Friday, May 25, 2007

Europe must now stand up to Russia over Kosovo

By Philip Stephens
Published: May 24 2007 19:48 Last updated: May 24 2007 19:48
When I hear foreign policy realists extol the virtues of inaction I think of the Balkans. As Yugoslavia began to unravel during the early 1990s, an over-excited European foreign minister said that posterity would recall that this had been “the hour of Europe”. In the event, Europe sat on its hands as the region fell to carnage. History records only an eternal shame.

It took the intervention of the US – yes, those interfering, imperialist Americans again – to put an end to a slaughter that mocked Europe’s self-perception even as it trampled upon its values. Let no one forget, peace was restored to that south-eastern corner of the continent because Washington agreed, albeit with some reluctance, to deploy its military power to that aim.

Now Europe is to be tested again. The time has come to close one of the remaining Balkan chapters by putting Kosovo on the road to independence. For the enterprise to succeed, Europe must show in 2007 the unity and boldness so conspicuous by its absence during the 1990s.
The (American-led) military intervention in 1999 to expel the marauding army of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic left Kosovo as a United Nations’ protectorate. Eight years later the time has come to end the constitutional limbo. The road-map has been drawn by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN special envoy.
After many rounds of fruitless negotiation with Belgrade, Mr Ahtisaari concluded this year that a negotiated solution to Kosovo’s status was impossible. Serbians will not yet accept that Kosovo was lost to them forever by Milosevic’s crimes.

So the UN envoy put forward a plan for gradual independence – supervised at the outset by the European Union and safeguarded by existing Nato forces. Independence, incidentally, is the non-negotiable demand of the overwhelmingly ethnically Albanian population.

Few would say Mr Ahtisaari has produced the neatest of constitutional blueprints. In his anxiety to protect properly the rights and interests of the minority Serb population, he has alighted on a system of political and administrative checks and balances almost numbing in their complexity.
Nor do those who work for the international agencies that now run Kosovo claim that this is a place obviously ready for democratic self-government. For all the billions poured in as reconstruction aid, the economy is moribund. Unemployment runs at somewhere above 40 per cent. Corruption and organised crime are rife. Kosovo has neither a properly functioning judiciary nor police force.

There are awkwardnesses too that extend beyond Kosovo and indeed well beyond the Balkans. Unlike, say, Bosnia, Croatia or Macedonia, Kosovo was never an independent republic within the old Yugoslav federation. Instead it was a province of Serbia. The fear among some elsewhere is that independence might thus set a dangerous precedent. Spain worries about Catalonia, Slovakia about its ethnic Hungarian minority, Greece about Cyprus.

In other circumstances any one of these imperfections might have been enough to make the case for delaying Mr Ahtisaari’s plan. The problem, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, is that there is no alternative. Kosovars will accept nothing less than independence. Delay makes things worse. The process of state-building cannot begin properly until Kosovo is assured of statehood. Serbia will be reconciled to its loss only when it is seen to be irreversible. As for precedents, the UN will simply have to make it clear that Kosovo is indeed the exception to the rule. What is required now is a new resolution to end Kosovo’s protectorate status and begin the process that will take it to statehood.

In spite of the individual misgivings in some capitals, the Ahtisaari plan has thus far secured the support of all 27 EU governments. Energetic diplomacy by the US has secured the backing of a large majority in the UN security council. That leaves Russia as the only serious obstacle.
How serious, we do not know. Vladimir Putin’s regime has thus far said that a new UN resolution to implement the proposals would be unacceptable. Russian diplomats have talked of the dangers of setting a precedent for Chechnya, Russian politicians of solidarity with fellow Slavs in Serbia.

Kosovo has become entangled with Mr Putin’s broader – and crassly misguided – effort to rebuild Russian prestige by threatening its near neighbours, deploying energy as a crude instrument of power and being generally obstructive. In the Kremlin’s new mythology of victimhood, the Nato intervention against Mr Milosevic was one among a shoal of deliberate efforts by the west to humiliate Russia and its allies.

Whatever Moscow’s motives, though, it will carry out the threat to veto a new resolution only if it calculates that, in so doing, Russia can divide Europe from the US and Europeans among themselves. A veto exercised against a united international community would serve only to humiliate Moscow.

The answer then is for European governments to bury any misgivings and, to borrow the cliché, stand shoulder to shoulder with the US. Germans need to talk less about the risks of confrontation with Russia, more about bringing to a permanent end the cycle of violence that began with Berlin’s recognition of Croatia. Spaniards, Greeks and the rest should forget about precedents. The stakes are too high to be held hostage to hypotheses.

Rather, European governments, individually and collectively, should tell Moscow that, regardless of any Russian posturing at the UN, they intend to carry on with the process of moving Kosovo towards statehood. There will be no room for temporising.
Europe’s vital security interests are at stake in Kosovo. The soldiers, civilian administrators and aid workers threatened by a return to disorder and violence are overwhelmingly European. Russia has nothing at stake but misplaced pride.

Europe’s responsibilities, of course, will begin rather than end with recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Bringing to Kosovo, and to the rest of the western Balkans, the peace and prosperity the rest of Europe takes for granted demands a clear glide path for EU accession. Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, as well as Kosovo and, yes, Serbia, should all expect to be full EU members by the middle of the next decade.
What all this requires of European political leaders is just a small amount of the political courage so lamentably absent during the early 1990s. So what is it to be? Europe’s hour or, once again, Europe’s shame?
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