Amid the unraveling of Yugoslavia that began in the early 1990s, the United States and its European allies have staunchly defended multiethnic society in the Balkans. The military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the ongoing peacekeeping missions there, the hundreds of millions of dollars given annually in economic aid -- these sacrifices have been made to preserve the individual states that once constituted a federal Yugoslavia and to prevent bloodshed among the numerous ethnic groups that populate them. Now, however, the time has come to let pragmatism triumph over principle -- and move decisively toward independence for Kosovo.

The most important piece of unfinished business in the Balkans is the final status of Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia, which has been under international trusteeship since NATO's intervention in 1999. Anxious to scale back its obligations in the region and confronted with growing impatience among Kosovo's population, the international community is finally gearing up for negotiations over Kosovo's political future, as provided for under UN Security Council Resolution 1244.

Serbs, for whom Kosovo is an ancestral homeland and the site of many important Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, insist that the area remain under Serbian sovereignty. Broader opposition to separating Kosovo from Serbia stems from concern about the potential precedent that would be set by redrawing boundaries along ethnic lines and the likely impact this move would have on the integrity of the borders of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia.

Nevertheless, harsh realities on the ground make independence for Kosovo the only viable option. In the current state of limbo, relations between the Albanian majority, which is mostly Muslim, and the Serbian minority, which is mostly Orthodox Christian, have reached the boiling point. The Albanian leadership in Pristina, which governs Kosovo in an uneasy partnership with UN authorities, wants nothing to do with Belgrade. Kosovo has already left Serbia's orbit. And throughout the area, walls of hostility divide ordinary Albanians and Serbs. In spirit as well as fact, multiethnic society is nowhere to be found.

Pretending otherwise and denying or delaying independence risks a return to disorder and bloodshed -- and is therefore the greater of two evils. The formal separation of Kosovo from Serbia instead offers the best hope for rebuilding moderation and tolerance among ethnic Albanians, making it far more likely that they will eventually live in peace with Serbs, Roma, and the other minority groups among them.


Driving from central Serbia into Kosovo already feels like crossing a national boundary, and a militarized one at that: Serbian border guards, then a no man's land, then a border control staffed by Kosovo police as well as UN and NATO personnel. In the no man's land, drivers change their license plates; cars with Serbian tags will sometimes be attacked in Kosovo, and those with Kosovar plates are equally at risk in Serbia.

In Kosovo, signs abound that the area has been poisoned by intercommunal violence. NATO troops, armed UN guards, and members of the Kosovo Police Service are ubiquitous, keeping the palpable ethnic tensions in check. Serbs live in fortified enclaves, their access roads often guarded by NATO patrols. Before the war, two of Kosovo's largest cities, Pristina and Prizren, were home to tens of thousands of Serbs. They are now virtually Serb-free. A few smaller towns, such as Orahovac, have maintained their multiethnic character, but the Serbs there live in isolated ghettos, set off from Albanian neighborhoods by a block or two of burned-out homes. Serbs rarely venture into the Albanian section of town, fearful of abuse or worse.

Roughly 90 percent of Kosovo's population of some two million is ethnic Albanian, and most of the rest of the population is Serbian. This ethnic imbalance was long in the making, a result primarily of successive Serbian exoduses to the north during the Ottoman era and, more recently, higher birthrates among Albanians. Since World War II, political power has shifted back and forth between the two communities. In Tito's Yugoslavia, Kosovo's Albanians enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy. Beginning in the late 1980s, Serbia's nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic tightened Belgrade's grip, and ethnic Albanians suffered repression and political and economic exploitation. Milosevic responded to armed Albanian resistance with a campaign of ethnic cleansing that began in 1998, killing at least 10,000 Albanians and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes.

After NATO's intervention and the eventual withdrawal of Serbian forces, ethnic Albanians exacted their revenge. During the war and the retribution that followed, at least a thousand Serbs were killed, while tens of thousands fled; their ransacked homes, stores, and churches still mar the landscape. To this day, Albanians continue to dish back the ethnic discrimination they suffered during the 1990s. In many Serbian enclaves, no one holds a steady job; the communities rely on handouts from aid organizations and from Belgrade. As one Serbian resident of Orahovac told me in July, "We don't call this life, we call it an imitation of life."

Although outbreaks of actual ethnic violence are now uncommon, Serbs remain on guard. In March 2004, Albanians rioted across Kosovo, leading to widespread attacks on Serbs, forcing thousands to flee and undoing what little progress had been made in repairing intercommunal ties. This past August, two Serbs were killed in a drive-by shooting.

