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Wisner: Russian Opposition to Kosovo Independence 'Unbelievably Regrettable'

Interviewee: Frank G. Wisner, Vice Chairman, External Affairs, AIG Inc.
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 12, 2008

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Frank G. Wisner, the current U.S. representative to the Kosovo status talks, says the impending declaration of independence by the Serb province will have both “positive and not so positive” repercussions. On the positive side, he says it will bring a just end to the brutal war launched by Serbs against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority population. But he predicts Serbia will never recognize an independent Kosovo and says Russia’s heated opposition is “unbelievably regrettable.” Wisner holds out hope there will be no organized violence associated with the impending declaration.

It’s widely reported that Kosovo will announce a declaration of independence this weekend. How soon do you expect the United States and the major European countries to recognize its independence?

I expect in very short order, as we have made clear over the months, the United States will recognize the independent Kosovo. And I expect a heavy percentage of the European Union including many of the larger states will recognize [it] right away. Others will come in over a bit of time. Some may not at all. For example Cyprus and Romania have made it clear that they don’t like this idea at all, and aren’t going to move in that direction. So has China. But I would imagine by early next week, you will see a generous outreach of international acceptance of the fait accompli. This will not happen without consequences—there will be many issues to be dealt with.

Like what?

There is a constitution to pass. But that will go through pretty quickly. And then there will be steps to reach out to NATO, the European Union, other international bodies, and I expect all that will happen very quickly. It’s all very carefully planned. I don’t think there are any legislative hurdles that will cause anyone to trip and fall. But as I say, the day that independence is declared—that’s it. The state symbols will then be revealed, the new flag, the national anthem or whatever. And the place will be off and running. And then of course, there will be consequences, some positive, and some not so positive.

Start with the positive ones.

I think the key positive one is that an issue that has hung over all of us over the course of the 1990s—the repression of Kosovo by the Belgrade government, ending in a violent expulsion of nearly half the population, many thousands of deaths, and destruction of property—a situation that produced an unbridgeable gap between the Albanian Kosovar community and the [Serbs]—will be over. In a sense, that’s what history says. If you engage in actions of huge brutality, there is a consequence. Now, the right thing will be done.

Second, I believe also the politically correct decision will be made. You cannot put Kosovo back into Serbia. You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. That means that if you settle it, then you have a new state, new borders, and though there will be considerable commotion surrounding the event, you will create a situation in which the region can then move forward. The last piece of the Yugoslav puzzle will be in place. It will be possible for the region to get on with its life, develop its transportation links, move in more common step towards the EU, and even Western security institutions, notably NATO.

My third point is regarding Kosovo and its two million people. Once independent, Kosovo can begin to accommodate World Bank lending, IMF support, and European Development Bank support. Notably, there will also be the kind of stable environment, or legal environment [for] private investment. So, these three reasons—the right things done, the political situations clarified, and Kosovo gets on with its life—are all to my mind the positive outcomes.

There are obviously a lot of consequences here. Are we worried about what Russia’s reactions will be since Moscow is so strongly opposed to it? What’s Serbia going to do? And what about Serbs who live in the northern part of Kosovoare they going to be accommodated?

There is an issue of what’s going to happen to the approximately 100,000 thousand Serbs living in Kosovo. I can tell you that the plan put forward by former Finnish President Martii Ahtisaari at the request of the United Nations, if it accomplished nothing else, focused on the protections offered the Serbian community. The Serbs, who live in the northern part of Kosovo, will have their own judges and police and hospitals and schools, and the capacity to accept support from Belgrade. In short, there are as ample a set of protections offered under the Ahtisaari plan, which the Kosovars have accepted and passed legislatively, as exist for any minority community anywhere in Europe.

“You cannot put Kosovo back into Serbia. You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Is that agreeable to the Serbs in Kosovo?

Now, will Serbs, despite that, be incited, or in a tense environment pick up an incident or two and take fright and take flight, I can’t tell you exactly. I have noticed that key figures in Belgrade are suggesting to the Serb population to remain steady, but there will be many voices and we will enter into a period of uncertainty. I have been impressed by the determination of the Kosovar-Albanian leaders to put their very best foot forward and make it clear to the world and to Europe, by reaching out to the Serbian community and declaring that this is going to be a multi-ethnic society in which all Kosovars will be treated fairly. The new Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, for example, chose to deliver a portion of his inauguration speech in Serbian to the assembly—something pretty much unprecedented. The political leadership is reaching out to the Serbian community in a variety of ways. Law and order is going to have to be maintained for Serbs to feel fully secure, but also we have to look to Belgrade to exercise the greatest restraint. During the course of the negotiations, of which I was a part, we made it repeatedly clear to Belgrade and to Pristina [Kosovo’s capital] that we look to them to maintain the peace. And we had assurances we would get it. We got assurances that there wouldn’t be external intervention or incitement, and I think we need to hold everybody to their word.

What’s the next problem?

