By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007
Nearly eight years after NATO warplanes intervened in a bitter ethnic conflict between Serbs and rebellious Kosovo Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, the United States and its European allies have agreed to support Kosovo's permanent secession from Serbia under continuing international supervision, according to senior U.S. and European officials.
The decision is likely to lead, possibly as early as this summer, to the formal creation of a new Connecticut-size country in southeastern Europe with membership in the United Nations and, eventually, its own army, the officials said. But a foreign diplomat posted in the capital would retain authority to fire officials and rescind legislation deemed divisive, while leaving routine matters of government to local control.
Under the plan, NATO troops would continue to patrol the new state to ensure peace and help protect minorities, but would gradually withdraw as Kosovo neared membership in NATO and the European Union.
Putting Kosovo on a path toward eventual full independence is meant to close a chapter of Balkan history marked by war, political upheaval, widespread loss of life and the destruction of billions of dollars' worth of property.
Historically a province of Serbia, Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999. That year, a 78-day air campaign by NATO forced out the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, ending its brutal war against guerrillas fighting for self-rule for the province's ethnic Albanian majority. Many members of Kosovo's Serb minority have since fled Albanian retribution.
The new plan, a culmination of lengthy diplomatic consultations between nervous continental Europeans and more enthusiastic Americans and British, is meant in part to alleviate continuing intense pressure from the Albanians for independence. Western officials fear that without official action on the issue, new violence might break out this summer.
Officials say that finally allowing Kosovo to stand mostly on its own also has a major economic impetus: They anticipate it would open the door to private investment, new Western lending and aid, supplanting more than $2.5 billion already poured into the province by foreigners since 1999 with only a slight impact on a faltering and highly corrupt economy.
Kosovo has Europe's largest deposits of lignite coal. Economic planners hope that the new state might build power plants and emerge as a primary supplier of electricity to its Balkan neighbors.
Some diplomats caution that achievement of consensus by the Western powers might not be the end of the tale: Serbia's leaders have persistently and heatedly campaigned against any forced separation of one of their country's provinces. Many Serbs now look toward Moscow to protect their interests with a veto when the matter is presented to the U.N. Security Council for a vote, likely this spring.
Moscow has privately hinted, however, that it is prepared to support the plan in exchange for U.S. and European acquiescence to the formal secession of two Russian-backed regions of Georgia. Washington and its allies oppose that Russian bid, and officials said this week they are uncertain how quickly this diplomatic dance will play out.
The eventual formal redrawing of Serbia's border by foreign powers has been widely expected since 1999. Nonetheless, the prospect of Kosovo's independence has sown anxiety among some of Kosovo's ethnically divided Balkan neighbors and even caused hesitation in Spain, where unresolved secessionist pressures persist in the Basque region.
Moreover, diplomats say no Western nation is eager to see Serbia so alienated by an imposed Western solution that it is driven more deeply into Russia's arms and excluded from eventual embrace by NATO and the European Union.
But senior Western officials affirmed at a meeting in New York in September that Kosovo's status is ripe for settlement, and diplomats are slated to gather today in Vienna to put final touches on the plan, for presentation to Serbian and Kosovo Albanian delegations Feb. 2.
Senior U.S. officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss details of the sensitive plan, conceded the moment is politically awkward: Serbian parties are struggling to form a new government after elections Sunday in which nationalists won the largest number of votes. At the same time, many Kosovo Albanians are angry that their most influential politician -- former rebel commander Ramush Haradinaj -- is slated to leave shortly for The Hague, for trial on war crimes charges.
But U.S. and European diplomats say former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, a special envoy of the U.N. secretary general, is ready after 14 months of discussions to make the plunge. He will recommend that Kosovo no longer be governed by the United Nations under a 1999 Security Council resolution that pledged to uphold the "principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia, a nation that no longer exists.
The diplomats said withdrawal of that U.N. resolution would allow Kosovo's estimated 1.7 million Albanians, 90 percent of the population, to declare independence from Serbia. The United States, Britain and Albania would quickly recognize that step but with the continuing international controls.
Although officials in Serbia are expected to protest loudly, their government "lost control of Kosovo in the 1990s. It was theirs to keep or lose, and they lost it. We're dealing now with the aftermath of actions by Slobodan Milosevic," a senior U.S. official said this week, referring to the late Yugoslav president. Likewise, diplomats believe Albanian leaders will publicly clamor for full independence but accept this package as the best they will get for now.
Germany, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency through June, has insisted that no decision be taken without Russian approval. But its diplomats also oppose striking a deal with Moscow to support the secessions from Georgia and permanent separation of the Transnistria region from Moldova.
The sources said Ahtisaari is likely to recommend establishment of a new U.N. mission in Kosovo under the direction of a longtime friend, Dutch diplomat Peter Feith. He previously headed a U.N. monitoring mission in the Indonesian province of Aceh and worked on ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Macedonia.
The aim of the new mission would be to help the majority Albanian population build a country where Serbs and others "can live a dignified, safe and economically sustainable life," Ahtisaari told the 46-country Council of Europe on Wednesday. Total unemployment in the province is estimated at 35 to 50 percent but is higher among Serbs.
Under Ahtisaari's plan, Feith -- whose low-key title would be international civilian representative -- would have what one U.S. official called "edict power" to remove officials or invalidate legislation, similar to the authority of the high representative who still helps govern Bosnia under terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Feith's deputy is expected to be an American, and his staff would number about 100.
A separate international "rule of law" monitoring mission, under the control of the European Union, would number roughly 1,000 and exercise authority over Kosovo's troubled local police force and corrupt local judiciary. Officials said the Kosovo Protection Corps, a shadow local military force, would probably be disbanded and replaced by a NATO-trained civil defense force that would form the nucleus of an eventual Western-allied army.
Kosovo's Serbs, estimated to number 114,000, would be given control of a handful of new municipalities sprinkled across the territory. There, they could draw on money from Serbia to help finance their own health clinics and schools. Serbian religious sites, repeatedly targeted by Albanian extremists, would gain new protections, and Serb lawmakers would have the right to invoke a "vital interests" claim to block noxious legislation, officials said.