I find it frightening to see how closely the situation around Kosovo's independence resembles that around Croatia's independence in 1991/1992. Both then and now the US was pushing an independence that on itself was not very controversial. But by pushing it under controversial conditions the US creates a mess. Let's compare:
- Croatia's independence was not controversial. Neither is Kosovo's: older opinion polls show that the majority of the Serbs could live with a partition of Kosovo - what amounts to independent for the Albanian part. Serbia's objections are in both cases based on their claim that according to international law they have the power to dictate conditions and unilateral moves by the other side are not allowed.
More recently Serb politicians have spoken out against partition and opinion polls show less support for partition. I think this happened mainly because internationals and Albanians interpreted partition as giving up on the Serbs south of the Ibar. I believe these objections can be overcome with a good proposal.
- in both cases Serbia's main objections concern the fate of the Serb minority. With good reason: In 1991 large numbers of Serbs were leaving Croatia and the fate of Kosovo's Serbs is well known.
A recent opinion poll among Kosovo's Serbs showed that 30% plans to leave when Kosovo becomes independent and 60% plans to stay. The departures will likely be concentrated in the smaller settlements south of the Ibar where a clear majority will leave. Quite a few Serb villages may be emptied. Serbs elsewhere now feel still protected by numbers, parallel structures and peacekeepers. But when Kosovo's government will increase its grip and the peacekeepers start leaving they will feel the same pressure to leave.
- in both cases the West is playing down the security side of the problem. Yet there is for the Serb side the real problem:
In Croatia Western diplomats kept repeating that the Serbs didn't need to worry because Western pressure (and in the end EU admission) would sooner or later force Croatia to adopt better minority rights anyway. In the mean time the Serbs were leaving... Nowadays Croatia has 400,000 Serbs less and there is hardly anybody left to give autonomy to. And with the Serb population the Western pressure to give autonomy has evaporated.
The Ahtisaari proposal in Kosovo would be a quite decent proposal if autonomy was the only issue. But the main issue is security and Ahtisaari is very silent on that. I expect that in a couple of years when the great majority of Kosovo's Serbs has left Kosovo will silently revoke the autonomy.
But don't expect those Western diplomats and politicians to be repentent for what they have done. They will blame everything on Serb nationalists.
- in both cases it is the US that is pushing for independence. Yet they do not take the initiative but instead press other countries to do so. In 1991 it was Germany that did the dirty work for the US and it looks that Germany is prepared to do it again.
- in both cases the US is pushing for conditions that are seen in Serbia as extremely unfair. In the case of Croatia it insisted on Croatia's territorial integrity while it neglected to stress the right of the Serbs for autonomy and human rights. In the end it even helped Croatia to clean many of its remaining Serbs in Operation Storm. In Kosovo we see the same: the right for self-determination of the Albanians is stressed while they support the Ahtisaari plan that offers hardly any protection for the Serb minority. They may even try to help cleanse the Serbs. They tried it already once in 2001, when they searched Serb houses in northern Mitrovica for arms while the Albanians planned a violent demonstration in the south of the city that hoped to overrun the Serb dominated north side.
- in both cases the EU reacts puzzled and doesn't know what to do. This offers the possibility for the US to impose their solution by forming a "coalition of the willing" that then pressures the rest of the EU to follow their lead in the name of "unity".
- negotiations turn out to be fake as the secessionists (Croats and Kosovo) already have the assurance from Washington that they will be recognized. They don't see any need to do concessions.
- in the case of Croatia the EU created a legal excuse for their decision with the Badinter Commission. It looks we will now see a similar attempt for a legal excuse.
- The policy drives Serbia towards radical policies. But the countries that are favoured with these policies pay also a high price. Croatia and Bosnia saw several years of war. Even without war Kosovo may stay in legal limbo for many years.
- In both cases simple measures could have saved the situation. In the case of Croatia there were two points were the West could have done better. The first point was before the independence declarations when they could have explicitly declared that Yugoslavia's central government had the right to military intervention if the republics tried to secede with reaching agreement with Belgrade first. This would have forced Slovenia and Croatia to give up on independence. Most probably they would have soon afterwards consented to federal elections - something they had opposed until then. But a consensual secession would also have been possible. The West followed this course with the Soviet Union, but somehow failed to do it with Yugoslavia.
A second point was after the secession was more or less a fact and it came to recognising Slovenia and Croatia. The West could have demanded that certain minority rights problems were repaired before it granted recognition. As both had minority problems (Slovenia had its "erased") that would have been a strong signal towards these victorious nationalists that we would not accept them unless they behaved themselves.
In Kosovo the most obvious holes in the Ahtisaari plan should be fixed:
1) Serb villages south of Ibar get local parttime policemen. Being in service for only one day a week they wouldn't cost much, but as trained policemen they would have the right to carry a gun and to arrest people outside their working hours this would mean that there would always be somebody to deter criminal attacks.
2) Serb municipalities get the right to appoint their own police chiefs. Of course there is a risk that some of them will appoint a radical. But theer is just as well a risk that Pristina appoints a police chief who is connected to radicals or organised crime. Trust should go both ways.
3) Serbs get control over their own economy. Privitisation and permits are major tools to discriminate minorities. Where possible it will be decentralised. Privatisation of Brezovica will become an affair of Kosovo's Serbs. They will decide whether to privitise and if they want to privitise they will select the buyer.
4) Kosovo's north tip and Strpce get a special status as Serb majority areas. They can decide over all developments in their area. This should give them the power to resist attempt by Pristina to Albanise those areas.
5) Introduce the (Ahtisaari and other) reforms now and let them be in effect for 6 months. If they work they will build trust for independence. If they don't work we will need additional reforms. This is also in line with the "standards before status" principle and with the principle that basic human rights should not be subject of negotiations.
The question is why the US is following this kind of catastrophic policy. I believe things went wrong around 1991-1993. The old guard of diplomats (like ambassadors Eagleburger and Scanlan) were business man diplomats who didn't have a clue what was happening and who advocated a wait-and-see attitude. But at the same time the cold warriors at the State Department were enthusiastic about Slovene and Croat elections and irritated by Yugoslavia's lack of "reform". When these cold warriors undermined Yugoslavia's stability and Yugoslavia descended in open war this old guard became incredible and had to give way in the end.
Since then traditional diplomats who value stability have been out of the loop and the policy towards ex-Yugoslavia has been determined by a coalition of non-Serb ethnic interest groups and self styled idealists for whom being anti-Serb is the politically correct attitude.