At Large

Closing the Books on Kosovo

Six years after an unnecessary war, the place is still a mess. But maybe there's a way out.

By 7.29.05

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Ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo want independence, but even the Europeans don't believe they've earned it. Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy head, has returned from Kosovo's capital of Pristina criticizing the Albanians' refusal to move forward on democratization and minority rights.

Six years ago President Bill Clinton and NATO launched an unprovoked war against Yugoslavia, which had attacked neither the U.S. nor any American ally. The "liberated" Yugoslav (now Serbian) province of Kosovo remains in limbo.

The status quo satisfies no one, especially the ethnic Albanians who dominate Kosovo. Nicholas Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, recently told Congress: "The status quo of Kosovo's undefined status is no longer sustainable, desirable, or acceptable."

So U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has appointed a special envoy, Kai Eide, Norway's ambassador to NATO, to assess the province's compliance with democratic and human rights standards, with an eye to starting international negotiations on Kosovo's final status in the fall. But the process is dependent on Kosovo's good behavior, which Solana found lacking.

The fact that Kosovo remains an issue demonstrates the Clinton administration's hubris and surreal view of the Balkan combatants in 1999. The belief that it could impose a mutually acceptable arrangement, one that enshrined minority rights within a multi-ethnic framework, always was a fantasy.

The hatreds on the ground were too strong. America's intervention -- taking the world's greatest military alliance into war against a destitute state suffering through a series of civil wars -- irrevocably changed the geopolitical environment.

Stopping the bitter guerrilla conflict was an obvious benefit, but little good has occurred since the bloodletting ended. America's allies, the Albanian majority, conducted ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, kicking out most Serbs, Jews, Roma, and non-Albanian Muslims.

U.N. rule has done little to prevent endemic violence, crime, and instability, including brutal anti-Serb riots last year. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) says simply: "the human rights situation in Kosovo is still not a good one, particularly for minority communities who live in enclaves and for the displaced."

At a congressional hearing in May, Charles English of the State Department reported, "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."

At the same time, the local population is dissatisfied with its indeterminate status: still formally part of Serbia, officially ruled by Western occupiers, with effective local control but no final resolution in sight.

Now, at least, the U.N., with prodding by the Bush administration, is attempting to move forward. There is likely to be some assessment whether Kosovo is meeting a number of democratic "standards" along with the creation of some forum for discussing the province's ultimate status.

ALL THAT CAN BE SAID is, the sooner the better. The current situation benefits no one. Most obviously it is a source of discord and instability in Kosovo.

The prospect of an international fight over Kosovo also provokes nationalist antagonism in Serbia, where political parties hostile to the West have done well of late. Other nations, too, worry: almost all of Serbia's neighbors harbor ethnic Albanian populations and worry about the impact of border changes. Unfortunately, it will be easier to start the process than to deliver a good result.

The only hope for finding some solution is to abandon the illusions that long have tainted American policy in the Balkans. First, consent of all of the parties is impossible. There is no agreement that will satisfy everyone. After seeing other parts of the former Yugoslavia secede, why would Albanian Kosovars accept less than independence? But why would Serbia accept dismemberment at the hands of numerous countries -- America, Britain, and Turkey, to start -- that have historically suppressed their own secessionist movements?

Why would an artificial neighboring state like Bosnia back the partition of Kosovo between competing ethnic groups, creating a principle that could be applied to it? Why would Greece, Macedonia, or Montenegro support an Albanian minority of another nation in winning independence? Why should the nation of Albania forswear the possibility of union with Kosovo and creation of a greater Albania?

Western nations also should abandon the embarrassingly naive illusion that they can forcibly engineer a federal state that protects minority rights. The bitter serial break-up of Yugoslavia should have ended this fantasy.

If that wasn't a large enough dose of reality, then any belief in a multi-ethnic Kosovo should have disappeared when ethnic Albanians kicked out a quarter million of their neighbors after NATO intervened on their behalf. Whatever final delusions might have remained should have disappeared in last year's spurt of anti-Serb violence by ethnic Albanians.

Understandably, no Albanian Kosovar cares to trust his future to Serb governance. But no Serb, Jew, Roma, or anyone else would want to trust his future to ethnic Albanian governance, irrespective of the promises made by whomever.

