Dayton's lessons for Kosovo

December 14, 2005|By GORDON N. BARDOS

Today marks the official signing of the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war a decade ago. That the agreement has lasted this long suggests there is much that can be learned from Dayton as international negotiators begin work on the next challenge for establishing long-term peace in the Balkans: the talks over Kosovo's future status.

Much of Dayton's success lies in its ability to reconcile the idealism of preserving a multiethnic state with the political reality of a war-torn, ethnically divided society. This was achieved through a host of constitutional arrangements giving all sides the psychological reassurances needed to help them believe that their minimum national interests had been guaranteed. Similar improvisation will be needed to stitch together a successful agreement for Kosovo.

As Dayton did for Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs, future-status negotiations should make both Albanians and Serbs constituent peoples of Kosovo. Similarly, given the de facto reality that Albanians and Serbs speak mutually unintelligible languages, live completely separate existences and have a very difficult and bloody history to deal with, a high degree of ethno-territorial decentralization will have to be part of any agreement.

This will most likely require some form of cantonization or the creation of separate Albanian and Serb entities in Kosovo. Under any ultimate agreement, the Serbian holy sites should be given some form of extra-territoriality under international protection.

Another Dayton lesson, however, was that the creation of separate internal entities (or cantons) cannot be allowed to become the prelude to partition. As the architects of Dayton correctly foresaw, giving in to partition would probably cause more problems in the Balkans (and beyond) than it would solve, and with a partition of Kosovo as precedent, it is difficult to see how either Macedonia or Bosnia could survive in the long term.

Dayton also provides lessons as to the necessities to implement such an agreement: a security framework that, as the principal architect of the Dayton accords, Richard C. Holbrooke, recently noted, gave NATO the power to "shoot first and ask questions later."

Unfortunately, the lack of similar forceful resolve in Kosovo over the past six years has allowed local extremists to set the agenda and the timetable for these negotiations. Of crucial importance for the success of the future-status talks will be the international community's willingness to reassert control over the security situation in Kosovo.

Negotiating Kosovo's future status will be difficult, but compared with the challenges faced at Dayton - negotiating around the clock for three weeks, literally under the gun, in the midst of a war - the difficulties are neither unprecedented nor insurmountable. Kosovo has now had more than six years of a cooling-off period, and Dayton's high-pressure atmosphere can be replaced with quiet, patient diplomacy.

A successful outcome, however, will require recognizing a final lesson from Dayton: Only strong U.S. leadership will produce a viable agreement that can force Albanians and Serbs to compromise and satisfy their legitimate interests and ensure regional security in the process.

European Union states are already showing divided positions on Kosovo, the United Nations does not have the clout to work out an agreement, and political infighting in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, and Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, brings into question Albanian and Serbian ability to negotiate constructively. In such a situation, Washington will have to carry much of the load.

Strong American leadership, however, does not mean forging ahead unilaterally without international support or without respect for international public opinion. Dayton was successful because key international actors, as well as Bosnia's neighbors, supported the agreement.

A similar international consensus should be developed while crafting a future-status agreement for Kosovo.

This lesson, unfortunately, was ignored in the rush to war in Iraq, but the sooner the Bush administration realizes that long-term success in Iraq depends on winning more-substantive international backing for its efforts, the better.

Kosovo, of course, is different from Bosnia, and the Kosovo negotiations will have unique problems and challenges. Concepts such as shared sovereignty and soft borders will figure more prominently in the final settlement for Kosovo to render the ultimate agreement acceptable to both parties. Yet as Kosovo's future status talks begin, negotiators would do well to remember what made Dayton successful.

Gordon N. Bardos is assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a Balkans analyst for Freedom House. His e-mail is

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