Kosovo-and the Balkans-are back on the international agenda. Many scholars and officials in Washington have proudly proclaimed the "success" of Western intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s and pronounced Kosovo the final residue of the wars of Yugoslav succession. So, with an air of triumph and patronizing smugness, the great powers dispatched former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to the region to wrap up the "last Balkan question." Serbs and Kosovar Albanians were summoned to Vienna for "negotiations" to determine Kosovo's final status, and Ahtisaari delivered his Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement to the Security Council in late March.
Sadly, self congratulations are premature. The Kosovo issue is far from resolved, and acceptance and imposition of the Settlement Plan by the Security Council has the strong potential to unravel Balkan political settlements thought to be settled, lead to renewed violence and instability, and have repercussions far beyond the Western Balkans. There are four reasons.
First, the Vienna negotiations were not true negotiations at all. From the beginning, independence was the underlying rational for the Vienna process. The talks under Ahtisaari's leadership were designed to establish an independent Kosovo that still provided a relatively safe environment for the few remaining Serbs and other minorities in the province. Seeing independence in their future, the Kosovar Albanian strategy was simply to do nothing to upset a winning hand. The Serbs, who could not accept the underlying premise of the Vienna process or even the framework for the talks, had no strategy because nothing could avoid what they saw as a predetermined outcome. As a result, the Vienna talks created a zero-sum atmosphere that will encourage Serb intransigence if the Settlement is imposed and Albanian intransigence if the process is delayed.
Second, the terms of the Settlement Proposal themselves likely would increase ethnic tension within Kosovo and lessen prospects for an integrated, independent state. The Settlement recommends a municipality-based political system, but the proposed municipalities would be configured essentially for and by ethnic communities. Under the terms of the Proposal, these ethnic communities (overwhelmingly Albanian and Serbian) would be given a substantial degree of independence, called "competency", in political, economic, cultural and socials matters. That is, the Settlement proposes wedding ethnicities to competencies and then institutionalizing them at the municipal level. Moreover, ethnically-based municipalities may establish competency links to their ethnic kin in other municipalities, both inside and outside Kosovo. At the same time, the Proposal recommends the establishment of a single state that would be dominated by the majority Albanians, but virtually all state offices would be required to have a certain percentage of non-Albanian office holders. A system of municipalities controlled by mutually antagonistic ethnic groups under the jurisdiction of a single state dominated by one of those ethnic groups is a prescription at best for antagonism and stagnation and, at worst, for escalating violence. How Serbs and Albanians could find any common ground on the most basic issues of state and society is perplexing in this context.
Third, an imposed settlement would heighten regional instability. Certainly, the entire post-Cold War era has set a modern precedent for the disintegration and reformulation of states. The forced separation of Kosovo from Serbia would greatly reinforce that precedent and encourage others to seek great power endorsement for the same kinds of moves elsewhere. The greatest and most immediate impact would be in the Western Balkans itself. There already are rumblings of separation in the Serb-controlled area north of the Ibar River in Kosovo, especially in the putative municipality of North Mitrovica and in Bosnia's Republika Srpska, where last October's elections showed that a Bosnian state is still not a firmly established fact. An imposed settlement also may encourage separatist forces among Albanians in Western Macedonia, despite the success of the Ohrid Accords, and among Croatians in Herzegovina. Moreover, although there are significant local controlling circumstances, the precedent of an imposed Kosovo settlement is likely to invigorate separatists in other regions, especially in some of the "frozen conflicts" in the Caucasus.
Finally, the terms of the Ahtisaari plan already are sowing discord in the international community and, if it is accepted and imposed by the Security Council, it is likely to lead to even deeper international fissures. Many current members of the Security Council are hesitant to support an imposed settlement, as are Balkan and Aegean neighbors, Greece, Cyprus and Slovenia. In addition, Russia, which is in a mood to flex its muscles and exploit American weakness, argues that the proposed settlement, especially if it is forced, would have a deleterious impact on its interests in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transniestria. Additionally, an imposed Kosovo settlement would tarnish the credentials of the great powers as fair and ethical brokers of international agreements because such a settlement would violate the Security Council's 1999 Resolution 1244, which sets the parameters for dealing with Kosovo, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which establish the inviolability of borders, and Europe's own Badinter Arbitration Commission Report of 1992, which rejected the forced dismemberment of the new states of the former Yugoslavia.
Before the UN or a U.S-led coalition attempts to impose a settlement, it makes much more sense to renew efforts to negotiate a solution. But, this time, they would have to be real negotiations-ones that do not impose artificial deadlines, do not begin with a predetermined answer, plumb the deeper interests of the Serbs and Albanians, and examine a wide range of solutions-including partition, border changes and population transfers. It's going to take time, but honest, patient negotiations are the only way to resolve this issue peacefully and finally to lay the groundwork for a more productive future in the Balkans.
Dr. Steven E. Meyer is Professor of National Security Studies at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University.
This article represents the views of the author alone and does not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the National Defense University.