It also is important to abandon expectation of a "just" settlement. Since the West cheerfully backed creation of a series of new states out of Yugoslavia, there's no intrinsic reason to say no to Kosovo.

At the same time, the NATO countries denied Serbs the right to secede from the new nations of Bosnia and Croatia. So what principle justifies giving the Albanians more rights than were accorded the Serbs? On the other hand, if Albanians have a right to secede from Serbia, there's no logical reason to deny Serbs the right to secede from Kosovo.

IN SHORT, THERE ARE NO generally applicable principles here. The U.S. and its European allies support the sovereignty of nation states in the face of ethnic pressures -- except when they support groups that wish to secede and establish ethnically-based states.

In the case of the Balkans, the only principle that seemed to apply was that everyone got to secede from Serb-dominated territories and Serbs were never allowed to secede from territories dominated by other groups. This might be consistent policy, but it should not be confused with a principled moral stand.

None of the proposed solutions is pretty. Independence would be in keeping with the wishes of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, but would leave the few remaining Serbs vulnerable, inflame nationalism in Serbia, unsettle neighboring states, and create a statelet likely to become the regional font of crime, instability, and perhaps even terrorism.

Leaving Kosovo with Serbia, whatever the form of autonomy, would satisfy Serbia and other nations with sizable ethnic Albanian populations, but has no support among Kosovo's Albanians. Serbian brutality during the guerrilla conflict and six years of de facto autonomy after allied intervention have eliminated this as a realistic option.

Moreover, this approach would place Serbia's democratic future in doubt, creating a hostile voting bloc accounting for roughly 20 percent of the population. (With a youthful population, ethnic Albanians could constitute 30 percent of army recruits.) Finally, this "solution" would be inherently unstable, creating a sense of unfinished business, seeming ethnic Albanians to be a mere way station on the way to independence.

Independence with partition -- really big partition minus little partition -- would come closer to satisfying ethnic Albanians, by giving them a country, and Serbs, by leaving most of them in Serbia. Such a system would be difficult to negotiate with Albanians, leave some Albanians in Serb territory, and would unnerve surrounding nations by encouraging further partitions.

Nevertheless, it would come closest to reflecting the desires of residents and applying just principles. Separation would be the means to discourage future conflict. Certainly it should not be ruled out by the West, as the Bush administration has attempted to do, effectively prejudging any "negotiations."

ALTHOUGH CLINTON ADMINISTRATION officials who did so much to unnecessarily entangle America in the Balkans have demanded continued U.S. "leadership," solving the region's problems always should have been Europe's rather than America's problem. Unfortunately, the U.S. now bears significant responsibility for the outcome due to its foolish intervention in 1999. But Europe retains both a greater interest in Kosovo's final status and ability to influence Balkan governments than does America.

Thus, Washington should baptize the beginning of an international process for resolving Kosovo's status and then step back, withdrawing its last 1800 troops from the region. Europe then could wield its various tools of influence -- a willingness to maintain military garrisons, the prospect of joining the European Union, and the offer of economic opportunities and aid. If the Europeans choose a different strategy than preferred by Washington, so be it. And if a continuing troop presence is necessary, as many analysts argue, it should be provided by Europe.

The Kosovo war is over, but the peaceful resolution has barely begun. In the West's search for a solution, no one should unduly worry about respecting international juridical principles or seeking regional consensus. NATO abandoned any pretense of principle when it launched its unprovoked war against Serbia.

The allies should indicate that precedent is irrelevant. Every case, whether Kosovo or Bosnia or Croatia or Macedonia, is unique. International solutions will depend on particular circumstances and won't be determined by any other settlement.

There are lessons to be learned. The U.S., with or without NATO, should say never again. Never again will Washington substitute ideological fantasies for practical realities when implementing its foreign policy. Never again will Washington intervene in a distant civil war of no geopolitical concern to America. Never again will America attack another nation that poses no threat to the U.S. The world is filled with tragedy, and the Balkans -- let alone Iraq -- demonstrates how difficult it is for outsiders to resolve ancient and intractable conflicts.

Who can and should govern Kosovo, and can they do it fairly and effectively? No one really knows. But it's time to give the local inhabitants a chance to try... And to let them deal with the consequences if they fail.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).