Militant diplomacy

Kosovars: Where is our independence?

By Henry H. Perritt Jr., professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law

November 13, 2005

On Oct. 24, the United Nations Security Council voted to begin "final status" talks for Kosovo, a process that should lead to recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. It has been 14 years since the people of Kosovo voted for independence in a referendum. The United States government must make sure that diplomacy leads to final status rather than to further bureaucratization of the nation-building process.

I first visited Kosovo in December 1998, when Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic were losing their grip on the territory, having maintained a police state for 10 years, and having driven the majority Albanians from their positions in government, economic institutions, schools and the police force.

Shortly thereafter, NATO intervened after Milosevic refused to sign the Rambouillet accords, which guaranteed political autonomy to Kosovo. NATO drove Milosevic's military and special police forces out of the territory. The UN set up a political trusteeship, and NATO deployed some 15,000 troops to maintain security.

I've been back several times a year since then, working with political parties through five free and fair elections, with the local Provisional Institutions of Self-Government on privatization and economic development, and with the university on improving education of law students. A few dozen of my students have accompanied me. I have interviewed more than a hundred former commanders and soldiers in the Kosovo Liberation Army, which engaged in guerrilla insurgency against Milosevic's oppression before the NATO intervention.

The majority of people in Kosovo want their own state. They have proven their capacity to govern themselves through democratic processes. They are entrepreneurial and resourceful in the context of a market economy. They are proud of their heritage. They love the United States, seeing it as their only protector against a history of repeated betrayals of their aspirations by European diplomats.

The Kosovars, 75 percent of whom are Muslim, forswear fundamentalism and treasure their history of pursuing self-determination across religious lines in their own community. But they are frustrated, six years after an implicit international promise of a referendum on independence.

In short, they are ready for independence. They are already de facto independent. Any notion of folding Kosovo back into Serbia is a dangerous mirage. The Kosovars have already proven that they will fight to break free of Serbia.

The question is: Will the international community accept reality and accede to the aspirations of the majority for self-determination? It will, if the United States provides forceful leadership. If the U.S. does not, and leaves the European Union in the driver's seat, disaster looms.

The European Union has great difficulty making hard decisions. That's not a moral failure; it's a result of the political structure of the European Union. Left alone, Europe will shrink from accepting reality and hide behind concerns that Kosovo is not ready yet. It will instead concoct another muddle -- a complicated legalistic spider web that divides responsibility and leaves no one accountable. It will likely be called "conditional independence."

No one knows what "conditional independence" means. It might mean a little bit of independence now, with more to be doled out over time according to certain international criteria. That's exactly what Kosovo has had for six years, and everyone, including the UN Security Council, agrees that the status quo is not viable. Or it might mean complete independence now, with the threat that sovereignty might be taken back, piece by piece, if the Kosovars do not "behave." That's Bosnia-Herzegovina, where an international administrator, under questionable legal authority, nullifies election results and locally enacted legislation on an ad hoc basis, without any form of judicial review.

The United States must push hard for a straightforward, simple solution: independence and recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state. That should not be done in the spirit of antagonism for Europe; it should be done with a sophisticated appreciation of the internal political dynamics of Europe.

An independent Kosovo would still be dependent on the international community in ways that would provide leverage. Side agreements would be necessary--and the Kosovars know it--in four areas: continued security support by NATO, continued economic assistance, law-enforcement assistance, and protection of human rights by international institutions such as a special human-rights court in Kosovo staffed by international judges. Each of these side agreements can be contingent on further progress toward Kosovo's goals: rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights of minorities, and economic development in a market economy.

There is more than enough here to occupy the final status negotiators, who should not become distracted by designing complicated mechanisms that would keep Kosovo under a 21st Century colonial subjugation by international institutions with which it has had an unhappy experience.

Fortunately, the Bush administration recognizes the need for forceful leadership. It has assigned some of its best people to work on final status for Kosovo. This level of interest and commitment must continue, through the multilateral process authorized by the UN.

But if negotiations aren't producing any final status, the U.S. should be prepared to act unilaterally.

The United States should make clear that if final status negotiations drag out with little prospect for a concrete outcome, the U.S. will recognize Kosovo as an independent state regardless of what anybody else thinks.

That might be a useful threat to keep the process moving. It would be a better outcome than "conditional independence."

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune