Warning light on Kosovo

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The Bush administration has indicated its readiness to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of the Republic of Serbia that since 1999 has been under United Nations administration and NATO military control.

Such a declaration may take place as early as February. American recognition would be over Serbia’s objections, without a negotiated solution between Serbia and Kosovo’s Albanians, and without modification by the United Nations Security Council of Resolution 1244, which reaffirms Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo while providing for the province’s “substantial autonomy.” U.S. recognition may be joined by that of some members of the European Union, which has been under heavy diplomatic pressure from Washington, though several EU states and a number of countries outside Europe have said they would reject such action.

Attempting to impose a settlement on Serbia would be a direct challenge to the Russian Federation, which opposes any Kosovo settlement not accepted by Belgrade.

We believe an imposed settlement of the Kosovo question and seeking to partition Serbia’s sovereign territory without its consent is not in the interest of the United States. The blithe assumption of American policy — that the mere passage of nine years of relative quiet would be enough to lull Serbia and Russia into reversing their positions on a conflict that goes back centuries — has proven to be naive in the extreme.

We believe U.S. policy on Kosovo must be re-examined without delay, and we urge the Bush administration to make it clear that pending the results of such re-examination it would withhold recognition of a Kosovo independence declaration and discourage Kosovo’s Albanians from taking that step.

Current U.S. policy relies on the unconvincing claim that Kosovo is “unique” and would set no precedent for other troublespots. Of course every conflict has unique characteristics. However, ethnic and religious minorities in other countries already are signaling their intention to follow a Kosovo example. This includes sizeable Albanian communities in adjoining areas of southern Serbia, Montenegro, and especially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as well as the Serbian portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Recognition of Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent would set a precedent with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences for many other regions of the world. The Kosovo model already has been cited by supporters of the Basque separatist movement in Spain and the Turkish-controlled area of northern Cyprus. Neither the Security Council nor any other international body has the power or authority to impose a change of any country’s borders.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current policy is the dismissive attitude displayed toward Russia’s objections. Whatever disagreements the United States may have with Moscow on other issues, and there are many, the United States should not prompt an unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russia relations. There are urgent matters regarding which the United States must work with Russia, including Iran’s nuclear intentions and North Korea’s nuclear capability. Such cooperation would be undercut by American action to neutralize Moscow’s legitimate concerns regarding Kosovo.

If the U.S. moves forward with recognizing Kosovo, Moscow’s passivity cannot be taken for granted. It may have been one thing in 1999 for the United States and NATO to take action against Yugoslavia over the objections of a weak Russia.

Today, it would be unwise to dismiss Russia’s willingness and ability to assist Serbia. On an issue of minor importance to the United States, is this a useful expenditure of significant political capital with Russia?

Our Kosovo policy is hardly less problematic for our friends and allies in Europe. While some European countries, notably members of the EU, may feel themselves obligated to join us in recognizing Kosovo’s independence, a number of those countries would do so reluctantly because of Washington’s inflexibility and insistence. No more than the United States, Europe would not benefit from an avoidable confrontation with Russia.

Even if Kosovo declared itself an independent state, it would be a dysfunctional one and a ward of the international community for the indefinite future. Corruption and organized crime are rampant. The economy, aside from international largesse and criminal activities, is nonviable. Law enforcement, integrity of the courts, protection of persons and property, and other prerequisites for statehood are practically nonexistent. While these failures are often blamed on Kosovo’s uncertain status, a unilateral declaration of independence recognized by some countries and rejected by many others would hardly remedy that fact.

The result would be a new “frozen conflict,” with Kosovo’s status still unresolved. The risk of renewed violence would further impede Kosovo’s development. Moreover, heightened tensions might require reinforcing the U.S. presence in Kosovo when we can least afford it due to other commitments.

Serbia has made great strides in democratic development and economic revitalization since the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Current policy with respect to Kosovo risks complete reversal of these gains. Faced with a choice between Western partnership and defense of their sovereign territory and constitution, there is little doubt what Serbia would decide.

The current positive trend could falter in the face of political radicalization and possible internal destabilization. Serbia’s relations with countries that had recognized Kosovo would be impaired. Serbia would inevitably move closer to Russia as its only protector.

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