March 04, 2008

KOSOVO: THE BALKAN'S MOMENT OF TRUTH?

Slightly more than one week ago, I was in Vienna for a meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.   Kosovo was a topic for the debate which took place the day after the protesters in Belgrade attacked the U.S. Embassy.  I essentially supported the U.S. position on Kosovo's declaration of independence and international recognition.  The U.S. delegation, which included four House Members in addition to myself, sought to engage our Serbian counterparts, but they declined an opportunity to exchange views bilaterally.  I did discuss the issue with the Russian head of delegation.

I would like to raise three points on Kosovo from my perspective as Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission.  First, I do not support Kosovo's independence alone and in isolation. I support the Ahtisaari plan, which includes supervised independence but also extends a great number of rights and benefits to the Serb and other minority communities.   It's a package deal, and we need to make sure the Kosovo authorities and people understand the need for comprehensive and full implementation of the plan. 

We need to make sure the OSCE Mission, which has engaged in incredible outreach to the isolated, minority communities across Kosovo, stays in place.  And we need to be sure that implementation is not just a brokered deal between the Albanians as the majority and the Serbs as the largest, most influential minority population.  
The Roma in particular, but also the other minority groups, must be included and integrated in Kosovo, and the Helsinki Commission intends to make this the priority for its future work.

Second, I support efforts to engage Serbia and keep it on a European track, but frankly my concerns about Bosnia are far greater right now.  The United States and Europe have invested much in that country, which was Milosevic's single greatest victim, yet it appears to be last in line for European integration. 

We can criticize the country's politicians in part, but a European effort to fast track Serbia and not Bosnia is a serious mistake.  Especially important is the need to hold Belgrade to account for war crimes cooperation as long as Ratko Mladic (ROT-ko MLOD-itch) and Radovan Karadzic (ROD-o-von KA-rod-zitch), who are responsible for genocide in Bosnia, remain at large.  Otherwise, Bosnian Serbs will look to Serbia for their access to Europe, just as Bosnian Croats have largely done regarding Croatia.  At the same time, Bosnia's Muslim population will feel itself abandoned by Europe, again, delaying their own ability to move forward and perhaps becoming more vulnerable to dangerous, outside influence.

Finally, there is the issue of precedence.  In Vienna, I noted that Kosovo once had all the autonomy Serbia seems willing to promise it now, but it was unilaterally revoked by Belgrade and replaced with years of very brutal repression by Serbia.  The international community may not have been able to agree on the outcome of recent status deliberations, but it did agree in a 1999 UN Security Council resolution that the status of Kosovo needed to be reconsidered.  This has not been the case for other regions claiming Kosovo to be serving as a precedent.

Frankly, we do not do a very good job in defining the differences between the case for Kosovo and those for other breakaway regions, based on fair, objective reasoning on the right to self-determination.   We need to do better.

Our arguments are unlikely to change the minds of the people in these regions, but we need to convince our friends and allies when coordinating a response.    All too often the response among NATO and EU countries has been based on their own historical affinities or internal situations, and we need to find some common ground.

I look forward to hearing Assistant Secretary Fried and the other witnesses talk about these and other issues relating to Kosovo and the Balkans.