WASHINGTON — In its understandable rush to embrace Belgrade after the ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October, the West has all but abandoned its friends in Montenegro and Kosovo as they attempt to redefine their respective relationships to Serbia and the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Western governments' and international organizations' rapid recognition of and promises of aid to Yugoslavia reflect their desire to bolster Serb democratic forces in anticipation of Serbian elections on Dec. 23. But after supporting the democratic Montenegrin government in its struggle against Milosevic and after mobilizing NATO forces to reverse the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo, the international community now seems prepared to block the long-sought goal of each province: independence. Chris Patten, a top European Union official, has categorically dismissed the possibility of full independence for Kosovo, and the Clinton administration briefly threatened to suspend aid to Montenegro because its president planned an early referendum on the question of independence.
There are, to be sure, good reasons for the West's approach. Most crucial, should Montenegro secede, Yugoslavia--and Vojislav Kostunica's job as president--would cease to exist. This, in turn, would effectively mean independence for Kosovo, since, under the 1999 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the international presence there, the province must remain within Yugoslavia, but not necessarily within Serbia.
But other dominoes could fall. Independence drives in either Montenegro or Kosovo could encourage hard-liners in Bosnia's Republika Srpska--the half of Bosnia-Herzegovina from which virtually all non-Serbs were "cleansed" during the Bosnian war--to hold out for their own independence. This could spark efforts for reunification with Serbia, a move that would quash all hope for an ethnically reintegrated Bosnia-Herzegovina and would risk renewed conflict.
While these are important arguments for holding Humpty Dumpty together, the reality is, "the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" is a Milosevic-forged fiction that, like the rest of his regime, should be junked. Kosovo Albanians have sworn never to return to Serbian rule; the message of their local elections in November was independence, independence, independence. Montenegrins, for their part, know well that their interests, aspirations and elected representatives are taken far less seriously than those of the Serbs.
Serbia certainly needs Western support to consolidate its democracy and strengthen its civil society. But leaders of Western democracies must acknowledge that neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia can be truly democratic as long as their leaders insist on holding onto territories whose populations seek independence. Governing nearly 2 million hostile Albanians, some of whom refuse to renounce violence to achieve their end, imperils the Serbs' priorities to rebuild their economy and become a "normal" European country. Montenegro will continue to chafe under the domination of its far larger, more chauvinistic neighbor. And Kostunica's high-profile support for the extreme nationalist Bosnian Serb party of Radovan Karadzic encourages such nationalists to ply their separatist agenda.
Continued Western denial of these realities can only result in renewed instability and outbreaks of violence in Yugoslavia, Bosnia and throughout the region. Already, a shadowy group of Kosovo Albanian guerrillas has staged a series of cross-border attacks on Serbian police in southern Serbia; Kostunica and other Serbian leaders have responded with threats of "a new war," and Serbian tanks and paramilitary units have reportedly moved into the area.
Instead of attempting to orchestrate the ultimate shape of and relations among Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, the West should step back and allow leaders of these entities to negotiate their own futures. Once this month's Serbian legislative elections are over, Montenegrin and Serbian leaders plan to work out details of a more fruitful association. Western allies should be grateful and not interfere. They should continue to focus on helping Montenegrins strengthen their democratic institutions and implement much-needed economic reform.
In Kosovo, a date must be set now for parliamentary elections, so its elected officials can similarly engage the new Serbian leadership. Since Serb politicians appear unwilling to yield Kosovo to Kosovars, these negotiations are likely to be contentious and may thus require international interlocutors. Yet, the West should not attempt to forestall the process of self-determination. Rather, by allowing Kosovars to elect their own leaders and by establishing a clear set of prerequisites--respect for minority rights and the rule of law--it should create the conditions for self-determination to unfold peacefully.