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Holbrooke: Kosovo Independence Declaration Could Spark Crisis

Interviewee: Richard C. Holbrooke, Vice Chairman, Perseus LLC
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, The Council on Foreign Relations
December 5, 2007

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Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who helped broker the Dayton Accords ending the Bosnian war, says a lack of Russian cooperation may lead to a “huge diplomatic train wreck” when Kosovo declares its independence. The Russians helped end the fighting in 1999 when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombed Serbia on behalf of the persecuted ethnic Albanian population in its province of Kosovo. Yet Holbrooke [a member of CFR's board of directors] says this time Moscow has been no help at all, encouraging Serbia’s stubbornness and declining to help work out an arrangement to allow Kosovo a peaceful transition to the independence it has been promised by the international community. 

On December 10, the three-man group—U.S. envoy Frank Wisner, Russian representative Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and EU envoy Wolfgang Ischinger—that the United Nations set up last summer to bring about a negotiated solution between Kosovo and Serbia ends its work in failure. It’s widely expected that Kosovo, the autonomous province of Serbia, will soon announce its independence. Do you have any idea when that may happen?

To the best of my knowledge, the Kosovo Albanian leaders, who were elected last month, will make a unilateral declaration of independence about a month or so after December 10.

And they will ask all countries of the world to recognize them, as well as the United Nations?

Yes.

Now the European Union, at the moment, from what I can tell, has about five member states that are nervous about recognizing an independent Kosovo.

The United States, Britain, France, and Germany have already said they will recognize Kosovo. Most of the EU [European Union], but not all, will recognize them. Some will recognize them on a slightly slower time frame than others. Russia will not recognize them. Other countries will be up for grabs. There will be a lot of pressure in both directions. And I’m assuming the Islamic states will recognize them.

This will leave the new country of Kosovo in somewhat of an awkward position. UN membership will not be possible as long as the Russians are prepared to veto their admission, and the Russians have indicated that will be their policy. The EU will have to find ways of giving them economic assistance, even when not all EU members recognize them. Most importantly, a new basis for the continuation of international security forces—the sixteen thousand NATO forces that are now there—must be found. If those forces were to leave, the chances of violence would be even greater.

How many Serbs still live in Kosovo?

There is no accurate census, but the best estimates are that there are about two million Albanians, and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Serbs left. But I stress, those are estimates.

Serbs have a majority in the most northern part of Kosovo that borders on Serbia.

Around the town of Mitrovica in the north is a predominantly Serb population and then there are Serb communities scattered throughout other parts of Kosovo. It is my assumption that Serbian-populated districts, which did not participate in the recent elections at all, will announce that they do not accept the fact that they are part of a newly declared independent state of Kosovo. They’ll say, “No, we’re still part of Serbia.” So you’ll have another one of these breakaway conflicts, which have dotted Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the last fifteen years, such as in Nagorno-Karabakh [a de facto independent republic within Azerbaijan but claimed by Armenia], South Ossetia [a rebellious part of Georgia backed by Russia], Abkhazia [an independent republic within Georgia that is not recognized by any state but backed by Russia] and Trans-Dniester [a breakaway part of Moldova also backed by Russia]. I suspect these Serbian areas in Kosovo will fall into that category.

Talk a bit about the situation in Belgrade. The Serbian government is supposedly pro-Western, right? And they’ve been talking about trying to get in the EU.

Calling the Serbian government in Belgrade pro-Western is a bit of a stretch. They are intensely nationalistic, particularly Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. He is a real nationalist. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was a fake nationalist. He’s the real deal. He has a mystical attachment to Kosovo as the birthplace of the Serb people. Some of the greatest religious monuments in Europe are these ancient Serb monasteries that are all over Kosovo—twelfth-, thirteenth-, fourteenth-century monasteries. So the Serbs have been there a long time, but over time this area has become overwhelmingly Albanian.

A new basis for the continuation of international security forces—the sixteen thousand NATO forces that are now there—must be found. If the forces were to leave, the chances of violence would be even greater.

The Serbs suppressed the Albanians and denied them their political rights, particularly under Milosevic, but ever since 1912, Serbs have been the minority rulers of Kosovo and now the situation is about to be reversed in the most dramatic manner imaginable.

Will the Serbs in the north make some declaration to definitely be part of Serbia itself?

It’s very possible that the northern districts will do the same thing which the Serb portions of Bosnia did in 1992, when the Bosnian Muslims declared Bosnia an independent country. You’ll recall that the Bosnian Serbs refused to accept it, and instead started the terrible civil war, which was so costly.

The difference between Kosovo in 2007 and Bosnia in 1992, however, is twofold: One, the overwhelming majority of the people in Kosovo—over 90 percent are Albanian, where as in Bosnia there was a relatively even balance between the three groups, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. Secondly, there just isn’t the appetite anymore for the kind of all-out, brutal, genocidal war, which took place in that area for so long.

