Last February Kosovo declared independence, with Washington's support, the culmination of America's war against Serbia a decade ago in a region of no strategic interest to America. The peace has proved to be much tougher than the war, however. The number of recognitions has stalled, despite U.S. pressure on friends and allies. Last October Serbia won a United Nations General Assembly vote to take its case to the World Court, which is now considering the issue. The conflict remains frozen, only with new flashpoints, most notably the status of the Serbian community in Kosovo's north.
Even more embarrassing, Russia cynically used the Kosovo precedent to justify its war with Georgia in support of South Ossetia. Who was Washington to whine about the violation of Georgia's territorial integrity?
Unfortunately, with Hillary Clinton at the State Department, little change is expected in U.S. attempts to micromanage Balkan affairs. Indeed, Secretary Clinton is set to meet with Kosovo's "president" and "prime minister" on Thursday "in order to reassure them of the U.S. promise of friendship and support for Kosovo," according to the State Department.
U.S. policy desperately needs a change.
After years of repressive local (Albanian) rule from Pristina succeeded by equally abusive national (Serbian) rule from Belgrade, a nasty guerrilla war broke out in Kosovo. Much blame fell on the Milosevic regime, but the Kosovo Liberation Army committed its own atrocities in return. U.S. diplomats even termed the KLA as "terrorist."
The U.S. should have ignored the conflict, but President Bill Clinton saw the Balkans as an opportunity to turn U.S. foreign policy into a form of international social work, as Michael Mandelbaum of SAIS termed it. Once NATO drove Serbian security forces from Kosovo, the final disposition of the territory was obvious. Although UN Resolution 1244 assumed continued Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, providing for "a political process designed to determine Kosovo's future status," the allies never intended serious negotiations. Rather, ethnic Albanians understood that independence would be the final result. Negotiations were simply for show to disguise Serbia's expected surrender. Thus, the ethnic Albanians never considered settling for anything short of independence.
They did offer to respect the rights of ethnic Serbs — respect, however, not demonstrated when ethnic Albanians kicked out nearly a quarter of a million Serbs and other minorities, including Roma and Jews, after the war, and destroyed Serb homes, churches, and monasteries in another round of violence five years ago. Nevertheless, the ethnic Albanians expected to rule even in the northern areas heavily populated by Serbs.
The newly elected democratic government in Belgrade responded by offering a number of approaches with largely unrestricted autonomy. Nevertheless, the U.S. and leading European states declared Serbia to be the intransigent party, "obstructing" and "stonewalling" a settlement. In short, the "negotiations" were a sham designed to grant Kosovo independence.
Obviously, there was no perfect solution that would satisfy both sides. The Milosevic government had behaved brutally and the ethnic Albanians saw no reason to again recognize Belgrade's sovereignty.
But minority Serbs had no more reason to believe Pristina's promise of protection or the West's promise to maintain outside oversight. After all, both spasms of ethnic Albanian violence occurred during the allied occupation. In mid-1999, even as tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs were fleeing Kosovo, Secretary Albright was telling the Council of Foreign Relations that the allied occupation force "takes seriously its mandate to protect Kosovars, including Serbs." The territory seemed no closer to ethnic reconciliation in 2004, when thousands more ethnic Serbs were killed, injured, and displaced. Derek Chappell, spokesman for the UN military force, UNMIK, observed: "some in the Kosovo Albanian leadership believe that by cleansing all remaining Serbs from the area...and destroying Serbian cultural sites, they can present the international community with a fait accompli."
Kosovo's record is at best disappointing after years of supposed tutelage in democracy by the "international community." The ethnic Albanian leadership has been implicated in the explosion of organized crime, including drug dealing, money laundering, and sex trafficking. Some have referred to Kosovo as the "black hole" of Europe.
At a 2006 congressional hearing, Charles English of the State Department stated: "Discrimination remains a serious problem. Access to public services is uneven. Incidents of harassment still occur. Freedom of movement is limited. And too many minorities still feel unsafe in Kosovo." Similarly, Joseph Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy argued that "the present record of rule of law, protection of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the return/resettlement of internally displaced people by the Provisional Authority of Kosovo — all of which are indispensable for democratic governance — have been gravely unsatisfactory."
