A Kosovo Reality Check

American leaders’ hopes for a quick and painless final status agreement on Kosovo face one major obstacle: Reality.

State Department press spokesmen Sean McCormack, borrowing a line from FOX News, has called the proposals made by UN Special Envoy Martii Ahtisaari for Kosovo "fair and balanced"-presumably because the plan would make Kosovo an independent state without calling it that.

But if the United States thinks we're in the home stretch, think again. Part of the problem is that the Bush Administration wants to get Kosovo "solved" and off the agenda (and perhaps as part of a renewed set of talking points to the Muslim world about how the U.S. is not anti-Islamic). A number of Democrats want to hold up Kosovo as a positive legacy of their version of unilateralism-in contrast to the way the Republicans have conducted the Iraq war. And if everything can be wrapped up for the 2008 elections, so much the better. And a solution that doesn't cost much would be peachy.

"Our goal remains an outcome that advances regional stability, promotes multi-ethnicity and is acceptable to the people of Kosovo", McCormack said.

Well, I have news. No solution on the table can guarantee all three. Certainly not one that doesn't call for a major commitment of time, resources, attention, and forces able and willing to enforce the settlement.

Given that most non-Albanian residents of Kosovo have either left or now live in enclaves, ratifying the status quo sends the signal that ethnic cleansing-at least when carried out by the right groups-works-especially when it takes care of problematic issues raised by "multi-ethnicity." (Kurds in Northern Iraq have taken notice). If the "people of Kosovo" refers to all communities, then this plan is a dead letter, as Bishop Artimije of Kosovo said this past Friday.

On the other hand, a vast majority of the province's residents want full and unconditional independence-no strings and no delays. So if the Ahtisaari plan depends on ratification in a referendum (and tellingly, there are no such plans for a vote)-it would fail. But then again-settlements are often imposed. As I like to remind people, the Aland Islands settlement (near-independence for the island's Swedish population within a Finnish state)-often held up as a possible model-was rejected in a popular referendum but nonetheless imposed by the major powers and the League of Nations.

Regional stability would best be promoted by strict adherence to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act provisions of no changes in borders. And in the future it will be very difficult-when in efforts to end internal conflicts within a country autonomy is proposed-for the majority not to view this as a half-way house to eventual separation (or for that matter, the minority group may see it in those terms).

There has been a great deal of discussion about a Kosovo precedent "further east" but what might lie "further west"? What about long-held Basque aspirations for full independence? What about the future of Spain as a single unified state? Precedents are always in the eyes of the beholder.

Had NATO been willing, it might have been able to impose an Aland-Islands style settlement for the province back in 1999. But it would have required being prepared to use force and also to break up criminal gangs and militias who would have been ready to fight to preserve their positions. The question is whether an independent Kosovo government today would be ready to do the things NATO has been unwilling to do.

I have to agree with Tim Potier who wrote in our pages in the Spring 2006 issue that not trying to rush final settlements might in fact lead "to a better peace than might be achieved with time pressures." The U.S. approach to Kosovo should not be driven by either our problems in Iraq or the needs of our electoral calendar.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.