The next one is obviously the Serbian reaction. I can tell you that Serbia will not accept Kosovo’s independence. There is no political leader in Serbia today who is prepared to stand up and say “history is history, pages are turned, we’re getting on with our life.” They will maintain their claim that Kosovo is part of Serbia. And they will deploy considerable political efforts to make sure that Kosovo doesn’t take root in legitimacy. In other words, that Kosovo doesn’t join the United Nations or regional institutions. At that point, there are real divisions amongst Serbs. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has threatened ruptures in diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Kosovo, and I can’t imagine what that’s going to produce. But I know that President Boris Tadic, on the other hand, looks at Kosovo’s independence as something he opposes. But he wants to get on with life. Kostunica has made it clear he doesn’t want Serbia to go towards the EU if in fact the Europeans are supporting Kosovo. But there are students who are saying that this is hardly what they want—they’d like to be able to go to school in Europe. So there is all of that kind of reaction.

Do you think there will be Belgrade-directed violence against Kosovo?

I do not believe that the Serbian army is going to intervene in Kosovo and I think the assurances we have are replete in that regard. Is it possible individual Serbs, either on their own or with a wink and a nod, will go down and make for difficulties? That is always possible. But I think it is also true that it would be incidents as opposed to broad strategy. And incidents you can contain. It doesn’t mean they’ll be pleasant—but if the Serbian government was involved, then you’d be having NATO face-to-face with Serbia and we’d all be in trouble.

Talk about, at this point, the European Union’s policy. They’re going to send in about a thousand administrators?

There are kind of several institutional follow-ons. One, under the Ahtisaari plan, is an international civil oversight group to make certain the Ahtisaari plan is carried out, that everybody keeps their word. That will be a multi-national effort, and we’ll be part of that.

“There is no political leader in Serbia today who is prepared to stand up and say ‘history is history, pages are turned, we’re getting on with our life.’ They will maintain their claim that Kosovo is part of Serbia. And they will deploy considerable political efforts to make sure that Kosovo doesn’t take root in legitimacy.”

Oh, I didn’t realize the United States was in that too.

In the International Civil Organization, we will be the deputies. Second, the Europeans will have a strong peace-and-justice, or law-and-order, mission comprised of people who are building up the Kosovo legal institutions and police and judiciary institutions. And the EU will supply some actual policemen on the ground—a role that, until this point, has been played by the UN.

And NATO will have its 16,000 men in place and there will be a NATO-Kosovo agreement, one signed about the troops being there and the other about the eventual training of the tiny little Kosovar defense force. The decline in numbers depends on the peace situation in the neighborhood. Will it be replaced by an EU force somewhere down the road? We haven’t got to that stage yet, so I wouldn’t speculate how, when, and where it would happen. But you would have an international European and a NATO presence, and then economic commitments on all our parts to bolster this fledgling state that will have trouble paying its bills.

Are there Americans still in that NATO force?

Indeed there are. There is an American National Guard brigade in a high state of training and readiness. And in fact, if my memory serves me well, the Americans are actually manning the outpost north of the river Ibar in the Serb majority area of Mitrovica. And that’s an important fact because that is a Serb majority area, and there will be a temptation on its part to not accept independence, to in some way separate itself or stick with Serbia or something. The continued NATO-UN presence there will be very important to maintain the unity of Kosovo—something that all our governments are very committed to.

What about Russia? That’s the main problem isn’t it? The Russians have been making the most noise in opposition, and they blocked the United Nations from recognizing Kosovo independence formally.

They have, and it’s unbelievably regrettable. The Russians began going into a great growl last spring, a year ago, and have not stopped. They have made it clear that they aren’t going to accept Kosovo independence or any agreement that Belgrade didn’t agree to.

“I think Russia is telling us all something. There will be no major developments that affect the component parts of Europe, the political geography of Europe, if you will, without Russia’s consent.”

What is prompting this strong Russian reaction? It can’t just be Slavic ties, is it?

I don’t believe it is. Of course, there are always factors like that in the atmosphere. I think Russia is telling us all something. There will be no major developments that affect the component parts of Europe, the political geography of Europe, if you will, without Russia’s consent. Russia is not going to sign off and accept what Russians now look back and state firmly was the humiliation of the Kosovo War and the conclusion, where the Russians felt they came off badly. I think that’s very important. Second, Russians have certainly made a decision as well that there is some profit from a strong association with Serbia. Russia is very popular in Serbia today. I understand a number of towns would like to make Vladimir Putin an honorary mayor. But to what point? This issue of Kosovo is vitally important to Europe. A war was fought there. It’s the last great issue of contention in southeastern Europe. It’s a real blockage in terms of European integration. It’s important to the United States because we are responsible as well for Europe’s security. Russia has none of those interests. It is not contiguous to—in fact it’s remote from—Serbia. I think Serbs will in time come out of their bitterness, stop looking in the rearview mirror, and start looking out of the windscreen.

There has been a lot of speculation that the Russians might want to ferment trouble in Georgia in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian officials have been quoted as saying they would not do anything right now. What do you think?

Well they have danced on both sides of that, talking about the evil precedent of Kosovo (as if Kosovo was any precedent for anything else, which it is not). So I think one has to be watchful. I personally don’t see any advantage for the Russians in stimulating the overt independence of Abkhazia. South Ossetia is too ridiculously small to even think about it. Russians have de facto control over Abkhazia. De jure, they’re going to be rejected by everybody except Belarus and Iran. What do they get for it? I’d like to think the Russians will act with restraint. But I think the Russians have played this card very hard, and I regret they have. I don’t think it’s a good card, and I think it has had an effect on American opinion as a serious example of how difficult it is to work with the newly emerging Russia. I think the Europeans have felt this bullying tactic, and they’ve taken badly to it.

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