plan to declare independence from Serbia. Chaos and conflict could follow.

In 1998 the territory, the historic heartland of Serbia, suffered a bitter guerrilla campaign directed against the ruling Serbs. It was an awful civil war, but one like many others around the globe and of no policy interest to the United States. However, the Clinton administration decided to demonstrate its humanitarian credentials by intervening. Washington sided with the ethnic Albanians rather than promoting a settlement in the interest of both parties.

In early 1999, the Clinton administration summoned the contending sides to Rambouillet, France, and tried to impose its plan on Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians would get eventual independence. Serbs would be treated like a conquered province, accepting free transit by NATO forces throughout Serbia. The Serbs walked and the U.S. bombed.

After 78 days, Belgrade yielded. The Albanian majority in Kosovo then carried out a large-scale ethnic cleansing. Upward of 200,000 or more Serbs, Jews, Roma, and non-Albanian Muslims fled. Violence eventually diminished but in March 2004 ethnic Albanian mobs again hit the streets, torching Serb homes, churches and monasteries.

The war left the status of Kosovo for negotiation. Not even Serbia's government believed a return to the status quo ante was possible. However, full independence was not inevitable either.

Possible were autonomy, partition of Kosovo, or even giving the ethnic Albanians European Union citizenship.

Unfortunately, the United States and leading European states chose to insist on full independence. Kosovo would be a multi-ethnic showcase. Serbia would be bought off with EU membership. Russia would be ignored. There would be negotiation, but only as a pretense.

However, last year the Serbs refused to play their assigned role and Russia promised to block a United Nations independence resolution.

Another year of negotiation was ordered. But the U.S. made it clear that the same rules applied.

After his victory in Kosovo's recent legislative elections, former guerrilla Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's new "prime minister," promised a declaration of independence after the formal end of negotiations on Dec. 10. Allied diplomats predict Mr. Thaci will act in mid-January.

Then what? Kosovo is unready for statehood. In early November, a European Commission report concluded that "working tools for an efficient government" still had "to be enhanced and fully applied" — more than eight years after allied rule. The commission reported: "corruption is still widespread and remains a major problem."

Moreover, "Civil servants are still vulnerable to political interference, corrupt practices and nepotism," explained the commission. There is a backlog in war crime cases, which are "hampered by the unwillingness of the local population to testify."

Indeed, warned the commission, "little progress has been made in the promotion and enforcement of human rights." The commission said that "minorities and other vulnerable groups face restrictions in exercising their right to freedom of assembly and association across Kosovo." Finally, the commission concluded, "Religious freedom is not fully respected."

If such an entity declares independence, and is recognized by the United States and Europeans, many remaining Serbs are likely to flee. Only in the north around Mitrovica might Serbs safely stay. They are likely to resist Albanian control in an independent Kosovo. Serbs, Albanians and NATO forces all could end up in combat.

Although Serbian officials say they will not send in the army, gangs and militias could fight. A Kosovo independence claim also might re-energize ethnic Albanian separatists in Macedonia, Montenegro and south Serbia. Serbs in Bosnia could seize on Kosovo's action to push for an independent Republic of Srpska.

The Europeans are likely to divide on the issue, with blame for EU discord falling on Washington. Allied relations with Russia would further fray. Serbia's fractious democratic coalition might fall. Kosovo would stoke revanchist flames in Belgrade, creating a permanent geopolitical irritant in the region.

There's still time to avert a crisis, but the window is closing. Washington and Brussels should stop trying to dictate a solution in Kosovo. They should propose a new round of negotiations — genuine talks with no preconditions or timetables.

Agreement might still prove impossible. But success would be far likelier than from the faux talks previously promoted by the allies.

The best hope to avert a new, and possibly violent, breakdown in the Balkans is for both Washington and Brussels to tell Pristina "no" on independence. But they must do so quickly.

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