Permanent representatives from the United Nations Security Council have just returned from a fact finding mission to the Balkans and will soon begin debating whether or not to endorse granting Kosovo independence. There are legitimate arguments both in favor of granting Kosovo independence and against. But an argument currently making the rounds in Washington-that the United States should recognize Kosovo's independence even without Security Council approval-is almost certainly wrong.
In the United States, senators Lieberman (D-CT), Biden (D-DE), McCain (R-AZ) and Smith (R-OR) have introduced a resolution to the Senate calling for a unilateral U.S. recognition of Kosovo's independence. Yet an ad hoc process which does not enjoy clear international legitimacy, with some countries recognizing Kosovo's independence and others opting not to, will significantly complicate an already messy diplomatic situation in the Balkans. The International Crisis Group, meanwhile, is arguing that a quick move towards independence is needed to prevent frustrated extremists in Kosovo from exporting violence to other parts of the Balkans. But granting Kosovo independence outright could just as easily whet the appetites of militants who have already engaged in violence in Macedonia, Montenegro and southern Serbia, especially when the United States remains intent on reducing its military presence in the region.
Just as in the case of Iraq, moreover, many Washington policymakers supporting unilateral recognition of Kosovo's independence are relying on best-case scenarios of what U.S. actions will lead to. And few are contemplating how to handle the southern Balkans if things go wrong.
Things are not well in southeastern Europe. A member of Bosnia's collective presidency recently noted that political tensions in that country were at their highest levels since the end of Bosnia's civil war in 1995, and one of Bosnia's leading journalists, Senad Pecanin, has said that he "fears for the peace" there. Three months after Serbia's parliamentary elections last January, Belgrade's political elites have yet to form a government, raising the specter that Serbia may need to hold another round of elections. This effectively means that Serbian politics could be in disarray through much of the summer. In Serbia's Sandzak region, adjoining both Bosnia and Kosovo, the recent discovery of an Islamic militant training camp full of weapons and Al-Qaeda propaganda materials shows that Wahhabists are making inroads in the Balkans' economically underdeveloped regions. In Kosovo itself, ethnic minorities continue to suffer under the worst human rights situation in Europe, unemployment and official corruption are at extremely high levels even by regional standards, and there is a strong possibility that a precipitate move towards independence could provoke Kosovo's Serbs north of the Ibar River to declare independence themselves, creating yet another frozen conflict in Europe. Even the Balkan success stories are facing difficult times. London's Economist, for instance, recently questioned whether Romania can remain a credible member of the EU given its fragile domestic politics and high levels of judicial corruption.
It is in this regional context that American policymakers claim that quickly granting Kosovo independence without UN Security Council approval will stabilize the region, yet just the opposite could prove true as well.
This line of thinking, moreover, also fails to appreciate how granting Kosovo independence without Security Council approval will affect strategic relations between the United States, the European Union, Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have both expressed their unhappiness, both with the Kosovo future status process and with Washington's lack of respect for Russian and Chinese concerns about how Kosovo may set a precedent in other parts of the world. Many Europeans are also uneasy about a unilateral U.S. move to recognize Kosovo's independence. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, one of Europe's most experienced Balkan hands, warned last week that the U.S. was "playing with fire with the transatlantic relationship and playing with fire in the Balkans" if the United States unilaterally recognized Kosovo's independence. At a time when all the major powers need to show unity in dealing with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, for the United States to break ranks over Kosovo would be foolhardy.
Only time will tell if an independent Kosovo is a stabilizing factor in the Balkans. But an independent Kosovo that does not respect the rights of its ethnic minorities or that is a threat to its regional neighbors certainly will not be. And a process which grants Kosovo independence without UN Security Council approval will exacerbate tensions both in the Balkans and in other parts of the world as well. Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, recently said that Kosovo may be the most important issue the Security Council deals with in this decade. Clearly, what this situation calls for is careful multilateral diplomacy and keeping all the major players onside, not unilateral actions based on best-case scenarios of what might happen. Strategic wishful thinking led to
the Iraq tragedy, and Washington should not make the same mistake in the Balkans.
Gordon N. Bardos is assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He will be writing a more extensive survey of developments in the Balkans for the July/August 2007 issue of The National Interest.