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U.S. Envoy Discusses Kosovo Independence Declaration

February 18, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Despite pressure from Serbia and Russia, the province of Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia on Sunday. Ambassador Frank Wisner, the U.S. special envoy to Kosovo, discusses the implications of the Albanian-majority province's declaration of independence.
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RAY SUAREZ: Nine years after the U.S. fought a war there, the tiny European enclave of Kosovo declares itself an independent nation. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian Kosovars poured onto the streets of their capital, Pristina, yesterday, waving Albanian and U.S. flags to celebrate their independence from Serbia.

Kosovo’s declaration of unilateral secession came from Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, in a speech to parliament.

HASHIM THACI, Prime Minister, Kosovo (through translator): The day has come, and from today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free. My family, like yours, like all families all over Kosovo, never wavered and never lost faith in our countrymen, in God, justice and strength.

MARGARET WARNER: Serbs consider Kosovo their historic heartland.

In Belgrade, Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, voiced defiant opposition to the breakaway move.

BORIS TADIC, President of Serbia (through translator): Serbia will take certain measures and do everything in its power to annul this illegal declaration of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia will never recognize the independence of Kosovo.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, many European countries, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy, expressed support for Kosovo’s actions. Spain, Greece and others did not.

Hours before the U.S. extended official recognition, President Bush spoke on NBC’s “Today” show from Africa.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The Kosovars are now independent. It’s something that I have advocated, along with my government.

MARGARET WARNER: Russia, however, lined up with its old ally, Serbia. It said Kosovo’s move would encourage other separatist movements in Europe and elsewhere, and it vowed to fight it.

Kosovo has been at the center of conflict in the Balkan region of the former Yugoslavia for 20 years. Once an autonomous region within Serbia, Kosovo was stripped of that status in 1989 by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

After Yugoslavia began breaking apart in the early ’90s, Kosovo began a guerilla war for independence against the powerful Serb army.

In 1999, led by the U.S., NATO took military action to halt a Serb campaign of oppression against the mostly Muslim Kosovars. It took 78 days of U.S. and European bombing to force the Serbs to pull their troops from Kosovo.

Since then, although legally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations. In recent years, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari led a U.N.-sponsored effort to broker a separation agreement, but failed.

Some 16,000 NATO and European forces and nearly 1,500 U.S. troops have been keeping the peace inside Kosovo.

A number of predominantly Serbian orthodox Christian enclaves will remain in mostly Muslim Kosovo. Yesterday, Prime Minister Thaci promised they’d be protected.

HASHIM THACI (through translator): Our constitution outlines that Kosovo is a state of all its citizens. There is no room for intimidation, discrimination or unequal treatment of anyone. Discriminatory practices will be stamped out by our state institutions and our society.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the Serb half of a divided city in northern Kosovo today saw an explosion and protests by thousands of angry Serbs.

For now, NATO troops will remain in Kosovo. The European Union plans to provide judicial and police support, as well.

Compromise agreement 'impossible'

Frank Wisner
U.S. special envoy for Kosovo
When the international efforts to negotiate reached term, we did everything possible to find common ground. Then, there really was only one way forward, and that was a resolution ... and the Kosovars seized it yesterday and declared independence.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we turn to Frank Wisner, U.S. special envoy for Kosovo. For more than two years, he's been among those trying to broker a negotiated settlement for Kosovo's disputed status. A retired career Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Egypt, India, and the Philippines, he's now a vice chairman at the insurance giant American International Group.

And, Ambassador Wisner, thank you for being with us.

FRANK WISNER, U.S. Special Envoy for Kosovo: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how and why did it come to this, after all your efforts, with a unilateral declaration of independence, over the opposition of the Serbs?

FRANK WISNER: The position of the two parties, the position of the Kosovars on the one hand and the Serbs on the hand were irreconcilable. There was simply no way a bridge could be built across the gap that divides them.

Serbia insists that Kosovo remain under its sovereignty. The Kosovars, having suffered as they did during the '90s and particularly in the violence at the end, were unwilling to go back and put a Serbian flag over their heads.

So when the international efforts to negotiate reached term, we did everything possible to find common ground. Then, there really was only one way forward, and that was a resolution, a resolution, and the Kosovars seized it yesterday and declared independence.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you convinced that further negotiations would not have brought about a mutually agreeable solution?

FRANK WISNER: Absolutely convinced, not only in the two years that -- practically a year and 18 months that Martti Ahtisaari worked diligently to find common ground, but in the final four months that the Europeans, ourselves -- I, representing the United States -- the Russians met the parties literally every 10 days.

