The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Averting the Third Kosovo War

An 11th-hour proposal to prevent another Balkan train wreck.

Published on January 1, 2008

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.

A Serbian shop, burned by an Albanian mob in 2004. [credit: Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures]
Once Upon a Time

The present dilemma, of course, has a history. It is worth reviewing in brief, lest the current mess seem inexplicable.

Though it has stayed off the front pages for some time now, Kosovo was big news in the 1990s. Serbia’s autocratic leader, Slobodan Milosevic, had revoked the province’s autonomy in 1989 on the grounds that its ethnic-Albanian majority was discriminating against ethnic Serbs—a charge supported by New York Times reports from the 1980s, but which Milosevic exaggerated for political purposes. The Albanians initially responded peacefully by refusing to sign loyalty oaths—leading to their dismissal from government jobs—and by establishing parallel education, health and tax systems.

However, in 1993, following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, militant ethnic Albanians formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and started assassinating Serbian police. These attacks mushroomed in 1997, when weapons began to flow into the province from neighboring Albania. Belgrade initially responded in early 1998 by ham-fistedly attacking two suspected KLA compounds, killing not only some rebel leaders but also several dozen civilians. The U.S. government immediately condemned the sloppy Serbian counterinsurgency as incipient genocide. (We might be more sympathetic today in light of our own experience with collateral damage in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The Albanian militants at first were undeterred, being emboldened by financial aid from their diaspora community and diplomatic support from the United States. But Serbian forces, better trained and equipped, managed to push the rebels out of Kosovo and into neighboring Albania by October 1998 in a low-intensity conflict that claimed about 1,000 lives, including combatants and civilians on both sides. War in Kosovo might have ended there, but as winter approached, Washington became concerned about the welfare of ethnic Albanians displaced by fighting, and so threatened to bomb Serbia unless its forces withdrew from Kosovo. When Belgrade complied, the KLA took advantage by reoccupying the province and sparking renewed violence.

The Clinton Administration responded in early 1999 by drafting a plan to grant Kosovo independence after three years, and by threatening to bomb Serbia unless it agreed. When Belgrade refused, NATO commenced bombing on March 24, 1999, opening the second Kosovo war. Serbian forces responded by ethnically cleansing about 850,000 Albanians (half their total) from the province in less than a month, killing about 10,000. The NATO intervention thus unintentionally multiplied the Albanian death rate in the conflict by more than thirty times—from less than one hundred to more than 3,000 per month by triggering the very violence it sought to prevent.

After 11 weeks of bombing, Belgrade again agreed to withdraw its forces, but only after gaining international endorsement of its sovereignty over Kosovo. UN Resolution 1244, which ended the war, affirms “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Since then, the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro have divorced by mutual agreement, but without diminishing the territorial integrity of Serbia, including Kosovo. The UN resolution envisioned that Kosovo would gain “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration”, but not independence without subsequent action by the Security Council.

As Serbian forces again withdrew from Kosovo in 1999, the returning Albanian rebels and civilians took vengeance by violently expelling about half the province’s 200,000 Serbs and killing several hundred, even as international peacekeepers arrived. In subsequent years, Albanian militants sustained this intimidation, leaving most Serbs as virtual prisoners in isolated enclaves protected solely by international peacekeeping forces. The only exception is the small northern tip of Kosovo above the Ibar River—about 15 percent of the province’s territory—where Serbs comprise the majority of the population and police forces, and thus can defend themselves. This, in essence, was the situation that President George W. Bush inherited.

“NATO—KLA: Long Live Free Kosovo.” So said the graffito, in Albanian, that welcomed me to Kosovo in 2000, one year after the bombing. During the next few years, international administrators and the Bush Administration tried to compel Albanian moderation by insisting on “standards before status”—that is, fair treatment of Serbs as a pre-condition for consideration of Kosovo’s independence. But instead of moderation, in March 2004, Albanian militants rampaged again—driving out 3,000 Serbs, burning more than 500 homes, and damaging or destroying dozens of Serb cultural sites, including centuries-old churches.

Rather than punishing the Albanian militants for this blatant violation of standards, the United Nations expedited consideration of Kosovo’s independence, as UN officials admitted to me in 2005 at their headquarters in Prishtina. U.S. officials rationalized this policy reversal on the grounds that the violence stemmed from Albanian frustration at the absence of independence. The Albanian militants thus used violence and the threat of more violence to coerce the international community. To Kosovo’s Serbs, these events indicated that, even during an internationally supervised probation period, the Albanians felt free to attack them—a poor auger for the Serbs’ fate in the event of Kosovo’s independence.

