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Balkan Report: March 28, 2007

Independence For Kosovo Imminent, But Pitfalls Remain

By Patrick Moore

A billboard in Pristina reads, "Kosovo Awaits Its Future" (file photo)

March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The emergence of an independent Kosovo appears to be only a matter of time. UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari has drawn up a clear road map for "supervised independence," including guarantees for minorities, as his plan for ensuring lasting peace and political and economic stability in the region.

Ahtisaari formally presented his long-anticipated recommendations for Kosovo to the UN Security Council on March 26. While the broad outlines and many of the specifics of his plan for "supervised independence" came as no surprise, he made it clear beyond any doubt that his recommendation is "the only viable option" for the province, which has a 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority.

Kosovo Albanian leaders have long argued, however, that the local Serbs must look to Prishtina -- not Belgrade -- for answers to their problems.

MORE: RFE/RL spoke with Albanian Parliament speaker Josefina Topalli.

He stressed that a return to Serbian rule is not realistic because of Belgrade's policy of repression there under Serbian and, later, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose rule there lasted from the late 1980s to 1999 and relied heavily on support from local Serbs. That period in Kosovo's history culminated in the massive 1999 "ethnic-cleansing" campaign, which was ended only by NATO intervention in the spring of that year. Ahtisaari argued that the impossibility of a return to Serbian rule "is a reality one cannot deny. It is irreversible."

The Last Chapter

The former Finnish president noted that Kosovo is the last chapter in the history of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, which began in 1991. Other observers have pointed out that Kosovar independence would also mean another step forward in the worldwide decolonization process based on self-determination and majority rule, which is associated with the decades following World War II.

Britain -- which will chair the Security Council in April -- and the United States, which most Kosovars regard fondly as the decisive factor in ending Serbian rule, were both quick to hail Ahtisaari's report on March 26. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said "these proposals would give Kosovo clarity over its future."

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the "proposals will give the people of Kosovo clarity about their future for the first time in many years. They contain far-reaching guarantees to protect the rights and security of Kosovo Serbs and other non-Albanian communities.... Ahtisaari has also proposed that Kosovo become independent, subject to a period of international supervision." Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns added that "it's time the Kosovars received their just due.... The U.S. does support the proposal by Ahtisaari for supervised independence for Kosovo. We have not said that before."

Ahtisaari's study and the reactions to it from London and Washington reflect the conclusions reached in late 2005 by UN diplomat Kai Eide, who reported to Secretary-General Kofi Annan that protracted political limbo in Kosovo is a recipe for instability and perhaps a renewal of the violence that shook the area in March 2004. Indeed, the emergence of violent protests by young people earlier this year suggests that continued delays might indeed lead to further radicalization.

Some Controversial Moments

The report nonetheless contains some provisions that have already proven controversial in the weeks since parts of the study began to be leaked to the media. For example, the report calls for establishing a powerful office for a foreign high representative on the model set down in the 1995 Dayton agreement for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In recent years, however, many observers, including Germany's Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is Bosnia's current high representative, have concluded that foreign paternalistic rule only hinders democratic development in the Balkans.

A second questionable recommendation calls for the abolition of the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), which has its roots in the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), but which was founded to deal with natural disasters and other domestic emergencies. It is Western-trained and supervised, and has generally received high marks for its professionalism. Its abolition would not only eliminate an important civil-defense organization but also take jobs away from at least 2,000 people, many of whom are very influential in their respective communities. But since Serbs and Kosovar Albanians alike regard the TMK as the nucleus of a future Kosovar army, it appears to have been sacrificed as a concession to Belgrade and local Serbs.

A third possible problem is the report's failure to explicitly rule out the future possibility of partition. The study excludes any union of Kosovo with other states, which presumably means Albania, even though no mainstream ethnic-Albanian political party in the Balkans calls for setting up a greater Albanian state.

By failing to exclude partition, the text appears to encourage some Serbian hopes that Serbian settlements in northern Kosovo might at some point break away and join Serbia. These hopes will not be discouraged by some other of Ahtisaari's recommendations, which grant Belgrade a role in culture and other internal ethnic-Serb affairs. Kosovo Albanian leaders have long argued, however, that the local Serbs must look to Prishtina -- not Belgrade -- for answers to their problems if Kosovo is to become a state of its citizens and not a collection of rival ethnic groups.

These issues have nonetheless been on the regional political agenda for several years, and their emergence in some form or other at this point was predictable. Nor did it come as a surprise that most Belgrade politicians continue to reject independence for the province, even though it has enjoyed de facto independence from Serbia since 1999. They take this position because it is easier for them to criticize others over Kosovo than to provide solutions for Serbia's real problems, which are crime, corruption, poverty, and a democracy deficit.

All Eyes On Moscow

In a similar vein, Russia continues to object to Ahtisaari's plan. As former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke recently pointed out, this is not because Russia really cares about Serbia or Serbs. Instead, Moscow seeks to use Kosovo as a bargaining tool in its dealings with Washington and London on issues of more immediate concern to Russia, such as the "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union. The question is whether Russia will bargain and cajole awhile longer, or actually veto the plan, which no Russian leader has explicitly said that Moscow will do. Some observers have suggested that Russia has leverage over the Kosovo issue as long as it does not actually cast a veto, but would lose its room to maneuver as soon as it does so.

