Standing With Kosovo Again

By John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress (THE WASHINGTON POST, 23/07/07):

An important set of meetings will take place today at the State Department and the White House that may well determine the future stability of southeast Europe and the integrity of the international system. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to meet with the “unity team” of Kosovo leaders to decide the way forward on the status of Kosovo, now that it is clear Russia will veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that puts Kosovo on a path to independence.

Eight years ago, I served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff when our administration faced a similar dilemma. Slobodan Milosevic had launched a campaign of murder and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo that had to be stopped. Then, as now, Russia stood in the way of proceeding through the preferred means of a Security Council resolution. But working with our European allies and through NATO, we found the will and international legitimacy to act.

The ensuing war reversed the ethnic cleansing and returned hundreds of thousands of Kosovars to their homes.

At the end of the war, after extensive bloodshed, Kosovo’s leaders made a commitment to the Kosovar people and the world that must have been difficult. They pledged to move beyond their troubled past and create an independent nation of Kosovars that protects the rights of all citizens and respects the rule of law.

Two years ago, with support and encouragement from the international community, leaders of all of Kosovo’s leading parties put their differences aside and formed a “unity team” to undertake 14 months of good-faith negotiations on Kosovo’s status under the mediation of a U.N. special envoy, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. Imagine George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John McCain and Hillary Clinton sticking to negotiations for 14 months, including making many difficult concessions, to accomplish something like what these Kosovar leaders accomplished — putting their country on the path to independence from Serbia and integration into Europe.

At the end of the 14 months, Ahtisaari concluded that “the time has come to resolve Kosovo’s status” and “the only viable option for Kosovo is independence, to be supervised for an initial period by the international community.” The Ahtisaari plan includes strong protections for Kosovo’s non-Albanian communities and their religious and cultural heritage. The United States, Britain, France, Italy, the foreign ministers of the European Union and the U.N. secretary general all have stated their support for the Ahtisaari plan and for an independent Kosovo. Yet Russia still stands in the way.

The process cannot continue to drift indefinitely. As in 1999, a way forward must be found.

The uncertainty of Kosovo’s status endangers regional stability and is unfair to the Kosovar people. The international community must set forth a clear, transparent, legitimate and timely diplomatic process that will resolve Kosovo’s status by a date certain.

Fortunately, the United States has played a constructive role in moving the diplomatic process forward and in counseling Kosovo’s leaders and people to realize their dream of independence.

As someone who has leveled a fair share of criticism toward the Bush administration’s efforts at nation-building in Iraq and around the globe, I have to commend its steady hand in exposing Russian intransigence and in laying the groundwork for international recognition of Kosovo’s independence if Russian obstinacy persists.

The administration and our key European allies have agreed to one final round of good-faith negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, to take no longer than 120 days. This week’s meetings are expected to lay the groundwork for those talks. It is clear that after those talks conclude, the United States is prepared to recognize an independent Kosovo. The question is whether European governments will follow suit. To do otherwise is to risk a replay of the Balkan chaos of the early 1990s.

I recently visited Kosovo, and I think it is fair to say that the patience of the Kosovar people has worn thin. But their fortitude and their commitment to an independent Kosovo that respects the rights of all its citizens is unwavering.

Kosovo’s leaders have done the preliminary work required to implement the Ahtisaari plan and have committed their country to the highest global standards of human rights. They have fulfilled their commitments and obligations to the international community on the question of status.

It is time for the international community to fulfill its obligations and help complete the process that will create a country not of Kosovar Albanians or Kosovar Serbs, but a new nation for all Kosovars.