World Politics Review
January 21, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

Citing unnamed EU diplomats, The International Herald Tribune reports that the United States and Germany are prepared to green-light Kosovo’s independence soon after Serbia’s two-stage elections conclude the first week of February. Once Kosovo declares independence, according to the paper, President George W. Bush and Chancellor Angela Merkel will move quickly to recognize the predominantly Albanian enclave, with the rest of Europe’s major powers—Britain, France and Italy—following suit. 

In a world as complex as ours—and in a region as messy as the Balkans—Washington seldom has the luxury of choosing the best option. The challenge is to choose the least bad option. An independent Kosovo is just that.  

That option could be further complicated by the political situation in Belgrade. Round one of Serbia’s presidential elections on Sunday winnowed the field down to Boris Tadic, the Western-oriented incumbent, and Tomislav Nikolic, a one-time ally of Slobodan Milosevic. Neither was able to win a clear majority. Although both oppose Kosovo’s independence, Tadic’s tone and track record make him far more palatable to the West.  

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Nikolic warns that if Kosovo declares independence, his government would “cut off the supply of goods to Kosovo…stop Kosovo Albanians coming to Serbia…We won't recognize their passports.” 

Even the pro-Western Tadic has drifted into the sort of ethno-nationalist politics that most of Europe tried to bury in the 20th century, promising last spring, “We’ll do everything in our power, in terms of diplomacy, political and legal efforts to return Kosovo back to Serbia.”  

AP reports that the Serbian government has adopted an “action plan” to be executed upon Kosovo’s declaration of independence. It echoes what Nikolic has threatened—an economic and travel blockade, downgrading or breaking off diplomatic relations with countries that recognize the statelet, freezing EU integration efforts.

In other words, no matter how necessary it is, by endorsing Kosovo’s independence drive Western powers have undercut the moderates in Serbia. 

Many American critics of the situation in and around Kosovo blame President Bill Clinton for today’s imperfect, untidy state of affairs. But they forget, or simply do not know, that by intervening in Kosovo in March 1999, Clinton was only executing the policy of his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, who issued his so-called “Christmas Warning” in late 1992.  

“In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action,” the elder Bush warned, “the United States will be prepared to employ military force against Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” 

When Milosevic flouted the warning, Clinton followed through on the threat. And so, almost ten years later, in an uncanny case of historical symmetry, another President Bush is trying to pick up the pieces left behind by his father’s warning and his predecessor’s war. Because of Milosevic, all three of these policies—the warning, the war and now the independence—were necessary and proper. 

Contrary to the claims made by Moscow and Belgrade, this slow-motion independence movement has been in the works for the better part of a decade. Indeed, Kosovo has enjoyed de facto independence—and perhaps not coincidentally, the Balkans relative peace—since June 1999, when NATO forces entered the Connecticut-sized chunk of Serbia after a 78-day bombardment of Milosevic’s thuggish regime.  

Since then, Kosovo has existed in something of a netherworld between statehood and international protectorate. Last March, Martti Ahtisaari, UN Special Envoy for Kosovo, concluded that “Uncertainty over its future status has become a major obstacle to Kosovo’s democratic development, accountability, economic recovery and inter-ethnic reconciliation.” He proposed what came to be called “supervised independence” for Kosovo.  

Hoping to save face—and some of its ever-shrinking territory—Belgrade counter-offered “supervised autonomy.” But Washington and most EU states quickly endorsed Ahtisaari’s proposals, even as Moscow blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to bless Kosovo’s independence.  

Whatever we ultimately call it, Kosovo is not going to be re-sutured to Serbia. As Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, bluntly put it last spring, “Kosovo is going to be independent one way or another…It will either be done in a controlled, supervised way that provides for the well-being of the Serbian people, or it will take place in an uncontrolled way.” 

There are many reasons that Belgrade’s control over Kosovo is a thing of the past, not the least of which is what transpired during Milosevic’s reign, which saw him repeal Kosovo’s autonomy, brutalize Kosovo’s Albanian majority, and foment a decade of wars across the Balkans that claimed some 200,000 lives. 

An estimated 10,000 Kosovars were killed, and 800,000 forcibly displaced, during Milosevic’s final flurry of war crimes. But don’t take my word for it. War-crimes courts set up by Serbia conclude that Milosevic tried to conceal his atrocities by transporting hundreds of corpses out of Kosovo and reburying them further north.  Serbian authorities have unearthed mass graves in central Serbia, and are handing down guilty verdicts for Milosevic’s massacres. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a proud Serbian nationalist, has even conceded that Milosevic was guilty of war crimes. “I am,” he contritely declared in 2000, “taking responsibility for what happened on my part for what Milosevic had done,” adding that Milosevic was “among those responsible” for crimes against humanity. 

Serbia is still dealing with the consequences of those crimes, and the loss of Kosovo is one such consequence. 

However, what might be called “semi-sovereignty” for Kosovo is not the ideal solution for anyone: Kosovo’s government would like more independence; Belgrade wants to hold on to the statelet; the US and EU would rather not be shepherding yet another orphan of Yugoslavia into statehood; some worry about Serbian reprisals, others about Albanian revenge; and some critics of the Ahtisaari plan even warn that Kosovo will morph into a haven for Islamists and terrorists. 

But there are checks on radicalization—of the Serbian or Albanian variety—already in place, and the independence plan could strengthen these. For example:  

-Kosovo’s supervised independence will come complete with an EU overseer, a 1,800-man EU police and security force, an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a 16,500-strong NATO security force. For all their imperfections, these organizations are committed to keeping Pristina on the straight and narrow. Consider the EU overseer, which would have powers akin to that of a Roman proconsul. Specifically, he or she can “annul decisions or laws adopted by Kosovo authorities and sanction and remove public officials whose actions he/she determines to be inconsistent” with the spirit of the independence settlement and plan.

-The plan also provides the Kosovo Serb community “a high degree of control over its own affairs,” including control over secondary health care and higher education; autonomy in financial matters, “including the ability to receive transparent funding from Serbia;” and explicit provisions protecting “cross-border cooperation with Serbian institutions.” The plan ensures “the unfettered and undisturbed existence and operation of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo.” The plan also creates “protective zones” around key religious and cultural sites.

-As if to underscore NATO’s evenhandedness, the US redeployed troops inside the enclave to ensure that Kosovo Serbs were protected during elections in 2007. In 2006, NATO extended an invitation to Serbia to join the alliance’s Partnership for Peace, a kind of training ground for NATO aspirants.

-Serbia is a candidate for EU membership. In fact, Der Spiegelreports that Slovenia—formerly a republic of Yugoslavia and now an EU member—is proposing a Serbia Task Force to increase Brussels-to-Belgrade cooperation and fast-track Serbian entry into the economic club. Plus, in 2005, the U.S. lifted its ban on foreign aid to Serbia.

-Finally, the West is pledging lots of aid to Kosovo—and tying it to certain political and human rights standards. The EU has poured the equivalent of almost $3 billion into Kosovo—a healthy portion of it used to protect the Serb minority and its valued cultural sites. In addition to its long-range military commitment in Kosovo, the U.S. invested $279 million in 2007 and will send another $151 million into Kosovo this year.  

In 1998, on the eve of war, Washington sent Lt. General Michael Short to Belgrade to underscore how serious the US was about Kosovo. Short’s words were prophetic: “Nothing here will ever be the same, if we do this,” he warned.  

Perhaps that’s a good thing in this case.