The Blog

Kosovo's Back
(It Never Really Left)

It's not so pristine in Pristina. That's still our problem.

11:00 PM, Dec 20, 2006 • By JAMES G. POULOS
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REMEMBER KOSOVO? The little statelet of 2 million, still technically an "integral part" of Serbia, was the inspiration for an unprecedented NATO campaign, the first of its kind: bombing, in those less sensitive times, Christian troops on Easter. The prevention of genocide and the resulting stability of the whole Balkan region were secured, peacekeepers took up their positions in and around the capital, Pristina, and no one lived happily ever after. Serbia threw out its mad leadership--that has to count for something--but the old wounds burn even for democratic Prime Minister Kostunica, who lately termed the NATO war for Kosovo a "huge mistake, big enough for the last and this century." The occasion of these remarks? A warning of serious consequences should the West recognize Kosovar independence without a U.N. resolution.

Meanwhile, just weeks ago, U.N. police found themselves teargassing a crowd of thousands of protesting Kosovars. "Final status" for Kosovo has been on the table--and tabled--all year long. Everyone knows it has to happen but no one wants to say how. Patience is running out. The ethnic Albanians we fought to save are nationalists now, and will settle for nothing less than independence from Belgrade. The Serbs, Europe's least fortunate people, cannot abide the loss of their national homeland. But the status quo is practically untenable, too--riots and arson are on the rise and ethnic antagonists are segregating under duress. A reckoning--the final "final status"--is coming, and sooner rather than later.

So it was that Naser Rugova--head of Kosovo's Reforma party and nephew of first Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova--made the Washington rounds again this holiday season. At the Nixon Center, Rugova said he could "understand" the delay on final status, but wants us to understand that an "explosive situation" awaits the "risky calculation" of putting off Kosovars any longer. Stuck in limbo, Kosovo suffers 54 percent unemployment, with 65 percent of its population under the age of 25. Atop social problems are energy problems and, most painfully, financial problems. Kosovo needs cash, and so Rugova pitches a "normal environment for all foreign investors" as the deal for an IMF relationship and the ability to enter into "accession talks with Europe."

There's more. Rugova wants "a significant presence" maintained by the international community for the next three to five years. What the West would gain in the bargain is a stable Kosovo, secure in a "constitutional order" with a "progressive, productive, and competitive" economy. Croatia--which took 10 years to integrate into Europe--is taken as the inspiration, but Kosovo--small, landlocked, with almost zero infrastructure--has a lot of work to do, and cannot do it on its own.

WHY WOULD WE HELP what Rugova terms this "baby nation," at the cost of infuriating Serbia? The answer may be that we have little choice. To turn away now--having exerted so much energy on Kosovo, killed so many Serbs, and touted Western policies so earnestly--is to default on every promise we have made the Kosovars.

And nothing is more attractive to the people and problems we are struggling to defeat than an imploded, aggrieved, and chaotic hinterland of Muslim and Christian admixture ringed by E.U. and NATO states. Beyond Kosovo, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania proper wait to hear from the world regarding their brethren.

The options are few, but a decision must be made eventually. Serbia is a hostage to final status as much as Kosovo. Without final status, neither country will ever see the benefits of economic membership in Europe. Serbia will remain the last pariah state west of Belarus, with a dour and draining liability on a southern border with no practical value. And Kosovo will stagnate, unable to attract investment from Belgrade and unwilling to accept its rule. Yet partition, which would shear off Kosovo's Serb fringe to facilitate a cleansed sovereignty, receives the support of neither nation. Serbs know partition means the loss of Kosovo; yet partition leaves Kosovars as the citizens of a rump state open to acrimonious border negotiation. Even neighboring Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha has gone on record against partition as encouraging "adventurers of all nationalities." "Kosovo will not be separated," agrees Rugova, who calls partition "a dangerous idea" sure to "destabilize Macedonia and Montenegro." With Belgrade intent on decentralization and Kosovo open to consociation, pushing partition does nothing to facilitate independence, the only workable final status.