By Gordon N. Bardos
Sunday, June 25, 2006; B07
The Bush administration is facing a moment of truth in the Balkans. Montenegro's newly declared independence, the decision on Kosovo's future status expected later this year and ongoing efforts to promote constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina all bring sharply into focus the irreconcilability of two administration goals: disengagement from the Balkans (so full attention can be given to Afghanistan and the Middle East) and the obligation to manage the political and security changes facing southeastern Europe in the near future.
Given the European Union's problems -- an economic downturn in much of the eurozone, weak leadership in Italy and Germany, lame-duck leaders in Britain and France, and enlargement fatigue -- expecting the alliance to provide serious leadership in the region over the next few years is unrealistic.
The disintegration of Serbia-Montenegro is only the first of many important changes the region confronts. Montenegro's declaration of independence on June 3 from its union with Serbia was a considerable success for its top politician, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. But the independence referendum campaign and its outcome revealed the deep divisions within Montenegrin society. While the referendum passed by a 55 to 45 percent margin, in real terms the difference between the pro-independence and anti-independence blocs (roughly 45,000 votes) was less than the number of people in Yankee Stadium on a Sunday afternoon. Voters identifying themselves as Montenegrins, Albanians, or Muslims voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, while Montenegrin citizens identifying themselves as Serbs -- more than 30 percent of the population -- voted just as strongly for maintaining the union. These divisions, coupled with an economy in which less than 20 percent of the population is officially employed, suggest future Montenegrin politics could be bitter and divisive.
Independent Montenegro faces two important challenges. The first is healing the wounds of the independence campaign and fostering an atmosphere in which the Serb population will be able to play a constructive role in political life. The second is satisfying the demands of Montenegro's ethnic minorities now that the terms of the political game in the country are changed. For several years Djukanovic has enjoyed the support of Albanian and Muslim minorities because they supported his campaign to break the tie with Serbia. Now that this has been achieved, ethnic minorities are likely to up the ante and begin seeking increased cultural and territorial autonomy within the new state. Montenegrin politics could begin to resemble the difficult, ethnically based politics of Bosnia-Herzegovina or Macedonia, which would hamper the country's Euro-Atlantic integration efforts down the road.
The spillover effects of Montenegro's independence referendum are already evident. Serb leaders in Bosnia have aired the possibility of holding their own independence referendum, while some Bosnian Muslim politicians have started calling for the Bosnian Serb republic to be eliminated altogether. Either action would mean, in effect, scrapping the Dayton Accords, which have kept the peace in Bosnia since 1995. In Serbia, support for extreme nationalist parties is rising and likely to increase still more if, as is widely expected, Kosovo is granted some form of independence later in the year. In Kosovo, recent reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch on corruption in political life and the absence of the rule of law show that place is a long way from becoming a stable democratic polity.
All of this suggests how easy it would be, absent strong U.S. leadership, for events to spin out of control and erase 10 years of efforts to stabilize the region. In such an unstable political climate, statements by U.S. policymakers about their eagerness to pull U.S. troops out of the Balkans and turn the job over to the Europeans only embolden extremists. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia are all gearing up for elections, and moderate political forces in these countries need U.S. support now to convince their electorates that the difficult choices being made to adopt economic and political reforms will pay off in the near future, not two or three electoral cycles down the line. The assassination of former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 is a tragic reminder of the great personal risks reformers throughout southeastern Europe are taking. They need and deserve U.S. understanding and support.
By visiting Baghdad this month, President Bush sent a strong personal message to Iraqis that the United States intends to support their country until its transition to democracy is completed. The administration should send a similar message to both extremists and moderates in the Balkans that the United States will actively lead the effort to integrate all the countries of southeastern Europe into both NATO and the European Union -- and that it won't pull out until the job is done.
The writer is assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He also serves as a Balkans analyst for Freedom House.