America’s Kosovo Dilemma

An assertive Russia is looking for ways to show its strength and independence. The Kosovo issue is an easy way to demonstrate it. Given the public comments now made, it is hard to see how Russia can change course without losing face.

William Montgomery

In December, 1992 we unilaterally issued the famous “Christmas warning” to Milošević that any provocations by his government which caused major violence in Kosovo would be answered even by military force.

Envoys such as Robert Gelbard, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Walker and Chris Hill were prominent in negotiating with the Serbian government and pressing it to improve the human rights situation in Kosovo.  It was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who took the lead in pressing the case for NATO bombing and NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark that carried it out.

By the time that UNMIK and KFOR arrived in Kosovo in 1999, certain opinions were locked in stone. Nothing that has taken place over the past seven years, including the fall of Milošević and the democratic transition in Serbia has changed them.

First of all, virtually every Kosovo Albanian is passionately determined to be irrevocably separated from Serbia and to have full independence. A significant number are willing to resort once again to violence, if necessary, to bring it about.

Secondly, the Kosovo Albanians are grateful to the United States for its role thus far and more importantly, because they believe it is the United States that will ensure that independence in the near future.

The United States consequently has a stature and credibility with Kosovo Albanians that no other country has. Like many in the Balkans, the Kosovo Albanians are skeptical about the strength and determination of the European Union.

Finally, there are concrete reasons why this bond with Americans remains so strong. Namely, it is difficult to find any influential official, policy maker, or independent foreign affairs specialist in the United States who has not publicly or privately indicated that independence for Kosovo within current borders is the only possible outcome. Most made no secret of their views. 

Richard Holbrooke in a 2003 visit to Belgrade bluntly told Serbian leaders that they would have to “choose between Kosovo and Europe and that if you chose Kosovo, you will get neither.” The International Crisis Group, various Senators and Congressmen, and other non-governmental groups have been equally direct in pressing the case for independence.

The United States has also been in the forefront of pressing for resolution of the final status question quickly, in large part so that the overwhelming majority of our troops in the Balkans could be withdrawn.

The European Union members of the Contact Group have endorsed the scenario of conditional independence for Kosovo under the supervision of the European Union. Several months ago they placed the vanguard of their transitional team in Kosovo with the idea that following the necessary UN Resolution, the European Union would replace UNMIK. They have already delineated the functions that they would perform and supervise.

While the Serbian political leadership disappointed the Western members of the Contact Group because of their unwillingness to either accept this outcome or to prepare its population for it, this in no way ever led to any reconsideration by the EU or the United States about the final status.

The growing strength of the Radicals did sufficiently concern the West so that they made some accommodations to Serbia (postponing the date of the final status recommendations until after the Serbian elections, admitting Serbia to Partnership for Peace, and announcing that a fresh look will be taken by the EU on the visa regime for Serbia).

What has dramatically changed the entire equation is the growing realization that Russia is likely to prevent any UN Security Council Resolution which contains elements unacceptable to Serbia. This has now been made publicly clear both by President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. 

The latter was just quoted as saying that any solution had to be acceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade and that “There can be no imposed solutions.” The reality is that the “correlation of forces” in the world has changed dramatically since the 1999 Kosovo Bombing Campaign and the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which was passed in its immediate aftermath. 

Now, an assertive Russia is looking for ways to show its strength and independence. The Kosovo issue is an easy way to demonstrate it. Given the public comments now made, it is hard to see how Russia can change course without losing face.   

The United States and some EU members are continuing to push for resolution of final status in the next few months with conditional independence as the outcome.  They are still hoping that in negotiations over the Security Council Resolution, they will be able to secure wording which will be ambiguous, but sufficient to then move rapidly to conditional independence.

This remains the U.S. position, strongly supported by all of the influential foreign policy players in the United States mentioned above. In other words, the U.S. Administration is pressed by its domestic constituency to continue to pursue an option which looks unlikely to succeed.  

The United States is thus faced first of all with the problem of keeping increasingly skeptical Europeans on board for this solution while figuring out how to bring Russia along. It will require very “heavy lifting” on the part of the United States with Russia and the EU will be of little help in this process.

Russian intransigence could well lead to the following scenarios:

a. The potential for no UN Resolution at all. While the EU is already considering pushing for a simple resolution strictly limited to permitting it to take over in Kosovo from the UN, there is absolutely no guarantee that the Russians will allow even that. They may well insist on adding language to that resolution which makes coming to closure on Kosovo far harder than it already is. 

Many Europeans have privately stated their unwillingness to move into Kosovo to replace UNMIK without a UN Resolution authorizing it. If they do not, Kosovo will be left with a depleted, demoralized UNMIK for the foreseeable future. Many of its best cadre has already secured new positions and its authority has diminished due to its lame duck status. This would leave Kosovo virtually in limbo. It could also mean that the U.S. objective of withdrawing its troops from the Balkans could be frustrated.

b. The virtual certainty of a dramatic rise in violence in this year, instigated at least initially by Kosovo Albanian extremists. The only question is where it will be directed. Initial targets may well be the Serbian minority and UNMIK. But it is not to be ruled out that in their bitter disappointment over the lack of movement on independence, even the U.S. forces may become a target. This would be the Bush Administration’s worst nightmare. In any case, KFOR will not be able to prevent this upsurge of violence and its consequences can be severe.

c. There is also the possibility of a split between the European Union and the United States. This could happen in two ways.  The first is EU willingness to accept wording from the Russians in a Resolution which is unacceptable to the United States. The second is European unwillingness to circumvent the UN. It is obvious that many Europeans do not feel the same urgency about Kosovo as does the United States.

By our nature, by our focus on events in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the shortage of troops for those areas), and due to our domestic constituency, the United States will be determined to bring the Kosovo issue to closure. The natural tendency of the European Union when faced with this sort of controversy is to delay, to put off decision-making. It is easy to imagine the United States pressing for action outside of the UN and the EU resisting such a step.

Moreover, if the United States feels that the EU is backing away from possible solutions or is willing to endorse unacceptable ones, it can always threaten to exercise the option of simply washing its hands of Kosovo and walking away. As unlikely as this may seem, the EU and others will be making a big mistake if they disregard this possibility.

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