The death of Kosovo Albanian president Ibrahim Rugova late last month came at a particularly delicate time for the Western Balkans. Talks on Kosovo's future status begin on Monday, 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 United Nations, 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, however, is not a straightforward matter. As Balkans' expert Alex Grigor'ev recently 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. In the ensuing "who lost Kosovo" electoral campaign, extreme nationalists with a revanchist political agenda come to power. With Serbia being, as Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Burns has noted, "the most important country in the Balkans," 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 therefore stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Failing to quickly fulfill 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that "universal principles" should be applied in Kosovo, leaving open the possibility that Moscow could some day invoke the Kosovo precedent to support the claims of its clients in similar territorial disputes, such as those in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniestria. 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? Or Croats and Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina? Or Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians from Azerbaijan? Or Turks from Cyprus? Or Kurds from Iraq and Turkey?
Clearly, these issues must be considered carefully. 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, and we should not make such a mistake again.
With so much at stake, success in Kosovo requires quiet, patient diplomacy - not imposed, quick-fix solutions. It also requires an agreement that can reconcile the demographic and political reality of today's Kosovo, comprised of an Albanian majority persecuted during the 1990s, with Serbia's historical, religious, and legal claims to the province. Granting Kosovo independence outright would mean that the international community had sanctioned the territorial dismemberment of a sovereign democratic state.
A lasting solution therefore requires a paradigm shift in the way Albanians, Serbs, and the international community approach the problem. Framing the negotiations as a zero-sum game involving winners and losers won't work.
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 and limited, overlapping sovereignties that have become the basis for the European Union of the 21st century.
Such an agreement will not be easy to achieve. It will require imaginative diplomacy, difficult compromises and concessions, and courageous political leadership. But this is a rare historical opportunity to "get it right" in the Balkans. For the first time in decades (if not centuries), southeastern Europe is not divided by rival power blocs, and all the peoples in the region share the same domestic and foreign policy goals - developing the democratic institutions and market economies that can one day join the EU.
Hopefully, the politicians and diplomats guiding this process will find the vision and the courage to exploit this historical moment to the fullest.
• Gordon N. Bardos is assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He also serves as a Balkans analyst for Freedom House.