FrontPage Magazine
May 22, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd 

U.S. and European ambassadors at the UN have introduced a resolution proposing “supervised independence” for tiny Kosovo, a Connecticut-sized chunk of southern Serbia predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians. 

Passage won’t be easy, however. In a nod to its brethren in Serbia, Moscow is brandishing its veto threat. But even a “nyet” from Russia won’t necessarily derail Kosovo’s de jure independence. After all, it already has de facto independence. And as Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried has observed, “We hope that Russia understands that Kosovo is going to be independent one way or another.” 

No one can predict what the future holds for an independent Kosovo, although some observers are trying. Opponents of independence believe Kosovo will become a toehold for terror, while advocates see it as a nascent democracy and an example of how the Euro-Atlantic community can work together to promote some modicum of stability and peace in a corner of Europe that has known precious little of either.  

Suffice it to say that what might be called “semi-sovereignty” for Kosovo is not the ideal solution for anyone: Kosovo’s nascent government would like more independence; Belgrade would prefer “supervised autonomy” rather than “supervised independence;” and the U.S. and EU would rather not be shepherding yet another orphan of Yugoslavia into statehood. But as with so many other episodes in U.S. foreign policy, Washington’s challenge is to choose the least bad option. And supervised independence is probably it. 

Worries about Kosovo morphing into a safe haven for terrorists are not without merit.  After all, radical Islamic elements aided some Kosovars—and earlier, Bosnian Muslims—in the ethno-religious warfare that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s. For example, Australian al-Qaeda fighter David Hicks traveled to the Balkans to join the notorious Kosovo Liberation Army. Hicks completed military training at a KLA camp and later fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces apprehended him.  

Plus, as AP reported last month, Western intelligence agencies believe much of the former Yugoslavia is fertile ground for “so-called white al-Qaeda—Muslims with Western features who could easily blend into European or U.S. cities and carry out attacks.” That was brought into sharp relief this month, when the FBI thwarted an attack on Ft. Dix that involved American citizens and ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. 

Some of this could be traceable to the Clinton administration’s shortsighted decision to look the other way and allow Iran to serve as a conduit for arming the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Although many Americans advocated lifting the UN’s ill-thought arms embargo, few wanted to enlist Tehran’s help in the process.  

Even so, the prospect of Islamic terrorists burrowing into Kosovo doesn’t mean it is destined to become another member of the Axis of Evil. After all, there are Islamic terrorists in Canada, Britain, the Philippines and lots of other allied countries. In fact, the 9/11 attackers studied in genteel Germany (where there are still an estimated 300-500 al-Qaeda operatives) and later lived in a blissfully oblivious United States. Moreover, Serb authorities have uncovered what appear to be terrorist bases in Serbia.  

In short, this is a Balkan-wide, Europe-wide, indeed worldwide, problem. And Kosovo’s government is working with Belgrade to overcome it. In April, at Serbia’s request, Kosovo issued arrest warrants and set up checkpoints to apprehend suspected terrorists. 

In fact, there are several checks on radicalization already in place in Kosovo, and the independence plan crafted by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari should strengthen these. For example:  

-Kosovo’s supervised independence comes complete with a European Union overseer, a 2,000-man EU police and judicial team, 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 has the powers 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.

-Ahtisaari’s 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 Church and its internal organization shall be recognized explicitly by the Kosovo authorities.” The plan also creates “protective zones…around more than 40 key religious and cultural sites.”

-As if to underscore NATO’s evenhandedness, the U.S. redeployed troops inside the tiny enclave to ensure that Kosovo Serbs were protected during Serbian elections in January. 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. (Just last week, the EU enlargement commissioner met with Serbian officials.) And in 2005, the U.S. lifted its ban on foreign aid to Serbia.

-Speaking of aid, the West is pledging lots of it to Kosovo—and tying it to certain political and human rights standards. The EU has poured the equivalent of almost $3 billion into tiny Kosovo—a healthy portion of it used to protect the Serb minority and its valued cultural sites. And the U.S. is investing $279 million this year and another $151 million in 2008 on Kosovo’s development.

To be sure, these are not airtight guarantees against what all of us fear—the return of the sort of irredentism that tore apart the Balkans or the rise of an Islamist state in Europe—but they may be the best we can do. Simply put, Kosovo is not going to be re-sutured to Serbia. Too much has transpired in the last eight years.  

Some Americans forget and many others simply do not know that by intervening in Kosovo in March 1999, President Bill Clinton was actually 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.” 

Clinton followed through on the threat, but Milosevic was still able to wreak havoc. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced in Kosovo. The UN, OSCE and independent media all accused Milosevic of committing war crimes.  Even so, some reject these claims. As Assistant Secretary Fried explains, “There has been a sort of unreality to the discussion in Serbia, as if 1999 never happened, as if Milosevic was a mythical figure created for propaganda purposes. Well, he wasn’t.”  

But don’t take the State Department’s word for it—or the UN’s or the BBC’s or the OSCE’s. Consider what Serbian officials have concluded: Serbia’s post-Milosevic leaders concede that the dictator was responsible for hundreds of deaths in Kosovo. As AP has reported, war-crimes courts set up by Belgrade conclude that Milosevic tried to conceal his atrocities by transporting corpses out of Kosovo and reburying them in Serbia proper. In fact, Serbs have uncovered mass graves across central Serbia. One included more than a hundred corpses of women and children. 

Serbian judges are handing down guilty verdicts for massacres in places like Srebrenica, the Bosnian town where 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed while UN peacekeepers averted their gaze. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who is a proud Serbian nationalist, has even conceded that Milosevic was guilty of crimes against humanity. “I am,” he contritely declared in 2000, “taking responsibility for what happened on my part for what Milosevic had done.” 

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

Perhaps that’s a good thing in this case.