Free Kosovo – without a fight

The US must persuade others to back Kosovo's independence.

Ethnic Albanians have a name for Kosovo under international supervision: UNMIKISTAN. A play on the acronym for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the name has recently taken on a tone of intolerable impatience.

After eight years of waiting for the international community to grant independence, Kosovo's Albanians are on the verge of declaring it themselves. The US must act swiftly to build international support for their declaration, or the move could destabilize the entire region.

The UN is far from Kosovo's first occupier. Throughout history, the province has been ruled by outside powers. First it was the Romans, then the Byzantines, and later the Serbs. In 1389, when the declining Serbian empire made its symbolic last stand against the rising Ottoman Turks, its army was defeated in Kosovo.

Six centuries later, in 1989, a rising Serb nationalist named Slobodan Milosevic journeyed to Kosovo to pay homage to his fallen ancestors. His visit marked the beginning of another occupation – one that transformed Kosovo into a virtual apartheid state. Although Albanians make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population, Mr. Milosevic purged them from positions of power and barred them from schools, hospitals, and other public institutions. But it was not until Milosevic began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in 1999 that the international community intervened militarily to protect the Albanians, ushering in the UN administration that continues to this day.

Unlike its predecessors, the UN has been a reluctant occupier, and has made a considerable effort to resolve Kosovo's status – a difficult task.

Kosovo's Serbs say the province is the cradle of their civilization and ought to remain part of Serbia, while Albanians will accept nothing less than full independence. Even skilled mediator Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland appointed as a UN special envoy in 2005, could not get the sides to reach a compromise.

Earlier this year, after months of failed negotiations, Mr. Ahtisaari proposed a plan of "supervised independence," which would grant Kosovo sovereignty with significant international protection for ethnic minorities. Albanians accepted the plan. Serbs did not.

Serbia claims that, unlike the other states of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is a province and thus not entitled to sovereignty. Russia, a longtime Serb ally, has vowed to veto any Security Council resolution that would grant Kosovo independence, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements elsewhere.

But unlike Chechnya, Abkhazia, and other provinces demanding autonomy, Kosovo has a unique situation: In the wake of the 1999 NATO intervention, the UN was given the exceptional right to determine the province's status. Alarmists argue that this loophole provides a blueprint for other separatist movements to follow.

However, the conditions that led to the UN's unique authority to settle Kosovo's status are hardly easy to reproduce. Some 1 million Kosovars were driven from their homes by Serbian ethnic cleansing, and more than 11,000 massacred. It is perverse to imagine that any movement would be willing to provoke such horrific suffering to achieve independence.

Under UN supervision, Kosovo's Albanians have demonstrated their commitment to respecting the rights of Serbs living among them. There have been some exceptions, notably in the attacks of 2004, but these outbursts have been the work of isolated groups, and would be even less common if Albanians believed their independence depended on protecting minorities (as would be the case with the Ahtisaari plan).

But after eight years, Albanians' patience is wearing thin. They say that if the international community does not recognize Kosovo's independence by Dec. 10, they will declare it themselves.

The stakes could not be higher. In the Balkans, where minorities in one country are the majority in another, violence has a natural chain effect. A spark in one province could set off a blaze consuming the entire region.

So far, the US has been outspoken in its support for Kosovo's independence. The Bush administration has even said that if Russia blocks a Security Council resolution, the US will unilaterally recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.

Yet if the war in Iraq has taught Americans one lesson, it is that unilateral action is a poor substitute for multilateral coalitions. So long as Serbia and Russia continue to reject the sensible plan of "supervised independence," the US must ratchet up its diplomatic effort to build full European backing for Kosovo's unilateral declaration.

Whether Kosovo's Albanians will declare an end to occupation is no longer in question. But whether that declaration will mark the beginning of another conflict remains to be seen.

With so much at stake, the US must take swift action to ensure that the declaration receives the international recognition it so desperately needs.

Nik Steinberg, a master's student in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, worked in Kosovo in 2003.

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