Europe's Next Independent State

Out of sight, out of mind. That's largely been the world's approach toward the former Balkans ethnic war zone of Kosovo.

Thankfully, that's about to end.

This summer, the international community is set to review the highly charged issue of Kosovo's political status. Since a 1999 NATO air campaign drove Serb forces from Kosovo, this poor, tense corner of the former Yugoslavia has been in legal limbo.

Officially, it's a province of the country now known as Serbia and Montenegro. It has a Serb minority, but Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanian population demands independence. The compromise since the war has been to have Kosovo administered by the United Nations, and secured by 18,000 NATO troops.

This "between" state is no longer sustainable. Uncertainty has helped drive Kosovo's economy into the ground. Unemployment runs at about 60 percent. Because of Kosovo's undetermined future, neither the World Bank nor the International Monetary Fund can offer assistance.

At the same time, ethnic conflicts have flared. Last spring, Kosovo's mainly Muslim Albanians went on a rampage, injuring hundreds of Serbs and attacking their Orthodox churches, which are part of Serb identity. Nineteen people died. Without a settling of the status question, it's feared violence could flare again.

This week, the Bush administration gave a welcome, if belated, push toward resolving this thorny problem by putting forward a road map toward resolution. If all goes well, final-status negotiations - involving Europe, the US, and both sides in the conflict - would begin in the fall.

Choices for Kosovo

To maintain credibility as a facilitator, the US isn't taking a position on Kosovo's final status. But the Western community is rightly gravitating toward independence.

Such a decision would involve some difficult issues, but considering the alternatives, independence makes the most sense.

Serbia's notion of "more than autonomy, but less than independence" is vague, and simply won't be accepted by Kosovo's majority Albanians. Autonomy was the official status under which "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanians by Serbs occurred, and it was that ethnic violence that led to the war in the first place. Serbia is now a fledgling democracy, but that doesn't erase the Albanians' historic fears.

Partition is also being talked about. But while Kosovo's north is largely Serb, many Serbs are scattered in the south, and it's hard to imagine them accepting such a deal.

That leaves independence, with all its risks and complications. Risks, because the Albanians so far have a poor record in their treatment of Serb and other minorities. And complications, because of the issues independence raises not only for Serbia - loath to give up more territory of the former Yugoslavia - but also for Kosovo's neighbors, which have large ethnic Albanian populations.

Further afield is the precedent that might be set for other secessionist movements in countries such as Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan if the West helps create an independent Kosovo (which was never a state or republic).

But how to persuade Serbia to give up Kosovo? One, it must be promised eventual integration with the world of democratic nations, including the European Union and NATO. And two, it must receive guarantees of protection for the Serb minority in Kosovo.

Protecting the minority Serbs

Kosovo has made some progress, but it has so far failed to live up to UN-endorsed "standards" of a multi- ethnic society. Those standards were to have been met before final-status talks could begin. But the Bush administration is wisely urging that improvement of standards continue along with the talks, rather than having them serve to delay them.

Through negotiations, limits that would calm Serb fears could be set on a free Kosovo. It should not, for instance, be allowed to later join with Albania. Its higher courts - which would guarantee minority rights - might include internationally appointed judges for a time. And it will probably have to work out a long-term deal with NATO. Ultimately, for Kosovo as for Serbia, the promise of integration with Europe would be a strong incentive for good behavior.

Saving Kosovo was a necessary step in 1999. So is setting it free today.

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