Much of the world’s attention remains focused on security concerns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a potential crisis is once again brewing in the Balkans. Kosovo is moving ahead with plans to declare independence, despite strong objections from Serbia and Russia, now that talks to settle the future of the Serbian province have failed. The response of the United States and world community in the coming weeks may determine whether the violence of the late 1990s resurfaces in this troubled region.
The United Nations has administered Kosovo since 1999, when NATO forces drove Serbian troops from the region after a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign against the majority Albanian population. The campaign left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. NATO troops, under a United Nations mandate, have remained in Kosovo ever since.
Even though former Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic was brought before the Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague, and violence in Kosovo has by and large stayed under control, the future of the province remains unsettled.
After more than a year of negotiations among diverse leaders in Kosovo, U.N. special envoy Martii Ahtisaari determined that independence for the region was the only viable option for Kosovo.
Among other aspects of Ahtisaari’s sensible plan, which was supported by the United States, the U.N. Secretary-General, Britain, France, and other allies, are protections for Kosovo’s non-Albanian population. Unfortunately, Serbia and Russia are not willing to entertain the thought of Kosovo as an independent state.
While 90 percent of Kosovo’s population is Albanian, Serbians have been in the region for centuries and essentially view Kosovo as sacred ground. Serbia is willing to grant Kosovo more autonomy, but not independence. Russia, a staunch supporter of Serbia, has indicated that it will only support what Serbia is willing to accept. Earlier this year, in fact, Russia blocked U.N. Security Council approval of a plan that proposed internationally-sponsored statehood.
But Russia isn’t just acting in the interests of its ally Serbia. Moscow is also concerned about the potential “domino effect” of Kosovo independence on disaffected enclaves in the former Soviet Union and other areas of the world.
Representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Russia–the “troika"–admitted on December 7 that the four-month-long talks between Serbia and Kosovo had ended unsuccessfully and that “common ground was not found.” The United Nations had given the troika until December 10
to broker an agreement.
In the wake of the failed negotiations, Kosovo’s Albanian leaders quickly stated that they will begin immediate talks with Western backers toward an independence declaration, which will likely come by spring 2008.
Both Serbia and Russia have warned of negative consequences if this happens, including targeted Serbian sanctions against Kosovo. There is also the potential for the Serbian government to direct Kosovo’s Serbs to disrupt the region’s power supply and attempt to assert control of north Kosovo by having Serb police officers split from the province’s police force.
Russia would in all likelihood block admission of an independent Kosovo into the United Nations and refuse to acknowledge its independence, but the United States and much of the European Union are prepared to welcome Kosovo into the international community. In a nutshell, the future of Kosovo is as opaque as ever.
There are certainly no easy solutions to this morass, but in the short run it would be prudent for NATO to increase its presence in Kosovo to deter, and if necessary quell, violence if and when the province declares independence.
Of course NATO still has work to do in Afghanistan, but even a small increase in NATO troop strength in Kosovo could make a difference. It is always easier to prevent violence from starting than to end it once it has begun. As former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke recently stated, “[E]veryone talks about [preventive diplomacy], but no one ever does anything about it. Here’s a classic case where a few troops now might prevent the need for more troops later.” On December 10, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also warned of potential volatility in the region and that more NATO troops may soon be needed.
Certainly the chance of a negotiated deal looks grim given that both sides have dug in and don’t appear ready to budge. The U.N. Security Council is planning to debate the troika’s report this month and attempt to salvage a resolution. While it is unlikely that Russia will change its stance, the United States and the European Union should continue to pressure Russia to at least tone down its inflammatory rhetoric.
As for Serbia, the greatest point of leverage to ensure that the country takes a measured approach to Kosovo independence is that Serbia wants to be a member of the European Union, with a majority of the population supporting prospective E.U. membership even it means losing Kosovo. The United States and the European Union should continue to make it clear to Serbia that making good on its threats against Kosovo would only hurt Serbia’s E.U. aspirations.