TOPICS: Another pivotal Balkan moment

The death of Kosovo Albanian president Ibrahim Rugova last month came at a particularly delicate time for the Western Balkans. Talks on Kosovo’s future status begin on February 20, but many observers fear that a power struggle among pretenders to Rugova’s mantle, together with similar political infighting in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, will inhibit both the Albanians’ and the Serbs’ ability to negotiate coherently or constructively over the coming months.

Kosovo’s Albanians have made it clear that the UN, which has governed the disputed Serbian province since 1999, has outstayed its welcome, and that hostility toward the Serbs may soon be directed toward the UN and NATO if Kosovo does not quickly gain independence. Consequently, driven partly by fear of extremist violence, and partly by the need to resolve Kosovo’s international-legal limbo status, the Bush administration has decided to push for a resolution of the Kosovo issue in 2006.

Granting Kosovo independence outright is not a straightforward matter. As Balkans’ expert Alex Grigor’ev noted, these negotiations are as much about Serbia as they are about Kosovo. More than five years after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s democratic transition is making progress, but the progress is not irreversible. The worst-case scenario runs along the following lines: An independent Kosovo prompts democratic leaders in Serbia to resign. With Serbia being an important country, political and economic reform throughout much of southeastern Europe would suffer if political forces from the 1990s came back to power in Belgrade.

US policy is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Failing to quickly fulfil the aspirations of Kosovo’s majority population could lead to yet another insurrection involving the US military. Fulfilling those aspirations, however, without regard to their broader ramifications could produce an entirely new set of problems. And there are broader ramifications aplenty, for whatever happens in Kosovo could have considerable impact in the Balkans and beyond. In fact, the Kosovo precedent could affect a host of similar problems around the world: If Kosovo Albanians can secede from Serbia, then why not Albanians in Macedonia from Macedonia?

In 1991-92, the international community thought that it could control and contain the processes of the former Yugoslavia’s disintegration. We now know how terribly wrong that assumption was. With so much at stake, success in Kosovo requires patient diplomacy. It also requires an agreement that can reconcile the demographic and political reality of today’s Kosovo.

Instead of understanding Kosovo’s future in terms of 19th-century notions of state sovereignty, the international mediators and responsible politicians in the Balkans should facilitate a future for Kosovo in keeping with the soft borders, overlapping sovereignties that have become the basis for the European Union of the 21st century. — The Christian Science Monitor