commentary

(International Herald Tribune)

October 29, 2004

The Kosovars Need to Know Where They're Headed

by James Dobbins

The recent elections in Kosovo demonstrate the stability in Kosovar voting patterns, the determination of the majority of Kosovars to achieve independence peacefully, and the bankruptcy of the international community's "status before standards" posture toward Kosovo's final status.

Early returns indicate that Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo will again win a commanding plurality of the votes. Rugova is anything but a charismatic personality. Almost a recluse, he is seldom caught doing anything photogenic or saying anything quotable.

Yet for 15 years, since then-President Slobodan Milosevic disbanded the autonomous self-government that the former Yugoslav leader, Tito, had granted that province, Rugova has personified the ethnic Albanians' quest for a peaceful achievement of their national aspirations.

After nearly a decade of nonviolent resistance, a minority of Kosovars did turn to more violent measures. Eventually, as Serb repression grew, the militants secured the support both of the majority of the population and of the international community.

Yet even at the height of ethnic cleansing in 1999, the people looked to Rugova, and not the Kosovo Liberation Army, for political leadership. This was the result of a remarkable opinion poll taken in the refugee camps of Macedonia and Albania, where hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were waiting for the NATO bombing campaign to rid their homeland of Serbian security forces.

When the poll was taken, Rugova had just been photographed at an ill-considered and useless meeting in Belgrade with Milosevic, which was held even as the young men of the KLA were fighting and dying.

The poll indicated that nearly all the Kosovars supported the KLA's efforts on their behalf and admired their sacrifice. But a substantial majority of these same refugees said they would nevertheless vote for Rugova and his party, rather than for any of the younger leaders and more militant parties associated with the KLA, in any future election. And this is just what they did.

Many in the international community are disappointed that only a handful of the Serbs in Kosovo chose to vote in the recent election. Their boycott should hardly come as a surprise.

First of all, Kosovo's interim constitution guarantees the Serb minority a number of seats in the Parliament, more or less commensurate with their numbers, whether they vote or not. Also, the Kosovo Serbs saw little advantage in adding legitimacy to an election which was bound to return an overwhelming majority for independence, which is supported by the entire Albanian majority.

Reconciliation between the Albanian and Serb communities in Kosovo will be difficult, given their history of ethnic conflict. Reconciliation cannot even begin, however, until both sides have a coincident vision of what they are reconciling for.

Serbs will not reconcile themselves to living as a protected minority in an independent Kosovo as long as the prospect of a reunited Serbia survives. Albanians will not reconcile themselves to the need for protecting a substantial Serb minority in Kosovo so long as that minority continues to regard itself as the forward element of renewed Serb rule.

The international community's evasion of responsibility for determining Kosovo's final status - under the slogan that standards must be met before status can even be discussed - perpetuates the tensions between the two communities.

Certainly it is reasonable to demand that the Albanian majority agree to security and some level of autonomy for the Serb minority before independence is granted.

But it is not reasonable to expect those arrangements be put in place before independence is agreed upon as the ultimate objective.

The recent elections suggest that the majority of Kosovars remain committed to achieving independence peacefully under a moderate leadership. It is time for Europe and the United States to provide those leaders with a practical road map toward this goal.

James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Bush administration's first special envoy for Afghanistan.

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 29, 2004.