Later in 2005, now at Washington’s urging, the UN convened final-status negotiations, but they were doomed from the start. Serbia offered enhanced autonomy, much greater than Kosovo had enjoyed prior to Milosevic, but the Albanians demanded complete independence. This past March, the UN mediator, former President of Finland Marti Ahtisaari, abandoned hope of forging compromise and instead recommended acceding to the Albanians’ demand for independence, so long as they granted Kosovo’s Serbs limited autonomy and pledged to protect historic sites.

In a bold move this past spring, however, Russia blocked Ahtisaari’s proposal in the UN Security Council on the grounds that recognizing the independence of militant secessionists against the will of a sovereign state sets a terrible precedent. Moscow’s motives are far from pure, but its argument is nonetheless correct. International support for provocative militants merely encourages more such violence.11.
As explained in a book I recently co-edited with Timothy Crawford, Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention: Moral Hazard, Rebellion and Civil War (Routledge, 2006).
Although Washington insists that recognizing Kosovo would not set a precedent, such a dramatic gesture could not help but embolden militant secessionists elsewhere. Russia is most concerned about Chechnya; China faces a similar challenge in Xinxiang and Tibet; and India confronts multiple secessionist insurgencies of varying intensity. The ultimate nightmare scenario is Africa, where hundreds of disgruntled ethnic groups might rebel if they believed that provoking state retaliation would earn them international sympathy, rewards and even independence. Darfur is the tip of that particular iceberg.

Coalition of the Willing
to Recognize

Despite the UN resolution affirming Serbia’s sovereignty and Russia’s pledge to block in the Security Council any changes made without Belgrade’s consent, the Bush Administration decided this summer to sidestep the United Nations and organize an alliance to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Nominally, Washington called for four months of new negotiations between Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbia. On June 10, however, President Bush declared that the outcome of any talks must be “certain independence.”22.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Bush Gets Respite in Albania, Where Thousands Hail Him”, New York Times, June 11, 2007.
The next month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried reiterated that independence was “inevitable” even if the talks failed.33.
“U.S. to Serbia: Kosovo Independence Inevitable”, Washington Post, July 11, 2007.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad concurred: “We are determined to move forward, either within the Council or otherwise.”44.
Warren Hoge, “U.S. May Bypass the U.N. for Kosovo Independence”, New York Times, July 14, 2007.
Two months later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice codified the policy, announcing: “There’s going to be an independent Kosovo. We’re dedicated to that.”55.
Transcript, interview with Reuters editorial board, September 24, 2007.

By publicly prejudging the outcome, U.S. officials eliminated any incentive for the Albanians to compromise, thereby undermining the negotiations before they started. Instead, Washington used the interregnum to lobby European allies to recognize Kosovo’s expected unilateral declaration of independence.

As with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration believes that this unilateral course, joined by a few close allies, will force its opponents to accept a fait accompli. Serbia, an emerging democracy with an economy that is rebounding seven years after Milosevic’s ouster, is expected to grumble but avoid any over-reaction that could endanger its accession to the European Union. Russia will score a few diplomatic points by criticizing yet another U.S. evasion of UN authority, but is anticipated then to quietly drop the matter.

The actual consequences of U.S. policy, however, could be much less sanguine. On the diplomatic front, Russia might line up an impressive international coalition—including China, India and other allies representing more than half the world’s population—to reject the U.S. action and reaffirm Serbia’s territorial integrity. Even some members of the European Union, including Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus, oppose independence for Kosovo because they face their own actual or potential secessionists. The EU as a whole would therefore be unable to recognize Kosovo even if many of its members did.

A U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” to recognize Kosovo’s independence thus might actually increase ambiguity over Kosovo’s status. Even more troubling, it could trigger a chain of events culminating in violence. Initially, upon international recognition of Kosovo, the Serbs in Kosovo’s north almost certainly would declare themselves still part of Serbia. European diplomats privately acknowledge to me the likelihood of this development but rosily contend that the dispute would end there, as a “frozen conflict” in which Serbs and Albanians would disagree over sovereignty but not fight about it. In reality, however, ethnic Serb police almost certainly would take the provocative next steps of shedding their Kosovo Police Service uniforms—which now would represent an illegitimate government in their eyes—and reverting to their old Serbian insignia. Albanian militants in turn would view this as crossing a red line—the return of uniformed Serbian security forces to Kosovo’s soil—and go on the attack, not merely in the north but against the province’s more vulnerable enclaves where about 60 percent of Kosovo’s remaining Serbs still live.

“Why are there so many different antennas and flags atop these small buildings, side by side?” I asked naively, in 2005, at UN peacekeeping headquarters in Prishtina. The answer, of course, was that each of the major troop-contributing states insisted on maintaining its own intelligence operations, completely separate from its coalition partners—one of many reasons that multinational stability operations are so feeble at times.

