The Ibar River is the most hostile frontier in all of contemporary Europe. When I visited in 2005, soldiers, armored personal carriers and barriers controlled the main crossing, a bridge between the southern and northern halves of the city of Mitrovica. On a trip this past summer, undercover militias on the north side (known as “bridge watchers”) continued to monitor all who passed. Most civilians from either side would not be caught dead on the other. When I mistakenly used a few words of the other side’s language in north Mitrovica, my handlers hushed me in panic, fearing that we would arouse suspicion.
Yet this twisting, flowing no-man’s-land of a river does not lie between two European countries. Nor even does it divide the province of Kosovo from the remainder of Serbia. Instead, it separates the northern tip of Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Serbs, from the rest of the province, dominated by ethnic Albanians. And therein lies the tinder for Europe’s next potential explosion of ethnic violence, which may be sparked by the looming international decision on whether to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, expected in early 2008. Recognition would violate a standing UN Security Council resolution and defy the will of virtually all Serbs in Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
If FedEx were packaging this region, it would be labeled “Handle With Care—Extremely Fragile.” U.S. diplomats, instead, have decided to manhandle it. Distracted by Iraq, most Americans are unaware that the Bush Administration is spearheading another unilateral effort that runs roughshod over the United Nations and threatens to destabilize an entire region. The United States is intent on recognizing the impending declaration of independence by Kosovo, regardless of whether the UN Security Council gives its blessing, and without respect to the near inevitability of violence that would result. Based on my most recent, three-week exploration in the region, I fear that America’s current course of action risks renewing hostilities in the Balkans and stimulating Cold War-like tensions with Russia. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is still time to forge a multilateral compromise and avert yet another round of Balkan ethnic cleansing—in effect, a third Kosovo war that, this time, could also spread contagiously to neighboring countries.Once Upon a Time
The present dilemma, of course, has a history....