- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

With unsettling nuclear developments in North Korea, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and political upheaval in the Middle East, little attention is being paid to the Balkans, which might seem like a preoccupation of the post-Cold War 1990s.

But Kosovo — a Serbian province of 2 million people that experienced a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 — is on the brink of bursting onto the world stage once again. With the United States and the European Union pressing for resolution of Kosovo’s final status this year, it once looked like independence was assured. But now Serbia is trying to put that decision off, which could reawaken Balkan unrest.

After seven years of United Nations control, the majority Albanian and Muslim population is clamoring for independence. But the Serbian, largely Christian, minority is campaigning to remain attached to Serbia. The Serbian Kosovars claim that independence would mean creation of an Islamic fundamentalist state in Europe and expose them to ethnic violence.

Beyond those issues, other factors seem primed to raise Kosovo’s status on the international agenda. The United States would like to free up the 1,700 peacekeeping troops it still has in the province. Economic investment in a region that is an important trade and energy route is being held up by uncertainty over Kosovo’s status.

Closely watched region

And while some specialists warn that failure to resolve Kosovo’s status could turn it into a powder keg again, others caution against hasty action. They say Kosovo is being closely watched by other restless regions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia — including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova — and could be used to fire up breakaway movements.

“It may seem hard to imagine that there was a day not so long ago when the Balkans were the biggest foreign policy issue on the U.S. plate, but the simple issue is still there,” said Daniel Serwer, a Balkans specialist at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington. “Part of the population wants to pull away and be independent, and another part wants things to stay the same. It’s the repercussions that make things complex.”

U.S. officials have been saying since January that this will be the year of decision on Kosovo’s final status. “The people of Kosovo deserve greater clarity, and as we approach the end of the year, I suspect they will get greater clarity,” said Daniel Fried, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, on a stop last month in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

The U.N. special envoy to Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, is supposed to deliver a status settlement recommendation next month. Anticipating that the report will favor independence, Serbia is seeking to head it off by proposing a new constitution that specifies Kosovo is part of Serbia.

U.S. and European Union officials say Serbia’s actions are unlikely to derail the push to determine Kosovo’s status — though they say the tactics (possibly including a referendum on the new constitution and elections) could delay a decision, which ultimately is to be made by the U.N. Security Council, until next year.

U.S. groups active

While these maneuvers are going on, in Washington supporters and opponents of Kosovo’s independence are redoubling their efforts to win adherents. Anti-independence groups backed by Serbia have been running newspaper ads and sponsoring seminars in Washington to warn of a radical Islamist state and renewed ethnic cleansing if Kosovo is allowed to break from Serbia.

“Granting independence to Kosovo would be a reward for the crimes the Albanians have committed, and would create a base for criminality and jihad in the very heart of Europe,” said Artemije Radosavljevic, a Serbian Orthodox bishop in Kosovo.

Bishop Artemije, who has made several trips to Washington to plead the case of the Serbian population, claims that more than 3,000 Kosovo Serbs have been killed or kidnapped in the years of international administration. He adds that 150 churches and monasteries have been razed and thousands of Serbian houses destroyed. He says he has found sympathetic ears in the U.S. Congress, but little movement from a pro-independence stance in the State Department.

Mr. Serwer, who is also vice president of USIP’s Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, said that while there have been some cases of violence against Serbs, the numbers have been “grossly trumped up” by the anti-independence lobby to create a more alarming picture.

Mr. Serwer reserves his ire for the references these groups make to Islamic terrorism “in an attempt to tap into American fears,” he said.

“These claims, that go so far as to equate an independent Kosovo to an al Qaeda refuge, are so outrageous and blatantly anti-Muslim that they are despicable,” Mr. Serwer said.

Pro-West orientation

Holding a similar assessment is Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and an independence advocate. “The population of Kosovo is one of the more pro-Western and pro-American populations in the world,” he said. “They had volunteers to fight [alongside the United States] in Afghanistan and Iraq, so to say they are [Islamic] fundamentalists is to spread disinformation.”

Beyond that, Mr. Bugajski cites reasons to settle Kosovo’s status now. He worries the population could start to see the peacekeepers as occupiers, and he says uncertainty over the province’s status is discouraging foreign investment. “I also believe that Serbia doesn’t need the distraction of Kosovo as it modernizes and moves toward membership in the European Union,” he said.

Indeed, some European officials say the international community must be careful not to play the Kosovo issue in a way that reinforces reactionary forces in the anticipated elections.

Such potential political implications have other specialists cautioning about Kosovo’s influence. “This goes beyond Kosovo and affects a number of countries in the greater Black Sea area that are fractured,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest political journal in Washington. “You have to at least ask the question if a too-hasty move to independence in Kosovo encourages the disintegration of other states.”

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