Time To Decide About Kosovo

Once again the Balkans are on the world docket. Few are paying attention, but the stakes are high: the stability of the region, the reliability of international promises, the credibility of the United Nations. We need to get the right answer.

The question, of course, is Kosovo. U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari has drafted his plan for "supervised" independence, severing the southernmost province of the former Yugoslavia from Serbia to join Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro among the tribe of new sovereign states. In Vienna this week he will make a final effort to convince Kosovars and Serbian leaders that it is in their best interests to sign on. The next stop will be the Security Council, which must decide what to do. One temptation will be to call for continued negotiations among the "parties." That would be a disaster for the region, the West and the United Nations. So would any Serbian effort to promote the partition of Kosovo.

The case for independence begins with Serbian misrule, culminating in massive ethnic cleansing. In 1998-99, Serbia's military drove nearly a million Kosovar citizens from their homes. Even most Serbs recognize they can never rule the land again, however reluctant they are to let go. Just as clearly, Kosovo's uncertain status generates instability throughout the region. Without resolution, neither Kosovo nor Serbia will be integrated into the EU—essential to their ultimate reconciliation as well as their economic growth. There's also a new phenomenon at work. The Albanian peoples of the Balkans are a rising power, not only in Kosovo and Albania, where they are in the overwhelming majority, but also in neighboring Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. It is in Europe's interest to focus their energies on building their own countries, rather than on uniting their disparate communities into a single Pan-Albanian nation. And that's a strong possibility if the international community mishandles Kosovo.

The United States and its European allies share blame for creating the limbo that Kosovo finds itself in. To bring NATO's 1999 war to a quick end, the allies negotiated Security Council Resolution 1244, which eliminated Serbian control of Kosovo but retained its formal sovereignty—even as the United States, in particular, effectively promised Kosovo its independence at some unspecified future time. The Americans reasoned that dictator Slobodan Milosevic would soon lose power and a new democratic Serbian government would face reality—wrongly, as it turned out. Largely neglected since then, Kosovo in 2004 erupted in violence, this time with Serbs as victims, stimulating the West to move, however glacially. For much of the past year, U.N. negotiators led by Ahtisaari have gone through the excruciating charade of trying to bring Belgrade and Pristina to a compromise. No Serbian leader would dare sign on to independence, and no Kosovo leader will accept anything less.

Failing to work a miracle, however, does not mean Ahtisaari failed altogether. To the contrary, he has delineated a clear solution that opens the way for Kosovo to itself declare independence and win international recognition. His comprehensive plan includes maintaining a multiethnic Kosovo by giving an understandably frightened Serb population considerable autonomy in managing and policing their own communities and protecting Orthodox religious sites. Ahtisaari's plan also dictates the central provisions of a new Kosovo constitution and establishes an EU mission to replace the United Nations, with significant power over any new government. The Security Council is expected to debate a resolution endorsing the proposal in April or May.

Kosovars are not enamored with Ahtisaari's plan, but they are reluctant to let this chance for independence pass. Some fear further delay will incite violence of the sort witnessed in 2004, setting Kosovo back yet again. The biggest hurdle is Russia, which has repeatedly stated that both sides must agree to any proposed solution, in effect supporting Serbia's sovereignty. Belgrade clearly hopes Moscow will veto a new U.N. resolution. The challenge for the United States and Europe is to face down the Russians and make clear that a veto would only worsen relations, already badly strained by controversies involving Russia's use of energy as a political weapon and its role in negotiations over Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

The gravity of the moment should not be understated. If Russia casts a veto, Kosovo will declare independence on its own. The United States and Europe would have to act quickly to back it, lest Albanians or Serbs turn to violence, potentially spilling over borders. Many countries will worry about proceeding without a U.N. mandate. Certainly, the EU will have lost its legal basis for deploying a mission to Kosovo. If the U.N. fails at this juncture, diplomacy will also have failed. Yet again, the Security Council will have been enfeebled. Western promises would, once more, be proved precarious.

Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.