Challenge in Kosovo

Monday, December 17, 2007

IT IS beginning to look as though the United States and the European Union may stand up to a signal challenge in Europe from an increasingly belligerent Russia. The test comes in the Balkan province of Kosovo, which formed part of Serbia until a 1999 NATO military intervention aimed at stopping the brutalization of its ethnic Albanian population by the Serbian army. Since then the territory has been governed by the United Nations, and independence has been the only feasible outcome.

Until a year ago it looked as though that result might be reached relatively smoothly. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to use Kosovo to reassert Russian power in Europe, drag Serbia into Moscow's sphere of influence, and divide the European Union and NATO. He did so by refusing to accept a carefully brokered international plan for conditional independence for Kosovo and by throwing Moscow's support behind Serbian nationalists who insist that a territory populated by 100,000 Serbs and 2 million Albanians remain part of Serbia.

Sure enough, by last summer the U.N. Security Council was blocked from approving the independence plan, Serbia's resistance hardened and the European Union was split over whether to recognize an independent Kosovo without U.N. action -- and whether to stand with the United States against Moscow.

Fortunately Kosovo's elected Albanian leadership and the Bush administration responded with patience and quiet diplomacy aimed at the wavering Europeans. As a result it now looks as though most of Europe will join the United States in supporting a declaration of independence by Kosovo early next year. Following the completion of four months of additional U.N.-backed negotiations -- talks doomed to failure by Moscow's hard line -- European Union ministers agreed Friday to begin preparing to dispatch an E.U. mission that would help police Kosovo and oversee its government following independence. This followed an agreement by NATO this month that its 16,500 troops would remain in the province even if its status changed.

European governments also resolved to offer Serbia accelerated movement toward E.U. membership, once it meets certain conditions. That would leave both Serbia and Russia with crucial choices. Serbia could allow Kosovo to go and begin preparing for a future inside the European Union; or it could try to destabilize the new state by cutting off power sources and encouraging rebellion by Serbs who live in the northern part of Kosovo. Mr. Putin will have to decide whether to escalate his dispute with Europe and the United States by carrying out threats to recognize the independence of Moscow-backed breakaway provinces of Georgia. The wrong choices could mean a return to violence in the Balkans or to a Cold War-style standoff in Europe. That shouldn't stop the West from doing the right thing for Kosovo.

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