European Affairs

As a case study, the twisting tale is a case study rich in lessons about how transatlantic unity prevailed, even at a moment of clashing national ambitions. Serbs and Kosovar Albanians claiming sovereignty over the same territory and among Americans embroiled in the Iraq war, Europeans searching for political consensus and Russians entering the Putin era of re-establishing Moscow’s power to say ‘no.’ Squaring the circle at times seemed impossible but proved doable in the right hands. The full account of how transatlantic diplomacy succeeded at a difficult moment is a valuable case study -- and also an instructive guide to the skills and efforts needed for the U.S. and EU to work together effectively in the future.

This untold tale has now been told in granular detail in “The Road to Independence for Kosovo,” written by Henry H. Perritt, an American law professor who has taken a personal interest in the emergence of Kosovo as the final act in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Describing the decisive phase of Kosovo’s quest for independence from 2004 to 2008, Perritt depicts a situation – a five-way tug of war in which many of the players had mixed motives:

  • Washington wanted quick progress toward independence as a “settlement” of Kosovo’s status that would free up U.S. and other NATO forces there to contend with crises elsewhere. At the same time, Washington felt a need to work closely with the EU in order to avoid inflaming the accusations of U.S. unilateralism in Iraq that were straining transatlantic relations.
  • The EU wanted to get the Kosovo issue resolved in order to move forward on integrating the region into the EU and stabilizing Europe. But most EU leaders, at least initially, wanted to avoid antagonizing Serbia, the part of ex-Yugoslavia that the Europeans wanted most of all to be able to integrate into the EU.
  • Moscow saw a deadlock in Kosovo as a wedge to separate the U.S. and the Europeans even further at a moment of estrangement inside the NATO alliance over the quagmire in Iraq. For that, the Putin government needed to appear open to compromise while remaining determined to preserve ties to Serbia as the major remaining bastion of Russian special influence in the region.

altThere were few such contradictions in two contending camps in Kosovo. The Albanian majority, which had long resented discrimination and even persecution as part of Serbian-run Yugoslavia, wanted nothing less than independence. They felt they deserved it and that their role as guerilla fighters supporting the NATO campaign that freed their region showed that they had the military ability to wrest independence from Belgrade by force if necessary. In Belgrade, the Serbian leadership was determined to cling to sovereignty over Kosovo: at stake were both its shrines as the birthplace of Serbian nationalism and also the welfare of the Serbian minority that remained there.

Any slim chance that a modernizing Serb leader might grasp the advantages of a compromise was snuffed out by the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. He was the politician in Belgrade who incarnated the hopes that a new, post-Milosevic order was emerging among Serbs that would permit the country to move quickly toward closer ties with the EU. That prospect expired when he died from bullets fired by a diehard Serbian extremist. Within months, the mounting tensions inside Kosovo ignited in two days of violent riots in March 2004. The flare-up demonstrated the mounting impatience and simmering rage of the Albanian Kosovars and the potential for conflict that might precipitate renewed military action by Belgrade. The suddenly-looming prospect of violence catalyzed Western decisions to finally move on the question of settling the final status of Kosovo.

It is a tribute to his scholarly professionalism that Perritt, himself a political associate of President Bill Clinton, is so scrupulous in telling the story of a diplomatic success for Washington in the Bush years. While it was the Clinton administration’s war that drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, the problem of Kosovo’s future status remained in limbo in the aftermath of the war: Kosovo and its capital Pristina were still nominally a province of Serb-led Yugoslavia, but the government of Kosovo -- with its ethnic Albanian majority and Serbian minority clustered around historic holy places of the Serbian Orthodox religion and history – was put in the hands of an interim U.N. mission. That limbo was welcome in Western capitals, especially Washington, where the Bush administration had made it plain that it wanted to break with Clintonian policies of “humanitarian” military intervention to cement stability in the post-cold war era. Repudiating this approach as liable to dissipate American power, the Bush team cited Kosovo as an example of what the new White House wanted to avoid.

That passivity became untenable in 2004, with the emerging prospect of an Albanian uprising in Kosovo that could drive out the remaining Serbs, risk drawing Belgrade into an offensive and re-ignite ethnic tensions around Serbia’s borders. The Bush administration decided that it needed to handle the crisis: for one thing, it needed to follow up on U.S. commitments undertaken by a previous administration and, second, it saw a chance to use the crisis to mend U.S.-EU relations at a point when they were badly frayed over Iraq. Privately, Washington had already concluded that independence was the only plausible outcome for Kosovo but, without any attempt to dictate its views, the U.S. joined in a revival of the Contact Group -- an informal team of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Italy. (Italy had been a major NATO staging point in the Kosovo war). This negotiating line-up had helped bring about an end to the NATO campaign in Kosovo, and the same approach was now used again. The idea was to use the Contact Group to bring Russia along to share a common view with the Western nations about what to do – or at least become convinced that Western resolve could not be broken – and then convince Belgrade to go along.

