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Would an independent Kosovo ignite the Balkans?

Ethnic Albanian students demonstrating
REUTERS/Hazir Reka
Some 1,000 ethnic Albanian students demonstrate Monday by chanting "Independence" and waving U.S. and Albanian flags in Kosovo's capital Pristina. An independent Kosovo, dominated by Albanians, could renew conflict in the Balkans.

 

As Monday's deadline for a U.N.-prodded settlement on Kosovo's future came and went with no settlement in sight, European foreign ministers met in Brussels to seek unified support for a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. They didn't find it — Cyprus being the most adamant against the European Union's plan to recognize an independent Kosovo without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Nevertheless, it appears Kosovo will declare its independence early next year with both EU and U.S. support — and without U.N. blessing. As the International Herald Tribune report put it: "Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden said there was 'virtual unanimity' among EU countries on supporting phased-in, supervised independence for Kosovo. He said most countries would have preferred an endorsement from the Security Council, 'but if that is not the case, we will have to move forward.' " Eight years after NATO intervened to protect ethnic Albanians from Serbian violence, Europeans and Americans are united in thinking it's time to get beyond the status quo, i.e. U.N. administration of the province.

Russia is blocking U.N. endorsement — siding with its ally, Serbia, which was willing to accept some measure of greater autonomy for Kosovo, but no more than that. According to London's TimesOnline, Europeans have been hoping that Serbia's wish to join the European Union will affect its behavior and prevent a return to violence. "However," it reported, "Bozidar Djelic, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday [Monday]: 'There will be no trade of Kosovo for Europe, nor will Serbia ever accept it, and nobody's offering it.' "

'Chain reaction'
For its part, Russia — through Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — warned the EU Monday to "think very carefully about the consequences" of supporting unilateral independence, the British Telegraph reported. "I want to stress that...recognition of such independence will not remain without consequences," he said. "It will create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world."

Unsettling talk, that. But Dejan Anastasijevic and Andrew Purvis, writing in Time, say that "while tensions are indeed rising, there are sound reasons why the worst-case scenarios — including new conflict in the Balkans — probably will not be realized." They conclude that Serbia "will almost certainly stop short of steps that would endanger its own future. ... In the end, Serbia's options for retaliation remain limited, as the government may soon discover that fulfilling their threats would damage their own country rather than the intended targets."

But how can Albanian and Serbian interests both be resolved? Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sees dangers ahead, particularly in worsening U.S.-Russia relations, but also a way out. "(T)he formula for solving the conflict has been more or less clear for some time," he writes. "To begin with, one has to accept that the Kosovars will not be ruled by the Serbs, and vice versa. Maintaining the status quo is a losing proposition. Creating a multiethnic, but in reality an Albanian-dominated Kosovo, is trading one problem for another. The Kosovars must be given full independence, and the Serbs must be allowed to join Serbia. After everything that the Kosovars and the Serbs have gone through, partition is the least bad option.

"The Serb-populated area north of the Ibar River would probably vote in a referendum to unite with Serbia, and the rest of the province would form a Kosovar state. ... Kosovo will be made responsible for respecting the rights of those Serbs who would stay within its borders after the partition, and for the Serbian Orthodox cultural sites. Those Serbs who decide to leave their homes in the Kosovar state must be given resettlement assistance."

It is Europe, not the otherwise-focused United States, that should take the lead, Trenin says. "Taking a leaf from the Americans' book, the EU needs to do another Dayton, under its own leadership. Both antagonists, Serbia and Kosovo, are future EU territory, and need be treated as such. Serbia itself, for its acceptance of the loss of much of Kosovo, should be given a time plan for EU accession, as well as generous financial assistance to help the transition and get over the trauma of the territorial loss. Kosovo, too, must be given a clear European perspective and continued assistance, conditional on its ability to modernize the economy, build institutions and eradicate crime. To make the parties clinch a deal won't be easy, but once the deal is on ... the accord is likely to remain intact."

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune's editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

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