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Kosovo: The Next Transatlantic Clash?

10:49 AM, Jun 29, 2007 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Earlier this week in Washington, I had the opportunity to sit down for an informal discussion with visiting German defense minister Franz-Josef Jung. While the mounting security risks for Germany's more than 3,500 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan certainly ranked high on his political agenda, the conservative CDU minister also warned that the on-going diplomatic wrangling over the future status of Kosovo could be a source of massive international tensions. The province of Kosovo, inhabited by about two million mainly ethnic Albanian Muslims, remains in a legal limbo since being run as a UN protectorate following NATO's March 1999 bombing campaign that drove out then-Yugoslav strong man Slobodan Milosevic.

Today, many European political leaders fear that a potential unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, without UN Security Council backing and subsequently recognized by Washington, would not only do serious harm to relations with Russia but could also drive a wedge through the 27-nation EU. In the nightmare scenario, some EU members (like the UK) would follow the U.S. lead and recognize an independent Kosovo while others (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, etc.) would continue to support the government in Belgrade, which views an independent Kosovo as a blatant violation of Serbia's territorial integrity. The remaining EU members--including key powers such as Germany, France, and Italy--would suddenly be caught in the middle of an ugly, damaging international "recognition race" over Kosovo.

In February this year, UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari presented a status proposal that would, in essence, put Kosovo on track for eventual statehood and independence under temporary EU supervision. For instance, while Ahtisaari's plan carefully avoids the word "independence," it gives Kosovo the right to negotiate and conclude international agreements, establish a Kosovo Security Force, and adopt national symbols. Serbia is firmly opposed to Kosovo's independence and has already rejected the Ahtisaari proposal. Moscow, for its part, has made clear that it would veto any UN Security Council resolution that would impose a settlement on Belgrade. While the Kosovo political leadership has reluctantly embraced the Ahtisaari plan, the province's prime minister Agim Ceku, has already warned that Kosovo would declare independence unilaterally if Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution enforcing the plan: "We can't wait anymore. Every day of delay means an increase in frustration and a loss of legitimacy."

The idea of granting independence (if necessary against the objections of Belgrade and Moscow) to Kosovo increasingly resonates among top Bush administration officials and influential lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill. During his June 10 visit to Albania, Kosovo's next-door neighbor and ethnic kin, President Bush came out strongly in favor of an independent Kosovo, arguing that "At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you've got to say, 'Enough is enough. Kosovo is independent.'"

For an American president whose domestic approvals ratings are hovering near all-time lows, Bush must have enjoyed the hero's welcome he was given in the Albanian village of Fushe Kruje earlier this month. For better or worse, Albania could well be the one country on the face of this earth where the most serious potential threat to the well-being of the visiting U.S. president consists of throngs of well-wishers lining the streets, shaking his hand, and somewhat mysteriously, making his wrist watch disappear in the process. For sure, Bush's popularity in Albania, a majority Muslim country, is solely due to his strong support for an independent Kosovo. From the perspective of other European countries, however, Bush's remarks hinting at a potential unilateral recognition of Kosovo even in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution just added to existing concerns over a nasty Kosovo showdown.

At their recent summit in Germany in early June, the leaders of the G8 failed to reach an agreement about the future status of Kosovo. Russia remains stubborn in its opposition to Kosovo independence, insisting that any final status solution must be acceptable to Belgrade. Moscow and, albeit to a lesser extent, Beijing, are also concerned about the consequences of the precedent set by Kosovo's potential independence for their own "renegade provinces" such as Chechnya or Taiwan. At the same time, however, the Kosovo Albanians are getting increasingly impatient with the status quo; a development that could trigger violent clashes with destabilizing consequences for the 17,000-strong NATO-led KFOR troops stationed in the troubled province. When I discussed this issue with an American diplomat friend of mine who has long experience in Kosovo, he also warned that not resolving Kosovo's status could also adversely impact neighboring countries such as Macedonia, Montenegro, and even Serbia's Preshevo Valley: "The Kosovars and other ethnic Albanians are ready to fight for Kosovo and they have the weapons to do so."

And, in the case of Germany, any attempt to create an independent Kosovo without a new UN Security council resolution would remove the legal mandate for the country's 2,200 KFOR Bundeswehr soldiers stationed there.