Going Backward In the Balkans
Going Backward In the Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Going Backward In the Balkans

Once again violence is making policy in the Balkans. This week's ethnic fighting in Kosovo is the worst since the 1999 war there, and makes it more likely that Kosovo will ultimately be partitioned between Serbs and Albanians.

The United States and its European allies apparently never take wake-up calls in the Balkans but end up responding only to violence. They put pillows over their ears and declare that everything is going well in that part of the world. In fact, things have not been going well for years. Sustainable peace and progress in the region are impossible until the Kosovo issue, however difficult, is resolved.

The failure to establish Kosovo statehood creates massive uncertainty in the Balkans, exacerbates tensions between Albanians and Serbs, delays investment and growth, and keeps Serbia focused on the past. The main effort of the European Union in recent years has helped keep the past alive by insisting that Montenegro remain joined to Serbia and by holding out to Belgrade the prospect of a connection to Kosovo. In both the Clinton and Bush administrations the United States has followed this EU line.

In Kosovo itself, an often hapless U.N. administration guided from New York has resisted turning over power to the Kosovars, who despite their inexperience eventually became frustrated with colonial administration. The United Nations established a weak government and insisted that it meet impossible political and economic goals before Kosovo's final status can even be considered. The U.N. administration failed to generate any serious investment, leaving Kosovo with unemployment of roughly 60 percent -- a potential tinderbox. Equally important, the U.N. administration, with Security Council blessing, allowed Serbia to establish a dual administration in Kosovo for the Serb population there, in effect giving Serbia control over a significant portion of territory in northern Kosovo, where Albanians were kept out, and establishing a de facto geographical basis for partition.

Finally, the U.N. administration pursued the worthy goal of maintaining Kosovo as a multiethnic state by pressuring Kosovars to support the return of Serb refugees, even as the international community refused to make clear that Kosovo would be an independent state run by Albanians and not by Belgrade. The notion of a multiethnic state went out the window this week. Why would Serbs now return to any state run essentially by Albanians, whatever the promised safeguards?

As for Serbia, internal economic and political reform had largely slowed after Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated last year. The country has not yet moved beyond the criminal society set up by Slobodan Milosevic or even rid itself of the socialist bearings of Tito's days. It is in serious economic trouble. A poor, unreconstructed Serbia moved toward nationalist parties in December's elections. The events of the past few days are likely to further their influence. Dark forces are at work in Serbia and in Kosovo. Nevertheless, freeing Serbia from Montenegro and Kosovo is essential to Serbia's fundamental reform and to reducing instability in the Balkans.

This week's violence has exposed the failure of Western policy in Kosovo. We will see in the next few days whether the West recognizes that or, more likely, continues its blather on Kosovo's needing to meet unrealistic standards and on the indispensability of continued U.N. administration. The Albanian violence -- some or even much of it preplanned -- cannot be condoned and must be stopped. More U.N. forces will be needed for an indefinite time as the forces in Kosovo are stretched thin.

But the violence is not likely to end until the West stops relying on failed assumptions about a multiethnic Kosovo, a united Serbia-Montenegro-Kosovo and the power of the EU to resolve all difficult political issues in the Balkans. That requires the West to focus now on the final status of Kosovo before extremists of all stripes take over.

The notion of a multiethnic Kosovo has regrettably become totally unrealistic, and the stage may have been set for Kosovo's partition. The issues in achieving a settlement need careful sorting and may come down principally to where the partition line is drawn, what receives international recognition and how the international diplomatic process proceeds.

By its caution, inattention and lack of candor the West has allowed events in Kosovo to get out of control and has raised the prospects of violence not only in Serbia but also in Bosnia and Macedonia. Reducing the number of Western forces in Bosnia and Kosovo has become harder. Resolving the problem of Kosovo has become urgent. The way forward needs to be made clear.

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