Calamity over Kosovo?

At a Council on Foreign Relations event on Friday, Daniel Serwer, Charles Kupchan, Janusz Bugajski and Dimitri Simes discussed the ongoing international standoff over Kosovo. Should Washington support independence?

With Kosovo's declaration of independence looming on the horizon, the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations held a timely, on-the-record discussion, "Independence in Kosovo?: Managing the Consequences." Moderator Paul B. Stares, director of the Center, invited panelists to discuss the implications of Kosovo's independence in the Balkan region, the ramifications of its recognition for world politics and measures that might be taken now to prevent major outbreaks of violence and fallouts in international politics. While there was little disagreement that quickly resolving Kosovo's status will ultimately cause less bloodshed in the Balkans, a lively debate ensued about Russia's role and how the United States should respond to Moscow's objection to Kosovo independence without Serbia's approval.

The failure of recent negotiations to resolve the issue of Kosovo's status by the December 10 UN deadline has led to a consensus that the chances of coming to a decision acceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade within the UN Security Council-the best-case scenario-are virtually nonexistent. Nevertheless, many regional experts agree that the time to make a decision is now, as they view Kosovo's independence as inevitable and hope that resolving the issue as quickly as possible will minimize the risk of long-term violence in the Balkans and allow the region to stabilize.

Daniel P. Serwer, vice president of the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations at the U.S. Institute of Peace, subscribes to this view, noting that "the quicker, the more decisive, the less ambiguous [the decision], the better." While not denying the risk of bloodshed following Kosovo's imminent declaration, he stressed that failing to resolve the issue quickly could lead to the radicalization of both Serbs and Albanians, a phenomenon which could prove a much greater threat to regional peace and stability in the long run.

Serwer noted that a declaration of Kosovo's independence coordinated between Pristina, Washington and as many EU members as possible may be the best option for containing violence in the region. The deployment of international peacekeeping forces, and particularly the presence of NATO, could reduce violence significantly and prevent further disturbances in the Balkan region. Serwer also stressed the importance of implementing the Ahtisaari plan, which calls for internationally supervised independence for Kosovo and protection of its Serb population.

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, agreed that violence and instability in the region could become unmanageable if the situation continues to stall. Therefore, he said, the most pragmatic option is seeking a decision sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, he was less optimistic than Serwer about the potential for violence in the region now, particularly if Serbian-run Northern Kosovo declares its independence simultaneously. His prescriptions for preventive action included a strong and visible NATO presence, particularly in small Serbian enclaves, and cooperation between NATO, the UN and Albanian leadership to prevent Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries from operating. Kupchan did not rule out the partitioning of Kosovo, stating that although it is clearly not the ideal option, precluding it may be a mistake. A double secession, he said, would probably be the most dangerous consequence of Kosovo's declaration of independence, and partitioning the regions by design could ultimately result in much less bloodshed.

In analyzing the potential effects of Kosovo's independence on the greater Balkan region, Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that a quick, decisive, and clear resolution backed by as many countries and multinational institutions as possible is currently the best solution. Recognition of Kosovo's independence, Bugajski maintained, would help eliminate much of the ambiguity in the Balkans and settle relations with neighboring countries.

At the same time, Bugajski warned that Serbia's reaction is difficult to gauge and that precautions must be taken to prevent the worst-case scenarios in the surrounding areas of Bosnia and Macedonia. With Russia's support, Serbia could look to wreak havoc in these areas by encouraging Republika Srpska to declare its independence from Bosnia or by promoting the case for independence of the Albanian population of Macedonia. In order to prevent these provocations, Bugajski called for border treaties and a strong NATO presence in the region, in addition to sending a clear message to Belgrade that any attempts to interfere will be quickly condemned.

While discussions of Kosovo's impending declaration of independence often focus on the immediate physical and geopolitical consequences in the Balkans, the broader ramifications of supporting Kosovo's decision cannot be ignored. Some experts warn that it could serve as a precedent for similar declarations by other separatist regions, such as those in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. Others fear that once again bypassing the UN, as NATO did during its operation in the Balkans in the 1990s, could have a grave impact on key international relationships, particularly that of the U.S. and Russia. In order to make an informed decision, the United States must answer the question: Is supporting Kosovo worth losing Russia?