International peacekeepers in Kosovo, authorized by the United Nations and known as KFOR, today comprise about 17,000 troops (reduced from their original 50,000). Though led by NATO and not insubstantial, this force is a conglomeration of 35 national elements, many of which proved unwilling or unable to stop anti-Serb pogroms in March 2004. UN commanders subsequently have worked to develop a rapid-reaction capability and ensure that contributing states permit their troops to use deadly force if necessary. But if Albanian militants again rampage across the province, KFOR knows it lacks the resources to protect all Serb homes and cultural sites. Most of the contributing states signed up to keep peace, and so are not equipped to fight a war. If KFOR proves unable to keep the peace, the U.S. military, already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be hard-pressed to deploy forces to Kosovo to do so.

Under ordinary circumstances, Serbia would not violate UN Resolution 1244 by deploying its army or gendarmerie to Kosovo, or by permitting “volunteer” paramilitaries to cross over, because it wants to remain on course for EU accession. But this could change rapidly if Serbian TV were to broadcast images of Albanian militants attacking Serb enclaves and churches, and the resulting exodus of refugees. Most Serbs have no desire for another war, but they are frustrated at what they perceive to be unfair treatment by the international community, which loudly condemns crimes by Serbs but has virtually ignored ethnic cleansing against Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. They also resent that the United States armed, trained or coordinated with the forces that committed those crimes against mostly innocent Serb civilians in all three conflicts.

This past July, I watched Serbs pay tribute at a monument on the north side of the Mitrovica bridge, memorializing the hundreds of Serbs who have been killed in Kosovo since 1999. If Kosovo’s Albanians renew such violence, they may rally Serbian nationalism sufficiently for Belgrade to order forces into northern Kosovo, or at least permit private militias to go, as in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Russia might also lend support, viewing the situation as analogous to its own Chechen interventions and as a chance to expand its regional influence.

UN peacekeepers would then face a stark dilemma. The return of Serbian forces clearly would violate UN Resolution 1244, but Belgrade could argue that the United States and its allies had voided that measure by unilaterally recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Facing such legal uncertainty, KFOR likely would avoid confronting combatants and instead focus on humanitarian relief. Serb refugees would stream northward, while Serbian forces carved out a chunk of northern Kosovo for annexation to Serbia. In neighboring Macedonia and southern Serbia, militant ethnic Albanians might well be swept up by passion and opportunity, reigniting their own dormant rebellions.

Washington’s unilateral strategy thus could backfire terribly. Rather than compelling Serbia to swallow the loss of Kosovo, it might reignite war across the southern Balkans. This daunting prospect compels reconsideration of other options while there is still time to do so.

The most obvious alternative would be to grant Kosovo not independence but enhanced autonomy, including control of security forces, within a sovereign Serbia. In neighboring Bosnia, the 1995 Dayton Accords employed this strategy to establish an imperfect but tolerable peace that has lasted for 12 years so far, enabling international peacekeepers to downsize from 60,000 to a mere 2,500. The “Serb Republic” half of Bosnia participates in the country’s weak central institutions, but maintains its own police force and control over core identity issues such as education. Analogously, Kosovo could be designated an “Albanian Republic” with full autonomy over its internal affairs, while formally remaining part of Serbia. This is essentially what Serbia has proposed at the status negotiations.

KFOR troops guard a bridge over the Ibar River separating Serbs and Albanians in Mitrovica in 2000. [credit: Kontos Yannis/Corbis Sygma]

Unfortunately, the United States has undermined chances for such an autonomy solution by repeatedly promising Kosovo independence. If Washington were to reverse course at this 11th hour, militant Albanians almost certainly would resume violence against Serb enclaves and cultural sites, and possibly against international peacekeepers, as well.

Another possibility is to formally partition Kosovo at the Ibar River. Serbia would retain the northern 15 percent, comprising the province’s only Serb-majority municipalities, while the remainder would gain independence under Albanian majority rule. But the hurdles to this approach are daunting. Belgrade believes that both international law and Russia are on its side, so it sees no reason to surrender any territory. At the same time, Kosovo’s Albanians have been promised independence for the entire province, so they reject anything less. Formal partition could also set a dangerous precedent: Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, Montenegro and southern Serbia, who have their own grievances and are geographically concentrated adjacent to Kosovo, might demand similar partitions, sparking new unrest.

The drawbacks of all three options now on the table—independence, autonomy or partition—demand exploration of a fourth. This alternative also would draw on the Dayton model, but apply it only within Kosovo, not to Serbia as a whole. Kosovo would gain independence, but its north would be designated an autonomous “Serb Republic of Kosovo-Metohija”, with its own police force, control of local affairs and special association with Serbia. The rest of the Ahtisaari plan, including protection of Serb cultural sites, would be retained. Serbs in the rest of Kosovo could stay in place or migrate northward, just as the few thousand Albanians in the north could remain or migrate southward. Based on the Bosnian experience, some minorities in each area would stay put and many who previously had fled would seek financial compensation for lost property following such bifurcation. But few refugees would return to live as minorities.

