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The Wall Street Journal - August 8, 2007 by Matthew Kaminski Remember Kosovo? "Madeleine's war," Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, a million displaced Albanians and NATO's 78 days of bombing? So much history in the eight summers since has pushed this dusty Balkan plot off the map. But a relic of 1990s geopolitics is back in the headlines. Caught between a pushy Kremlin, weak-kneed Europe and otherwise-occupied Washington, the Kosovars are being denied their happy ending. Unless the U.S. forcefully steps in to usher this province of two million to independence without any messy compromises, Southeast Europe could fall off track again, with nasty repercussions for everyone. The Kosovo matter should've been closed by now. In the spring, U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari proposed internationally "supervised" independence -- the fervent desire of over nine in 10 Kosovars -- and protections for the remaining 100,000 or so Serbs. A year plus of diplomatic efforts went for naught when Russia last month threatened to veto the plan at the Security Council. The Europeans fast got Washington to sign off on 120 days of further talks. This empty concession punted the problem into autumn, encouraging Moscow and its Slavic mini-me cousins in Serbia to dig their heels in. The U.S. and its allies have put billions in aid, political capital and boots on the ground to bring the former Yugoslav states to the doorstep of the West's elite clubs. Now comes the hitch. When NATO agreed to put its status in limbo at the end of the 1999 war and sent in a U.N. government, no one could know that a future President Vladimir Putin would turn Kosovo into a proxy for his larger fight with the West, along with missile defense and Iran. Well-laid plans are in jeopardy. "Further progress depends on status. And if we don't get the status issue resolved now," says the U.N. administrator in Kosovo, Joachim Rücker, "there is actually a fair chance that the achievements we've made will start to unravel." Kosovo's Albanian leaders, who have popular legitimacy but limited powers, are sitting tight. This patience may not hold long. Fresh elections are due in November, coinciding with the end of the latest negotiation period. Pressure is on them to declare independence unilaterally. Among the consequences could be that barely dormant ethnic nationalisms flare up. Kosovo's Serbs may try to cut away the northern sliver of the province, while Albanians feel emboldened to press anew for a "Greater Albania" uniting in a single state a nation currently scattered among four. Violence is a good bet. If it sounds like a recipe for another Cyprus, a 33-year-old frozen conflict to the south, then Moscow envoys have mooted the island as their model for Kosovo's future. The Balkans would then be harder to digest for the West. Which, naturally, suits Russia fine. A different Europe might unite in response to the Kremlin's provocation. This one is splintering, as in the early 1990s also over the Balkans. Britain wants to push ahead on independence, while the Germans fear antagonizing Moscow. In between, the French claimed the diplomatic lead and pushed the three-month delay. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and the U.N.'s first "governor" of Kosovo after the 1999 war, stunned his hosts during a recent visit here by pointedly refusing to rule out a partition of Kosovo. Maps showing what an ethnically divided province might look like have been passed around for years. The Kouchner omission made people wonder how far the EU is willing to go to get a Security Council resolution in order to cover up its own divisions -- divisions that President Putin ably exploits. Kosovo's Albanian leaders claim to put their faith in America. Prime Minister Agim Ceku tells me that Washington shares his commitment to eventual independence ("Serbs in Kosovo, yes," says Mr. Ceku, "Kosovo in Serbia, never") and no partition of the province. "From my point of view," he says, "nothing has been left to negotiate." But this former military man, who fought for Croatia against the Serbs and then returned home to lead the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999, isn't naïve enough to think the final decisions have been made. Or that his little province has great control over the outcome. "Russian resistance blocked the process," Mr. Ceku says. "They're just using Kosovo to prove they are a superpower again." Partition is so sensitive that, at first, Mr. Ceku refuses to talk about it. Pressed, he says, "If we start redrawing borders in the Balkans, the big question is where do we stop? . . . The Europeans have to be more careful." Kosovo's Albanians aren't the only community held hostage to big power politics. Over the Iber River, around 50,000 Serbs live in their own limbo. In the seven years since I last visited the divided city of Mitrovica, little has changed. Over a bridge from the Albanian quarter, the Serbian dinar is used instead of the euro and all the cars have Serbian license plates. Belgrade insists these Kosovars boycott government institutions in Pristina, and calls all the shots in the U.N. negotiations, with little input from ethnic kin in Kosovo itself. Kosovo Serbs are the Palestinians of the Balkans -- useful pawns who could soon, if Western will flags, get their own Gaza strip. Oliver Ivanovic, a community leader who right after the war organized special teams to guard the main bridge linking the town, says no Serb can accept independence for Kosovo. But tensions are less visible. What happened to the bridge watchers? "No need anymore." He acknowledges that the promised devolution is a good deal for the Serbs. "We oppose the Ahtisaari plan, but we're not going to say it would be worse. If it is implemented, it would be better than it is now," he says. Any move to split off the region north of the Iber would be costly for the Kosovo Serbs, too. Just over half the Serbs live in the Albanian-majority regions. Without the Ahtisaari protections, another exodus to refugee camps in Serbia would be likely -- not an image that anyone, save perhaps for Moscow, should welcome. Such an ending would be uglier still were Albanian separatists in Macedonia and Serb separatists in Bosnia -- two of the most uneasy multi-ethnic constructs in the Balkans -- encouraged to follow Kosovo's lead. Far better, says analyst Dukaghin Gorani in Pristina, to bury "Greater Albania" and other nationalist dreams for good and anchor the southern Balkans in the EU. "Boring Occidental politics" would then take the place of "the old joy of Balkan politics of ethnic cleansings and murders." International shuttle diplomacy between Belgrade and Pristina planned for the coming weeks is pointless. Absent a sudden regime change in Moscow, America and Europe ought to see the writing on the wall and plan for an orderly, unilateral Kosovar declaration. Giving up hope of a U.N. blessing for independence, Mr. Ceku wants to set a date for "a coordinated declaration with the U.S. and EU, if possible, and key countries in the EU or" -- now bringing his expectations closer in line with reality -- "a significant number of countries in the EU." NATO troops and funds must stay, along with minority protections. Kosovars would, however, be better off with less "supervision" and greater leeway to, in the words of opposition leader Hashim Thaci, "build a new state." After all, the stress in self-determination ought to be on self. At stake isn't Serbian national sovereignty but liberty for the Kosovars. This province was part of Yugoslavia, a state that no longer exists; Serbia effectively lost its claim in the 1990s. The EU plays softly-softly with Belgrade, even recently restarting talks toward eventual membership. Instead, Belgrade should be given a stark choice: a future in league with Russia, or the EU and NATO. Kosovo is the test. From the moment Madeleine Albright pushed for military intervention, Kosovo became an American-led nation-building project. Of the ones currently on the docket, it ought to be the easiest, too. At the command of 2,500 peacekeeping troops in the southeast, Gen. Douglas Earhart says Kosovo is "where we'll like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan." Accepted by both Serbs and Albanians, America's advantage is not to be European. "We don't have a history in the Balkans," he says. Calm now, Kosovo can blow up unexpectedly. Three years ago in March, Albanian-led riots left 19 dead and forced hundreds of Serbs to flee. The job isn't finished. "This is one of the places," says Gen. Earhart, "you have to see through to the end." Photo (c) beatdrifter

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