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Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber observed that “This was the biggest security test for NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo since 1999, when minorities were forced from their homes as the international community looked on. But they failed the test.” The events two years ago resulted in much hand wringing, but little else. No one was prosecuted and jailed for their crimes. Today many Serb refugees remain in small camps, unemployed and living in containers turned into homes.
The Albanian political leadership includes guerrilla leaders almost certainly guilty of atrocities. No one denies the explosion of organized crime, including sex trafficking, in Kosovo, which has been called the “black hole” of Europe. Radical Islam, too, may be on the rise — more than 200 mosques have been built since 1999, and some unashamedly fly the Saudi Arabian flag. “Sex, crime, terrorism, it’s all there,” opines one U.S. diplomat stationed in Belgrade.
AS A POLITICAL ENTITY, KOSOVO is less ready for independence today, based on its commitment to a multi-ethnic republic with human rights guarantees, than when it was “liberated” in 1999. Warns 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 gravely unsatisfactory.”
So what to do? Final (or future) status negotiations have begun under the tutelage of UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, and it is obvious that officials in the West would like to take credit for their “success” in Kosovo, run a victory lap, and go home. The U.S. and Europeans have been pressuring the Serbs to voluntarily yield Kosovo and collect EU membership as their reward. Tod Lindberg of Policy Review reflects the conventional wisdom when he argues that “Serbia needs to decide whether its future is Western integration or instead a return to dead-end nationalist politics.” Some Europeans have spoken of finding a win/win, or at least win/no lose, solution.
However, it doesn’t exist. Roughly two million ethnic Albanians now live in Kosovo — it’s hard to know how many for sure, since the local authorities have no incentive to prevent a large in-migration, further strengthening their hold over the land. Understandably, none of them want to live under Serbia.
But Serbs, no less than Americans and Europeans, want to amputate historic lands from their country. On his visit last week Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica indicated that independence was not an option, instead offering “the greatest possible autonomy.” Belgrade may not be able to prevent the allies from dismembering a sovereign nation, but it will not acquiesce in the act.
Moreover, no sane Serb (or Roma) in Kosovo wants to live under Albanian rule. Indeed, the Serbs who now dominate Mitrovica, north of the Irba River and close to the rest of Serbia, probably would forcibly resist Albanian rule. Even the Crisis Group, which remains dedicated to the mythical ideal of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, admits that the allies would have to make integration happen, somehow (the group suggests — and I am not making this up, to quote humorist Dave Berry — a PR campaign.)
Allied officials continue to talk in grand terms. Last year Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told Congress that “Failure to secure a multi-ethnic Kosovo would be a failure” of years of effort. Yet the likely result of full independence is clear. A top U.S. official told me on my visit that he figures not a Serb will remain within five or ten years after independence, or even the status quo. That is, granting Kosovo independence means completing the process of ethnic cleansing that started seven years ago. Worse, since the West has been in charge, granting independence means ratifying the very process that the allies went to war to prevent.
IN ORDER TO GET AROUND this rather embarrassing dilemma, Western governments are talking about conditional independence, that is, independence only after ethnic Albanians meet certain standards. Perhaps proponents of this perspective are so naive as to verge on the delusional; more likely, they are cynically maneuvering to get out of Kosovo with a minimum of public embarrassment.
After all, if things are, as claimed by Kosovo’s allied occupiers, better today than in 1999 or 2004, it is mostly because so many Serbs and other minorities have fled. The easy ethnic cleansing already has been done. There is less opportunity and reason to target minorities.
However, despite all the right public promises from Albanian officials, there is little reason to believe popular attitudes have changed. Bishop Artemije sadly observed simply: “Crimes happened not just seven years ago but are happening now as we speak.” One resident of a refugee camp who fled deadly mobs two years ago told me that “we see people living in our homes and sleeping in our beds talking about how good democracy is.”
And if seven years of tutelage by the allies under military occupation isn’t enough to teach the majority Albanian community good human rights manners, how will a few verbal promises and some corresponding paper threats do the job? Nor will any conditions be enforced. The idea that the allies would get tough and block independence, or even return the territory to Belgrade, if the standards were not met is a fantasy. The West has done little to protect the Serbian community over the last seven years; to the contrary, the allies have allowed the Albanians to ethnically cleanse most of the land. Today the heroic humanitarian crusaders of 1999 simply want to finish the occupation, withdraw their 17,000 troops, and move on.
At the same time, conditional independence, by leaving the issue formally open while effectively dispossessing the Serbs, is likely to radicalize both parties. Ethnic Albanians have been growing impatient. The group Self-Determination! has been leading non-violent protests against UN targets (for which some demonstrators actually went to jail, in contrast to those who murdered Serbs). More ominously, there have been attacks on allied vehicles, and resentment at more years of apparent indecision could spark more serious assaults on KFOR and UN personnel. Leading Kosovar political figure Adam Demaci has threatened the allies with “violence of such dimensions that 17 March 2004 will be forgotten.”
As for Serbia, detaching Kosovo is likely to bring down the Kostunica government. Waiting in the wings is the Serbian Radical Party, a populist-nationalist movement headed by Vojislav Seselj, now awaiting trial for war crimes at The Hague. The U.S. will not even allow diplomatic personnel to meet with Radical members of parliament, terming the party “undemocratic.” Yet some polls show it with 40-plus percent support, putting it within easy reach of dominating a new coalition government.
What a pretty picture this all would be. Ethnic Albanians step up attacks on Serbs and begin targeting allied forces in Kosovo. Serbs in Mitrovica fortify their enclave and look north to Belgrade for support. Hard-core, anti-Western nationalists take power in Serbia. Then what?
Like so many conflicts, it was a lot easier to get into Kosovo than it will be to get out. But there’s still time to draw back from the brink. The West should insist on a genuine negotiation in which a variety of options are freely considered. An allied diktat, especially one mandating independence, will not be fair. Nor will it bring the regional stability that everyone desires. Only the residents of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia can find a lasting solution.
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