In November 2007 the European Commission released a report that concluded "some progress was made in consolidating government," but "working tools for an efficient government" still had "to be enhanced and fully applied." Moreover, explained the commission, "Overall, little progress has been made in the promotion and enforcement of human rights. The administration is not able to ensure the full implementation of human rights standards." Finally, the commission concluded, "Religious freedom is not fully respected."
Kosovo hardly sounded ready for prime-time.
Compromises were possible — overlapping EU, Kosovo, and Serbian citizenship and partition north of the Ibar River were two leading candidates — which might have won grudging agreement on both sides. No one would have been happy with the result, but both sides could have acquiesced. Rather than encourage genuine negotiations, however, the U.S. insisted that the ethnic Albanians win everything.
But what was supposed to be a pleasant bit of Kabuki theater, with everyone playing their assigned role to reach the predetermined outcome, quickly fell apart. Both the Serbs and Russians balked. Washington and like-minded European states eventually decided to make another end-run around the United Nations (which had not authorized NATO's aggressive war in 1999) and back Kosovo's unilateral independence.
The current number of recognitions is 55, only a few more than which recognize the Western Sahara (claimed by Morocco). Washington's claim that Kosovo's status is "unique" and thus not a precedent is too self-serving to take seriously. Serbia vows continued resistance and Russia insists that Kosovo will never join the UN. If the World Court rules for Belgrade, some nations might even reverse their recognitions of Pristina.
But Washington policymakers have had no apparent second thoughts. Some of their arguments verge on the ridiculous.
For instance, if self-determination is the essential principle, then ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have an obvious right to break from the new state and remain with democratic Serbia. Last year Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns contended: "Kosovo is going to be a vastly majority Muslim state…. And we think it is a very positive step that this Muslim state, Muslim majority state, has been created today." Muslims have the same right of self-determination as do everyone else, but why should America's goal be establishing a Muslim government any more than establishing a Serbian government?
Moreover, last year President George W. Bush opined that "our position is that its status must be resolved in order for the Balkans to be stable." While an independence deal accepted by Kosovo and Serbia, as well as the U.S., Europe, and Russia would encourage stability, Kosovo's unilateral declaration has destabilized the region. Serbia has drifted towards Russia as even centrist politicians in Serbia affirmed their opposition to Western policy. Serbia's politics has grown more fractious and nationalistic. Any attempt to coerce Serbs within Kosovo to submit to Pristina is likely to generate violent resistance. The divide between Russia and the U.S. and EU has grown. Indeed, applying the West's "Kosovo principle" to the Caucasus resulted in more war.
U.S. policy retains an otherworldly quality. American officials seem genuinely bewildered as to why Serbs are so angry. While explaining last year how the U.S. was working to strip Serbia of 15 percent of its territory, Secretary Rice asserted: "The United States takes this opportunity to reaffirm our friendship with Serbia." Without apparent irony, President Bush claimed: "the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America." That dismembering their nation would be viewed as an unfriendly act by Serbs apparently never occurred to Secretary Rice or President Bush.
Now the future of Kosovo is up to the Obama administration.
For more than a decade Washington has led the bungling in the Balkans. The U.S. torpedoed one of the early attempts to settle the Bosnian crisis, the Lisbon Plan. Years of war and tens of thousands of dead resulted: much of that blood was on the hands of Washington policymakers. But the U.S. government continues to put ideology before reality.
Returning to the status quo in Kosovo might not be a viable option, but neither is pretending that Kosovo's independence claim has yielded regional stability. The U.S. and EU could still convene a conference, harkening back to the Congress of Berlin and similar international gatherings, to conduct genuine negotiations with the goal of achieving an acceptable compromise. Otherwise, Kosovo's declaration of independence is likely to prove to be just another step in continuing regional strife.