Former U.S. Ambassador Discusses Georgia, Kosovo

Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (file photo)

NEW YORK, March 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and chief architect of the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war, remains a leading commentator on foreign affairs in the United States. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev asked him about Kosovo, Russia, and Georgia.

RFE/RL: In an article published in November 2006 you argued that Georgia has become the stage for a "blatant effort at regime change, Russian-style." Do you still view the situation in the same manner?

Richard Holbrooke: I was hopeful that the temperature was going down in Georgia and then last week there was this airplane incident, helicopters attacking. So, I don't know what's going on, I'm not in touch with the people in Georgia right now, but I remain concerned about the situation because they are still blockading some exchanges between Georgia and Russia. They should make this a normal border again.

"Of course, Kosovo will become independent. It's inevitable. But the Russians are encouraging the hard-liners in Belgrade...and that is very unhelpful."

RFE/RL: You've said that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili is exactly the type of leader the United States and the European Union should support. What makes you so confident in his abilities?

Holbrooke: My support for Saakashvili is based on what he's achieved. Nobody's perfect and there are certainly problems with Georgia. But when he took over, the country was bankrupt. The electrical system didn't work, the people were stealing the place blind, and government officials weren't even being paid. Now it has growth. It has a balanced budget. It's an amazing achievement. It has nothing to do with the fact that he was American-educated.

RFE/RL: Is the United Nations an effective forum for Georgia to seek solutions for its problems with Russia?

Holbrooke: The UN is not dealing with Georgia very much because the Russians don't want to discuss it at the UN much.

RFE/RL: Is there a possibility for a trade-off, for example, if the United States makes some concessions to Russia on Georgia in the UN, then Russia would go along on issues that are important to Washington, such as the North Korean or Iranian nuclear standoffs?

Holbrooke: I do not believe the United States should or will make concessions about Georgia. I certainly would oppose that. Georgian territorial integrity is important, the Russians should stop supporting the breakaway illegal regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia should be allowed to develop on its own.

RFE/RL: Regarding Kosovo, will it get independence or not?

Holbrooke: Of course, Kosovo will become independent. It's inevitable. But the Russians are encouraging the hard-liners in Belgrade by opposing the [Martti] Ahtisaari plan and that is very unhelpful. And if the Ahtisaari plan is not approved by the UN Security Council when it comes up for decision next month, there will be violence in Kosovo, and that will be the consequence of Russian actions, and they should be held fully accountable for that if it happens. And in "The New York Times" today [Russian] Ambassador [to the UN] [Vitaly] Churkin is quoted as attacking the Ahtisaari plan and calling for a new mediator to replace Ahtisaari. That is really the wrong thing to do.

RFE/RL: What are the options for Russia with regard to Kosovo?

Holbrooke: I don't think, I hope they won't veto [at the Security Council]. Russia's option, the correct option for Russia is to insist on safeguards for the Serb minority in an independent Kosovo.

'We're Looking At An Independent Kosovo'

Carne Ross

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Recent reports indicate that the final draft of the UN's proposal for the final status of Kosovo calls explicitly for full independence. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to Carne Ross, the director of the nonprofit diplomatic advisory group Independent Diplomat, which is advising the Kosovo government.

RFE/RL: What do we know about UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari's final proposal for Kosovo's status?

Carne Ross: We know the comprehensive proposals that Ahtisaari is making because those have already been shared with the parties and are public. We don't know the precise terms of what the secretary-general will say to the Security Council when he transmits Ahtisaari's proposals to the Security Council. And what we understand is that the covering letter will explicitly recommend that Kosovo be made independent, and that that is clear. But this is what we understand -- the document is not yet public, so we don't know this for sure.

MORE: In February, RFE/RL discussed Kosovo with Albanian Parliament speaker Josefina Topalli.

RFE/RL: Can you shed any light on how Ahtisaari operates during these transitional periods that might explain why we're only learning the bottom line of his proposal now?

Ross: Well, it's a very delicate process and he has handled it extremely carefully, cautiously, and judiciously. He has deliberately avoided using the word "independence" in his initial recommendations in order to avoid causing upset in Serbia and also with its allies in the Security Council. But perhaps he's judged on this occasion that he needs to be more explicit about it. But this has been a very delicate, step-by-step process, and he has handled this in a very experienced and statesmanlike manner.

RFE/RL: The last round of negotiations ended March 10 without agreement between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians. What were the two sides discussing in Vienna?

Ross: The two sides were discussing a package that is a public document, which is Ahtisaari's recommendations, which will go to the Security Council, we understand, in the next few weeks. And that document is pretty clear that we're looking at an independent Kosovo. There has, for a long time, been considerable international consensus that what we are moving toward is a Kosovo independent, but with some restrictions on its sovereignty, including, for instance, a continued international presence in Kosovo.

RFE/RL: Where does Ahtisaari's proposal go now?

Ross: The next steps are that the proposal will be delivered to the Security Council by the secretary-general, on behalf of his special envoy, Ahtisaari, and the Security Council will then debate those proposals and hopefully come to a decision on them fairly rapidly. And I hope that they will endorse the recommendations in full without too much delay or debate, and thus at last Kosovo's status can at last be resolved.