Calamity over Kosovo?

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?

Moscow has made clear that it will not support a decision on the status of Serbia's territory made without Serbian agreement, threatening to veto any such resolution brought before the UN Security Council. As a result, the West frequently treats Russia as a bully who must be stood up to rather than worked with. According to widespread opinion, the United States and EU have a responsibility to help Kosovo and cannot allow Russia to interfere. Moscow is often dismissed as being intentionally obstinate simply to make life more difficult for the United States, as Kupchan has noted, or for having "expansionist" visions in the Balkans, as Bugajski implied, but understanding its motives and thinking strategically about the consequences of ignoring its interests is critical in preventing the further deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. 

Dimitri K. Simes, president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest, noted that Russia would have no objection to Kosovo's independence if Serbia agreed and that there is no evidence to suggest Russia has encouraged Serbia to refrain from making a deal with Kosovo. Moscow's real interests lie in the Caucasus, where the de facto independent enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are clamoring for independence from Georgia in order to join Russia. Simes indicated that Russia probably could be persuaded to be flexible on Kosovo if there is a quid pro quo in the Caucasus.

But the United States and the EU have made clear that they consider Kosovo's situation unique and that Kosovo's independence does not set a precedent for other territories desiring secession. The opinion of the West, however, does not preclude these territories from treating Kosovo as such. Simes stressed the importance of thinking seriously about how our actions in the Balkans will affect global relations. What will happen, for example, if after Kosovo declares its independence, Abkhazia and South Ossetia press for their own right to sovereignty? According to Simes, there is fairly strong reason to believe that such a situation could lead to a military conflict between Georgia and Russia, which in turn would force a confrontation between Washington and Moscow.

For this reason, the United States should think twice before ignoring Russia's objections to Kosovo's independence without Serbian consent and refusing to be flexible in the Southern Caucasus. Simes indicated that a dispute between Washington and Moscow over Georgia could push Russia closer to Iran and possibly Venezuela. Is recognizing Kosovo's independence worth encouraging Russia to form a coalition against the United States with such countries? Should the West be willing to accommodate Russian interests in exchange for cooperation from Moscow on key security issues? Is there a way to offer enough inducement to Belgrade, such as a combination of partition and a fast track to EU membership, to remove its opposition and eliminate the threat of a Russian veto? 

The Center for Preventive Action debate was useful in posing questions such as these and not only looking at the implications of Kosovo's independence in the Balkans, but considering the spillover effect as well. Paul Stares summed up by admitting that while he went into the discussion believing that the situation in Kosovo is fairly manageable, he left with a slightly less optimistic outlook. The bottom line is that whether one believes that Russia's concerns should be taken into account or, as was suggested, that the country is blackmailing the West and should not be tolerated, the direction that the West takes will have consequences, and those consequences deserve significant consideration before a decision is made. If the West insists on holding its position and refuses to negotiate, it must be prepared to deal not only with the potentially destabilizing effects of Kosovo independence in the Balkans, but also the ramifications of losing Russia's support on key areas of U.S. interest and pushing the country towards closer alliances with American adversaries.


Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.