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Balkanization redux?

A conflict over Kosovo's independence can still be prevented with diplomatic and military hustle.

December 06, 2007

The world has seen enough in the last century that one would think the major powers would be pulling out all the stops to prevent yet another potentially bloody crisis in the Balkans. Yet a deadlock in negotiating a peaceful independence plan for Kosovo has been unresolved for months. It now seems certain that U.N.-sponsored negotiations between the Kosavar Albanians and the Serbian leadership will be formally declared dead on Dec. 10 and that Kosovo will declare independence early next year over the objections of Serbia and Russia. Violence is not inevitable, but it is likely. It can, however, be prevented -- though not without a great deal of effort from the United States, the European Union and Russia.

Balkan politics are so famously confusing that the American public can be forgiven for not understanding what's at stake. But U.S. and EU policymakers know an imminent train wreck when they see one, and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton accords, has been warning loudly of impending disaster. Serbia has said it will refuse to recognize a Kosovar state, and although Serbs make up only 7% of Kosovo's population, about 40% of them live north of the Ibar River in land contiguous with Serbia. When Kosovo declares independence, they are likely to secede, and rioting could break out in Serbian enclaves across the country. If the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica and environs try to join Serbia, ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley may also attempt to secede from Serbia to join Kosovo. Outside the Balkans, U.S. and EU recognition of independence for Kosovo could inspire declarations of independence by other ethnic secessionists, notably the Russians living in the Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Fighting might ensue.

What can be done to ward off violence in Kosovo? First, NATO, which has about 16,000 troops in Kosovo, should increase its forces to prevent a new Balkan war and any outbreaks of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. recently announced that it would deploy 90 troops in the north, but this is grossly inadequate. Second, the EU should immediately send international police to hot spots and Orthodox Christian shrines holy to the Serbs to prevent rioting. Third, the U.N. must be ready and able to offer safe passage out of Kosovo for any Serbs who wish to leave. Fourth, President Bush, who reportedly neglected to raise the issue of Kosovo with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine, last summer, should find out what might induce Moscow to accept Kosovo's independence even if Serbia won't.

Embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can the West afford not to stop another spasm of hatred in the heart of Europe?

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