Monday, February 18, 2008

A return to the past in Kosovo

While Kosovo's "declaration of independence" on Sunday may be feted by those who, like Taiwan, believe in the universal right to the self-determination, there is reason to worry that Pristina's move, accompanied by official recognition by Washington today, could lead to a resumption of violence in the Balkans.

Even though nine years have elapsed since NATO launched its largely ineffective78-day air campaign against Serbia to force it to end its campaign against the breakaway province (Moscow pressure on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic is what broke the impasse), and despite the fact that during that period the violence there — though not entirely gone — no longer made headlines, the truth of the matter is that none of the proximate causes that led to violence in the 1990s, from social distribution to land claims to grievances to poverty, were resolved by NATO and the UN during that hiatus. Absence of violence, as any political scientist will tell you, by no means signifies absence of conflict. In fact, were it not for the presence of NATO and UN forces on the ground separating Serbs and Kosovars, thus creating an artificial peace, we most assuredly would have seen violence after 1999.

Having failed, just as the Dayton Accord of 1995 ending war in Bosnia and Croatia failed to address the Kosovo issue, to remedy the socio-political underpinnings to the conflict, the international community now finds itself with a problem on its hands: By declaring independence, Kosovo is once again giving the hardline nationalists in Belgrade, along with the many militias that were not disbanded after 1999, renewed arguments to resort to violence. This time around, the UN and NATO could very well find themselves stuck between the two warring factions — in other words, as the very boots on the ground the US and other countries sought to avoid as they limited their "humanitarian" intervention to an air campaign at 15,000 feet in 1999.

Furthermore, having failed to address the strategic foundations to the regional conflict, the declaration on Monday risks driving a wedge in the UN Security Council, with Russia and China on one side and NATO powers on the other, at a time of increasing Sino-Russian-American strain. More distantly, it risks even adding fuel to conflict in the Taiwan Strait, with Taipei recognizing Kosovo while Beijing reiterates its threat against Taiwan should it make a formal move toward independence.

Regardless of whether sovereignty for Kosovo is desirable or not, the failure to choose the appropriate time to do so can only create more problems than were necessary, with many lives in the balance. Should things escalate — as they very well might — the US, NATO and the UN will feel compelled to intervene one way or another, but doing so will further drain the already overstretched alliance, which cannot even manage to produce the force level necessary to deal with the resurgent militants in Afghanistan, which in the past two days suffered its greatest number of civilian casualties since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

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