By Dimitri K. Simes
Even well before the Dec. 10 deadline for an agreement with Belgrade on the status of Kosovo, Pristina, Washington, and Brussels were moving blindly toward independence. Pristina's enthusiasm for this course is entirely understandable - the Albanians want independence and the United States and the European Union have promised to deliver it on a silver platter.
What motivates the U.S. and its allies is less clear - at least if one expects leaders to offer genuine moral judgments, sound strategic logic, and realistic evaluation of the consequences of their decisions.
First, some facts: Serbia is a democratic state that recently agreed to grant complete independence to Montenegro without any struggle after a referendum in the former Yugoslav republic and despite the presence of a Serb minority there. Serbia has expressed willingness to grant Kosovo far-reaching autonomy. But because Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian civilization - and because only two years ago vicious Albanian riots killed dozens of Serbs living there, in the presence of NATO forces - Belgrade refuses to accept Kosovo as an independent nation in its current form.
Serbia's position is rooted in UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which speaks specifically about "substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration for Kosovo" while respecting "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" (now Serbia).
The resolution, adopted in 1999, was a compromise between the U.S.-led NATO alliance and Yugoslavia after weeks of military bombardment triggered by Slobodan Milosevic's attacks on Kosovo Albanians, which were in turn partially provoked by Kosovo Liberation Army attacks on Serbian police and civilians.
So NATO is unilaterally backing away from a deal it made with Milosevic's authoritarian regime, putting Serbs in Kosovo clearly at risk in the process, because the democratic government of Serbia has no public support for further concessions.
There would be no similar risk to Kosovo Albanians from Serbia under Belgrade's formula. Strikingly, Kosovo's American and European supporters do not attempt to justify the partition of Serbia with international law. Rather, they say it is necessary to accommodate Kosovo Albanians who otherwise may inflame the region by attacking the Serb population there.
This is a cowardly and misleading argument. It is cowardly because the forced dismemberment of a sovereign state under the blackmail of mob violence should be beneath NATO's dignity. If avoiding violence in Kosovo is the prime concern, NATO has more than sufficient resources to have its way without surrendering to Albanian demands. It is easier to paint Serbia and Russia as the villains.
Moscow, however, has made clear that it could accept Kosovo independence with Serbia's consent. There is no evidence that the Kremlin has fueled Serbian intransigence beyond simply stating that a UN member state cannot be involuntarily partitioned. In fact, Russia earlier signaled that it might abstain in a Security Council vote if Kosovo's independence became a precedent for other unrecognized states, including the Georgian enclaves Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which border Russia.
The more the Kremlin hears from the Bush administration that Kosovo is not a precedent, the more it wants to demonstrate that Russia is a serious power which cannot be ignored like it was in 1999. Most in Moscow see the situation today as a replay of major European powers' historical attempts to expel Russia from the Balkans and to demonstrate its irrelevance.
This course led to war the last time - and it could again. Serbia and Russia could do little, at least not right away, after Western recognition of Kosovo. But Abkhazia and South Ossetia will likely reiterate their claims to independence and, if they go unrecognized, it won't matter. Their goal is not statehood but integration into Russia - and most residents already have Russian citizenship.
Moscow has so far promised to respect Georgia's territorial integrity, but there is a growing danger that Russia will move slowly and quietly but steadily toward integrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Georgia accepts this new reality on the ground, Kosovo will become exactly the kind of precedent for the Caucasus that the Bush Administration denied it could be. If Georgia chooses to use force, Russia is likely to respond militarily. If there is shooting between Russia and Georgia, would NATO come to Georgia's defense, risking a confrontation with Russia? Or would it just make a lot of angry noise, giving President Vladimir Putin a major strategic victory with consequences throughout the former Soviet region? In either case, America's ability to cooperate with Russia on such essential matters as nonproliferation, counter-terrorism and energy interdependence would be in tatters.
Meanwhile, back to the Balkans. If estrangement between Russia and the U.S. progresses further, Moscow may decide to use its UN veto to block an extension of the EU force's mandate in Bosnia. Measures intended to avoid violence in the Balkans would boomerang, bringing broader Balkan instability.
Washington and Brussels are right that Kosovo's status quo is unsustainable in the long run and that independence is a logical destination point. But that does not mean that Kosovo needs independence now.
Moreover, while further negotiations are indeed hopeless so long as the U.S. and EU continue to tell the Albanians that they can count on quick independence without concessions to Belgrade, a more balanced position could lead to compromise. A deal could include territorial exchanges between Serbia and Kosovo; a temporary arrangement that would give Belgrade largely symbolic sovereignty over the rest of Kosovo; and a fast track to EU membership for Serbia. This in turn could lead to a tacit understanding with Russia that the status of the Georgian enclaves should not be changed unilaterally.
This approach is distasteful to some, who will settle for nothing short of another "victory" for the West. But victories like these often have devastating unintended consequences. Some discovered this in Iraq, but others never learn.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest.