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The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2007
Twice in the early 1990s, the international community prematurely supported the independence of a former Yugoslav territory before addressing the concerns of its Serb minority. In both cases, Croatia and Bosnia, this failure triggered a bloody ethnic war between secessionists and fearful local Serbs, who perpetrated inexcusable war crimes. Fighting ended only when Serbs were either granted autonomous regions and police forces to patrol them, or when they were ethnically cleansed from the territory.
Today, the United States is poised to repeat the mistake by recognizing the independence of Kosovo before Serb concerns are addressed.
Admittedly, the arguments for Kosovo's independence are powerful. Ninety percent of the province is now ethnically Albanian. Serbia abused its sovereignty under former leader Slobodan Milosevic, first by revoking Kosovo's autonomy and then -- in response to NATO bombing in 1999 -- by launching attacks that temporarily expelled half the ethnic Albanian population and claimed 10,000 lives.
Most important, the U.S. has for years raised expectations that it would recognize the independence of Kosovo. Failing to make good on those expectations could spur militant Kosovo Albanians to attack Serbs and even international peacekeepers.
As in the earlier Balkan cases, however, the question is not whether to grant independence, but how to do it in a way that avoids war. In 1991, Germany supported the secession of Croatia, even though its government overtly discriminated against Serbs, virtually guaranteeing violence. Likewise, in 1992, the U.S. recognized the independence of Bosnia, despite pleas by its Serbs (supported by Europe's top mediator) to first guarantee their security via ethnic autonomy. By ignoring these pleas, Washington triggered years of fighting that ended only when the Dayton Accords belatedly awarded the Serbs the autonomy that could have averted war in the first place.
The current plan for Kosovo's independence, drafted by United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari, makes some concessions to the province's Serbs. It grants them protection of cultural sites and redraws internal boundaries so most Serbs can live in municipalities where they have a local majority. These municipalities also would enjoy limited autonomy on issues such as education and permission to receive outside funding from Serbia. The ethnic makeup of police in each municipality would mirror local demographics.
But in a fatal flaw, the U.N. plan denies full political autonomy to the large concentration of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo's north, above the Ibar River. This region has an overwhelming Serb majority and is contiguous to the rest of Serbia.
Accordingly, the Serbs in northern Kosovo view the U.N. plan as unfairly ripping them from Serbia and subordinating them to the dominion of ethnic Albanians, who have perpetrated two ethnic cleansing campaigns in the past eight years. The U.N. plan offers the north neither a distinct political identity nor a separate police force. Instead it would leave these Serbs insecure, resentful and well-armed -- precisely the conditions that originally triggered war in Croatia and Bosnia.
To appreciate the importance that Serbs attach to a separate political identity and police force, one need only look at neighboring Bosnia. To end war there in 1995, the Dayton Accords guaranteed full autonomy to a "Serb Republic" within Bosnia. Some of that autonomy has since been whittled away by international administrators and diplomatic pressure, but Bosnia's Serbs stand firm on two points: their distinct political entity and police.
Indeed, when the EU recently tried to pressure them on these issues, the Serbs threatened to secede from Bosnia and sacrifice potential EU membership rather than compromise. As the interior minister of Bosnia's Serb Republic told me in a meeting last month, "We want to stay in Bosnia and join the EU, but not at any cost."
In Kosovo, where Serbs are similarly insecure, the U.N. plan threatens to unleash the following nightmare scenario: Upon independence, the Serb north declares itself separate from the newly recognized Kosovo. Ethnic Serb police in the north tear off their existing Kosovo Police Service uniforms and revert to the insignia of Serbia. Albanian militants respond by launching attacks, not merely in the northern Serb stronghold but against vulnerable enclaves elsewhere in the province where most of Kosovo's Serbs still live. International peacekeepers -- a relatively small and incoherent group of 17,000 troops from 35 nations -- are unable to stop the large-scale violence. (Indeed, in 2004, they proved unable to stop even small-scale violence.)
As Albanians attack Serb houses and cultural sites, refugees stream northward. In Belgrade, Serb nationalists demand that the government do something to protect their brethren in Kosovo, creating irresistible political pressure to deploy forces. Full-blown war erupts between Serbia and Kosovo as international peacekeepers and administrators watch their past eight years of work go up in smoke.
To avert this disaster, the U.N. plan should be modified to create a fully autonomous "Serb Republic of Kosovo-Metohija" (as Belgrade calls the province) within a Kosovo that would be recognized as independent only when the Albanians accept this provision. Russia, which until now has blocked U.N. action on Serbia's behalf, could claim a major victory and then insist that Belgrade endorse the plan, paving the way for Security Council approval.
Although seemingly minor, this modification could make all the difference. At independence, the north's police still would shed their old uniforms, but now would don the insignia of Kosovo's new Serb Republic, thereby acknowledging Kosovo's independence. Albanian leaders hardly could object since they already would have agreed to this Serb entity as a condition of independence. Even the province's Albanian militants should be deterred by the realization that if they resorted to force, sanctions now would come down on them, not the Serbs, for violating the plan.
This compromise would not fully satisfy any party. Serbia still would bemoan the violation of its sovereignty. Kosovo's Albanians would resent the bifurcation of their new country. And Serbs in enclaves outside the north would feel abandoned. But the proposal just might enable independence of this former Yugoslav territory without a tragic repeat of the ethnic violence of the 1990s. That would be no small feat.
Mr. Kuperman, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, is co-editor of "Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention" (Routledge, 2006).
Copyright 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.