Thursday, January 25, 2007

Kosovo Libre

The Wall Street Journal

January 24, 2007


Kosovo Libre
January 24, 2007

Somewhere along the way from the 1999 war in Kosovo to the current discussions in Western capitals over what should happen to that predominantly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia, recent Balkan history was turned on its head.

The aggressor in that war and three previous regional conflagrations of the past decade -- Serbia -- is now treated like the aggrieved party. The Kosovars, victims first of Slobodan Milosevic's apartheid and then of his ethnic cleansing, are told to put their long-delayed dreams of freedom on hold. The Americans, who ended Serbia's bloody march through the region, have ceded the diplomatic lead on the Balkans to fickle and divided Europeans.

So the omens aren't good that the negotiations over Kosovo's "final status," which are about to enter their last days, will redeem the long international commitment in arms and treasury to settle the turbulent Balkans. In the next two weeks, U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari will share his vision for Kosovo's future with the Kosovars, Serbs and key diplomatic players. According to our sources, he will go a long way to appease the Serbs and fall considerably short of Kosovar ambitions.

The tone was set when Mr. Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, put off the unveiling, due by end of 2006, to help pro-Western parties contesting last weekend's parliamentary elections in Serbia. To little effect: An ultranationalist group nominally led by an indicted war criminal currently in jail and awaiting trial at the U.N.'s Hague tribunal took the most votes.

In further deference to Serbian kvetching, Mr. Ahtisaari will suggest putting the Kosovars on a far shorter leash than anyone anticipated when talks on its future started last year. Russian threats and some vacillating Europeans were another reason why the "international community" scaled back ambitions for an independent Kosovo.

The word "independence" probably won't appear in the Ahtisaari document, and Kosovo won't be given a firm timetable to full sovereignty. Instead, the current plan calls for a transitional arrangement of indeterminate duration during which Kosovars will take control of their government under close foreign watch. Led by an EU diplomat, an International Community Office or Mission -- name yet to be decided -- will replace the eight-year-old U.N. administration. This new office will be able to veto legislation or remove elected politicians who are deemed contrary to the "peace process." This would resemble Bosnia's Office of the High Representative.

If the EU and U.S. want to pick up another multibillion-dollar tab for another ethnically riven Balkan dependency for the next decade or more, then Bosnia is just the right model. Pushing the Bosniaization of Kosovo further, the Ahtisaari draft plan also enshrines in law ethnic divisions on the ground. Small Serb enclaves will get special powers that will leave them free of control by the capital, Pristina. So, even if Kosovo gets to call itself a state, forget about it being a unitary one.

Kosovars expected that any sovereignty would be limited, but not to this extent. Their politicians didn't help their cause by badly mismanaging the few areas of self-rule granted them by the U.N., chiefly over education and health care. The failure to create a safer environment for minority Serbs is also coming back to haunt the Kosovars. But the way to get the Kosovars to grow into self-rule faster is to provide far less intrusive "supervision" and offer clear incentives, say for EU or NATO membership.

At the same time, the mooted proposal reflects a serious misunderstanding of Serbian politics. Nationalist demons won't go away if Mr. Ahtisaari just strokes their heads. As the weekend elections showed, a chunk of the Serbian electorate can't accept losing Kosovo and never will. Reformers quietly urge Mr. Ahtisarri to get the Kosovo problem out of the way as fast as possible so Serbs can concentrate on remaking their country into a modern, prosperous European state. But instead the EU indulges Serbia's persecution and entitlement complexes, delays the inevitable and keeps the Kosovo issue alive for nationalists to exploit.

Ideally, the Security Council would confirm "independence," in name and fact, while retaining some oversight and keeping NATO troops on the ground. Russia is threatening a veto, if Mr. Ahtisaari were to propose such an option. Their bluff can be called; it's useful to get Moscow obstructionism on the record. More likely is that the Security Council will adopt a hopefully much modified version of the Ahtisaari plan in the spring. Then Kosovo can declare independence and seek international recognition. Serbia will probably try to run interference, but Washington and the bigger European capitals can put that to a quick stop by recognizing Kosovo. Serbia lost its moral and legal claim on Kosovo after the 1999 war.

Though it suffers from common Balkan ailments such as organized crime and poverty, Kosovo is full of young, entrepreneurial people. It can one day be a successful, small, free state. To start building that state, Kosovo needs its freedom. The sooner, the better for everyone concerned, not least the Serbs.

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