Solution for Kosovo

Friday, February 2, 2007

TODAY U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari is due to travel to the Balkans to kick off what should be the final resolution of Serbia's conflict with the province of Kosovo. It's been eight years since the United States led a NATO military operation to stop an ethnic cleansing campaign by Serbia against Kosovo's Albanian majority; since then the Connecticut-size territory of 2 million has been governed by the United Nations. NATO troops, including Americans, are still there.

All along it's been obvious what the permanent solution must be: the recognition of Kosovo as an independent nation, with protections for its Serb minority. The question has been whether that outcome can be arranged without a diplomatic or even military blowup -- between Kosovo and a Serbia still infected by belligerent nationalism, or between the West and an increasingly troublesome Russia.

The Bush administration is cautiously optimistic that the transition can be pulled off in the next several months. But it will take some deft Western diplomacy and, in the end, probably some American toughness.

A measure of the deftness has already been supplied by Mr. Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president who has been working on the issue for more than a year. Recognizing that Serbia and its ally Russia would strongly oppose a U.N. resolution explicitly granting Kosovo full independence, the envoy will propose that the Security Council adopt a measure ending the current U.N. regime but not mentioning independence.

The province would continue under international supervision, with the European Union to be given a major role, but would be allowed to join the United Nations and other international organizations. Once the Security Council approved these terms, Kosovo's Albanian-led government could declare independence and would win quick recognition from the United States and most European countries. Serbia could object but not stop the new arrangement.

The pitfalls along this winding course are easily spotted. Serb militants in Kosovo could respond violently to an independence declaration, as could Albanian nationalists disappointed that independence is not complete. Would-be Serb splinter states could appear in northern Kosovo or neighboring Bosnia. Russian President Vladimir Putin could trigger a crisis by vetoing the U.N. resolution. Or he could accept the resolution and cynically use it as a precedent to recognize the independence of Moscow-backed separatist regions in pro-Western Georgia or Moldova.

That's where U.S. firmness might be needed. The Bush administration has avoided responding to multiple Russian provocations in recent months, the most recent being Moscow's sale of antiaircraft missiles to Iran.

If Mr. Putin decides to make trouble over Kosovo, the United States will either have to push back or abandon allies it has supported against aggression: the Kosovo Albanians, or Georgia's liberal democratic government. The administration ought to make clear now that it will not go wobbly.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company