The communities are so polarized that simple dialogue is hard to find. In a conversation with Serbian residents in Lipljan, one of the few multiethnic towns left near Pristina, a participant invited passing Albanians to join the discussion. One after another scurried away. "Most Albanians are no longer willing to have contact with us," a Serb commented. In Prizren, about 35 miles southwest of Lipljan, one of the few remaining Serbs there explained that she still meets with Albanian friends behind closed doors. "But in public, they pretend not to recognize me," she lamented, "as it is not good for Albanians to be seen with Serbs."

By any measure, the political conditions in Kosovo fall well short of the standards that the international community has set as preconditions for moving to final-status negotiations. Serbs do not enjoy freedom of movement, one of the main reasons that only a handful of those who fled since 1999 have returned. The process of decentralization meant to empower local communities has proved stillborn. Political and legal institutions have yet to mature, stymied by infighting among political parties, crime and corruption, and patronage systems deeply embedded in the clannish structure of Albanian society. Poverty is pervasive, with unemployment topping 50 percent even among ethnic Albanians. An inadequate power supply makes for daily blackouts, and Kosovo's uncertain political status leaves it unable to attract the foreign capital it needs to invest in basic infrastructure.

The case for independence, however, rests not on Kosovo's readiness, but on the lack of realistic alternatives. Ethnic Albanians are now in command, and they are adamant about breaking away from Serbia. As Kosovo's prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, made clear in his office in Pristina, "The people of Kosovo will decide their own future. ... If Kosovo does not become independent, there will be serious consequences." Kosovo's Albanians have reached their limits; the atrocities and injustices of the past, combined with the empowerment of the present, make it all but impossible to envisage the continuation of Serbian sovereignty. Unfortunately, continued sovereignty is exactly what the Serbian government has in mind.


"Less than independence, more than autonomy," Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, explained in a meeting in Belgrade. Under his formula, Kosovo would largely manage its own affairs but remain nominally a part of Serbia and forgo diplomatic representation abroad. "The independence of Kosovo is unacceptable for me, and for all of Serbia," he insisted. Tadic and his advisers fear that an independent Kosovo would imperil not only the Serbs living there, but also the course of democracy in Serbia itself. "Independence will drive a stake through the heart of Serbian democracy," one of Tadic's top aides said. The president agreed, noting that "if independence is imposed on Serbia, we will once more become a black hole of the Balkans. The Radicals [extreme nationalists] will be elected. And they will stay in power for a generation."

Kosovo's independence, however, should not be held hostage to Serbia's inability to trust itself to behave responsibly. The United States and its European partners were too timid in confronting Serbian nationalism throughout most of the 1990s, and much blood was shed as a result. The international community should not make the same mistake today. Serbia's darker instincts need to be extinguished, not accommodated.

It is true that extreme nationalists might come to power in Serbia in the wake of Kosovo's independence. But if Belgrade becomes more belligerent, turns its back on the war crimes tribunal operating in The Hague, and veers away from integration into Europe, Serbs will only find their country more isolated and impoverished. By making clear that the nationalist agenda has been leading the country down a blind alley, Serbia's loss of sovereignty over Kosovo could well result in the strengthening of Serbian centrists.

Rather than threatening doomsday scenarios if Kosovo becomes independent, Serbia's leaders should be doing just the opposite: talking about life after separation and preparing the public accordingly. Yet to date, only one high-ranking Serbian politician, former Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, has publicly endorsed letting Kosovo go. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Tadic, both of whom have the nationalist credentials necessary to call for moderation and compromise, have failed to rise to the occasion.

Instead, the Serbian government has encouraged Kosovar Serbs to boycott elections in the province and distance themselves from Pristina, only intensifying the Serbian minority's political isolation. Belgrade has played down Serbia's culpability in the ethnic violence of the 1990s, tolerating nationalist myths and strengthening popular belief in the inviolability of Serbia's territorial claims. Belgrade is correct to worry about how Kosovar Serbs would fare after independence, but its behavior has done little either to strengthen its case for keeping Kosovo in the fold or to ready its citizens for the impending loss of their southern province.


As it eases Kosovo away from Serbian sovereignty, the international community should make independence contingent on three conditions. first, Pristina must make substantial progress on putting in place the essentials of a functioning state. To accomplish this goal, Kosovo's government must strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law, clamp down on corruption and crime, and redress widespread poverty and unemployment.