The Contact Group had helped induce Russia to convince Serbia to withdraw its forces from Kosovo in 2005 and accept a Security Council resolution to start a consultative process on the final status of Kosovo. The negotiations under UN auspices were to be piloted by veteran Finnish diplomat, Matti Ahtisaari. A former president of Finland and UN negotiator on other separatist problems, he had helped work out the end of hostilities in Kosovo, notably in the dealings with Moscow. (For his overall work in Kosovo he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.)

Ahtisaari’s familiarity with Russian thinking was an asset, but his previous success had now become a strike against him in Moscow. The new strongman there, Vladimir Putin, had disavowed the “weakness” of his predecessor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who had convinced Belgrade to surrender to NATO over Kosovo. But Ahtisaari was able to keep up the discussion with Moscow and the Bush administration was eager to cooperate – as a way of demonstrating that the United States could be a reliable partner in international affairs. “The combination of the remaining U.S. assertiveness and the desire once again to act multilaterally could be a potent force,’’ the author writes. Washington wanted to signal that it was willing to shape its policy to accommodate major concerns of the EU and, up to a point, Russia.

But the Bush administration was also inclined to let the world see that in the event of deadlock it would be inclined to act unilaterally in backing a declaration of independence by Kosovo. To handle this balancing act, Washington fielded some of its most experienced diplomats, led by Frank Wisner, a veteran career ambassador. Wisner had his work cut out for him, but his job was eased by the Europeans’ choice of their point man: Wolfgang Ischinger, one of Germany’s most experienced and respected diplomats, who had been Berlin’s ambassador to Washington. Ischinger saw the crisis as an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate cohesion and effectiveness in bridging the gap between Serbs and Kosovars – and, if necessary, in acting to enforce an outcome in the face of intransigence.

The likelihood of intransigence surfaced quickly enough. “The Serb strategy was framed by four D’s: delay, destabilize, divide and discredit,” writes Perritt. While he is not a dispassionate observer on this subject -- Perritt has worked to help Kosovo’s Albanians develop their political case – his description of Belgrade’s position is widely accepted as accurate by Westerners, including British officials who were pro-Serb until these negotiations over Kosovo.

When the UN group’s initial efforts at mediation quickly proved impractical, the team set about drafting what became the “Ahtisaari plan” – which was never accepted by the UN because of a never-lifted Russian threat to veto it. But the process of negotiating was the center-piece of diplomatic maneuvering to find a solution to the deadlock. Enjoying Western support and cautious Russian participation, a complex blueprint emerged for a future decentralized democratic government in Kosovo – with its future “final status” to be determined by a UN-appointed International Civilian Representative -- but offering a possibility for Kosovars to claim their independence after a period of international tutelage. As the Contact Group started working on this mandate with Serbs and Kosovars, the issue of timing was framed as “standards before status” – a formulation meaning that Kosovars had to show that they could run a democracy and respect the human rights of the Serbian minority as a precondition to a settlement. That was to be the focus of debate for months.

While the Russians maintained readiness to negotiate, it gradually became clear that Moscow was determined not to accept the plan, with its provision for full-fledged independence for Kosovo. The Russian opposition was about geopolitics, Ahtisaari’s team realized: “All you have to do is look at a map of Gazprom’s assets and connections…Russia is going to do whatever its strategic interests and tactical calculations dictate,” an aide said.

Needing time to isolate the Russians diplomatically, the West had a double challenge: one, to keep the Kosovars from giving way to their impatience and declaring independence prematurely and, two, to forge a common front among the Europeans to recognize an independent Kosovo when the time came.

The first job – the Kosovars – fell mainly to Wisner and he managed it brilliantly. The U.S. put together a “unity team” in Pristina involving all the feuding Kosovar factions and engaging them in the construction of a Kosovar “government in waiting” that could win credibility for their cause.

The second task – forging a common front in the EU – fell to Ischinger. It was an almost impossible assignment to win over several key European countries. Greece was sympathetic to its Orthodox neighbor, Serbia, and hostile to the Albanians of Kosovo. Spain feared that any break-away by Kosovo might reinforce Basque separatist tendencies threatening Madrid’s sovereignty. Ischinger’s formula was to convince everyone in Europe that he and Wisner and Ahtisaari had tried everything to produce a compromise and that, left with no alternative, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence should be supported. He was “tireless in his efforts to brief everyone and to keep them fully engaged in the process of the negotiations…He wanted to prove to Europe that every stone had been turned over…and jerk the rug out from under the Serb sniping at the process.”

