Avoiding a Balkan Train Wreck?

Greece's Ambassador to the United States Alexandros Mallias called on the United States, Russia and the member-states of the European Union to take "a fresh look" at both the process for reaching a settlement for Kosovo and possible final outcomes. Speaking at a breakfast forum sponsored by The National Interest (and held at The Nixon Center), Mallias noted that we need a "real solution, not a way out"-a status for Kosovo that is "viable, final and would stand." If Kosovo is mishandled, the consequences will be dire not only for the region, but for Europe as a whole. They will spill over into the transatlantic relationship, as well as the relationship between Russia and the West.

The problem is that the United States and Russia are currently locked into diametrically opposed positions and so far, the respective governments refuse to budge from their stances. U.S. President George W. Bush recently announced in Albania his support for Kosovo's independence in clear and unequivocal terms, while the Russian Federation continues to oppose the drafts of UN Security Council resolutions designed to provide the legal framework for Kosovo's final status and to replace Resolution 1244.

"Fresh ideas" are needed, and all ways must be explored to find possible common ground. The goal is to move away from anything that smacks of an "imposed solution", since the ambassador pointed out that 20th-century European history demonstrates that imposed solutions and treaties never form the basis for enduring settlements. What is needed is a carefully shaped outcome that is derived from a framework acceptable to all sides. New negotiations are needed to give diplomacy a fresh start, but not just for the sake of talking anew. All parameters of a solution must be carefully shaped so that it will facilitate not only short-term stability but also the long-term goal of completely integrating the region into the European Union.

The ambassador had several recommendations for reinvigorating negotiations on Kosovo.

The first was that the full Contact Group on Kosovo must meet again; Mallias stated that Russia was not present at the group's last meeting in Paris. (The Contact Group is composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the Russian Federation.) The second was to pursue further the attempts made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit to move past the current deadlock. The third was to re-engage all the Balkan countries in the process for finding a sustainable solution, building on the model of the Contact Group's meetings with representatives of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), as had occurred in Athens in March 2006.

The European Union also needs to make a more concerted diplomatic effort on Kosovo, Mallias said. The Kosovo issue is a "essentially a European problem", the ambassador stated-and one that can affect the future of the European project. Although the pace of integration has slowed since the EU constitution's rejection in 2005, Mallias observed that the organization still possesses the best tool for quelling conflicts in the Balkans-the offer of EU membership. Indeed, this "carrot" presents states in the region with an extremely strong incentive to undertake sweeping, sometimes unpopular, economic and political reforms.

Moreover, the EU should also prepare for a U.S. disengagement from region. While U.S. retrenchment may not be inevitable, the EU must nonetheless muster the "political vision" necessary to deal with Kosovo. An EU failure to assert itself on the issue will "not augur well" for the future of the union, the ambassador warned.

It is not just the EU's approach to the region that must be recalibrated. TNI editor Nikolas Gvosdev opened the discussion by noting that current U.S. policy towards the Balkans often appears to be firmly stuck in the mid-1990s mindset. Ambassador Mallias pointed out that through its cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, the Serbian government has demonstrated its commitment to democratic reform. We do not give proper consideration to the "clear signals that [Serbia] is moving in the right direction."

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April 18, 2014