The Bush administration has made quite a botch
of U.S. foreign policy. Initiating an unnecessary and needlessly bloody war
in Iraq. Pushing a now discredited belligerent campaign against Iran. Creating
more Islamic hostility and additional terrorists around the world.
Ignoring a worsening situation in Afghanistan. Delaying negotiations with
North Korea. Wrecking relations with Russia.
Fulminating impotently against Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Generating
suspicion from governments and especially peoples in almost every allied state.
Lowering U.S. credibility to levels not seen since Jimmy Carter's presidency.
But the administration isn't finished yet. It still has more than a year
in office. And at least one potential crisis looms next week: Kosovo.
Kosovo is the issue that just won't go away, no matter how much the administration
wishes it would. The latest, and apparently final, round of negotiations, if
they deserve to be called that, over Kosovo's final status have finished. The
ethnic Albanians say they plan to declare independence from Serbia – as early
as next week. The result could be dissension within the European Union, unrest
throughout the Balkans, civil conflict in Kosovo, a renewed flood of refugees,
and possible intervention of the Serb military. Quite a mess.
The Kosovo problem goes back to 1998. The territory, the historic heartland
of Serbia, was suffering through a bitter guerrilla campaign directed against
the ruling Serbs. Over the years this one-time ethnic Serbian conclave had turned
into a sizeable ethnic Albanian majority.
The latter were none too gentle with Serbian residents during their relatively
autonomous rule under the latter-day regime of communist Josip Broz Tito. The
Serbs returned the favor several times over when Slobodan Milosevic reasserted
Belgrade's authority. Albanian terrorist attacks led to bloody Serbian retaliation,
and the usual spiral of violence.
It was an awful little civil war, one like so many around the globe. And
one that was of no policy interest to the U.S. Kosovo was a humanitarian tragedy
to be sure, but with estimated deaths of 2000 it was barely a blip compared
to the simultaneous carnage in Sierra Leone, which claimed a quarter of a million
lives and was highlighted by rebels chopping off the arms of those they did
Kosovo was much nearer to the Western Europeans than America, but they
had effectively quarantined the series of wars that grew out of Yugoslavia's
dissolution. The fighting had lasted longer than World War I without spreading
since the Europeans and Russia chose, until the very end, to stay out. The same
strategy would have worked in Kosovo.
But the Clinton administration decided to demonstrate its humanitarian
credentials by intervening in a war with absolutely no conceivable strategic
U.S. interest. And Washington did so by siding with the ethnic Albanians rather
than promoting a settlement in the interest of both sides.
That policy reflected America's stance throughout the entire sad Yugoslav
saga. If there was one consistent theme to the U.S. position, it was that the
Serbs should lose. Croats and Bosnian Muslims were entitled to secede from Serb-dominated
nations. Serbs were denied the right to secede from the new Croat and Muslim
dominated nations. The policy had a certain simplicity, even if it was thoroughly
unprincipled and unjust.
The ethnic Serbs, like the Croats and Muslims (and others), also had a
valid case for secession. Serbs could justify desiring to break off from smaller,
ethnically-based states that could not be trusted to respect minority rights.
This excuses neither Milosovic's policies nor the brutality of Serb forces during
the multiple conflicts. But there were few angels in that convoluted war, and
both the Bosnian Muslims and Croats committed their share of atrocities, including
the massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia's Krajina region.
So in early 1999 the Clinton administration summoned the contending sides
to Rambouillet, France, and attempted to impose an American plan on Kosovo.
The ethnic Albanians would get almost complete autonomy in the short term and
likely independence in the long-term. The Serbs would retain formal sovereignty
over Kosovo for the time being, but would have to agree to be treated like a
conquered province, accepting free transit to NATO forces through the all of
Serbia, including Kosovo.
When the Albanians balked at anything less than full independence, Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright told them to sign, otherwise the U.S. could not
bomb the Serbs. The Albanians complied, the Serbs walked, and the U.S. bombed.
It proved to be "a splendid little war," as Secretary of State John Hay
termed the Spanish-American War – 78 days of bombing without a single American
battle casualty. The Europeans went along for the ride but left most of the
action to the U.S. The Serbs resisted far longer than Washington had expected,
but finally agreed to a settlement that reflected the bulk of the Rambouillet
diktat, without the transit provision.
Once the Serb security forces withdrew from Kosovo, Belgrade's authority
evaporated. As NATO troops stood by, the Albanian majority carried out its own
campaign of ethnic cleansing. In the Yugoslav civil wars the Albanian expulsion
of Serbs trails only the exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo after the U.S.
began its bombing campaign and the Serb flight from the Croatian Krajina offensive
in number of refugees generated. Upwards of 200,000 or more Serbs, Jews, Roma,
and non-Albanian Muslims fled.
In time violence fell – if nothing else, there were fewer ethnic minorities
to abuse. But in March 2004 ethnic-Albanian mobs again hit the streets, torching
Serb homes, churches, and monasteries. Allied troops offered at best inconsistent
protection, while the Albanian-run Kosovo government did nothing.
