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The Next Battle for Kosovo

Bush and Putin square off over the question of independence.

6:15 PM, Jun 11, 2007 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THERE IS SOMETHING alarming about the way Russian neo-Stalinist Vladimir Putin and his cohort revel in their obstructive behavior on the status of Kosovo. At the G8 summit, Russia blocked a compromise proposed by the French (no surprise there) that would have postponed a United Nations vote on independence for the territory in exchange for Russian recognition of its inevitability. Putin said, "I must say that our views on this problem run counter to those of my G8 colleagues."

Back in the former USSR, Putin's supporters launched themselves into an unrestrained victory dance. Russia postures with increasing flamboyance in favor of Serbia, insisting that Kosovo, with its 90 percent Albanian majority, must remain under Belgrade's control. That evokes disturbing echoes of the contemptuous heedlessness with which the late Slobodan Milosevic treated the U.S.-led efforts to pacify the province in 1999.

We all remember where that ended up. There is another, much earlier parallel that is more chilling, but so dramatic as to be excluded by most serious observers--similar Russian incitement of Serbian claims in the Balkans led to the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

The consequences can hardly be so devastating today, but the underlying motif is the same, and has been so for centuries. Russian meddling abroad in the name of pan-Slavic nationalism is used by authoritarian Muscovite rulers to unify their own discontented subjects. That is why Putin undermines what little remains of the former confidence extended to him by President George W. Bush.

Bush, for his part, took a welcome position of firmness on Kosovo, declaring on June 10, during his tumultuous welcome to Tirana, capital of Albania proper, "Sooner rather than later you've got to say 'Enough's enough--Kosovo is independent.'" The day before, in Italy, the president said, "It's now time in our judgment to move the Ahtisaari plan." Not that the latter, produced for the UN by Finnish diplomat Matti Ahtisaari, is the best of all possible solutions. As I wrote in this periodical earlier this year, the Ahtisaari proposals would leave Kosovo with no more than "supervised independence," and still in the hands of UN administration. Kosovar critics point out that this concept violates the UN's 1960 Security Council resolution 1514, which declared that "The absence of preparation in the fields of politics, economics, society or education cannot be used as a pretext to delay independence."

Russia's insistent pro-Serbian rhetoric, on the other hand, naturally elicited celebration by such primitive politicians as Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's shaky prime minister, and one of the large majority of Belgrade "liberals" who has a background as an ultranationalist. Clumsy intrigues by American civil society "experts" installed Kostunica--whose personal history including urging on Serbian extremists in Kosovo by waving an automatic weapon in public--to power. At first glance, that is another story, but as the errors of nation-building in the Balkans become clear, they impend menacingly on the fate of Iraq.

Meanwhile, however, pro-American sentiment among the Albanians may have risen in response to Bush's Kosovo stand. But Albanians already adulate us; London Times writer Adam LeBor, in advance of Bush's visit to Tirana, on June 10, snidely described Albania as "the one mainly Muslim country where Americans are loved and revered."

In Kosovo, discontent seethes at the UN and its pusillanimous response to Putin. The French call at the G8 summit for a further delay of independence was viewed with distaste, to put it mildly. Kosovo deputy prime minister Lutfi Haziri said a unilateral declaration of independence remains possible. The most intelligent of the Kosovar Albanian leaders, the young Albin Kurti, who heads the Self-Determination movement (Vetevendosja in the Albanian language) declared bitterly that believing Kosovo would soon be completely free was to believe in Santa Claus. "Some international players count on Albanians to wait for Santa Claus," he remarked sardonically. Kurti was interviewed in his residence in Kosovo--in a building surrounded by a cordon of UN-supervised police, since he now lives under house arrest for organizing demonstrations against UN abuses.

Still, Kosovars greeted Bush's comments with an affection almost as great as that extended to the president in Tirana. The newspaper Koha Ditore (Daily Times), published in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, exulted Monday that Bush had employed his characteristic directness in dealing with the issue. Baton Haxhiu, a noted Kosovar journalist, wrote in the Pristina daily Express that only an American president could declare himself for Kosovo independence from the middle of Tirana.