Monday, December 24, 2007



Sun Dec 23, 7:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- If you're pausing to consider what 2008's biggest trouble spots might be, take your finger and travel on the map to the belly of the Balkans, and stop at Kosovo, the enduring trouble spot.

Actually, Kosovo is not yet a country in and of itself, although that is what it wants to be. Serbia claims it as a province, which is exactly what Kosovo does NOT want to be. The United Nations has been administering the 2 million Kosovars, 90 percent of whom are ethnically Albanians. But the Kosovars do not have the faintest taste for joining Albania and are not interested in staying under the control of the U.N., either.

When you add the fact that the United States and the European Union support independence for Kosovo, while Russia supports Serbian nationalist intentions, you begin to understand that this is a problem that cannot be easily worked out.

Personally, I gave up the notion that these two peoples could live together as early as September 1992, when the Balkan wars were raging and Serb Gauleiters had taken over Kosovo.

Because journalists were forbidden from seeing what a wonderfully progressive "occupation" the Serbs were imposing upon the innocent Kosovars, I found myself in neighboring independent Macedonia, utterly determined to get in. Well, just try it, I thought -- so I got the wiliest Kosovar cab driver I could find, and we "attacked" the always crowded and dangerous border crossing.

My choice was a good one. Sam (for such, strangely enough, was his name) saw no reason for waiting in line. No, at the border he simply swerved around long, snaking lines of cars, waved our two passports at his "friends," the border guards, and whisked me into the capital of Pristina, one of the most run-down cities I have ever seen. He also managed to get me nearly shot by machine gun-bearing Serb soldiers when I innocently tried to stroll about the university.

In a run-down shack by the river, I spoke at some length with the melodramatic Ibrahim Rugova, head of the anti-Serb Kosovars whose Democratic League of Kosovo had set up a parallel state -- their own schools, banks, hospitals, universities, underground police, etc. A truly original 21st-century independence movement at its birth!

This man, who would have seemed more at ease in a great dramatic work, at one point mused with me: "Kosovo ... It would be a tiny state, but we could do it ... It would be a good solution, sometime."

By 2001, all of this had miraculously changed. By then he was the elected president of the parliament of Kosovo. They were freed from the Serbs' oppression, even though Kosovo still was officially a province of Serbia. Everything had changed because, after four years of NATO and the Europeans doing nothing to stop the Serb repression, in 1999 the United States bravely led NATO bombardments of Kosovo and drove the Serbs out.

But something strange had happened during the Balkan war of the '90s with Serbia invading Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, all of whom became independent, as well as Kosovo, which did not.

The Europeans sent peacekeepers to the region under the U.N., ostensibly to impose a United Nations brand of neutralism. But they insisted, in one of the most curious operations of modern times, that the U.N. could not take action, even when it was clear that the Serbs were the aggressors, having massacred tens of thousands of Kosovars. In effect, they declared that no one was innocent or really guilty, and so they would never have to take action -- and they never did.

While the larger and more important parts of Serbia were going their independent ways, Kosovo, from 1999 until today, has been imperfectly run by the U.N. Now, as Serbian elections loom on Jan. 20, Serbia is demanding its solution -- keep Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.

Yet, in preparation for the independence that the vast majority of Kosovars want and the Europeans support, the European Union this fall pledged 1,800 police and administrative officials to Kosovo as part of a package of aid and diplomacy intended to move Kosovo quickly toward independence, while offering Serbia a "fast track" to membership in the E.U.

The words of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica recently revealed the attitudes of the Serbs. "It is unacceptable to speak of Kosovo, a province of Serbia, as a future state," he said. "It is especially insulting to offer to a crippled Serbia a reward of fast track to the E.U. in exchange for its consent to violence."

Others might think that it is insulting to the world to pretend that the Serb violence against Kosovo never happened, and that it is deeply immoral to ask the Kosovars now to live with their oppressors.

Moreover, a new Kosovar identity is emerging in the region. Kosovars are designing a new national flag, one, it is hoped, that would reflect a multi-ethnic identity and include the 10 percent of Kosovars who are ethnically Serbs. And President Rugova, before he died, even tried to rename Kosovo's indigenous dog the "Kosovo shepherd."

What is clear here is that both Europe and the United States have every reason to stand by Kosovo in its natural desire and demand for independence. Indeed, what is the alternative? Stand by the Serbs who slaughtered some 250,000 of their "neighbors" during the '90s? There is a chance here for Europe, as well, to make up for its moral casualness in the Balkans during the '90s, and for the U.S. to embrace a truly righteous cause.

As Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs: "Kosovo's independence ... should not be held hostage to Serbia's inability to trust itself to behave responsibly. The United States and its European partners were too timid in confronting Serbian nationalism throughout most of the 1990s, and much blood was shed as a result. The international community should not make the same mistake today. Serbia's darker instincts need to be extinguished, not accommodated."

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