Thursday, January 05, 2006

U.N. Envoy Predicts Kosovo Status Talks Will Conclude in 2006

Decision could bring stability to Balkans region, former U.S. diplomat says

By Vince Crawley
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The United Nations envoy to Kosovo says 2006 will likely prove crucial in determining whether the province gains independence from Serbia, and a former senior U.S. diplomat says the decision would help stabilize the entire Balkans region.

“We are at the end of one momentous year for Kosovo and the beginning of another,” Soren Jessen-Peterson, the U.N.’s special representative to Kosovo, said in a New Year’s message. With the opening of U.N.-mediated talks on the final status of Kosovo, “the coming year will more likely see the end of that process,” Jessen-Peterson said.

Jessen-Peterson is the U.N. administrator for Kosovo, which has been under international protection since the 1999 NATO-led war to halt oppression and human-rights violations by Yugoslav Serbs. Ethnic Albanians, who seek independence from Serbia and Montenegro, made up 90 percent of the province’s prewar population. Tens of thousands of minority Serbs since then have fled, in part because of periodic outbreaks of violence by the Albanian majority. About 1,700 U.S. troops continue to serve in Kosovo as part of a NATO-led international force.

On October 24, 2005, the U.N. Security Council endorsed the start of final-status talks for Kosovo. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan posed two possible outcomes: independence or some form of autonomy while formally remaining a part of Serbia. (See related story.)

Kosovo’s international status in 1999 was left undecided on purpose, says a former U.S. diplomat.

At the end of the war that drove Yugoslav-Serb forces out of the province, “we did not define Kosovo’s endpoint,” Ambassador James Dobbins said during a January 4 talk at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research institute. Dobbins, a career State Department diplomat, has served as ambassador to the European Union and was the Clinton administration’s special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. He then became President Bush’s first envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan. He is now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center for the Rand Corporation, a policy research institute.

Postponing Kosovo’s international status was “a conscious decision, a rational decision at the time,” Dobbins said at the Heritage Foundation talk.

“In 1999 … an effort to decide the final status of Kosovo would have [had] profoundly destabilizing effects on other very tenuous and volatile issues in the Balkans,” Dobbins said. For example, he said, neighboring Macedonia was struggling to avoid an outbreak of ethnic violence with its significant Albanian minority population. In what was still called Yugoslavia, the republic of Montenegro was in danger of violent secession. And Bosnia’s three ethnic groups still were struggling to forge a viable single country just four years after the end of the Bosnian war.

“It was felt in 1999 that, with 50,000 NATO troops, Kosovo was under control,” Dobbins said. “These other situations were less under control, more volatile, and therefore one had to make progress on them before returning to the issue of Kosovo’s final status. I think that was a reasonable gamble.” At the time, he said, the international community was putting enough money and manpower into Kosovo “to keep a lid on it for a few years.”

In the meantime, Dobbins said, “we did have a chance to ameliorate these other situations. And I think we have significantly ameliorated them.” Tensions have not vanished in Bosnia or Macedonia, he said, but they have cooled down greatly as those countries seek closer ties with the European Union. There also appears to be a distinct possibility that Montenegro will vote for independence in early 2006, Dobbins said, but that would likely not be accompanied by violence.

The region’s tensions “all still exist,” Dobbins said. “But the chances of them blowing up in 2004, 2005, 2006 are a lot less than they were in 1999,” he added.

“Whereas in 1999 it was prudent to say that Kosovo was adequately under control and one needed to tend to these other issues, it’s now reasonable to say these other issues are adequately under control, and Kosovo has become the most volatile flashpoint in the area,” Dobbins said. International troop levels and monetary aid are declining, he said. Also, there is a “natural impatience” on the part of the people of Kosovo as well as the international community to resolve the province’s international status.

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