The Solution to the Kosovo Problem

by , December 20, 2007

Now that the deadline has passed without an international agreement on the future of Kosovo – the Serbian province that has enjoyed autonomy under the tutelage of the United Nations since the NATO-Serb war of 1999 – a showdown in the UN Security Council looms. No matter what the outcome of Wednesday’s debate, don’t be surprised if Kosovo, with the support of the Western powers, declares its independence. Such a provocative action would anger Serbia and its ally Russia, and could cause a resumption of violence there.

Since 1999, the province has been governed autonomously from the Serbian central government by the Muslim Albanian Kosovars, who constitute 90 percent of the population. Naturally, the Serbian government is concerned about the future of the minority Serb population in an independent Kosovo.

A study of past partitions and secessions, however, might allay Serb fears. Historically, when only a small minority lives in a majority area, much less violence results, because the majority isn’t threatened. Only when a large minority is present do both factions become nervous. Each side may arm to defend itself, triggering additional fears of attack, and war may ensue. For example, following 1921, when majority-Protestant Northern Ireland was partitioned from predominantly Catholic Ireland, decades of violence ensued in Northern Ireland, because the substantial minority of Catholics (more than one-third of their population) presented a security threat to the Protestants, and vice versa. But in Ireland, Protestants numbered less than 10 percent, and have lived in peace with the Catholics during that period.

Although there has been tension and sporadic violence between the Kosovar Serbs and Albanians, Kosovo’s Serb minority is likely small enough to avoid major security anxiety by the Albanian majority. In addition, the international community has demanded that Albanians provide substantial security guarantees for the Serb minority.

A greater problem may be the fact that many Serbs regard Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization. In the Middle Ages, Serbian civilization was centered in the province; Serbian religious and historical shrines remain there, including Gazimestan, the site of an important battle lost to the Turks.

History shows that nationalities often are less willing to trade off or substitute for land of such "intangible" value than they might be to trade economically or strategically valuable land. So the Serbs may feel compelled to fight over these sites. They have certainly been unwilling to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo, despite international pressure.

The Russians have hinted that in the partition of Kosovo from Serbia, Kosovo should also be partitioned, and the land with the Serbian shrines should be returned to Serbia. Predictably, the Albanian majority rejects this idea, because they want the biggest country possible. Less understandably, the U.S. and its European allies reject it too. They want to defend prior boundaries, contain Serbia, and play hardball with Serbia’s Russian ally. This stance is unwise.

A more stable, long-term solution is to adjust the border so that Serbia can retain some – if not most – of these critical historical and religious sites. Although the new state of Kosovo would be slightly smaller, it would be more secure against its stronger Serb neighbor. For security purposes, Kosovo would not have to be a ward of the U.S. and Europe. Such a settlement might avoid a future Serb-Kosovo war that could escalate to a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia – two nuclear-weapon states.

Although merely redrawing the current Serb-Kosovo border to incrementally expand Serb-controlled lands is preferable, more creative gerrymandering might be possible. A Kosovo partitioning wouldn’t necessarily need to give Serbians land contiguous to Serbia. In that case, any important noncontiguous Serbian shrines surrounded by the new Kosovo could be protected by the UN

Also, the Serbs might have to compromise on which historical or religious sites would be reabsorbed into Serbia. Less important sites might have to be ceded to the new country of Kosovo.

This partition of Kosovo, within the partition of Kosovo from Serbia, would give the new state the best chance for a long-term stable relationship with its powerful neighbor. As in Palestine, giving up land for peace is the right path to long-term stability and security. In both parts of the world, dispassionate analysts can define fairly well where a political settlement would end up, but cooling red-hot historical animosity to get there is another thing entirely. A start down that road in Kosovo would be to drop U.S. objections to the "partition inside a partition" approach.

Read more by Ivan Eland