By Dan Burton
In coming weeks, an international confrontation is likely to occur among the United States, the European Union, and Russia over an issue most Americans have long since forgotten: Kosovo, where a few hundred Americans remain deployed as part of a NATO force protecting a shaky interim peace that ended the 1999 U.S.-led intervention.
For most Americans this obscure Serbian province, with its mainly Albanian Muslim population and its hundreds of Serbian Christian churches and monasteries, may be a little-remembered footnote to the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, now is the time for clear thinking about next steps if Kosovo is to avoid revisiting its history as a hotbed of regional instability and violence.
The international mission in Kosovo for the last eight years has not met its original goals regarding establishment of an open, multiethnic and multireligious society. True, there has been no return to large-scale fighting. But remaining Christian Serbs are confined to NATO-protected enclaves for fear of endemic Muslim Albanian violence. A quarter of a million expellees — some two-thirds of the Serbs, Roma, Croats, and all the Jews — still cannot return safely to their homes. More than 150 Christian holy sites have been burned, blown up or desecrated. Organized crime is rampant, with allegations of corruption reaching into the upper levels of the U.N.-supervised local administration and unemployment outside these criminal elements remains more than 50 percent.
Even Albanian officials have expressed concern at the growth of radical Wahhabist influence, and the reality of a dangerously segregated society, as hundreds of Saudi-financed mosques have sprung up to replace the destroyed churches.
Although the situation on the ground in Kosovo has been a case study in U.N. mismanagement, there is no question of Kosovo's legal status as part of Serbia. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which ended the 1999 war, reaffirmed Serbia's territorial integrity and sovereignty while calling for substantial autonomy and self-government for Kosovo within Serbia.
But against this clear standard for Kosovo's future, the U.S. State Department has insisted the only possible solution for Kosovo is not autonomy, but independence — even though Serbia refuses to give up 15 percent of its territory. Even worse, during his recent trip to Albania, President Bush suggested that if a Russian veto blocks any new Security Council Resolution to separate Kosovo from Serbia, the U.S. might take the lead in recognizing a unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence with no legitimate claim of authority at all. Within Europe itself there are growing misgivings and decisions about this course.
This is a terrible idea. To start with, our policy is in contravention of international laws and will create a dangerous precedent. Also, there is no reason to suppose an independent Kosovo would be a viable state, either economically or politically. Terrorist and organized crime influences, already rampant in Kosovo, would be granted a consolidated haven for their operations. Independence would likely be followed by renewed anti-Serb attacks, at least against the smaller enclaves, if not against Northern Mitrovica, where most of the remaining Serbs enjoy relative security. Unrest in neighboring Albanian-dominated areas of southern Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, even Greece, could be reignited.
Perhaps most damaging, an imposed separation of Kosovo from Serbia would send a message to other trouble-spots, not just in the Balkans, that state borders are up for grabs.
The American relationship with Serbia would suffer badly if we insist on inflicting on a democratic country of 10 million people an offense they cannot accept and never will forget. An imposed separation of Kosovo, the cradle of Serbia's national and spiritual life, would alienate Serbs of all political stripes and could very well result in the implosion of Serbian democracy, with incalculable negative consequences. In short, an imposed independence of Kosovo could set the region back another decade.
As an original cosponsor of a House resolution calling for the U.S. to support a mutually agreed solution for the future status of Kosovo and reject an imposed solution, I believe we can no longer proceed on a policy that is trapped in assumptions formed years ago. Instead of an imposed preconceived outcome, any viable solution for Kosovo must result from give-and-take negotiations between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians, balancing Serbia's legitimate concern for its sovereignty and the Albanians' legitimate right of self-governance.
It must be consistent with accepted international principles, including guarantees of both the territorial integrity of states as well as of human rights and self-determination. The U.S., the U.N., the European Union, Russia, or any other interested actor must not impose a solution on either of the parties, or bow to threats of violence if one of the parties' demands is not met.
As with any genuine negotiation, the eventual outcome cannot be foreseen with certainty. However, it is certain that unless we hit the reset button and reevaluate the situation, Kosovo may once again become a trouble-spot requiring American and NATO attention at a time we can least afford it. As Kosovo re-emerges from years of obscurity, we neednow to take another serious look at America's options and long-term interests. As I stated before, the solution must come from negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians.
Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, is ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and serves on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.