Creating Crisis: Another War in the Balkans?

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 not kill.

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 EU citizenship.

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 announcement.

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 10.

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 gravely unsatisfactory.”

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.