The simmering situation in Kosovo boiled over into deadly conflict again last week, leaving hundreds of houses burned to the ground, about 600 people wounded and more than two dozen dead. While Serbs and Albanians engage in mutual recrimination, they agree on this: The Bush administration has neglected the Balkans. Its neglect has created a tinderbox in Kosovo, where frustration and anger now run the risk of spiraling out of control.
In 1999, Kosovo Albanians were euphoric when the U.S.-led NATO military action stopped the threat of genocide and drove the murderous Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo. Serbs and Kosovo Albanians both rejoiced at the demise of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Since then, however, no progress has been made to realize the legitimate and undeniable right of the people of Kosovo to full self-determination. Instead of an active effort to negotiate the final status of Kosovo, the Bush administration endorsed a plan of procrastination and shirked responsibility by delegating its role to the United Nations and the European Union. Under the "standards before status" plan, Kosovo Albanians must meet a list of benchmarks before even starting negotiations. The plan is a lame attempt to avoid the tough decisions needed to address Kosovo's political future and thereby remove an issue that fuels Serbian nationalism.
In contrast to intense efforts by the Clinton administration, Bush officials prefer a cut-and-run approach to the Balkans. If Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had his way, U.S. troops would already have been withdrawn from Bosnia and reduced to a skeleton force in Kosovo. Colin L. Powell has not visited the Balkans once during his tenure as secretary of State.
It is not clear what started the latest round of violence in Kosovo. Last week, a Serb teenager was killed. Three Albanian boys drowned while trying to escape tormentors. Both sides rioted, with crowds raging against the U.N. administration. Given their overwhelming majority, Kosovo Albanians were far more visible and systematic.
Rioting is reprehensible and cannot be justified. However, the rioting was more than a response to recent events; Albanians were venting their frustration at the lack of progress over many years in Kosovo. Compounding frustration, unemployment is more than 70% and, as a result of the EU's failed privatization program, the job market is shrinking. Foreign investment cannot occur until Kosovo's status is clarified.
The failure of American leadership has radicalized Serbs and Albanians alike. Serbs have a long history in Kosovo. They deserve the full spectrum of minority rights. Ancient Orthodox Christian monasteries should also be protected. But if Belgrade makes good on its threat to send Serbian security forces to Kosovo, the situation will be further inflamed.
The Bush administration must do more than issue hackneyed statements condemning violence. It must warn Yugoslav forces to stay out of Kosovo. Its public statements should also reject Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's proposal to divide Kosovo into cantons or split the province on ethnic lines.
Moreover, the Kosovo situation will continue to deteriorate until the U.S. proactively pursues a settlement. Powell should visit the region to put forward a serious plan for addressing the province's status. Instead of talks about talks, American diplomats should accelerate negotiations on a final agreement providing autonomy to the Serbs and independence for Kosovo.
Yugoslavia's genocidal fratricide of the 1990s started with conflict in Kosovo. Events are coming full circle. Escalating violence could spill over Kosovo's borders, renewing conflicts between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians and sparking hostilities in Bosnia. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb war criminals, are still on the loose carrying the virus of virulent Serbian nationalism. American policymakers must become engaged to keep this from happening.
David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.