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THE WORLD | BALKANS

Key to Peace: Kosovo's Independence

April 01, 2001|Michael Meyer | Michael Meyer, a Newsweek editor and former correspondent in the Balkans, recently returned from a year with the U.N. mission in Kosovo

NEW YORK — Fighting in Macedonia and southern Serbia has quieted. How long before it erupts again? There is only one solution for an enduring peace in the Balkans. That is independence for Kosovo.

An emerging constellation of forces makes this not only inevitable but desirable. Recent events in the province and along its borders are ominous. But they are part of a bigger picture. Taking them into account, it is possible to see how the latest chaos presents a unique (and perhaps last) opportunity to end a decade of conflict.

Begin with Montenegro. It seeks independence from the Yugoslavia of which it is a part. Washington and the European Union are doing their best to discourage it, but they will probably fail. Sooner or later, Montenegro will almost certainly secede, perhaps as early as summer, depending on the results of this month's elections. That will put Kosovo in play, whether we relish the prospect or not.

Neighboring Serbia is newly democratic. The more relevant and less recognized fact is that it wants to cut loose from Kosovo. A new generation of Serbs, turned cynical by war, cares little for their supposed mythic "homeland." Apostles of the old nationalism have also had their fill. In Belgrade not long ago, Dobrica Cosic, author of the infamous 1986 memorandum that sanctified "Greater Serbia," shrugged off 15 years of blood and madness that he did so much to spawn. Kosovo? "Serbia would be better off without it," he told a U.S. official.

Hard-liners from the old regime will resist. But they have few allies. Yugoslavia's military has trouble enough coping with the Albanian insurgency on its southern flank; it has no stomach for the far larger war that would ensue if the army ever returned to Kosovo. Leading politicians are reluctant to let Kosovo go only because they fear being blamed for losing it, says a senior U.S. official in Pristina, fresh from briefings with his counterparts in Belgrade. They want us to "force them" to do it.

A third critical change is the emergence of new radicals. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.N. peacekeeping mission have had many chances to control those now making war along Kosovo's boundaries. Instead, in ways large and small, we have encouraged them. A year ago, to offer one instance, U.N. KFOR troops arrested an Albanian from Macedonia, living in Kosovo, named Xhavit Hasani. Suspected of murder and ethnic terrorism, he was extradited to Skopje, whereupon members of his gang promptly kidnapped four Macedonian police to procure his release. Intelligence sources now identify Hasani as a leader of the new National Liberation Army around his native village of Tanusveci, where the first fighting broke out that plunged Macedonia into crisis.

London newspapers, citing angry British commanders in Kosovo, have accused the Central Intelligence Agency of supporting separatist guerrillas in the Presovo Valley of southern Serbia. A bizarre scheme to undermine former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic backfired, according to the reports, now that the dictator is gone and the "freedom fighters" are running amok. I had heard these rumors long ago and give them little credence. But I do know that U.S. troops, in particular, have turned a blind eye to men and materiel smuggled from Kosovo into Serbia. It's also an open secret that the head of one leading political party in Kosovo, whose faltering election campaign was buoyed last fall with U.S. funds, strongly backs the rebels. So do many other fighters of the titularly disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army.

So far, we have met these problems with half-measures. We condemn the violence, denounce the perpetrators as "extremists" representing fringe political interests. We enter into an entente cordiale with our erstwhile enemy, allowing Yugoslav forces to enter the security zone along the Macedonian border, the guerrillas' home base. We vow to tighten security along the sieve that is Kosovo's frontier, to limit the separatists' movements. But no one pretends these measures can be more than modestly effective. We don't confront the guys with guns, because they could turn on us.

What's needed is a vision of the future that moderates violence. That presupposes our recognizing--and acting upon--a set of unalterable facts. The vast majority of Kosovar Albanians dislike the thugs who move among them. They want to live normal lives in peace. They revere NATO, most especially Americans. They are friends, not "new enemies," as some loose talk of recent weeks has cast them. But like the radicals, they, too, want independence for Kosovo. For the very reasons that brought NATO to the province, they will never again submit to Belgrade's rule. We have deferred this issue, fearing it may further "destabilize" the region. Standing against independence, however, is guaranteed to do exactly that.

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