After largely ignoring the deteriorating situation in the Balkans since President Bush was elected in 2000, the Bush administration has decided on a new strategy designed to finally settle whether Kosovo will become fully independent of Serbia, U.S. officials said.
Ethnic tensions have been rising in Kosovo, which is still administered by the United Nations six years after NATO bombed Serbia over its treatment of the Kosovars. Sporadic violence has erupted between the majority Albanian and minority Serbian populations, most recently in March, as the region's status has remained in limbo.
"If you freeze the situation for two or more years, you are likely to create a pressure cooker," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not been announced. He said the United States is signaling that it is now committed to resolving the outstanding issues in Bosnia and Kosovo.
The plan, which Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns will announce in congressional testimony tomorrow and a speech Thursday, has been carefully worked out in intensive discussions with U.N. and European officials. The United Nations will shortly appoint Kai Eide, the Norwegian ambassador to NATO, to assess whether Kosovo is ready for final-status talks. Once that certification is made, probably by mid-autumn, then the United Nations will sponsor international negotiations on whether Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, become independent or achieve a hybrid status.
Russia, the traditional defender of the Serbs, initially appeared to support the idea but has since expressed reservations, the official said.
The administration will combine this push on Kosovo with a warning to Serbia that a normal relationship with the United States and NATO depends on the capture of the two most-wanted war criminals from the Bosnian war -- former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic. Over the past two months, the Serbian government has delivered about a dozen people to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, but Karadzic and Mladic are crucial because they ordered the killings of nearly 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica.
Karadzic was recently spotted having lunch with his wife in southeastern Bosnia, according to reports in the region. The administration official noted that July 11 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. "We can't forget that," he said. "That is the next big step for the Serbian government. They have to face that."
Richard C. Holbrooke, who in the Clinton administration was instrumental in forging the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war 10 years ago, applauded the initiative. "They inherited a Balkans policy they neither understood nor appreciated," the former U.N. ambassador said. "They were warned by many people that the situation would deteriorate. They are now -- and I am very glad to see it -- in the process of revising their policy significantly."
The administration's push appears to be part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's effort to clean up the diplomatic underbrush that gathered as policymakers in Bush's first term focused on the war on terrorism.
Burns also has been a key player in engineering the administration's renewed interest in Kosovo. As a former ambassador to Greece and to NATO, Burns is intimately familiar with Balkan issues. He recently traveled to Europe to line up allied support for the initiative.
Holbrooke said there is "no way U.S. troops can leave Kosovo" unless there is an agreement on its final status. "The key thing is for the U.S. to assume the leadership role that it had abdicated. We cannot have a strong NATO or a stable Europe if the Balkans are on fire."
Bush administration officials say that they cannot predict how the multi-year process of determining Kosovo's future will end, and that the administration will not advocate a particular option.
But Holbrooke predicted that eventually Montenegro will separate from Serbia and that Kososo will become independent, laying the groundwork for all seven parts of the former Yugoslavia to move toward membership in the European Union. Slovenia already has been granted membership.