How Not To Blow Up the Balkans


The Globe and Mail
August 10, 2007
One way or another, Kosovo will become an independent state. The real question is how to get from here to there without blowing up the Balkans. The solution may lie in coaxing Kosovo's leaders into issuing the most limited and self-constraining declaration of independence in world history.

Nominally part of Serbia, the territory has been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombed Serb positions and deployed peacekeepers to protect the province's majority Albanian population. In practice, Kosovo has been a separate state for eight years, under international authority.

There is no realistic prospect of reintegrating Kosovo into Serbia. The local population is overwhelmingly opposed and will almost certainly fight to prevent it. The last thing the region needs is a return to ethnic bloodletting, which would be difficult to contain within Kosovo's boundaries.

Last March, UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari proposed that the world body recognize Kosovo's sovereignty under strict conditions. An independent Kosovo would be required to grant extensive rights to its minority Serbian community, including special voting provisions in parliament, control over education policy and local government, and protection for religious and cultural sites. These standards would be enforced by a powerful international representative, backed by an international military force.

Kosovo's leaders disliked this "supervised independence" formula but, in the end, were willing to accept it. Belgrade, however, rejected the proposal because it would have formalized Kosovo's de facto separation. Last month, Serbia's traditional ally, Russia, prevented the UN Security Council from approving the plan.

Mr. Ahtisaari's prescription remains the best answer for Kosovo and the region. It recognizes both the practical impossibility of restoring Serbian rule in Kosovo and the importance of addressing the fears and needs of ethnic Serbs living in the territory. For these reasons, the plan is backed by the United States, Canada, the European Union, NATO and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

There is a growing movement to implement the plan without Russia's support, which means working around the UN. But this is more easily said than done. The international mission that governs Kosovo is an appurtenance of the Security Council, and the UN still has legal authority over the province. It is not clear how Kosovo's supporters would effect a transition to a new arrangement without the council's approval.

Further, the process of recognizing Kosovo's independence, and setting conditions for the rights and protection of the Serb minority, would be awkward without UN endorsement. A Security Council resolution would serve the dual purpose of signalling international recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty and reassuring jittery ethnic Serbs by constraining the exercise of that sovereignty.

The best option is to work through the UN. But that would require Moscow's acquiescence, which is very unlikely. Russian President Vladimir Putin is infuriated by U.S. plans to base anti-ballistic missile interceptors and radar in the Czech Republic and Poland (in what used to be the Soviet sphere of influence) and is flexing Russia's muscles on the Kosovo issue.

Washington could explore alternative missile defence arrangements that would not require interceptors in Eastern Europe. Russia might then "coincidentally" revisit its position on Kosovo. Such deals are the stuff of geopolitics, but compromise is not the hallmark of George W. Bush's administration. And it is not clear whether the Russians would bite.

So what options are left? Belgrade's and Kosovo's leaders have agreed to hold four more months of negotiations, but no one is under any illusion that they will be successful. The last round of talks, which lasted more than a year, never came close to an agreement, and there is no sign the parties have changed their views. The Albanians will accept nothing less than formal independence, something the Serbs refuse to countenance.

Time is limited. Every recent UN report from Kosovo has noted that frustrations are mounting to alarming levels in the Albanian population and that the status quo is unsustainable. Kosovo's leaders seem poised to declare independence. That could provoke clashes between Serbs and Albanians over land and property that could easily escalate.

For now, Kosovo's leaders appear willing to wait until the new talks conclude (in early December) before taking any unilateral action. But if the negotiations end in failure, as they probably will, pressure within Kosovo for independence will be acute, perhaps even uncontainable.

At that point, assuming no last-minute flexibility from Russia or Serbia, the least dangerous strategy might be to persuade Kosovo's leaders to incorporate all the elements of the Ahtisaari plan directly into their declaration of independence - including the extraordinary protections for Serbs and the international monitoring presence. In exchange, countries backing the Ahtisaari formula would quickly recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.

It is not the ideal solution, but it would be better than the most likely alternative: a unilateral and unconditional declaration of independence - and a recipe for chaos.

Never before has an independence proclamation included a long list of self-binding conditions. Never has a country made its own sovereignty contingent on the presence of foreign monitors and soldiers. Yet, this unusual arrangement - a declaration of quasi-independence - may offer the best hope for a stable Kosovo if the UN is unable to act.