The Costs of a Distracted White House
The Costs of a Distracted White House
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

The Costs of a Distracted White House

As 2005 ends, the Bush administration finds itself struggling on numerous fronts - with mounting domestic woes, a very nasty situation in Iraq and dwindling political capital on Capitol Hill and with the American people. In this growing climate of distraction, it is possible for critical issues that seem off the radar screen to fall through the cracks.

Take Kosovo - once a major news story, now pushed far from the headlines. Yet, 2006 will be a critical year for Kosovo, and the Bush administration will have a lot of say about whether the Balkans is headed for its next round of crisis.

After innumerable delays and six years of uneasy United Nations stewardship, negotiations have begun to decide whether Kosovo will become independent or not - and creating a new country in the middle of Europe is a big deal no matter how you look at it. But, given the intense focus on Iraq and the Middle East, the administration may simply decide that Kosovo negotiations do not merit senior-level political time, attention and energy. This would be a mistake of the first order.

Resolving the situation in Kosovo is the world's best hope for ending the long and sorry chapter of Balkans history that began more than a decade ago with Yugoslavia's unravelling. We should not forget that America thought it could ignore Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and it did not take long before more than 200,000 were dead in Bosnia and massive ethnic cleansing campaigns had been carried out in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Life on the ground in Kosovo has been an uncertain, unhappy mess since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, and Washington has returned to its preoccupied ways. Animus between Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs remains intense, unemployment hovers around 50 per cent, local institutions function poorly, and confusion over Kosovo's ultimate status has held reform hostage in areas too numerous to count. While a huge international peacekeeping force has largely been able to keep a lid on major outbreaks of violence, with riots in March of 2004 a notable exception, nobody doubts that fighting would quickly resume if NATO was not keeping Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs apart

This is part of the reason that the UN and everyone else involved have recognized that the status quo is simply unsustainable, and that Kosovo will never make much progress if it remains trapped in a netherworld where it is neither country nor province. With that in mind, the UN has moved forward with negotiations, led by the former president of Finland, to determine whether Kosovo will become independent. Unfortunately, Washington's level of engagement in the final status talks remains an uncomfortably open question, despite the fact that, again and again, we have seen that problems in the Balkans generally only get solved when the United States and Europe are on the same page.

This is even more true in the case of Kosovo, where reaching agreement is likely to require Russia's and Serbia's grudging acceptance of Kosovo's new status. Russia and Serbia continue to object to Kosovo's gaining sovereignty, and would prefer to see Kosovo remain in some loose, but unhappy, confederation with Serbia that falls short of independence. Such an arrangement would likely prove unworkable.

Without high-level attention from the White House, it will be all too easy for Russia and Serbia to torpedo negotiations on Kosovo that they do not much like in the first place. Indeed, all the players in the Balkans have been through so many envoys and diplomatic conferences that they will take any sign of disengagement in Washington as a green light for their worst behaviour. Unless Kosovo is seen as a priority at the White House, the Serbs, Albanians, Russians and others involved will predictably maximize their demands, minimize their co-operation and generally make life difficult.

There is growing recognition that the best solution for Kosovo is likely some form of conditioned independence, where guarantees are provided that Kosovo will not be partitioned or make territorial claims elsewhere in the region. This arrangement would include considerable protection for Serb minority rights and be backed by a continuing international civilian and military presence that would assist Kosovo during what will surely be a challenging transition.

Without U.S. pressure and leadership to add a sense of urgency to negotiations, we might just be headed for another round of diplomatic disappointments and lost opportunity in the Balkans, with nobody to blame but ourselves.

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