By Michael Levitin
July 16, 2007 issue - Just when politicians in Europe and America thought they'd finally cleaned up the mess in the Balkans, the whole package is on the verge of unraveling. Serbia's leaders, backed by Moscow, have categorically rejected a U.N. plan to grant independence to Kosovo, insisting that to forcibly redraw Serbia's borders would violate its sovereignty. The West claims Serbia forfeited that sovereignty when it crushed the Kosovar insurgency in 1998-99. This argument may appeal to human-rights advocates, but it overlooks a dangerous truth. Pushing too hard on Kosovo would nourish Serbia's legitimate sense of grievance, undermine moderates there and possibly spark a return to political extremism, even war.
Outsiders should remember just how important Kosovo—first settled by Slavs some 1,400 years ago and the home to the Serbian Orthodox Church—remains to Serbs today. As Ivan Stanojevic, a 22-year-old student at Belgrade University, puts it, to lose Kosovo now would be "like losing Serbia itself." Stripping away the province would also strike many as collective punishment. Most Serbs feel they've paid a high price for the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic, including a NATO bombardment and debilitating sanctions. The country has recently made progress arresting and extraditing major war criminals. To chastise Serbia again would strike most Serbs as profoundly unjust. "We're aware of what happened," says Stanojevic. "[But] we changed that regime. We had a revolution [in 2000] and gave a new direction to our government."
If the EU and the United States nonetheless press for "supervised" independence for Kosovo, as U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended in April, it could lead to three unintended consequences. First would be political instability. Serbian politics have been fragile ever since the pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003. The current coalition government, which includes conservatives and moderates, has pledged never to part with Kosovo and could crumble if it loses the province, says Radmila Nakarada, a researcher at the Institute for European Studies in Belgrade. Factor in the sorry state of Serbia's economy (it has 20 percent unemployment) and you get an explosive situation. The most likely outcome would be a surge in power for the ultranationalist Radical Party, undermining seven years of democratic progress.
A second unintended consequence of independence would be that Serbs, feeling humiliated and betrayed by Brussels, could turn away from the process of European integration—the region's best guarantee for future peace and prosperity. And the third consequence could be war—never a remote possibility in this part of the world. "The sense of injustice tied with social and economic problems could plant the seed for an emergence of paramilitary forces" in Serbia proper, warns Nakarada.
Then there's Russia, which is understandably nervous about separatist conflicts on its own borders and thus would never allow the division of Serbia. All this makes the United Nations' plan a nonstarter. That said, the status quo is also unsustainable. Kosovo's 1.8 million Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the province, suffered 10,000 deaths during the war; a million more were forced to flee. Kosovo's economy is in worse shape than the rest of Serbia's, with powerful mafias and nonexistent institutions. "[The Serbs] say they want to keep Kosovo part of Serbia," says Agron Murati, 31, a Kosovar civil engineer. "But in the last 10 years what did they help build here? Roads? Schools? Hospitals? Nothing."
What does all this mean for Brussels and Washington? That they must figure out some other solution, a third way between U.N. trusteeship and outright independence. Western leaders should consider models that would satisfy both sides, by giving Kosovars full autonomy but allowing Serbia to formally maintain its territorial integrity. Puerto Rico, with its unique status as a semi-independent protectorate of the United States, could prove a good example.
Any solution will take time, however. In the short term, the West must encourage Serb and Kosovar Albanian leaders to return to the table—and it must act as an objective arbiter when they do. "It is an illusion to think you can enforce independence and control the consequences," says Nakarada. The last time the West humiliated a postwar loser through draconian punishment, it ended up with Adolf Hitler and WWII. Given the Balkans' proximity to the EU and the blood already shed there, the West can't afford to let history repeat once more.