Fireside Chat: Kosovo in Kennebunkport

Gordon N. Bardos gives his take on the potential for progress on Kosovo between Presidents Bush and Putin during their meeting in Maine in the first installment of Fireside Chat.

In the July/August issue of The National Interest, Gordon Bardos reports on the fragile situation in the Balkans, one that America is not handling with care. Turmoil in the Middle East has distracted world leaders from developments in and around Kosovo. Montenegro's break with Serbia, heated elections with threats of secession in Bosnia and mounting instability in Macedonia have only exacerbated the region's vulnerability. In this piece, Bardos gives his take on the potential for progress on Kosovo between Presidents Bush and Putin during their meeting in Maine in the first installment of Fireside Chat, where authors from the print edition will further develop their ideas online.

A report on a recent meeting at The Nixon Center devoted to the Kosovo issue was aptly entitled "Avoiding a Balkan Trainwreck." Fortunately, the political and diplomatic trainwreck that has become the Kosovo-future-status process has been averted-at least for now. In the face of a potential veto from Russia, the UN Security Council has postponed granting Kosovo conditional independence based on the plan drawn up by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

The upcoming meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, ME on July 2 will provide an opportunity to get the Kosovo-future-status process back on track, and none too soon. The threat of violent unrest in Kosovo is growing, and with it the possibility that Kosovo will declare independence unilaterally, with Washington and some European capitals recognizing Kosovo, while Serbia, Russia and many other European countries not.

The resulting diplomatic mess will have dangerous consequences for the southern Balkans. Without a new Security Council resolution, the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) mandate will remain in force, putting UNMIK in direct opposition to a self-proclaimed independent government in Pristina and making it impossible for the EU's follow-on transitional authority to take up its responsibilities. In this disputed legal and political situation, the Serb enclave north of the Ibar river is likely to declare that it is remaining a part of Serbia proper (or seceding from Kosovo), in retaliation for which Albanians in Serbia's Presevo Valley will probably declare their own unification with Kosovo. A forced mass exodus of the Serb enclaves south of the Ibar river will be likely as well, as will infighting amongst Kosovo's rival political factions. Imposing a unilateral decision on Kosovo's future status in these circumstances would do little to stabilize the southern Balkans, consolidate Serbia's democratic transition, or put Kosovo on the road to a stable and prosperous future.

The international diplomatic mismanagement of the Kosovo-future-status process is largely to blame for this impasse. Many criticisms have been levied against the way the international community has handled the process: from the choice of mediator, to the conduct and structure of the negotiations, to the unwillingness to seriously consider the concerns and advice of neighboring states, to the failure to keep Moscow fully on board, to the failure to have a backup "Plan B" in case "Plan A" is not acceptable, and the failure to come up with creative, imaginative diplomatic solutions to the problem. Many of these criticisms are valid.

The result has been all too predictable. Over a year of negotiations have done little to bridge the gap between Belgrade's and Pristina's positions. Moreover, dissatisfaction with the entire process is now spilling over into concerns within the EU about its ability to formulate a common policy on the issue. Furthermore, damage is being done to the transatlantic alliance because of European unhappiness with American threats to move unilaterally on recognizing Kosovo's independence. Just as importantly, the Kosovo issue has become a major irritant in the U.S.-Russia relationship because Washington and Moscow have both managed to maneuver themselves into diametrically opposed corners on the issue, making any eventual compromise more difficult. On his recent visit to Albania, President Bush strongly endorsed Kosovo's independence, while at the G-8 Summit Putin reiterated concerns he has repeatedly expressed over the past 18 months-that a solution for Kosovo has to be acceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade; that Kosovo is not a "unique" case amongst secessionist movements worldwide; and that "universal principles" should be applied to resolving Kosovo's future status.

Given all of these factors, reviewing and revising the Ahtisaari Plan should be one of the Kennebunkport summit's most important tasks. In doing so, it would be worthwhile to take a few pages from the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended 43 months of civil war in Bosnia. Though far from perfect, Dayton brought peace and over a decade of relative stability to both Bosnia and the western Balkans as a whole, something the Ahtisaari Plan is unlikely to do in its present form.

The key to Dayton's success lay in three fundamental elements. First, it recognized the legitimate interests of all the parties involved in the Bosnian conflict, and provided explicit constitutional guarantees to Bosnia's Muslims, Croats and Serbs that they would be able to defend their interests politically. Second, Dayton recognized that neighboring states had to be on board to make the agreement hold. Third, Dayton succeeded because it had unanimous support among all major players, including the Russians, and this international support was backed up by strong international military and civilian missions in Bosnia.