By Agron Bajrami
EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - There are, as some say, a myriad of solutions for Kosovo. But only one has the power to make the final push of the whole Balkans region towards Europe. And that one is an independent Kosovo.
This week, Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy for the Kosovo status talks, starts meeting political representatives in Pristina and Belgrade in what is expected to be the final stage of putting in place the last jigsaw piece in the political mosaic of south-eastern Europe.
The reputable Finn will be opening the series of hauntingly difficult discussions that are expected to result in a viable solution that will justify the international community's engagement since 1999, when NATO led an air campaign against Belgrade to end years of Serb repression against the Albanian majority in Kosovo.
With the time ticking away for the fruitless status quo of the last six years of the UN protectorate, there are more and more voices being drawn into the debate over the most desirable and viable solution for Kosovo.
Different analysis and perspectives are being thrown into the debate, and most of them are insisting that some form of independence is indeed the best solution for Kosovo.
While Serbia, and a dropping number of its allies still maintain that Kosovo must remain under Belgrade's rule and within the borders of Serbia, the facts on the ground are mercilessly straightforward: Kosovo is de facto independent from Serbia - what remains is to make the settlement legal.
Therefore, the best possible, realistic solution, and the only one that can guarantee long-term stability in the Balkans, is precisely granting independence for Kosovo.
Apart from being the only just solution, this can also be turned into the first true long-term success story of the West's involvement in the Balkan crisis, since only through independence can Kosovo's multi-ethnic character be preserved.
There are several factors and arguments that weigh heavily on the side of an independent Kosovo with its current borders.
First of all, this is the only just solution. Serbia, as a state, has engaged in systematic discrimination and massive repression against the Albanians in Kosovo for years.
The 1999 NATO air campaign came after 10 years of apartheid that culminated with ethnic cleansing and war crimes against the majority population. During 1998 alone, Serb police and military forces killed more than 2,000 people and 400,000 were displaced.
During the spring of 1999, forces under Belgrade's command, in their campaign of planned ethnic cleansing, killed more than 10,000 Albanians and forcibly deported around one million. More than 120,000 houses were burned, cities emptied, and an entire population traumatized.
For these reasons, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, has brought war crimes charges against several of the highest-ranking Serb and Yugoslav officials of that time: Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia, Milan Milutinovic, then president of Serbia, Nikola Sainovic, then deputy prime-minister of Yugoslavia, Nebojsa Pavkovic, then Serb army general with command authority in Kosovo, Sreten Lukiq, then Serb police general with command authority in Kosovo.
Accordingly, it is the state which carried out war crimes in Kosovo that has had the irreversible effect of depriving Serbia of its right to have a say in Kosovo's future.
Of course, there were grave mistakes during the last six years in governing Kosovo. But for those failures - like the March 2004 violence - the blame is not only on the Albanian side, but should be shared, since the UN mission here has been the highest administrative authority. And, those failures cannot in any way eclipse the systematic terror of the Serbian state against the Albanian majority in Kosovo since the 1980s.
Serbia today - even five years after Slobodan Milosevic is removed from power - is still pursuing its policy of territorial conquest, which derives from the Serb nationalist platform of the 19th century.
Even though the current officials in Belgrade try to put the whole blame on Milosevic, they themselves have constantly pursued the same nationalistic policy. Even today their statements are about territories, not people; their policy is based on historical myths, not programmes for good governance.
Last week, Serbian president Boris Tadic, while visiting Russia, publicly proposed dividing Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians by creating two separate entities.
This formula is not working in Bosnia and can bring only new segregation. Also last week, in several statements, Serb foreign minister Vuk Draskovic claimed that Serbia does not want to rule over the Albanian citizens of Kosovo, which effectively means that Belgrade wants the territory but not the people living there.
Therefore, Belgrade's offer for "more than autonomy, less than independence," apart from being insincere, is also too little too late.
Righting the wrongs
There is, of course, a lot left undone. Human rights records in Kosovo are worthy of blame. The treatment of minorities, especially the Serbs, has been shameful.
The majority, also, has not achieved a better standard of living. The economy is in ruins, unemployment is high, and poverty is widespread. Governance is awkward, politics is dirty, corruption is on the rise, and the system of values is distorted.
All this, and much more, is hurting Kosovars of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
But, Kosovo is not the only one with these problems. The whole region, from Serbia, through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Macedonia, is engulfed in the same problems.
The four wars, initiated by Serbia in the 1990s, have left deep scars in most of these societies. The healing is a process and will take time. Some wounds might never heal completely.
Functionality, stability and security
Therefore, for Europe, and the international community in general, there is an imperative to treat the Kosovo status issue in a way that will guarantee functionality, political stability and regional security.
In Kosovo, the six post-war years have been a time of learning difficult lessons. Just as democracy is not only about having fair and free elections, also functionality is not only about having democratic institutions and international aid.
Creating a functional society in Kosovo - just as throughout the rest of the Balkans - has turned out to be a very difficult task, but not an impossible one.
One other lesson learned since 1999 is that lack of status is the best recipe for instability and unpredictability.
Under independence, Kosovo's main source of political instability - its unclear status - would be gone, while the security threats should be far easier to deal with. Only then would the Kosovars be fully accountable.
Kosovo, as part of Serbia, can deliver none of this. Quite the opposite: while the absolute majority of Kosovars are completely unwilling to live under Belgrade's rule, Serbia itself has never shown interest in treating these 2 million as something more than unwanted second-class citizens.
Such a combination will produce anything but functionality, stability and security.
On the other hand, after liberation Kosovo and Serbia have become accustomed to living separately. Linking them back again will certainly cause more short-term trouble and long-term problems than independence.
In addition to this, the whole arrangement will significantly affect the wider neighbourhood.
Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and the Preshevo valley are going to be directly touched by the status of Kosovo, with ethnic Albanian populations living there. Only a multi-ethnic Kosovo, with a status reflecting the will of the majority, can be a guarantor of long-term stability and security in the region.
Denying Kosovo independence is the best way to bring the whole southern flank of the Balkans back into the 1990s.
Future international presence and European integration
It is clear that any solution to Kosovo's status is going to require additional and continuous Western presence and support.
Chances are that NATO will have to continue its role as the sole military structure in Kosovo for several more years.
Also, the UN mission will transform into some sort of EU-led presence, whose mission is still to be decided.
But this international presence can serve as guarantor of a status agreement only if the majority accepts the solution.
Otherwise, the EU mission would be effectively administering a Gaza Strip or West Bank rather than a Kosovo. Turning Kosovo into a Palestine would, of course, also mean that Kosovo and Serbia would move away from European integration as well. But not only them: Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro would face trouble and pain as well.
There are of course, as some say, a myriad of solutions for Kosovo. But only one has the power to make the final push of the region towards Europe. And that one is an independent Kosovo.
The author is editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Kosovo's biggest daily newspaper