Commentary

Europe’s Approaching Train Wreck

Europe, and the United Nations, are facing what could turn out to be a defining moment.

In 1999, following the conclusion of NATO’s war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which established the political conditions for ultimately resolving the status of the province of Kosovo.

Even though the war had been fought to protect the people of Kosovo, 1244 decreed that Kosovo would not be granted independence. “The sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia (now Serbia) were to be protected, while Kosovo was to be granted “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration.”

Now, it appears, these assurances will be repudiated. The proposal prepared by the UN special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, permits Kosovo to conclude international agreements and become a member of international organizations — attributes of sovereignty, not autonomy.

The Serbian government has reacted negatively, and Russia has hinted it will reject any solution that is not acceptable to Serbia.

The momentum toward independence for Kosovo seems irresistible because it is unlikely that the predominantly Albanian population there will accept anything less.

Accordingly, efforts are being made to find ways to change minds among the Serbian population in Kosovo and in Serbia. The Serbs in Kosovo are being provided assurances of protection, while Serbia is being shown the carrot (and stick) of inclusion (or exclusion) in a broader Europe.

These inducements, however, do not seem to be having much effect. The Serbs in Kosovo would “resist as any occupied people would do,” the head of the Serbian Orthodox church, Bishop Artemje, told an audience in Washington on Feb. 8. And in Serbia itself, the Ahtisaari plan is so sensitive that it has been stalling efforts to form a new government.

In addition, the carrot of entry into the European Union is appearing increasingly chimerical, given current European attitudes toward further expansion.

Then there is the problem of international law. NATO’s war against Yugoslavia was not endorsed by the United Nations; at the time, the Clinton Administration and its supporters, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, argued that military action was legitimate, even if not strictly legal, because of the need to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

But the rule of law works by precedent, so what applies to one must apply to others. If NATO, as an international security organization, can act this way, why cannot other such organizations act similarly in the future?

That is why adherence to Resolution 1244 is so important. If 1244 is ignored, it is unreasonable to expect that our actions would not be treated as a precedent to ignore other UN resolutions in the future. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have both made this point.

Russia, and many other nations, have been irritated by the tendency of NATO countries, and the United States in particular, to bypass the Security Council when they cannot obtain a resolution they want.

The dilemma confronting policymakers is acute. Kosovar aspirations cannot be denied much longer, but the effort to satisfy them absent an agreement with Serbia is bound to alienate the Serbs and, by extension, the Russians.

And if we craft solutions that bypass existing law, we should recognize that we are creating opportunities for mischief down the road.

Indeed, if we attempt to buy peace at the expense of law, we might find out we end up with neither.

With Ahtisaari’s declaration that further negotiation is pointless, Europe’s trains — Kosovo independence vs. Serbia’s territorial integrity, legitimacy vs. law — are hurtling toward each other.

If the Russians (and possibly the Chinese) oppose revision of Resolution 1244 to grant Kosovo effective independence, and if the United States and its allies ignore these concerns and endorse the Ahtisaari plan, the reverberations will be felt well beyond the Balkans.

Stanley Kober is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.