Kosovo at the Crossroads

Steven A. Meyer offers his assessment of realities on the ground in Kosovo along with a way forward for resolving Kosovo’s status.

Arguably, the future of Kosovo is now at its most important juncture since the crisis in 1999. For the past eight years almost nothing has been accomplished to resolve the Kosovo issue. By and large, the fault for this can be laid at the doors of the major Western powers. Their lack of imagination, innovation and creativity in attempting to resolve the problem has been the major impediment. Western efforts have been arbitrary and capricious, blind to the realities on the ground and offering solutions that serve their own interests rather than those of the people in Serbia and Kosovo.

At the same time, Belgrade and Pristina have mostly talked past each other in anger, when they talked at all. But, for the most part they waited for the major powers to provide answers and assumed no concrete, meaningful initiative of their own. As a result, Kosovo has joined the long list of dangerous "frozen conflicts" and if positive action-action that can be "owned" by Belgrade and Pristina-is not taken soon the Kosovo issue will become "unfrozen" through violence.

But, all of that is about to change. Since the Kosovo issue has been moved out of the United Nations and to the Contact Group, there is a genuine opportunity for Belgrade and Pristina to agree on a compromise settlement. But the window of opportunity will not be open long before violence flares again and the conflict "re-freezes"-as it certainly will if Pristina declares independence unilaterally. To take advantage of the opportunity, however, it is necessary for both Belgrade and Pristina to recognize six hard realities-some of which are unpalatable to one side or the other.

Six Realities

First, the Ahtisaari Plan is dead and, despite calls by some UN members and political commentators to resurrect parts of it, this is very unlikely to happen. Events have moved well beyond Ahtisaari's proposal to create a series of ethnically stove-piped communities in Kosovo. At its heart, the Ahtissari plan was an attempt primarily by the United States, the UK, France and Germany to force a settlement on both Serbs and Albanians that avoided ground reality and served the interests of those countries much more than the interests of those who live in the region. The collapse of the Ahtisaari Plan means that, if there is to be any hope of a permanent settlement, the United States and its West European allies will have to include the Serbs and Albanians as true partners in meaningful negotiations.

Second, U.S. influence has diminished. Although Washington may try to restore some of its clout in the full Contact Group, the comments of the EU and Russian representatives on the troika that visited Kosovo recently have effectively undercut the American position. Several times during the Troika's "fact finding trip", EU representative Ischinger and Russian representative Botsan-Kharchenko said that "nothing is impossible" and that everything is "on the table." This is a positive development. The evolving position of the EU and Russia easily could lead to a "negotiating period" longer than the additional 120 days allotted by the UN Security Council. If so, Washington might be tempted to unilaterally "recognize" an independent Kosovo. But, this would be a very risky move because it could cause serious strains with European "allies" and put the United States at odds with the widely accepted view (especially in the EU) that the construction and recognition of new states requires the approval of the United Nations. In the wake of the debacle in Iraq, Washington cannot be seen to be so dismissive of international law and procedures.

Third, officially Belgrade and Pristina remained locked in a nasty, dangerous zero-sum game that, if it is not broken, almost certainly will hasten violence. All levels of power in the Albanian community insist that independence of Kosovo-within its current boundaries-is the only course acceptable and that Pristina will not back away from this position. By the same token, Belgrade says that the only acceptable solution is for Kosovo to remain within Serbia, albeit with considerable autonomy. Indeed, the new Serbian Constitution stipulates that Kosovo is a Serbian province. At the same time, there is a glimmer of hope in Belgrade because some officials have begun to suggest that perhaps they might be willing to back away from this hard line.

Fourth, multi-ethnicity is dead in Kosovo. By and large, survey research as well as anecdotal information indicates that most Serbs and Albanians do not want to live together in the same society or to be governed by a government controlled by the other ethnic group. At times multi-ethnic states have "worked" in Europe and at times they have not. But the general trend-despite some notable exceptions-over the past century has been for states in Europe to be controlled by a single ethnic or cultural group. The point was well demonstrated after World War I with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires, and since the end of the Cold War by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It would be ideal perhaps if ethnicity were not a determining factor in the construction of political communities in the Balkans today. But, it is a reality despite the wishful thinking of well-meaning but naive Western policy makers.