A Separate Peace

By Timothy William Waters, a professor at Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington, helped prepare the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 01/02/07):

JUST a few years ago, there was guarded optimism about Kosovo’s future. Checkpoints were dismantled; the process to establish governance standards was under way. But that was before the communal riots in 2004, and before Albanians’ and Serbs’ incompatible visions for Kosovo led to deadlock last year in talks over the province’s final status. And so now, more than seven years after NATO ended Serbia’s brutal dominion over the province, the international community is about to impose a solution.

Too bad it’s the wrong one. The likely plan gives too little to Albanians and takes too much from Serbs. But there’s an alternative, if only the international community would consider it: partition. Flexibility on borders could make a fully independent Kosovo easier to govern, provide more protection for minorities and make a negotiated deal attainable. Partition is possible, and possibly the right thing to do.

Yet every proposal assumes partition must be ruled out. The United Nations plan, due to be presented Friday to the Serbian and Kosovo governments but whose details leaked last week, follows the conventional wisdom. It offers a half-state on the whole territory: Kosovo will get most of the powers of a sovereign state without full independence, and with no revision of its borders. But that combination is unacceptable to Albanians and Serbs: Albanians suffered horribly under Serbian rule and deserve full independence, yet any separate status for Kosovo poses a threat to non-Albanian minorities there.

The international community’s all-Kosovo fixation has forced it to concoct complex power-sharing schemes to accommodate two mistrustful populations before considering independence. The costs of this ‘‘standards before status’’ approach have been predictable: an uncertain investment environment, frustrated expectations and a fragility that destabilizes the region.

It would be one thing if these mutually suspicious populations were inextricably linked, but they aren’t. The majority of Serbs in Kosovo live in a small strip in the far north. Partition would allow them to continue living in Serbia. The remaining pockets would be less threatening to Albanians, making Kosovo more governable, and the small, remaining Serbian population safer.

Partition could break the negotiating deadlock. The Albanian leadership in Pristina might give up the Serb-populated north in exchange for immediate recognition and streamlined governance without international supervision. And Serbia might relax its resistance to Kosovo’s independence if it could retain the northern bit — which would ease international approval, since Russia has vowed to veto any plan that Serbia doesn’t accept.

Objections to partition are many, but not compelling. Some observers assume re-examining borders would destabilize other states. But suppressing talk about partition can have the same effect. Imagine the passions that would ignite if we opposed Kosovo’s separation from Serbia.

Others worry that partition would deprive Kosovo of the factories and mines in Trepca, in northern Kosovo. But far more necessary for the landlocked province are tolerable relations with Serbia and security of investment, neither of which is likely to follow from the United Nations solution.

Still others assert that letting Serbia keep part of Kosovo rewards ethnic cleansing. Yet everyone agrees we are justified in reducing Serbia’s control over Albanian areas; the real question is how much intrusion on Serbia’s sovereignty is necessary.

There is nothing magic or moral about Kosovo’s borders. They are an artifact of Tito’s Yugoslavia, and they never corresponded to ethnicity or contributed to social peace. If borders fail to ensure security or promote welfare, they should be changed. That’s why we favored separating Kosovo from Serbia in the first place. That is a partition, too. So why is severing a smaller part of Serbia inherently wrong?

Kosovo’s Albanians deserve real independence, and while Serbia must pay that price, individual Serbs should not suffer unnecessarily. Changing the border — reducing the partition we are undertaking — could make full, fair independence possible.

Partition isn’t perfect; it’s painful and carries risks. But the current plan will neither resolve Kosovo’s uncertain status nor prevent an entire Balkan people from once again taking to the road. Surely it would be better to move the border than the people trapped within it. That sounds like a moral argument for putting partition back on the table.