10 November 2006 Former Bosnia mediator tells BIRN's Kosovo Director that Bush made error in not tackling final status back in 2002.
By Jeta Xharra in New York (Balkan Insight, 10 Nov 06)
As time runs out for the Vienna talks on Kosovo, and the UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari prepares his own recommendations on Kosovo’s final status for the Security Council, America’s former Balkan negotiator says independence, now or next year, is inevitable.
“In the long run Kosovo will be an independent country,” he said, speaking in his Manhattan office, though how long the run is still depends on the Serbia and its biggest ally on the Security Council, Russia.
“The long run depends on what the Serbs do,” explained Holbrooke. “Will they except the reality and look to the future of Serbia as part of the European Union, or cling to a mythic version of a past and deny reality? If they deny reality and try to hold onto Kosovo, they will lose both. They won’t be able to retain Kosovo but will also lose the chance to join Europe.”
Unlike the European Union, whose report this week on the Balkans has praised Serbia’s new constitution, Holbrooke dismisses the document - restating Serbia’s claim to Kosovo - as “a real step in the wrong direction”.
But he says Serbia’s obstructive tactics won’t delay the inevitable. “It is not going to slow down the efforts of Martti Ahtisaari and [US envoy] Frank Wisner,” he said.
“It just isolates the Serbs. I feel very sad about this…the current leadership of Serbia has a historic responsibility to face up to reality but in Serbia itself, as well as the Serbs of Kosovo, they insist on looking backwards… It’s a tragedy.”
He has no illusions that Belgrade will accept reality in the short term. “I don’t think there will be any Serb leader who has the courage to get up and say Serbia should allow Kosovo to become an independent country,” he said, “and this constitution makes it all the more difficult, but I think the international community will declare Kosovo is becoming independent country and then Serbia will have no choice.”
The former close ally of ex-president Bill Clinton says there is still a danger of a major diplomatic showdown over Kosovo with Russia, which the West must not shirk.
“Russia’s problem is they are trying to use Kosovo as an excuse for their own ambitions in Georgia,” he said, referring to Kremlin threats to recognise breakaway provinces in hostile Georgia if the West recognises Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
“Their goal in Georgia is to overthrow Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, and they’re going to try to do that by claiming that whatever happens in Kosovo relates to Georgia, which it doesn’t.
“It won’t fly. It is not acceptable and the United States’ friends, Britain, Germany, Italy, have agreed they’re not going to accept that."
Asked whether such a crisis over Kosovo is certain to happen, he answered, “I can’t believe the Russians are that stupid. But let’s clarify. This is not about Kosovo for the Russians. The Russians don’t give a damn about the Serbs. They care about Georgia. They are incredibly angry at Saakashvili. They want to overthrow Mikheil Saakashvili."
Turning to the failed negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo in Vienna, Holbrooke says that irrespective of tactical errors on the Albanian side, “history is on the side of the Kosovo Albanians for the first time in 800 years. The horrible events of 1912 and 1989 are in the process of being reversed. Albanians are very understandably impatient.. [and] I share that impatience”.
He says the Bush administration made a cardinal mistake, putting Kosovo onto the back burner five years ago, when the moderate Zoran Djindjic was prime minister of Serbia and when it would have been easier to sort out Kosovo’s independence than it is today.
“President Bush and his administration are responsible for the delay. They allowed it to happen knowing well that the United Nations and the European Union would never push it,” he said. “The impetus had to come from the United States and the failure was appalling.
“The colossal mistake in 2001 and 2002 of the new Bush administration was turning its back on Kosovo and not negotiating immediately final status, when it would have been easier to do. Then we also had Prime Minister Djindjic who was of the closest things the Serbs have had to a visionary leader.”
Holbrooke says the atmosphere of diplomatic lethargy in the State Department under Colin Powell only changed when Condoleezza Rice replaced him as secretary of state in January 2005 and as Nicholas Burns became her under secretary for political affairs.
“They made a brilliant decision to appoint Frank Wisner as the American envoy,” he said. “Wisner is one of the greatest diplomats of his generation. Wisner has just mastered the issue, and he and Ahtisaari will push it forward.”
Holbrooke counsels Kosovo Albanians in the meantime to invest serious efforts in improving their relationship with the Serbian minority, however much it grates.
“I know the Serbs did not treat them well and I know the desire for revenge is very great in that part of the world,” he said. “But we must move forward."
As soon as the final status issue is announced, the authorities should “reach out to the Serbs and send them public messages that they want to live in peace. I know how difficult that is, but that’s the only way to avoid continuing killing and rape and crimes forever”.
Holbrooke says they should not be deflected from that course by worries over the Serb-run far north and fears that these municipalities may band together to form an equivalent to the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska.
“They won’t have that status,” he said of the Serbs in North Mitrovica. “ We are not talking about two entities like Republika Srpska and the Federation."
Local authorities have every right, he added, “to run local affairs, police, garbage collection, that’s fine, that’s the way system works. If they have close economic relations with Serbia, that’s fine too”.
The rest “lies in the details. Police, courts and economic affairs are three very different things. A local police force is OK, but police that become part of a corrupted system are not so good….”
“The whole area is full of organised crime,” he went on. “But our goal is not to fix every problem in the universe, in a day, with one UN resolution. It’s to fix the status of Kosovo and that status must be independence.”
Holbrooke says Kosovo cries out for a leader of the visionary stature of Nelson Mandela who sent 27 years as a prisoner of the apartheid regime in South Africa before emerging to become a living symbol of the possibility of racial and political reconciliation.
“Do you know that when Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa, he invited to his inauguration the same men who guarded him in prison?” he asked.
“That was his gesture of reconciliation. Where is the Kosovar Nelson Mandela?”
Jeta Xharra is BIRN's Kosovo Director. BIRN is Balkan Insight's online publication.