Still, there’s a real threat of violence as this escalates, and for that reason I have called, in my recent column in the Washington Post, for the United States and NATO to put additional troops into both Kosovo and Bosnia as quickly as possible. Not an enormous amount of troops, because those aren’t available anyway, but enough to let both sides know that a slide back into violence is not acceptable to the international community.

NATO is stretched to the hilt with its troop obligations in Afghanistan right now.

They’re stretched very thin, but they have troops. And I’m just talking about a couple of companies, a battalion or so, and it doesn’t have to be primarily American. We have two choices here: You send troops in beforehand, to prevent the violence, or you rush troops in after it breaks out and the social fabric has been further torn apart.

We always talk about “preventative diplomacy.” The Council on Foreign Relations has a Center for Preventive Action. Everyone talks about it, but no one ever does anything about it. Here is a classic case where a few troops now might prevent the need for more troops later, and we have to try to get some additional troops in fast. I am very pessimistic that the suggestion I just made for more troops will be acted on, because of the problem you just raised: Iraq, Afghanistan. Also the passivity of the European Union, the mistakes that the U.S. government has made in the last few years, and the opportunistic actions of the Russians have been a poisonous combination.

On the Russian side, has the United States pressed President Vladimir Putin on this at all?

Not adequately. It’s been discussed at lower levels, but President Bush has not brought it up with Putin in a firm, determined way that would indicate to Moscow that this really matters. And the U.S.-Russia relationship is not a very good one anyway. This administration misjudged Putin from the beginning. In effect this administration gave Putin complimentary words, which he didn’t deserve. And he just kept taking advantage of it—not just in Kosovo, but all over the place.

So you think there’s about a month between the end of the UN mission and some declaration of independence. Do you think Kosovo can work out any kind of deal with the Serbs on their own?

No. The only chance for a deal was if the Russians had joined the EU and the U.S. in the search for a solution. They did this in 1999, while the United States and NATO were bombing Serbia for seventy-seven days, and that group, run by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari for the EU, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott for the U.S., and Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, produced UN Resolution 1244, which ended the bombing and created the UN trusteeship over Kosovo, which has lasted eight years. That was a pretty successful operation, because when the Serbs, Milosevic specifically, realized that there was no more chance for him to get Russian help, that’s when he came around. But this time around, Putin is playing a very different game. He is in effect enabling the Serbs. He’s put no pressure on them at all to reach an agreement. On the contrary he’s become their encourager, and that is the reason we’re headed towards such a huge diplomatic train wreck.

Is there any chance the Serbs will try to send troops into Kosovo?

There’s a chance, and the only way to prevent that is twofold: One, the international community must prevent Albanians from taking vengeance against the Serbs. That’s a real danger and it’s a big one. Secondly, the presence of additional international troops, NATO troops in particular, is the best guarantee to reduce the chances of that happening. Serb troops moving into Kosovo would be such a provocation that it’s hard to imagine, but this year everything has gone wrong in the region because of the Russian encouragement of the Serbs.

Are there problems in Bosnia, too?

In Bosnia, after twelve years in which the Dayton Accords [which Holbrooke helped broker] have worked pretty well, and there have been no casualties, a very serious dilemma has now arisen. In the Serb portion of Bosnia, the Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, has previously been pro-Western and worked with the United States and the EU quite well, but he now seems to have been turned into something of an anti-Western, pro-Russian, pro-separatist leader. I believe it’s because the Russians have been showering petrodollars on him and he’s under intense pressure.

Here is a classic case where a few troops now might prevent the need for more troops later, and we have to try to get some additional troops in fast.

When I wrote this in the Washington Post last week, he wrote a very angry letter back to the Post, in which he said the Dayton agreement was still “sacrosanct.” I wrote a letter saying, “Well, I’m glad things are sacrosanct, but I’m not sure we interpret it the same way and, besides which, some of his words have undermined it.” So that’s the problem, but it’s also true that some of the Muslim politicians in Sarajevo have been provocative lately as well. Bosnia is a federal state. It has to be structured as a federal state. You cannot have a unitary government, because then the country would go back into fighting. And that’s the reason that the Dayton agreement has been probably the most successful peace agreement in the world in the last generation, because it recognized the reality.

I’ll conclude on Kosovo. You were talking about the possibility again of the Albanians seeking retribution against the Serbs. They already had a kind of brief massacre a couple years ago, right?

Yes. Very serious.

I would have thought by now things had calmed down, but I guess not.

Who knows? Most people hate each other, really hate each other, much more than in Bosnia. In Kosovo, there was almost no intermarriage, there are completely different languages, different cultures sitting in the same land—it’s much more like Arabs and Israelis. Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs all spoke the same language, all went to the same schools, all lived together—it wasn’t the kind of apartheid that you’ve got in Kosovo. And there’s so much history there. Even in the Middle East, you will not find people who hate each other as much as these people.

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