Back to the Balkans
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A18
IT'S BEEN A long time since policymakers in Washington were preoccupied with the problems of the Balkans. Yet, while the wars that devastated southeastern Europe in the 1990s and that twice prompted U.S. military intervention receded long ago, the region has never regained stability. International trusteeships for two former battlefields, Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo, have failed to provide prosperity or lasting political solutions. Neighboring Serbia, though now a democracy, still struggles to shed the malignant nationalism that fueled much of the bloodshed. The Bush administration and other Western governments have found it convenient to relegate this troublesome area to a back burner for most of the past several years, even while U.S. and European troops keep the peace. That hiatus will soon end -- whether or not the region and outside governments are ready.
One trigger of a Balkan reengagement is the scheduled review of Kosovo's government by the U.N. Security Council this summer. That internationally supervised administration has performed poorly; its latest prime minister recently was obliged to surrender to the Balkan war crimes tribunal at The Hague. But Kosovo's continued poverty and ethnic tension are also the products of its unresolved status. Western governments seem to agree that the territory, whose population is mostly ethnic Albanian, can never be returned to Serbian rule, which means it must become independent in some form. But there's no consensus on how, when or under what conditions Kosovo might be granted sovereignty. Some Western experts, such as former defense secretary Frank Carlucci, have proposed that the process be completed by the end of next year, while others say it should be linked to an integration of the Balkan states into the European Union, a process that could take many more years.
Serb leaders, meanwhile, reject independence or dream of annexing the Serb-populated enclaves in the province. They find sympathy in Russia, which has been harboring some of the Serb war criminals still at large.
Untangling this and formulating a workable plan and timetable for Kosovo's independence will require concerted and skillful consensus-building by the Bush administration with the European Union. Officials say that process has begun, but President Bush should consider whether a special U.S. envoy is needed to catalyze it; proposals for a U.N. special representative seem to have stalled. Such an official could also work on a concrete plan to lift Bosnia from its continued status as an international protectorate and on the means to encourage Serbia to pursue a future of integration with Europe and NATO, rather than a nationalist agenda. But neither Serbia nor Russia -- nor the reluctance of a busy administration to take on another problem -- should be allowed to stand in the way of resolving Kosovo's future and developing a broader plan for the Balkans this year. Delay will only invite a resumption of the terrible conflict that plagued the West a decade ago.