The Balkan Saga Continues

As U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate in the wake of the G8 summit and America’s continuing missile-defense efforts, yet another obstacle to cooperation is reemerging: the Balkan saga.

With U.S.-Russia relations continuing to deteriorate in the wake of the G8 summit and America's continuing efforts to build a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, we now have another nail to add to the coffin. In the United States and the European Union, there is a widely held belief that Kosovo's independence was the last missing piece in achieving stability in the Balkans. Having just returned from Kosovo, I would have to disagree. My observations lead me to conclude that there remains serious potential for instability in Kosovo-with broad implications for U.S.-Russia relations and beyond.

Serbia paid a high price for the mistakes that were made during Slobodan Milsovic's regime. Former Finnish President and the key mediator in the Kosovo negotiations, Martti Ahtisaari, explained to me that the Serbs lost Kosovo in 1999. This is not to say that Belgrade did not have a chance to negotiate a more favorable agreement between 2005 and 2007. However, it was almost impossible for any constructive Serbian policy to develop, given the fragile structure of the governing coalition and the intense rivalries between nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and pro-European President Boris Tadic.

Hence, it was politically more expedient and safe to exploit the nationalist sentiment in the country and settle on the lowest common denominator: claiming that historically Kosovo was and remains part of Serbia. Instead of sitting back in denial, hoping for a miraculous turn of events, Belgrade could have been more effective in using Russia's support and UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which protects the territorial integrity of Serbia, as leverage in securing some level of sovereignty for the Serbs living in Kosovo. Opportunities were there, but the political will, wisdom and effectiveness that were required to achieve this outcome were lacking.

Although Kosovo is making slow progress toward obtaining international recognition, this new European state has many other far-more-pressing challenges. They include a still-lagging economy, high levels of organized crime and corruption, an unemployment rate close to 50 percent, a population of about two million-half under the age of twenty-five, and most importantly the unresolved question of Kosovo Serbs. Some of these issues will improve, especially considering the resources and funding that the European Union and the United States are putting in Kosovo. At the upcoming donors' conference, the international community is expected to raise over one billion dollars to help boost Kosovo's economy. Regrettably, the northern part of the country remains completely isolated and is not likely to reap any benefits from this aid. Mitrovica is an ethnically divided city, with the majority of Serbs living on the northern side of the Ibar River and Albanians on the southern side. Ironically, the white bridge over the river symbolizes the division between the two ethnic groups, which is evident in the UN checkpoints and barbed-wire barricades set up on both sides. Crossing into the opposite side of the bridge at nighttime is not advisable for security reasons.

When I traveled to northern Mitrovica, I saw Serbian flags everywhere and photographs of former-Russian President Vladimir Putin in the shop windows of local bars. The new Kosovo constitution that came into effect on June 15 envisioned the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) ceding its responsibilities to the European Union, but that has not happened in the Serb-populated areas of Kosovo. Public institutions, hospitals and health facilities, schools, universities and all other local institutions are run by Serbs and funded directly by Belgrade, which continues to have a firm grip over this territory. The area is poor and it is common for the water supply, which is controlled by the Kosovo Albanians, to be turned off between the hours of seven p.m. and eight a.m. The atmosphere is calm. Yet there is tension in the air over the unresolved status and future of the people living there. Some 150,000 Serbs that still remain in Kosovo are becoming self-sufficient and starting to organize themselves and form parallel institutions. On June 28, Kosovo Serbs convened their own parliament, with forty-five delegates from twenty-six municipalities, for the first session of the Assembly of the Union of Municipalities of Kosovo and Metohija. Serbs drew up a declaration in which they proclaimed Kosovo an integral part of Serbia, thereby attempting to split the territory with Belgrade acting as a de facto government.

Some Balkan experts in Washington claim that Serbia is the problem, not Kosovo. They say that the United States needs to present Belgrade with clear ultimatums and criterion that must be fulfilled prior to Serbia's consideration for EU membership. Based on our experience and lessons learned from the Balkans over the past decade, are we to believe that such a policy will set Serbia on a democratic path and make Serbia recognize Kosovo's independence? Will it improve an already-strained relationship between Washington and Moscow? Not likely.