The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Better Late than Never?
Published on November 17, 2008

In the January-February 2008 issue, I warned, in “Averting the Third Kosovo War”, that the Bush Administration should not recognize the independence of Kosovo until it first negotiated a deal to guarantee the autonomy of the ethnic Serbs who predominate in the province’s north. In the absence of such a deal, the article noted, independence could trigger three problems: violence in northern Kosovo, contagious secession elsewhere in the Balkans, and increased tension between Russia and the west. I summed up, “America’s current course of action risks renewing hostilities in the Balkans and stimulating Cold Warlike tensions with Russia.”

Less than a year later, each of those problems has materialized to some degree. In February, upon Kosovo’s recognition, Serbs rampaged and burned international facilities in the province’s north and in Belgrade. In August, partly in revenge for western recognition of Kosovo, Russia invaded and recognized the independence of Georgia’s secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In October, the Washington Post reported that “Bosnian Serb lawmakers demanded the right to call a referendum on secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina,” putting at risk the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that had ended more than three years of bloody war.

So now the United Nations and European Union are backpedaling furiously to grant autonomy retroactively to the Serbs of northern Kosovo. My article had suggested the Serbs should get their “own police force, control of local affairs and special association with Serbia.” According to press reports, the new UN plan would do just that, guaranteeing them separate “police, customs and justice systems.”

Unfortunately, it has become much harder to persuade Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders to accept such concessions because when the west recognized Kosovo’s independence it surrendered its main leverage. As the speaker of Kosovo’s parliament, a former senior rebel of the Kosovo Liberation Army, stated flatly this week: “Any effort to change the provisions of the constitution is doomed to failure.”

To its credit, the international community is finally trying to do the right thing. But it may be too late. In politics, as in life, timing is everything.