Prudent Policy for Kosovo

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Small events in the Balkans have a way of getting out of hand, as Emperor Franz Joseph might once have remarked.

Thus, it is good news that Serbian voters defeated ultranationalist presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic in the Feb. 3 election, instead approving incumbent Boris Tadic for a second term. Tadic wants to link Serbia's future to the European Union.

But now it is the West's turn to act with prudence and responsibility -- in particular on the incendiary issue of Kosovo, the southern province of Serbia that is home to Serb Orthodox Christians and ethnic Albanian Muslims.

In a strongly worded essay recently published in The Washington Times, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton expressed grave concern about the haste of the current U.S. policy in encouraging Kosovo to declare unilateral independence. Their storm warning -- that such a declaration could cause violence in the province and lead to a crisis with Russia -- is worth heeding.

Kosovo has been part of the territory of Serbia since before World War I, and its ancient monasteries are iconic to the Serbs. Belgrade's government coalition is already in crisis on the issue.

It is a dangerous precedent to tear apart the territory of a member state of the UN. And the timing could not be worse. No one needs a Kosovo crisis while NATO remains short of troops in Afghanistan and maintains 16,000 troops in this autonomous province of Serbia. A Kosovo blowup would provide an easy excuse for gun-shy European allies to reduce their Afghanistan contingents.

Kosovo's proclamation of independence would destabilize the United States' other friends in the Balkans. Bosnia will face a new attempt by its Serbian republic to leave the Dayton structure. Macedonia's restive ethnic Albanian minority may again ask why it is stuck in a state with Orthodox Slavs.

The effect in Central Europe would also not be benign. Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Greece are home to irredentist minorities whose radical elements dream of redrawing maps. Nicosia faces a self-proclaimed "independent" Turkish republic of northern Cyprus. The Black Sea republic of Georgia, which we seek to bolster against Russian ambition, faces the claims of Abkhazia, a breakaway Muslim region in the north.

To be sure, one can appreciate why Kosovo Albanians are leery of Belgrade. From 1997 to 1999, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic met the militant tactics of the Kosovo Liberation Army with a brutal police and military campaign, and after NATO intervened, he embarked on a bizarre and criminal exercise in ethnic cleansing, forcing tens of thousands of Muslim citizens out of their homes. The former Serbian president was tried for this crime and other outrages in the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

But Milosevic is now dead, and Western policy should recognize the difference. Human rights activists in Serbia -- who stood up to Milosevic when it was dangerous to do so -- act with consistent principle in reporting the difficulties and dangers that will be imposed on Kosovo's substantial Serb minority.

There should be no false optimism or halcyon view of the province following the events of March 2004. Three ethnic Albanian children were killed in the northern town of Mitrovica, and afterward anti-Serb rioting spread across the entire province, leading to the death of 19 civilians, another thousand civilians injured and widespread burning of Serb houses, churches and monasteries. Independence will not cure this antipathy. It is hard to see how the NATO humanitarian intervention in 1999, designed to combat ethnic cleansing, is morally consistent with a new indifference to predictable countercleansing.

Sometimes a crisis focuses the mind. The United States and its allies, acting through the UN Security Council, can provide a permanent international guarantee of Kosovo's political autonomy within the formal territory of Serbia.

This will give Kosovo as much, or more, than it would achieve through nominal independence. Autonomy can include the right to enter into certain types of international agreements. It can include the right to have international observer missions. Autonomy can entail more real power than is available to a neutered state, unable even to join the UN in the face of a Russian veto.

Even if Kosovo independence is ultimately unavoidable, there is much to be gained in securing the result in a way that Serbia and Russia can live with.

Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University. This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.