Courtesy Reuters

Serbia's Final Frontier?

After spending almost a decade in political limbo, Kosovo is finally an independent state. Sort of.

On February 17, the government in Pristina declared its independence from Serbia. Although Kosovo acted without UN approval, the United States and Europe's major powers swiftly recognized the new statelet. Serbia and Russia, along with China and over a dozen other countries, moved equally swiftly to pronounce the secession null and void.

A nasty mess has ensued. Violent protests broke out in Serbia and Kosovo's north, protesters torched the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Republika Srpska is being pushed by its radical Serbs to follow Kosovo's lead and break away from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Moscow is accusing the United States of trampling on international law and risking another round of bloodshed in the Balkans.

It was not meant to happen this way. When Washington began pushing for negotiations on Kosovo's final status, its intent was to write the last chapter of Yugoslavia's demise, thereby clearing the way for U.S. troops to end their long sojourn in the Balkans. But if the United States and EU are to escape with limited damage and fulfill their expectations that Kosovo's independence bring to a close the region's long history of ethnic conflict, they will have to address several key challenges in the weeks ahead.

THE MORNING AFTER

The biggest test will be handling northern Kosovo--which is predominantly Serb and home to about one-third of Kosovo's Serb minority. The United States and the European Union must either prevent the north from breaking away from the new state, or manage its peaceful secession if partition proves inevitable. During the past decade of UN trusteeship, northern Kosovo resisted integration with the rest of the province and remained politically and institutionally tied to Serbia. Moreover, the Serbs in the north have no interest whatsoever in being part of the new state. Hence the attacks that have taken place on the border posts between Serbia and northern Kosovo, a territorial boundary that Serbs on both sides refuse to accept. Thus far, police units and NATO troops have kept a lid on the violence while U.S. and EU officials insist that the partition of Kosovo is unacceptable. But even if it is unacceptable, the reality is that the north's secession may be unstoppable.

Should de facto partition prove irreversible, then it is better that Pristina, Washington, and Brussels get behind it. After all, if partition occurs by design rather than by default, it is less likely to entail bloodshed. Moreover, Belgrade hinted throughout the final-status negotiations that partition might offer a compromise solution. Should the international community come to accept the reassertion of Serbia's sovereignty over the north, Belgrade may reciprocate by grudgingly accepting the independence of a rump Kosovo.

Another key challenge will be avoiding violence throughout the rest of Kosovo, where approximately 80,000 Serbs and numerous Serbian Orthodox religious sites are scattered among roughly 1.8 million ethnic Albanians. Indeed, in light of the sporadic violence that has continued to poison relations between the two communities since 1999, it is quite surprising that Kosovo's declaration of independence has not been accompanied by a renewed round of ethnic conflict. The presence of NATO troops in the streets has no doubt played a role. They must continue to provide vigilant protection of Serb enclaves and monasteries. The Albanian leadership also deserves credit for restraining rogue groups within their community; extremists would hardly be distressed to see the outbreak of violence compel Serbs to quit Kosovo for good. It certainly helps that Kosovo's leadership contains former commanders in the Kosovo Liberation Army, giving them credibility in less tolerant quarters of the Albanian community.

THE DOMINO THEORY

Serbian and Russian officials continue to insist that the precedent set by Kosovo's "illegal" independence threatens to break up multiethnic societies everywhere. But even in Kosovo's own neighborhood, this scenario is unlikely to play out. The secession of Kosovo from Serbia has put pressure on the government of Republika Sprksa to hold a referendum on its potential secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina. But thus far, Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has effectively resisted such calls, providing time for passions to cool.

As for Macedonia and its ethnic Albanians, Kosovo's separation from Serbia is unlikely to encourage them to push for either independence or integration into a "Greater Albania." On the contrary, by pacifying ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and neutralizing the Kosovar extremists who have in the past crossed into Macedonia to stir up trouble, independence for Kosovo does more to calm than to unsettle Macedonia. Indeed, Skopje has been a strong backer of the plan for "supervised independence," in part because it envisages a final demarcation of Macedonia's border with Kosovo.

Beyond the Balkans, Kosovo's independence is unlikely to have the apocalyptic knock-on effects foreseen by Belgrade and Moscow. The Quebecois, Catalans, and Tibetans are not about to rise up because of Kosovo's successful secession from Serbia. If trouble emerges in the Caucasus, it will be because Russia stirs it up, not because Kosovo set a precedent that will soon bring international recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Moscow is unlikely to rock the boat; Russia keeps a hand in the southern Caucasus by keeping Georgia's breakaway territories in limbo and exercises influence by manipulating these "frozen conflicts."

To be sure, it is unfortunate that Kosovo's independence from Serbia constitutes partition along ethnic lines and that it occurred without the legitimacy of a UN blessing. Serbia has admittedly suffered a painful amputation; keeping the country on the path to integration into the Euro-Atlantic community will be no easy task. But the United States and its European partners were right to guide Kosovo to independence--even if they must now contain the fallout. In the long run, helping the Balkans absorb the jolt of a unilateral secession will leave the region far better off than if Kosovo had remained a ticking time bomb within Serbia.

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