Second, Pristina must do much more to ensure the well-being of those Serbs who choose to stay put. Many Serbs intend to quit Kosovo if it becomes independent simply as a matter of principle. To encourage them to remain, ethnic Albanian leaders will need to capitalize on the prospect of independence to promote tolerance and protect minority rights. Reviving multiethnicity will become easier as Kosovo formally moves beyond Belgrade's reach, enabling Albanian moderates to neutralize militant voices. As Ruzhdi Saramati, a former brigade commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, put it in a meeting in Prizren, "Independence will help end extremist elements within the Albanian community."

As part of its effort to safeguard minority rights, Pristina should also agree to put Christian sites throughout Kosovo under international supervision. Well over a hundred churches and monasteries have been destroyed or damaged since 1999, many of them during the 2004 riots. Numerous religious sites are now armed camps, guarded by NATO troops and barbed wire. To ensure that they remain secure and accessible, these sites should be given international protection for the indefinite future.

Third -- and most controversial -- the international community should reconsider its blanket opposition to the partition of Kosovo, indicating instead that it is prepared to accept partition provided that Pristina and Belgrade both consent. From the Ibar River north to the boundary with Serbia proper, Kosovo is populated almost exclusively by Serbs. The area is about 15 percent of Kosovo's territory and contains about one-third of its Serbs. Pristina makes no pretense of governing the region, which in most respects remains functionally a part of Serbia.

Granting northern Kosovo to Serbia while the rest of the province becomes independent would relieve Pristina of the futile task of trying to assert control over a region that, come what may, intends to maintain its links to Belgrade. In Mitrovica, the area's main city, Albanian and Serbian communities already reside on opposite sides of the Ibar, making it an attractive location for Serbs who choose to relocate from other parts of Kosovo. As long as Pristina is disabused of any hope of swapping northern Kosovo for Albanian enclaves in southern Serbia, partition would also represent a compromise of sorts, enabling Belgrade to claim that it has not been left empty-handed. As one of President Tadic's advisers stated, "If we are looking for a compromise solution, partition seems to be the easy way out."

Many in the international community insist that the partition of Kosovo along ethnic lines would send a dangerous signal, condoning ethnic segregation and fueling fragmentation elsewhere in the Balkans. This argument is not without merit. It would have been best if the peoples of the former Yugoslavia had been able to live together amicably in a unitary state. The breakup of Yugoslavia certainly violated the civic values on which multiethnic society rests -- as would the independence and partition of Kosovo. But when the best outcome proves impossible to achieve, the imperatives of stability ultimately require compromising the principle of multiethnicity. Just as these imperatives provide a compelling rationale for Kosovo's separation from Serbia, so might it be necessary for Kosovo itself to be partitioned in order to bring peace to the region.

Furthermore, Kosovo's situation is unique: its independence, and even its partition, is unlikely to trigger further unraveling in the Balkans. With or without the territory north of the Ibar, Kosovo's independence promises to stabilize Macedonia by forestalling the radicalization of its ethnic Albanians and neutralizing Albanian extremists throughout the region. Even if it does not, it is Macedonia's treatment of its Albanian minority that will do more to stabilize (or destabilize) the country than developments elsewhere. And although ethnic tensions continue to bedevil Bosnia, its future, like Montenegro's, will be little affected by Kosovo's ultimate political status or boundaries.

It is well worth keeping the option of Kosovo's partition on the table, therefore, especially if doing so would provide Belgrade with sufficient inducement to make a deal. The international community should also be prepared to sweeten the pot by offering Serbia more economic assistance, relief from its $13 billion in external debt, and a clear pathway to membership in NATO and the European Union.

Securing Kosovo's independence will ultimately require the approval of the UN Security Council. Russia and China, both of which struggle with separatist movements at home, are unlikely to relish an outcome that effectively embraces secession along ethnic lines. But neither country has compelling interests in the Balkans. Russia's affinity for its Slavic brethren in Serbia is of minimal political consequence, and both Moscow and Beijing are intent on maintaining good relations with the United States and Europe. It is difficult to imagine that either Russia or China would make serious trouble over the future of a small tract of land that has no oil, no nuclear weapons, and a GDP of less than $3 billion.

The peaceful separation of Kosovo from Serbia will require sustained and adept diplomacy from the international community, courageous leadership from Belgrade, and tolerance and good governance from Kosovar Albanians -- all commodities that have been in dangerously short supply. Nonetheless, Kosovo's independence is the best hope for finally settling one of the most intractable feuds in the Balkans, defeating the remnants of extreme nationalism in Serbia, and laying the foundations for a Balkan politics that focuses on the opportunities of the future rather than the wrongs of the past.

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  • CHARLES A. KUPCHAN is Professor of
    International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council
    on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is "The End of the
    American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century."
  • More By Charles A. Kupchan