This diplomatic whirlwind was called “the Troika” of the U.S., the EU and Russia. The U.S. never wavered on independence (Wisner said so in a talk at the European Institute) but the US avoided making its position public until European leaders had started to share the U.S. view. Ischinger tried to be inclusive, even with Moscow, but has said that he “had no illusions’ about the Russians’ real position. Indeed, behind the scenes, Russian promises to Belgrade – never to overrule Serbian wishes – meant that Serbia never had any real incentive to compromise. The year 2007, was a testing time for Ahtisaari and the Western members of the Troika, with Washington pushing to get the plan to the Security Council and many Europeans still hoping that time would bring around Moscow. In this period, the Western team “demonstrated how to forge transatlantic unity by cultivating personal relationships of trust and by paying careful attention to the local politics of important constituencies,” Perritt concludes. The U.S. played a leading role by combining patience with “a tough-minded willingness to go it alone if absolutely necessary – a willingness communicated to the Europeans unambiguously,” he reports.

An example of this U.S. approach came in the summer of 2007, when suddenly France seemed to throw a monkey-wrench into the process. At a G-8 summit in June, President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed, without warning, a further negotiating period of six months – after which, in the absence of an agreement, Kosovars would be free to declare independence. Newly-elected Sarkozy was thought to be eager to show his pro-American credentials, but this move seemed to loosen the vice that Washington was tightening on Russia by delaying the moment when the plan would be put to the Security Council. Reacting flexibly, Washington decided that the delay could be used to convince the Europeans of Russian intransigence. Ultimately the plan faced a Russian veto in the Security Council, so the U.S. demand – after this, no more delays – paid off. The U.S. team worked fast and well: three days after the French “bombshell,” President Bush, on a visit to Albania, said this: “I’m a strong supporter of the Ahtisaari Plan. When does the process end? The time is now…we need to get moving …and the end result is independence.”

To keep the process on track, the Western team fanned out. Wisner pushed the Kosovars to be patient a little longer and got “the Unity Team” to Washington for a pep talk from the secretary of state. Ischinger, acknowledging privately that Europe should have worked harder at unity earlier, now decided that the problem EU states came down to two: Italy and Germany. Deciding that Rome would follow Berlin, Ischinger focused on his own government. The Socialist foreign minister was close to former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who now held a big energy job in a Russian company and now was urging his protégé against taking a hard line toward Moscow. So even though it held the EU presidency and should have been whipping up enthusiasm behind the plan, Germany waffled. But Ischinger’s diplomatic status was high in the eyes of the German political establishment. Within weeks, Paris was pushing Berlin to get into line and help impose EU unity. When it became clear that there would be no Security Council vote, the EU did have one advantage: it had never taken a position about what to do in the absence of a Security Council resolution.

Astutely, Ahtisaari stepped into the background for weeks so that the final deliberations – which were about positioning the two sides for a break – involved the U.S.-EU-Russian Troika. Some sentiment remained in Europe that there was no need for immediate action, but Ischinger was convinced that violence was imminent and permitted no delay. Wisner convinced the Kosovars to remain silent to allow time for presidential elections in February that were sure to maintain Belgrade’s hard-line attitude. Ten days later, Kosovo declared independence under the terms of the Ahtisaari plan. The U.S., Britain and France recognized the new state the next day, and new EU members in eastern and central Europe followed suit. After a brief flare-up of Serbian protests in Kosovo, quickly dispersed by NATO peacekeepers without injuries, Germany and Norway also extended recognition. By now, Kosovo has been recognized by all EU nations except Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia and Romania. (In some of these cases, the stance reflects domestic concerns about creating any grounds for separatist hopes by local ethnic minorities and not any rooted political resistance. Slovakia, for example, wants to deny any legitimacy for possible breakaway moves by its Hungarian minority, but in practice it recognizes Kosovar passports and contributes to the EU stabilization mission in Kosovo.) Of greater consequence, Serbia continues to challenge the legitimacy of Kosovo, with little prospect of change until domestic political evolution occurs among the Serbs.

An imperfect outcome to be sure, but is better than almost anyone would have predicted in 2004. In the end, it proved to be an all-too-rare moment of solid joint action by the U.S. and the EU – with a result that seems to be standing the test of time.

Thea Backlar is a recent graduate of Columbia University who has written for European Affairs.