All the while the status of Kosovo was left undecided. UN Security Council
Resolution 1244 formally affirmed Serbia's authority, established interim international
control, and mandated creation of "a political process designed to determine
Kosovo's future status."
No one, even the Serbian government, believed that a return to the status
quo ante was possible. However, full independence was not inevitable either.
The territory could exercise almost complete domestic authority while remaining
under the Serbian flag. There could be partition within partition, with the
large Serb community in Mitrovica, north of the Irba River, allowed to remain
part of Serbia. A more creative approach would establish overlapping citizenship,
with Kosovo still technically part of Serbia while ethnic Albanians enjoyed
In short, there was no right outcome. Kosovo's fate needed to be decided
in accordance with the interests of all parties, which meant Serbs and Albanians.
Only a policy that arose from genuine negotiation by those with a direct interest,
rather than one that was predetermined by the allies, was likely to be stable,
let alone anything close to "fair."
Unfortunately, however, the U.S. and leading European states decided that
the "right" outcome was full independence. Kosovo would be a multi-ethnic showcase,
affirming the West's skills at nation-building. Serbia would be bought off with
membership in the European Union. Russia would be ignored.
There would be negotiation, but everyone understood they would only be
a pretense. The Albanians recognized that if Serbia failed to agree to its own
dismemberment, then the allies would wield the sword. So Pristina never had
any incentive to negotiate over much other than language surrounding the independence
Everything seemed to be moving smoothly last year until the Serbs refused
to play their assigned role and the Russians said they would block a UN independence
resolution. European unity cracked: some states, such as Greece, have long opposed
reopening Balkan borders, and others, such as Germany, view UN assent as a necessary
precondition for continued participation in any occupation force. The independence
joy ride came to a halt and another year of negotiation was ordered.
But the U.S., in particular, made clear that the same rules applied. Independence
was the ultimate goal. The ethnic Albanians saw no need to negotiate in the
common meaning of the term, leading to the same deadlock over the same Albanian
demand for full independence. 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 December
Allied diplomats are predicting that Thaci will wait a little while, but
not long. They expect the declaration to come in mid-January.
Thus, absent substantial allied pressure on the Albanians or a Russian
reversal and subsequent pressure on the Serbs, Pristina is determined to claim
to be a country and Serbia is determined to retain Kosovo. Then what?
Kosovo hardly seems ready for statehood. Even those ultimately favoring
this course give the Pristina regime poor marks.
In early November the European Commission released a report that concluded
"some progress was made in consolidating government," but "working tools for
an efficient government" still had "to be enhanced and fully applied" – more
than eight years after the territory's separation from Serbia. Unsurprising,
given the level of criminal activity by former guerrillas, the Commission reported
that "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. As for the judiciary,
"The backlog of cases is increasing, with more than 50,000 civil cases and over
36,000 criminal cases pending." There also is a backlog in war crime cases,
which are "hampered by the unwillingness of the local population to testify."
Indeed, warned the Commission, "Overall, little progress has been made
in the promotion and enforcement of human rights. The administration is not
able to ensure the full implementation of human rights standards." The commitment
of the Pristina authorities to resolving more than 2000 missing persons cases
"is not sufficient to achieve objective and efficient investigations," complained
the Commission. Further, "no investigations or court proceedings on torture
or ill-treatment [of prisoners] have yet taken place."
Despite some progress, the Commission warns that "minorities and other
vulnerable groups face restrictions in exercising their right to freedom of
assembly and association across Kosovo." In fact, the police or armed forces
must always guard minority gatherings. Finally, "only limited progress" was
achieved in promoting religious liberty. Indeed, the Commission concludes, "Religious
freedom is not fully respected."
None of this comes as a surprise. Last year the State Department's Charles
English reported that "Discrimination remains a serious problem. Access to public
services is uneven. Incidents of harassment still occur. Freedom of movement
is limited. And too many minorities still feel unsafe in Kosovo." After
the March 2004 spasm of violence, the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) pointed to Pristina's "relatively weak response" which "not
only contributes to the impression of impunity among the population for such
kinds of ethnically motivated crimes but may also be considered inadequate to
prevent similar acts of public disorder in the future." The International Crisis
Group, which has regularly campaigned for an independent Kosovo, admits that
"With no vision for the future of Serbs in Kosovo, one might suspect that the
latent Albanian hope is that they will all eventually sell out and leave."
There is crime as well as violence, crime that extends beyond Kosovo. Some
observers refer to Kosovo as the "black hole" of Europe. An American diplomat
told me last year: "Sex, crime, terrorism, it's all there." Some security analysts
also fear development of terrorist ties to Kosovo, growing out of mujahideen
fighters who fought in Bosnia and then in Kosovo.