This plan would not fully satisfy any side, but it represents the best chance to avert violence. Serbia would decry the violation of its sovereignty; Kosovo’s Albanians would complain about not controlling the north; Serbs in Kosovo’s other enclaves would feel abandoned. But there would not be any obvious trigger for war. Upon international recognition of Kosovo, ethnic Serb police in the north would don uniforms of their new autonomous republic, not that of Serbia, thereby acknowledging Kosovo’s independence and avoiding obvious provocation.

Ethnic Albanian militants would have to contemplate that if they attacked, the north probably would secede and be annexed by Serbia, effectively shrinking Kosovo. So long as Albanians did not attack, however, Serbia likely would avoid unilateral annexation in order to stay on course for EU accession. If Kosovo’s Albanians ever got tired of dealing with the autonomous Serb north, they could allow it to be annexed by Serbia—but peacefully and by mutual agreement (and perhaps with some compensation), to avoid damaging either state’s EU accession prospects.

How to engineer the adoption of such a plan? Neither side would propose it in negotiations for fear of weakening its bargaining leverage. So European negotiators would have to draft the plan and persuade each side to accept it.

Russia’s cooperation would be essential to bring along Serbia, but fortunately Moscow has reason to agree. Since the proposal would represent a U.S. retreat from the Ahtisaari plan, Russia could claim diplomatic victory over Washington. Moscow also would earn points in Belgrade for defending Serb interests, nurturing their growing bilateral economic and strategic relationship. In addition, the concept of a fully autonomous entity within a sovereign state might suit Russia’s interests in its near abroad, where it supports the autonomy of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and of Transnistria in Moldova. Finally, although Vladimir Putin clearly enjoys hindering U.S. power-plays in the Security Council to demonstrate that Russia cannot be ignored, he is canny enough not to overplay his hand. Putin knows that Washington ultimately could sidestep the United Nations in concert with its European partners if he remained intransigent, which would diminish the prestige and leverage Russia derives from its UN veto.

Having secured tacit U.S. and Russian agreement, EU negotiators would submit the plan to the United Nations. Upon approval by the Security Council, the international community would threaten to punish whichever side rejected the deal. Washington would warn Kosovo’s Albanians that recognition of independence was now contingent upon their acceptance of the autonomous Serb Republic. Moscow would warn Serbia that unless it accepted the compromise, Kosovo could be recognized as a unitary state without an autonomous Serb zone. Facing this unified front, and with nowhere else to turn, both sides would likely, if grudgingly, swallow the compromise.

Admittedly, this solution is not without downsides. It would reward the past militancy of Kosovo’s Albanians by granting the province independence. In addition, by recognizing a new “Serb Republic”, it might lead other concentrated minorities in the region to demand their own autonomous entities. Both dynamics could raise the prospect of future violence—a danger that would have to be addressed through preventive diplomacy. But the proposed compromise would at least reduce the risk of large-scale violence breaking out in the near term over Kosovo’s status, and avoid further escalation of U.S.-Russia tensions. Such a peaceful resolution of this seemingly irreconcilable Balkan conflict could set its own kind of precedent, a positive one for the region and beyond.

Over the last seven years, I have discussed the Kosovo conflict personally with ethnic Serb and Albanian leaders of all stripes, including the late Ibrahim Rugova, the pacifist founding president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi, the former head of the KLA, and Dusan Prorokovic, Serbia’s current State Secretary for Kosovo. Publicly, they all make maximalist demands, but in private they hint at the minimum requirements for peace. Kosovo’s Albanians want the entire province to be recognized as a single independent state, regardless of its internal governing institutions. For Serbs, the bottom line is to govern and to police their own areas, and to have guaranteed access to and protection of their cultural and historic sites elsewhere in Kosovo. Fortunately, there is a way to satisfy these minimum demands on both sides, and thereby reduce substantially the risk of violence. Why is the Bush Administration insisting on doing otherwise?

As explained in a book I recently co-edited with Timothy Crawford, Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention: Moral Hazard, Rebellion and Civil War (Routledge, 2006).
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Bush Gets Respite in Albania, Where Thousands Hail Him”, New York Times, June 11, 2007.
“U.S. to Serbia: Kosovo Independence Inevitable”, Washington Post, July 11, 2007.
Warren Hoge, “U.S. May Bypass the U.N. for Kosovo Independence”, New York Times, July 14, 2007.
Transcript, interview with Reuters editorial board, September 24, 2007.

Alan J. Kuperman, an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, researched in the Balkans in 2007 on an IREX grant.