Balkan Choice

The world's message to Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica should be simple: choose the future, and allow Kosovo and Serbia to join Europe.

| Thu Jul. 27, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

At yesterday's negotiations between Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders, Kosovars made clear that their goal is independence. Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica, earlier this month at the United Nations, spelled out his firm opposition. He needs to get a firm reply from the international community that Serbia can chose the past or the future. It can't have both.

Mr. Kostunica is carrying the late Slobodan Milosevic's message that Kosovo must remain a subordinate province of Serbia. But Milosevic is dead, the clock will not be turned back to 1999, and Serbia will have to accept an international consensus on Kosovo's final status.

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The current Serbian leader needs to hear that if he continues to embrace the nationalism of Milosevic, he and his country will become international pariahs. If, however, he accepts the outcome of current negotiations—likely to be an independent nation limited largely by international guarantees to protect Serb minority rights—Serbia will have a future as part of the European Union and NATO.

During the past six years, a U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has been administering the province after the NATO-led intervention ended Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. Now, day-to-day administration is largely in the hands of an elected provisional government. Working on meeting governance standards set by the UN—with the strong input of a Contact Group including the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, Italy and Germany—the government under Prime Minister Agim Ceku, once a feared Albanian underground military chief, has made progress.

Of course, Kosovar Albanians could help their own cause by reaching out even more to Kosovo's Serbs on issues of decentralization, protection for monasteries and refugee return. However, they met enough of the standards to get U.N. Security Council endorsement of final status negotiations led by U.N. special envoy and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

After nine months of shuttling in the region from his base in Vienna, Mr. Ahtisaari yesterday put the issues and options before the Serbian and Kosovo presidents and prime ministers. The talks made little progress. Another summit meeting is likely in September. It would be nice, but no one really expects Mr. Kostunica to actually embrace the separation of Kosovo and Serbia. It may be difficult—emotionally and politically—but the experience of the past 10 years, including Milosevic's attempted ethnic cleansing, have made anything less than independence totally unacceptable to the people of Kosovo.

The U.S. and other Contact Group countries are expected to endorse Mr. Ahtisaari's final proposal before the end of the year. It almost surely will be independence with continued NATO military presence and international guarantees to Kosovo's Serb minorities. Even if Mr. Kostunica continues to stonewall, it is likely that the Security Council will adopt it. While Russia is his strongest supporter, Moscow's main concern relates less to Serbia than to the Caucasus. They see the Kosovo status settlement as setting a precedent. Though Russia wants to hold on to rebellious Chechnya, it also wants a tool to slice Abkhazia and South Ossetia away from Georgia. Russia is trying to set down a marker, unacceptable to the West, that if Serbia is forced to give up a former province, Georgia can be made to suffer similar provincial surgery, even if no historical parallel exists.

Serbia's reactions to the negotiating process thus far have gone well past the point of passive resistance. Mr. Kostunica strongly opposed independence for Montenegro which took place last month. Belgrade has pumped up the return-to-Serbia movements in the northern three Kosovo municipalities and in the adjoining divided city of Mitrovica, where 40% of Kosovo's Serbs live. Serbia has obliged Kosovo Serbs to boycott the U.N.-backed provisional government, recently making all teachers and health workers tear up their government contracts. Instead, Serbia finances parallel structures of government, through which the northern municipalities have begun raising a paramilitary force. Serbia also maintains plainclothes police in Kosovo, in defiance of the 1999 Security Council Resolution that introduced U.N. administration into Kosovo.

Belgrade's separatist support seeks to present a de facto partition on the ground to the final status negotiators, despite the Contact Group principles endorsed by the U.N. of a unified, multi-ethnic Kosovo with no partition, no boundary changes, no return to pre-1999.

The international community, particularly the leaders of the Contact Group countries, must make it clear to Serb leaders that obstructionist tactics are unacceptable. NATO forces will stay to guarantee the final status outcome, and there will be international monitoring to assure human rights are protected.

Serbia will be better off "in Europe," living in peace with a new Kosovo than futilely inciting Kosovo Serbs to challenge the final status outcome. The world's message to Mr. Kostunica should be simple: choose the future, and allow Kosovo and Serbia to join Europe.

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