At Large

Trouble Around the Corner

Kosovo is a concern Washington could do without.

By 9.17.07

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Kosovo, with its primarily Moslem population, has been of unique importance to the United States. Proving to the Islamic world that America would fight for the rights of a Moslem-dominated community in Europe has become one of the few foreign policy initiatives shared by the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Of course it wasn't always such an easy transition. Clinton's adventure in Balkan politics, and subsequent commitment of NATO air and ground forces in 1999, initially was condemned by many leaders of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The Russians, however, helped shift conservative thinking.

Moscow's adamant defense of its Orthodox Slav cousins and the Serbian sovereignty argument of Slobodan Milosevic smelled too much of a revival of earlier communist alignments. This became even more clear when the Russian army units supposedly under UN command actually acted to block British and American forces seeking to secure key positions.

By the time George W. Bush settled into office, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condi Rice had decided that with a minimum commitment of American ground forces and consequent little danger to American life and limb, considerable political propaganda use could be made of the U.S. effort to protect a majority Moslem homeland. The only trouble has been that al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq came along and the American/EU/NATO/UN good works toward Moslems in Kosovo were essentially ignored by the Islamic world.

At this point, both Kosovars and Serbs are in agreement that they still hate each other. It has been said that virtually all Serbia believes Kosovo must remain Serb -- even though most of the rest of the world disagrees. Generously, Serbia's Foreign Office has indicated that Belgrade would not be making efforts to destabilize Kosovo "by physical, military or security means." It will only use legal means, it said, to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence. This has satisfied no one.

The fact is that Kosovo's leadership has made clear that it intends to establish UDI by December 10 if the negotiations next planned for September 18 do not produce agreement. This has sent the EU into a frenzy of activity with suggestions that such action would precipitate a return to the bloody warfare of the '90s.

Facts don't seem to matter too much in the Balkans where hundreds of years of imperial exploitation, foreign invasion, and bloody conflict are the historical norm. The approximate 2.1 million population of Kosovo is made up now of nearly 90% ethnic Albanians, virtually all of whom are Moslem.

This province ekes out an existence with 40-50% unemployed living through subsistence farming and cross border smuggling. Forty-five percent of its revenue is made up of remittances from abroad and UN in-country programs. Kosovo has a marginal agriculture and a very small basic manufacturing capability, although its construction industry thrives on exporting both products and workers to neighboring Balkan states. Other than some local coal mining, its mineral deposits are largely undeveloped. Serbia, nonetheless, is determined to hang on to this impoverished province. Tradition is a powerful motivation in that part of the world.

There have been various proposals for the partition of Serbia that would spin off the portion south of the Ibar River as a new Kosovo. The problem is that United Nations Resolution 1244 itself states Kosovo is a Serbian province. While such details might seem to be able to be worked out by some delicate UN negotiation, the acceptance of the concept of partition might reopen a vast number of historical ethnic border conflicts throughout the multiple nations of former Yugoslavia.

The Russians have recently reiterated their firm stance in support of their Serb cousins. Putin's very modern ambitions do not dissuade him from using the oldest of pseudo-legitimate ethnic identities to buttress his foreign political actions. The Serbs, in turn, while happy to have Russian support for their point of view, are ultimately most interested in keeping clean their EU copybook in hopes of eventual full membership in that union.

Meanwhile Washington appears to have downgraded the political importance of aiding Kosovo for Islamic political propaganda purposes. It's not so much a matter of losing interest as it is a willingness to turn the sticky problem of Kosovo over to the UN and European Union. The Bush Administration is basically sitting with its fingers crossed hoping the United Nations' special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, will be able to devise a plan that satisfies both Belgrade and Pristina sometime before the December 10 deadline.

No one wants any more trouble around the Kosovo corner -- except the bad guys.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.