If Kosovo ever slips out of Serbia's grip, the international community will need to weigh the regional impact of the region's independence. Most policymakers still believe that a sovereign Kosovo will destabilize the Balkans. But an alternative scenario must now be seriously considered: that without independence the unresolved Albanian question will traumatize Europe for many years to come.
Conventional wisdom contends that statehood for Kosovo will ignite a series of ethnic and territorial conflicts in the south Balkans. It will radicalize the large Albanian minority in Macedonia and precipitate the disintegration of this linchpin state. Indeed, some leaders of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have asserted that their ultimate objective is the "unification" of all Albanian lands.
The destabilization of any state bordering Kosovo would have wider ramifications. Analysts worry about the unraveling of the Dayton accords through the revival of Serb separatism in Bosnia. Meanwhile, conflict in Macedonia could embroil Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Greece, and Turkey in a replay of the Second Balkan War. In order to avoid such scenarios, NATO leaders have adamantly opposed Kosovo's independence. The main fear in any planned NATO bombing campaign is not the Yugoslav military reaction but the political impact on Kosovo's status if Belgrade withdraws its security forces from the province.
But an alternative view on the Kosovo crisis must now be seriously weighed: the independence option. Kosovo's detachment from Serbia could deal a fatal blow to President Slobodan Milosevic and unleash potentially more constructive forces in Serbian politics. It is the absence of Kosovo's statehood that can be seen as destabilizing the region by providing opportunities for militant gunmen and criminal organizations to prosper. Mr. Milosevic manipulates the Kosovo question to keep himself in power and to stifle any chances for political or economic reform throughout rump Yugoslavia.
Milosevic bears primary responsibility for four wars in the past decade and if left unchecked he could spark further conflicts in Montenegro and Macedonia by manipulating the Albanian question. The loss of Kosovo and the collapse of the moribund Yugoslav economy could provoke an internal conflict in Serbia. This would weaken Belgrade's expansionist pretensions and may bring new democrats or pro-Western figures to the forefront. Even if this fails, then a truncated Serbia will remain a weak pariah state that no longer threatens its neighbors.
The legal arguments for maintaining an integral Yugoslavia are reminiscent of our obsolete policies in 1991 when four of the eight federal units declared independence. Kosovo is simply the fifth unit that has opted for sovereignty, and Montenegro may be the next in line particularly as President Milo Djukanovic has already threatened to hold a referendum on secession. Milosevic's Yugoslavia is not the successor to the Titoist state and cannot be treated as a normal legal entity given Milosevic's disregard for international human rights conventions.
Kosovo's statehood, if handled adroitly by the international community, could help resolve the simmering Albanian question in the south Balkans. Instead of provoking calls for a Greater Albania it could actually pacify Albanian demands and allow Europe to increase its influence in the region. But in order for Kosovo to become a source of regional stability, NATO must control the process from the very beginning.
Once Belgrade is forced to withdraw its forces from the province through some combination of NATO intervention and Albanian resistance, then Kosovo should be declared an international protectorate. Washington and London must take charge in overseeing the creation of any new Kosovor administration and this must be accomplished in a much more resolute manner than in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Under international supervision, the Pristina government would need to commit itself to ensuring a full range of minority rights for Serbs, Montenegrins, Muslims, and Romas. It would have to renounce any potential territorial claims to Macedonia, Serbia, or Montenegro, and indeed sign treaties with its three Slavic neighbors to that effect. It would also need to commit itself to democratic pluralism, the rule of law, a market economy, and European integration.
The KLA could then develop into a Kosovo Security Force under a NATO arm and train program similar to the one in Bosnia. NATO itself would disarm any rogue units and help patrol the Macedonian and Serbian borders. Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union could dispatch teams of monitors to the country. Their long-term presence under a NATO umbrella would help ensure Pristina's compliance with democratic norms in a range of arenas.
Beyond Kosovo, the international community would need to make a much firmer commitment to both Macedonia and Albania, in terms of ensuring their territorial integrity and domestic development. In Macedonia a multi-ethnic polity must be promoted with expanded rights for the Albanian population that would undercut the demands of militants for unification with Kosovo. Albania itself must be rebuilt as a secure and law-abiding state while eliminating gun-runners, smugglers, and other criminal organizations.
The international Contact Group has failed to come up with a credible plan for Kosovo. Instead, its empty statements have simply encouraged both Belgrade and the KLA to continue the war.
Now is the time to lay the foundations for a lasting political and regional solution, one that will guarantee self-determination for the Albanian majority while simultaneously pushing Milosevic toward a long-overdue political suicide.
* Janusz Bugajski is director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., and a frequent visitor to the Balkans.