It's time to talk independence for Kosovo
International Herald Tribune, 25 January 2005
Kosovo's time as a UN protectorate is running out. After six years in international limbo, Kosovo Albanians are frustrated with their unresolved status and are in economic despair. If they don't start to see real progress on their aspirations for independence, major violence could well erupt in the coming months, as it did last March. And if Albanian attacks against Kosovo's Serbs sparked an armed response from Belgrade, the entire region could be plunged into renewed turmoil.
Of course, if Kosovo wants its own sovereignty it has to show the world it deserves it, with both the institutions and the willingness to protect its Serbian and other minorities. Moreover, given the Albanian majority's own checkered record, it must be prepared to put up with some constraints on its freedom of action for the indefinite future. On the other hand, a return to the pre-1999 situation is unthinkable, given Serbia's past behavior and realities on the ground.
In mid-2005, the United Nations is scheduled to evaluate the Kosovo government's commitment to democracy, good governance and human rights standards, and if this assessment is positive, it should be all systems go. No country can be expected to mature and grow in an international no-man's land.
The first step should be for the six-nation contact group - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia - to spell out a detailed timeline for resolution of the status issue, adding some ground rules: Progress will depend upon the protection of minority rights; and there will be no support for Kosovo's return to Belgrade rule, or its partition, or union with any neighboring state or territory.
As soon as possible, the UN secretary general should appoint a special envoy to begin consultations on a settlement accord and the process by which it should be implemented. That envoy should prepare a draft settlement text - a "Kosovo Accord" - and plan an end-of-year international conference, under UN chairmanship, to endorse it.
At the same time, Kosovo's elected Assembly should begin to draft a constitution, fully addressing the world's concerns. This would also be endorsed by the international conference, and its adoption by referendum in early 2006 would trigger the accord coming into force - and with it, international recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state.
The accord and the constitution should between them set some limits on an independent Kosovo's freedom of action. In particular:
Kosovo would explicitly commit not to unify with any neighboring state or territory, other than in the context of integration with the European Union;
there would be several internationally appointed judges in Kosovo's superior courts, and certain international parties would have the standing to ensure that key matters relating to minority rights and other agreed obligations were brought before those courts;
Kosovo would accommodate an international monitoring presence, a "Kosovo Monitoring Mission," to report and recommend responses to any backsliding on Kosovo's commitments.
Ideally, this whole process would have Serbia's agreement and be endorsed by the UN Security Council. Belgrade - and perhaps Moscow - may refuse to cooperate with it in part or whole. But the resolution of Kosovo's status cannot be held hostage to that eventuality. Kosovo's de jure sovereignty, if not achieved by Serbian transfer or Security Council resolution, should still be recognized by the international community, or at least those states (including the United States and EU members) prepared to do so. For nearly all practical relations purposes, that will be enough.
After years of efforts to engage Belgrade constructively on the Kosovo problem, working through the proposed accord process without Serbia would amount to not so much a callous disregard of Serbia's rights as a prudent denial of its capacity to wield a veto fraught with risk for everyone.
As for the possibility of an uncooperative Russia, to resolve the Kosovo problem politically, without the Security Council's imprimatur, would be awkward, but much more defensible than the decision in 1999, faced with a similar veto, to intervene with military force.
Legitimate Serbian concerns should be taken fully into account, above all the status of Kosovo's Serb minority, and Serbia should be warmly encouraged to participate fully in achieving the best possible terms of a final settlement. But the international community should caution Serbia's leaders from the outset that the train is leaving the station, with or without them.
Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group, whose new report on Kosovo is at www.crisisgroup.org .