Op-Ed: A Defining Moment

A Defining Moment

By R. Bruce Hitchner and Paul R. Williams, The Baltimore Sun, March 23, 2004

FOUR YEARS AGO, the United Nations was charged with the responsibility of establishing a protectorate over Kosovo in order to facilitate “a political process” to determine the future of the Balkan province. The United Nations has failed in its mission, as the outbreak of ethnic violence across Kosovo and Serbia revealed.

Although the United States took the lead in the 1999 NATO intervention to protect Kosovar Albanians from the Serbian army, Washington has become distracted by the war on terrorism and handed over management of the conflict to the United Nations and the European Union. The U.S. disengagement risks squandering the immense political goodwill in Kosovo and missing an opportunity to bring about a lasting resolution of the conflict.

Ethnic violence and mistrust in Kosovo have festered because the United Nations has engaged in a series of halfway measures that are ostensibly intended to move toward final status negotiations but are little more than delaying tactics. That’s because neither the United Nations nor the EU wants to come to grips with the issue of Kosovo’s final status.

The most obvious example of these tactics is the so-called Standards Before Status policy, which requires the Kosovars to meet near-absolute standards on the rule of law, democratization and human rights. The provisional government of Kosovo cannot be expected to meet these lofty standards for many years. Indeed, it’s doubtful that most EU member states could meet all the requirements laid out in the document.

No less dubious is the so-called Kosovo-Serb dialogue. While these talks provide the pretense that progress is being made toward eventual negotiations on final status, they have achieved little to date, focusing on trivial issues such as harmonizing phone codes and license plates.

The United Nations and the EU have purposely delayed Kosovo’s final status because of a misplaced fear that independence for the province – the only viable option short of renewed conflict – would be vetoed by Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council and would threaten stability in Serbia and Bosnia. As the hostilities last week demonstrate, the imagined fears are being outpaced by realities.

To restore peace to Serbia and Kosovo, the United States must reassert its leadership in the region. The primary objective of a renewed U.S. initiative must be to halt the failed U.N. and EU approach of passive denial, which simply delays the resolution of crucial issues and fosters increasing animosity and tension among the Kosovars and Serbs.

The first step is to appoint a senior U.S. representative with the political credibility to command the respect of the Serbs and Kosovars. Then the United States should insist on a discontinuation of the meaningless Kosovo-Serb dialogue and replace it with a U.S.-led effort to determine the final status of Kosovo by summer.

The objective of the talks should be to provide for the emergence of an independent Kosovo by fall.

The United States should also encourage the EU to recognize an independent Montenegro. Only when Kosovo and Montenegro are separated from Serbia will Serbia be able to focus on the corruption and political stagnation at the core of the instability in the Balkans.

Once Kosovo is independent, the United States and the EU will be able to more effectively engage with Kosovar institutions to ensure protection of human and minority rights and the promotion of regional stability. So long as Kosovo is U.N.-run, the primary political actors cannot be held accountable and can have little control over destabilizing forces.

It is important that the Kosovo Protection Corps, an indigenous police force, be given greater responsibility to protect Kosovar civilians since it is the only security force that retains credibility among them.

Finally, the guiding principle for the United States should be to prevent the partition of Kosovo, which Serbian political leaders now publicly state is the primary objective, and which is tacitly welcomed by some Kosovars. Washington must also make clear that the independence of Kosovo should not be offset for Serbia by the partition of Bosnia.

Securing the independence of Kosovo and Montenegro is a long-overdue step in the political transformation of the Balkans. The longer this crucial step is delayed, the more volatile the region will become. We are at a defining moment in the history of the Balkans.

R. Bruce Hitchner is chairman of the Dayton Peace Accords Project at Tufts University. Paul R. Williams is the Rebecca Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University.

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