Waiting on Kosovo

Posted in Europe | 03-Mar-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

The UN Security Council
This is the year in which the United Nations was supposed to end Kosovo's five-year limbo. According to the timetable established by the Security Council, an international review this summer is supposed to determine whether the Kosovars have reached sufficient standards of governance and interethnic harmony to start talks on independence. Alas, they have not. The government is headed by a former guerrilla leader suspected of war crimes, and a year ago, Albanians went on an anti-Serb rampage that left 19 dead and 900 wounded.

After the NATO air campaign in 1999, which drove Serbian forces from Kosovo and left it a UN protectorate, successive UN administrators avoided defining Kosovo's status. That enabled Serbia to continue claiming Kosovo as its own, and fed political confusion among the majority Kosovo Albanians. In 2002, the United Nations tried to resolve the problem by laying down the "standards before status" policy, under which Kosovo was to meet certain standards of democracy and behavior before any talk of independence began. The notion was to prevent premature pressures for independence. But the Serb population of Kosovo boycotted the provincial government, hoping to keep alive their ambition of rejoining Serbia. The majority Albanians failed to seize the chance to show they can govern.

With the summer deadline looming, Soren Jessen-Petersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council last week that it was time to set a clear timetable on Kosovo's status to avoid "prolonging the pain and increasing the risks for the region." He's off base. The situation in Kosovo and Serbia is not what it was at the end of the war. Slobodan Milosevic no longer wields tyrannic power and a bloodlust for cleansing every ethnic minority; he's a prisoner in The Hague. Meanwhile, the Kosovo Albanians have trampled the rights of the Serb minority in a fashion not easily distinguishable from the treatment they justly complained about at the hands of the Serbs.

Kosovo has not yet earned independence, which requires protecting, not persecuting, minority groups. Setting a detailed timetable to independence, with a promise that Kosovo will neither be partitioned nor fall back under Belgrade, simply rewards bad faith. The six-nation contact group - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia - should clearly and forcefully set out what Kosovo needs to accomplish and work should begin immediately on a settlement, at least temporarily including provisions for a semi-autonomous zone for the Serbs. That would choke off the Serb minority's hopes of seizing control again. The Albanians should need no further incentive to behave properly.

It was the West that belatedly took the lead in halting Serb atrocities. It would be a great shame if it walked away from its responsibilities now and let Kosovo go from a region in which Serbs persecuted Albanians to a troubled microstate in which Albanians persecute Serbs.