A Moment Of Truth For Serbia

It is rare for a small country to take on the European Union and the United States. But that is precisely what Serbia is doing. With the support of extreme nationalist parties, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has made Kosovo the defining issue of today's Serbia, and is trying to reverse the independence of Kosovo and reassert Serbian control.

Over the last month the Kostunica-led government has carried on an enormous diplomatic effort to prevent other states from recognizing Kosovo's independence, and they are leaning on other nations to revoke their recognition. Kostunica has also told Kosovo Serbs to cease cooperation with the new government and the EU mission. Worse still: he is trying to cement Serbian control over the northern portion of Kosovo—in effect partitioning Kosovo, without recognizing the independence of the remainder. In so doing, the nationalist Serbian leadership has committed its country to confrontation with both Kosovo and the EU mission that guides and oversees it.

In rejecting Kosovo's independence, Serbia's leaders are railing against the tide of history. Kosovo's independence ended a long, rocky history of Serbian rule, which exploded in 1999, when Serbian forces expelled 800,000 members of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. Serbian forces were driven out of Kosovo by a sustained NATO bombardment. Many Serbs, perhaps most, reluctantly and painfully, recognized that Kosovo was no longer part of their country. After the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the new Serbian leader, Zoran Djindjic, recognized that Kosovo was a thorny domestic political problem, but that the province's status had to be resolved once and for all if Serbia were to be transformed. Unfortunately, Djindjic was assassinated in 2003 by virulent Serbian nationalists before he could make a move on the Kosovo issue.

Taking his place was Kostunica, who had also participated in efforts to overthrow Milosevic. He was greeted by American and European leaders as a savior, a democrat dedicated to the law who would guide Serbia along a European trajectory. But Kostunica turned out to be a fierce 19th-century nationalist, far more an ideological adherent to the cause than the opportunistic Milosevic, and he was committed to doing whatever was necessary to maintain Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. Specifically, he wanted the territory of Kosovo but not its people, and he created a political environment in which opposition voices fear for their safety. All the while, Moscow stood at his side, preventing the Security Council from adopting the U.N. plan for Kosovo's independence. And in recent days, he has been remarkably successful at convincing a number of countries that the U.N. resolution that ended the NATO war provides for Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo indefinitely. It does not, nor does it preclude Kosovo's independence. Yet the West has failed to marshal its own forces to refute Kostunica's claim and persuade many fence-sitters to recognize Kosovo's independence. Other countries have withheld recognition, fearing it would encourage independence movements within their borders.

Now it is decision time for the Serbian people. This month Serbia's bitterly divided coalition government broke down over differences over Kosovo and the country's ties to the EU. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May. Kostunica is prepared to forsake the EU for Kosovo, but Serbian President Boris Tadic, whose party was Kostunica's principal partner in the defunct coalition, professes to believe that somehow Serbia will keep Kosovo and still pursue EU membership. The EU is encouraging this posture, hoping his party can form a coalition government, sign agreements with the EU and over time abandon its dedication to keeping Kosovo. But initial polling indicates Tadic will have difficulty putting together a new coalition, and the elections may well produce a backward-looking nationalist coalition, a very weak coalition or both.

Serbs will have to decide whether they will continue to follow their fiercely nationalist leadership into greater international isolation, forsaking growth and integration into Europe, or side with the more Westward-looking opposition. In this defining moment the West must somehow convey to the Serbian people how much is at stake and the danger of making the wrong choice. The West must circumvent Belgrade's nationalist politicians and make clear to the Serbian people that there is another path, another future for them as a real democracy. Our message must be: "We feel your loss; there was no practical alternative. Your nationalist leaders are leading you into oblivion, and you belong in Europe."

At the same time, the EU and the United States must work together to preserve Kosovo's stability, prevent violence and partition, secure greater international recognition of Kosovo and help it become a working state. Doing otherwise would severely damage Western credibility and threaten wider Balkan instability and the European order. While always holding out an olive branch, the West must not permit Serbia and Russia to undermine an independent Kosovo, or use Kosovo as an excuse to forestall Serbia's—and Kosovo's—development into healthy European states.