It was not intended to turn out like this. Kosovo’s declaration of independence was supposed to end the uncertainty over its future, stabilize the region and get reconstruction going. The declaration brought jubilation in Pristina, celebratory cakes in the streets and a rare feel-good moment in the White House. But it has enraged the Serbs, given the Russians another bargaining chip against the West and worried quite a few European nations that have longstanding secessionist groups of their own.
As an issue of principle, Kosovo cuts both ways. On the one hand, until recently international diplomacy acknowledged that the Serbs had a legitimate claim to the province and therefore sought their agreement before changing its status. On the other, the Serbs undermined their case by the way they treated Kosovo’s Albanian majority. After the mass expulsions of 1999 in particular–whether they were in retaliation for NATO bombing or part of a long-prepared plan is immaterial here–it was impossible to imagine the Albanians living under Serbian rule. But at what point do human rights violations trump state sovereignty and permit intervention? As conceived, the UN Charter essentially rules this out, and in 2004 Kofi Annan implicitly acknowledged that not even the desire to prevent genocide necessarily legitimizes it. A state’s behavior may be determined by the Security Council to constitute a threat to “international peace.” But precisely this sanction was lacking during the 1999 NATO bombing. In short, neither the Serbs nor the Western powers supporting Kosovo’s independence can unproblematically appeal to the idea of law.
Kosovo’s future is as hazy as its past. The plan of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which the Kosovars have pledged to uphold, foresees a highly conditional sovereignty for the new state, ruling out Kosovo’s joining any other country and building in safeguards for minorities, decentralized local government and international oversight for some time to come. Keeping the pressure on Pristina to honor these commitments and to exercise moderation in the face of Serbian hostility will keep both the UN and the EU fully stretched.
The UN’s role in Kosovo is not over. But it is up to the EU to take the lead, not merely in monitoring standards of governance in Kosovo but in pushing for a broader regional settlement. The EU, unlike the UN, is not paralyzed on the issue. And it has the incentive, for Kosovo lies at the heart of the greatest challenge to stability in Europe today. The country is the smallest in the already fragmented Balkans, with the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest standard of living. If history is any guide, independence and economic fragmentation mean things are likely to get worse before they get better.
The EU can certainly make a difference. Thanks to its Stability Pact for southeastern Europe, other parts of the region are doing fine. For all their problems, Bulgaria and Romania, the EU’s newest members, are already in a different league, larger in area and with significantly higher per capita income. Croatia is even more prosperous. But in the western Balkans we see the emergence of micro-states with income levels scraping the bottom of the European barrel. Kosovo may be the latest and the poorest, but Macedonia and Montenegro are not much better off, and Bosnia/Herzegovina is still as dysfunctional as a decade ago, with an unemployment rate second only to Kosovo’s. The western Balkans cannot be isolated, and if their problems fester, Europe will suffer. Instability will flow outward and comparative advantage will favor drugs, prostitution and other kinds of smuggling over legitimate trade. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix.