The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Set Kosovo Free

In his visionary inaugural address, President George W. Bush talked about the challenges of promoting freedom abroad. Naturally attention has been focused on the elections in Iraq. But to focus exclusively on Iraq will raise dangers elsewhere, such as in the Balkans. With each passing day, tensions in Kosovo grow, threatening renewed conflict and hard-won freedoms. In 2005, the U.S. and the international community must address the resolution of Kosovo's final status before it is too late to prevent tragedy.

Since NATO's intervention in 1999, Kosovo's final status has never been resolved. It is a U.N.-administered province whose sovereignty still formally rests with the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. But after a decade of Belgrade's oppression capped by war, mass expulsion and atrocities, Kosovo's 90% Albanian majority rejects completely any renewed link with Serbia and will not settle for less than independence.

Nearly six years on, Serbs and Albanians still cannot live together. Serbia's avowed aim is to prevent Kosovo from becoming independent. With conflict simmering, Kosovo's Albanian majority regards the Serb minority as a fifth column, and neither side is ready for bridge-building. The puzzle of Kosovo is clearly not going to resolve itself.

Tensions in Kosovo and Serbia are now on the rise again, and a violent collision may occur before year's end if not headed off by a concerted Western effort. Further clashes, like the ones last spring, in which 20 people died and another 800 were wounded, could result in an emergency partition of Kosovo's territory, creating a precedent threatening to unravel U.S. and EU investments in stabilizing multiethnic states throughout the Balkans.

After the rioting of last March, some have questioned whether this fragile, volatile and underdeveloped society either deserves or can sustain its own state. While these concerns are valid, it is important to remember that Kosovo has already held two democratic elections and developed the foundations of a modern, functioning economy. It has laid the basis for statehood. But the protection of minority rights cannot be assured without progress in resolving final status. And this, of course, is the key issue.

Some in Serbia's political, security and media establishment have signally failed to move on from the Milosevic era in their attitudes toward Kosovo, and a territorial carve-up takes higher priority in their maneuvering than the welfare of the Serb minority on the ground. They see advantage in further Albanian frustration and violence, and are making a sustained effort to provoke it in order to force a partition solution that would hive off the Serb-inhabited northern municipalities of Kosovo and part of the divided town of Mitrovica (a perennial flashpoint for violence), while jettisoning the two-thirds of Kosovo's remaining Serbs who live farther south.

A relentless Serbian media campaign predicting new Albanian riots, saber-rattling over the Albanian-inhabited Presevo Valley in south Serbia, and a southward redeployment of the Serbian army in December, may mark just the opening salvoes in a strategy of provocation.

To head off the nightmare scenario of a Kosovo Albanian rebellion triggering all-out fighting over Mitrovica and a Serbian army adventure to secure north Kosovo, a vigorous U.S.-led drive to resolve Kosovo's status has to begin now.

The six-nation Contact Group (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia) and the U.N. Security Council have set mid-2005 as a rendezvous to decide whether to begin a process to determine Kosovo's future status. Beginning immediately, they should set the ground rules for negotiations and a timeline for a settlement. The framework for Kosovo's future should be no return to Belgrade rule, no partition of its territory, and no future union with Albania or any neighboring territory. The pace at which Kosovo is allowed to progress toward full independence should be made contingent on its treatment of minorities. This last point is absolutely critical.

The U.N. secretary general should also appoint a special envoy to begin consultations on a draft settlement text, the "Kosovo Accord," to include a new Kosovo constitution guaranteeing minority rights and continuing international monitoring, assistance and security presences in a new Kosovo state.

Finally, an international conference should be organized in late 2005 to finalize and endorse the Kosovo Accord. If Serbia cooperates, it will gain a role in shaping guarantees for Serbs in Kosovo's new constitution, to be drafted by Kosovo's Assembly in agreement with the conference's international sponsors. But if Serbia boycotts the process and refuses formally to relinquish sovereignty, Kosovo is in too fragile a condition to be kept hostage. Similarly, should resolution of Kosovo's status be blocked in the Security Council, the U.S. should lead a coalition of its European allies to organize the conference; endorse a Kosovo referendum for adoption of the new constitution to go ahead in early 2006; and then give diplomatic recognition and sustained support to Kosovo as a new state.

Unlike Iraq, there is today no active conflict in Kosovo. But prompt measures to resolve Kosovo's final status are warranted now, lest we lose both peace and freedom in the Balkans.

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