international analysis and commentary

Dangerous continuity: the case of Kosovo in Obama’s second term


Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney probably makes a difference in several areas of US foreign policy. A Romney administration seemed poised to adopt an extremely confrontational policy throughout the Middle East, especially toward Iran and Syria. The Republican president would have been surrounded by neoconservative alumni from George W. Bush’s administration as key advisers whose top priority would have been not only to halt Tehran’s nuclear program but also to bring down the clerical regime as well as Bashar al Assad’s dictatorship in Damascus. Mercifully, they will now not have the opportunity to foment new wars in the region.

Obama’s victory also portends a somewhat less confrontational policy toward China than his opponent appeared to favor. One should not overstate the difference just because the Obama administration adopted the “strategic pivot” to East Asia, implicitly backed Japan and other opponents of China regarding territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas, and took a very strong stance on trade issues. But US-China relations would have been even chillier under Romney.

Perhaps the biggest difference is policy toward Russia. Romney famously described Russia as America’s number one geopolitical adversary. Obama and his foreign policy team clearly regard Moscow in a less hostile light.

Unfortunately, one area that will experience little or no change is Washington’s policy in the Balkans, especially regarding Kosovo. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a bipartisan consensus in favor of Muslim factions in both Bosnia and Kosovo combined with sometimes extreme hostility toward Serbia and toward Serb political movements throughout the region. The Clinton administration led the NATO attack on Serb secessionist forces in Bosnia and the NATO air campaign to expel government forces from Serbia’s restless province of Kosovo. George W. Bush’s administration fully endorsed the decision of the Western powers in 2008 to back Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, despite vehement objections from Russia, China, and other major world powers.

The Obama administration has perpetuated the basic features of that Balkan policy with overwhelming support from Democratic Party officeholders. Although some Republicans were more skeptical about the wisdom of extensive US involvement in the Balkans (especially during the 1990s), they were always a minority even within their own party. And there was no indication that the election of Mitt Romney would have made the slightest difference in the nature of Washington’s Balkan policy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement in late October made the Obama administration’s position extremely clear. “We oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovo’s independent status,” Clinton stated during a meeting with Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci. “These matters are not up for discussion.  The boundaries of an independent, sovereign Kosovo are clear and set.”

That attitude betrays an unhelpful rigidity bordering on arrogance. Only ninety countries – less than half the membership of the United Nations – have recognized Kosovo’s independence in the nearly five years since Pristina’s unilateral declaration. The ranks of those holdouts include several major powers and even a few NATO members. So Clinton’s assertion that the issue is settled is hardly indisputable. But even more troubling is her insistence that there can be no boundary changes whatsoever.

Unfortunately, a majority of countries in the European Union, including Germany, also have adopted that rigid stance. In December 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told officials in Belgrade: “The path of Serbia into the EU can only lead through the normalization of its relations with Kosovo.” Merkel and her allies continue to demand of Serbia a type of political concession that has never been required of any other current or prospective EU member. The policy is in marked contrast to the EU’s decision regarding the membership of Cyprus. No one demanded that Nicosia recognize the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which Ankara had installed in the portion of the island that Turkish troops occupied in 1974.

Secretary Clinton’s position echoes the EU demand that there be no boundary adjustments whatsoever. That stance is both unfair and irrational. It would condemn the small and powerless Serb minority in northern Kosovo to perpetual discrimination – or perhaps ethnic cleansing. The latter danger is not rank speculation. During and following the 1999 war, some 240,000 non-Albanian inhabitants (not just Serbs, but Bulgarians, Romanians, Jews and the Roma) were driven from or fled the province. Very few have tried to return. The remaining Serb residents live under virtual siege, and are the targets of frequent harassment. Serbian churches and other Christian landmarks have experienced pervasive acts of desecration. 

The features of a reasonable compromise are clear. The vast majority of Serbs live in the region of Kosovo north of the Ibar River – and few Kosovar Albanians live there. A boundary adjustment that transferred that area back to Serbia’s jurisdiction would mean the loss of less than 10% of Kosovo’s territory. The EU could press for a settlement that would include a willingness on Belgrade’s part to recognize Kosovo’s independence in exchange for that territorial concession. Hard-line Serb nationalists would undoubtedly oppose such a deal, but more pragmatic factions who accept that Serbia will never regain control of Kosovo are on the rise in Belgrade and have sent aloft trial balloons to test EU intentions. The willingness of the US and the EU to compromise on the issue of boundaries would strengthen those political forces.

Trading boundary adjustments in for Belgrade’s acceptance of Kosovo’s sovereignty would also provide wider benefits. If Serbia recognized Kosovo’s independence, the principal impediment to Russia, China, and other countries doing so would be removed, and what threatens to become a chronic international diplomatic headache would ease.

Both Washington and the EU need to be far more flexible on this issue. There is nothing sacred or historically compelling about the current boundaries of an independent Kosovo. That issue is one that the Obama administration should put high on its agenda for reconsideration as the president’s second term approaches.