This hardly seems like an entity ready for statehood. Observes Joseph Griebowski
of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, "the present record of rule
of law, protection of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the
return/resettlement of internally displaced people by the Provisional Authority
of Kosovo – all of which are indispensable for democratic governance – have been
If this entity does declare independence, and its claim is recognized by
the U.S. and Europeans, many of the remaining Serbs are likely to flee. Despite
all of the allied rhetoric about the importance of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, officials
on the ground are more realistic. "It is likely that the Serbs will leave,"
says Col. Niels Toenning, deputy commander of NATO forces in Kosovo's north.
The process could be chaotic and violent, potentially encouraging Belgrade to
intervene to protect Serb refugees.
Only in Mitrovica might Serbs safely stay. They are likely to resist control
by Pristina, effectively declaring secession from newly independent Kosovo.
This situation would be highly explosive. Would the Albanians deploy military
force to conquer the Serb enclave? Would Belgrade intervene militarily to protect
the ethnic Serbs? Would NATO attempt to coerce the Mitrovica Serbs, keep the
warring parties apart, or support Pristina in any fight?
Although renewed war seems unlikely – Serbian officials, led by Prime Minister
Vojislav Kostunica, have said their nation will not send in its army – less formal
combat by gangs and militias is possible, even likely. And any conflict could
easily expand. Ethnic passions have cooled since 1999, but a deep-seated hatred
remains. The hostility flared into widespread violence by ethnic Albanians in
March 2004; Albanian mistreatment of ethnic Serbs in the aftermath of an independence
declaration might generate a similarly-violent Serb response.
A Kosovo independence claim also might reenergize ethnic Albanian separatists
in Macedonia, Montenegro, and south Serbia. Serbs in Bosnia could seize on Kosovo's
action, whether or not Washington wants to consider it a precedent, to push
for an independent Republika Srpska. All of these situations could spark violence.
The legal status of Kosovo likely would remain problematic. Many, but not
all, Europeans might join the U.S. in recognizing the new nation. Increased
EU discord likely would be blamed on Washington.
Without UN acceptance, Kosovo would remain in legal limbo, discouraging
countries like Germany from maintaining troops there. Allied relations with
Russia would further fray; indeed, Moscow would view Kosovo as a precedent to
be deployed whenever convenient in dealing with territorial disputes involving
Georgia and Moldova, in particular.
Serbian politics would suffer. The fractious and fractured democratic coalition
might fall, and certainly would be pushed in a more nationalistic direction
to maintain itself against attacks from the Radical Party. Belgrade's chances
of entering the EU, with the promise of improved regional economic integration,
would recede. Kosovo would stoke revanchist flames in Belgrade, creating a permanent
geopolitical irritant in the region.
Finally, the spectacle of such an enclave achieving independence might
encourage other independence-minded territories, from economic giant Taiwan
to geopolitical midget Abkhazia, to make a similar claim. There is nothing wrong
in principle with people anywhere seeking independence, but making unilateral
claims made where violence is a possible or even likely response would sacrifice
common sense for abstract ideology. Surely the Bush administration has done
that often enough to satisfy several presidencies.
There's still time to avert a crisis, but the window is closing. Absent
insistence from Washington and Brussels that a Kosovo independence claim will
not be accepted, the ethnic Albanians have no reason to hold back. Absent a
geopolitical concession worthy of a great power, Russia has no reason to ratify
the allied position. Absent a desire to commit political suicide, the Belgrade
government has no reason to approve national dismemberment.
Which leaves the decision, crisis or no?, up to Washington and Brussels.
Why the Bush administration chose to maintain the Clinton policy is unclear.
America's intervention always was a flawed episode of global social engineering,
international "social work," as Michael Mandelbaum of SAIS once called it. With
so many other geopolitical problems on its plate, Washington should drop its
attempt to dictate a solution, irrespective of the interests of other parties.
Europe also faces more than enough challenges to continental unity – from
controversy over the repackaged constitution to the question of further EU expansion.
The goal of forging a common defense and foreign policy will not be advanced
by roughly overriding the deep-seated objections of Greece and other EU members.
Even if Athens went along with a majority decision to recognize Pristina, it
would do so reluctantly, undercutting allied efforts to quiet the region.
Thus, the European states and the U.S. should propose a new round of negotiations – genuine
negotiations. No preconditions. No timetables. If the Albanians want independence,
they need to come up with sufficient concessions, territorial or other, to win
Serbian assent. If the Serbs want to maintain formal sovereignty over Kosovo,
they need to come up with sufficient concessions, expanded autonomy or other,
to win Albanian assent. Agreement might still prove impossible. But success
would be far more likely than from the faux talks promoted by the allies.
What's another foreign policy crisis among friends? Maybe one too many.
The best hope to avert a new, and possibly violent, breakdown in the Balkans
is for both Washington and Brussels to realize that America and the Europeans
are far too busy to deal with civil disorder and conflict in Kosovo. They must
tell Pristina no to independence. And they must do so quickly.