Creating Crisis: Another War in the Balkans?

Guest Commentary

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, was suffering through 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 attempted to impose its plan on Kosovo. The ethnic Albanians would get eventual independence. The Serbs would get treated like a conquered province, accepting free transit by NATO forces throughout Serbia.

The Serbs walked and the United States bombed.

After 78 days, Belgrade yielded. The Albanian majority then carried out a campaign of large-scale ethnic cleansing. Upward of 200,000 or more Serbs, Jews, Roma and non-Albanian Muslims fled.

Violence eventually fell, 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 the Serbian government believed that 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 EU citizenship.

Unfortunately, however, the United States and leading European states decided to insist on full independence. Kosovo would be a multi-ethnic showcase. Serbia would be bought off with membership in the EU. 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 the Russians promised to block a U.N. independence resolution.

Another year of negotiation was ordered. But the United States made 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 that Thaci will act in mid-January. Then what?

Kosovo is not ready for statehood. In early November the European Commission released a report concluding 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 does declare independence, and its claim is recognized by the United States and Europeans, many of the remaining Serbs are likely to flee.

Only in the north around Mitrovica might Serbs safely stay. They are likely to resist Albanian control in a newly 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 more likely 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” to independence. But they must do so quickly.