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Moving To The End Game In Kosovo

William Montgomery

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In order to reach consensus among key international players on the immediate way forward after Slobodan Milosevic's capitulation in Kosovo, the decision on its final/future status was deliberately left undecided. In retrospect, that has proven counterproductive, as it has adversely impacted on political developments in both Serbia proper and Kosovo ever since.

About two years ago the Contact Group introduced a policy with great fanfare, called "standards before status." The basic idea was that clear standards would be set in a number of areas, reviews would periodically be carried out to measure progress in meeting those standards, and when it was determined that sufficient progress had indeed been met, talks could begin on determining the future/final status of Kosovo.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has just named a Special Envoy, Kai Eide, to carry out the review of those standards. He is a highly qualified diplomat with long experience in the region and I have no doubt that the report itself will be accurate and probably extremely critical of progress or lack thereof in many key areas.

Nevertheless, it seems certain that whatever that report says, the conclusion will be that it is time to begin talks on final status. In other words, the policy of "standards before status" has been gently, but firmly put in the diplomatic trash bin. This was clearly signaled in the remarks of Under Secretary of State Burns to the U.S. Congress and on his subsequent visit to the region. The basic reason is that the international parties realized that meeting those standards, no matter how loosely worded, would probably take a decade or longer. No one was willing to wait that time. Some, like Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld want U.S. troops out of the Balkans (at least the overwhelming majority of them) and see a decision on Kosovo as permitting that to happen. Others genuinely believe that failing to come to a decision is hampering progress in Serbia proper and Kosovo. Others are simply afraid that the Kosovar Albanian majority will become increasingly disenchanted with the international community and even violent if the status quo is maintained much longer.

One can argue about the wisdom of moving ahead to a conclusion, but regardless of the merits or lack thereof, all parties in the region have noted the fact that the international community has reversed course on a key policy approach. This will give renewed confidence to those opponents of the policies of the international community not only in Kosovo, but Bosnia and other places as well. They can now hope, with some justification, that given time or changed circumstances, policies, which now look carved in stone, may become more flexible.

In expectation of the beginning of discussion on final/future status in Kosovo, all parties have been positioning themselves for the process:

---Kosovar Albanians have made it clear that the only solution they will accept is unconditional independence within the current borders of Kosovo.

---Belgrade has come up with a united position of "more than autonomy, less than independence." Virtually all Serbian politicians have called independence for Kosovo "unacceptable."

---Members of the Contact Group have made statements ruling out a return to the pre-1999 situation, ruling out any union with neighboring states, and underscoring the need to develop a multi-ethnic society. In a significant change, at least of U.S. policy, they have also specifically ruled out any sort of partition. Previously, the U.S. position was to deliberately refuse to rule any options out, concentrating on standards implementation instead.

I have very mixed emotions about this process. On the one hand, I do agree that the entire region will not be stabile until all outstanding questions such as Kosovo, the future of Montenegro (independent or part of Serbia and Montenegro), and revising Bosnia so that its government can work effectively have been decided. But it's not enough to simply move rapidly. Both the process of coming to solutions and the actual solutions themselves are critically important. Unless these situations are all handled with extreme care (particularly in the case of Kosovo), one can end up destabilizing the region rather than stabilizing it.

Given the statements of the Contact Group, it seems clear that the actual possible solutions are very limited. In fact there are only four:

a) Unconditional Independence for Kosovo within current borders.
b) Conditional Independence, with the International Community reserving certain powers for itself for a period of time or leaving troops in place for a time or some other variant. The idea would be to provide protection to the minorities and overall security.
c) Independence for Kosovo as one of three equal members along with Serbia and Montenegro in a Confederation of the three states.
d) Adding Kosovo to the current Union of Serbia and Montenegro as a third Republic.

If anyone has any doubt as to why some in the European Union have been so concerned over the "Belgrade Agreement" with Serbia and Montenegro, look no further that items c and d above. They are deliberately trying to keep those options open and worried that the timing of the referendum on Montenegrin Independence next year might make those options less viable.

No Serbian Politician will be willing to sign a piece of paper agreeing to Kosovar Independence. One only has to look at how former Foreign Minister Svilanovic was treated for being part of the recent Balkan Commission Report to understand that fact. I suspect that the same is true for any Kosovar Albanian who would sign any document that maintained any sort of tie with Serbia proper. Consequently, regardless of the emphasis now being put on discussion among all parties, including Belgrade, in the end, the decision will have to be imposed by the International Community. In so doing, we need to be aware of the likelihood of one of two equally unpalatable scenarios coming to fruition:

---A decision on final status that is perceived as so unacceptable to the Serbs that it leads to an exodus such as took place after Operation Storm in Croatia in 1995 or in Sarajevo in 1996. This in turn would dramatically increase the already strong nationalist forces in Serbia and probably bring down any government in place at that time. It would also guarantee years of real hostility between Serbia and Kosovo.

---A decision on final status that is judged as so unacceptable to the Kosovar Albanians that they turn increasingly to violence directed against the international community and the other ethnic groups. In other words, they would begin a new guerrilla war.

Walking the tightrope between these two scenarios will be extremely difficult. One key, for the Serb reaction, is whether the Kosovo Serbs actually feel secure in Kosovo in terms of their religion, culture, education, and ties to Belgrade, and way of life. It has been frustrating, therefore, to see that decentralization in Kosovo has been deliberately stalled. This is simply one more sign how on the issues really central to the future of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo, neither the Kosovar Albanians nor UNMIK are willing to take the steps needed to bring it about.

We also need to be clear that the challenges facing Kosovo are enormous. The hatred, fear and suspicion among the ethnic groups remains at an unacceptably high levels. The economy is a genuine, full-blown basket case with huge levels of unemployment, almost no foreign investment, and a lack of resources that would be the foundation for any economy. The key Albanian political parties have no sign of being able to work together constructively. If the international security presence were to depart Kosovo today, there will be severe outbreaks of violence with regional implications within one week.

The implications of the above are that the international presence in Kosovo under any circumstances, regardless of the ultimate decision on status, will continue to be large and influential for a long time to come. The final decision, therefore, will have to take that into account and will be a complex package of assurances, assistance, carrots, and potential sticks so that all parties will, however reluctantly, acquiesce.

The key - and absolutely essential - part of any package deal has always been fast track admission to the European Union for the region encompassing Serbia proper and Kosovo. Obviously, significant financial assistance from the EU under any such scenario would also be required. Consequently, I am deeply concerned over the ongoing crisis within the European Union. Regardless of how many statements of reassurance one now hears from EU representatives that all commitments to the region will be kept, the reality is that no one today can state with certainty what will happen with the EU over the next few years. In the grand scheme of EU relations, Kosovo becomes a minor issue subject to the interaction of EU members such as France and the UK.

This all reminds me of my boat, which happens to have a broken fuel gauge. It seems that the future of the region is in the EU boat and we are heading for an extremely dangerous passage with rocks and rapids galore. And we are not at all sure just how much fuel we have in our tank.


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