It was impossible to find a consensus position between the two. They weren't going to do it.

And the U.N. had made it clear, the secretary general made it clear the status quo could not continue. The U.N. could not continue to hold Kosovo to its chest. It had to get a solution. Independence is the right outcome.

U.S. believes this outcome is best

Frank Wisner
U.S. special envoy for Kosovo
Slobodan Milosevic tried to throw half the population out of Kosovo and would have gone much further than that. Thousands of people lost their lives; tens of thousands of homes, properties were destroyed. It was an extraordinarily ugly event.

MARGARET WARNER: So why is, though, the U.S. and many of its European allies recognizing, again, this unilateral declaration when it doesn't in other cases?

FRANK WISNER: Well, the United States in this case has recognized today midday -- the secretary made the announcement, the president made his own statement -- we did it because we believe this is the right outcome.

After all, we've seen a small people that was badly battered, ethnically cleansed in the '90s, carry out most of their responsibilities under a U.N. mandate, and without being able to find common ground with Serbia. This is the right outcome.

It's the just outcome. It's an outcome that settles the political boundaries of southeastern Europe after the terrible catastrophe of Yugoslavia. It opens a way for Kosovo to begin to develop its own potential.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, Russia, as you know, says, under international law, this really isn't legal. It goes on to point out that there are other separatist struggles in the world, other peoples who want their own state, let's say, the Palestinians or the Basques in Spain, and the U.S. makes it perfectly clear that it's not ready to recognize them if they try to unilaterally declare a state.

What is the distinction here between Kosovo and some of those other circumstances?

FRANK WISNER: Well, I think Kosovo is a unique case. It's unique in the extent of the violence.

Slobodan Milosevic tried to throw half the population out of Kosovo and would have gone much further than that. Thousands of people lost their lives; tens of thousands of homes, properties were destroyed. It was an extraordinarily ugly event.

And at that point, NATO, the United States intervened. Serbia gave up its governance of Kosovo and withdrew. The U.N., under a Security Council resolution, came in and administered the territory.

There is no other ethnic quarrel in the world with those features. Kosovo is truly unique.

Serbia pledges not to shoot first

Frank Wisner
U.S. special envoy for Kosovo
The news actually today is really pretty good. There were a couple of minor grenade attempts, some peaceful demonstrations, but the first day: so far, so good.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, these two groups, of course, the orthodox Christian Serbs and the Muslim Kosovars, do have at least in recent decades a history of violence. Today, you did have these incidents in Mitrovica, which is a divided city.

What is to prevent this move from, in fact, reigniting violence there?

FRANK WISNER: I think it's an important question. The news actually today is really pretty good. There were a couple of minor grenade attempts, some peaceful demonstrations, but the first day: so far, so good.

What about the future? Boris Tadic, the president of Serbia, spoke to the Security Council this afternoon and on three occasions said, "Serbia will not engage in violence." The same commitment pledge has been made by the Kosovar leaders, the new president, the new prime minister.

These pledges have also been transmitted to the United States and our European allies on a privileged basis. I think the governments are going to do their part; we certainly hold them to their word.

And I believe, in addition, the U.N. police presence, backed up by the NATO presence, has -- we got the capabilities on the ground to preserve the peace.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Serbs that live still in Kosovo -- in this northern enclave in particular, this Serbian enclave within Kosovo -- say they're being encouraged by Belgrade to stay. Are you confident that Serbia won't, in fact, be encouraging the Serbs remaining in Kosovo to start their own move to break away from Kosovo, in other words, further partition?

FRANK WISNER: Well, in fact, about two-thirds of the Serbs live in communities south of the Ibar River, and only about a third live in that Mitrovica area in the north. So it's a relatively small number in the north.

Nonetheless, I believe that the Serbs in Kosovo have the chance to live whole, protected lives. The Ahtisaari proposal that outlined a settlement gave the Serbian community the rights to run their own municipalities, have their churches and their properties protected, be able to enjoy Serbian support for education, health, law and order, their own police, even carry two passports, be educated in their own language, and plead before courts in their own language.

There are ample protections. And those protections, outlined by Ahtisaari, have now been passed by the Kosovar assembly, or will shortly be passed by the Kosovar assembly, become the law of the land.

And the entire operation will be overseen by an international community, a set of observers from the international community, who will hold Kosovo to completing its obligations under the Ahtisaari proposal.

Independence needed for development

Frank Wisner
U.S. special envoy for Kosovo
I think the way I would suggest you look at it is with sovereignty, with independence, Kosovo can now develop itself. It can now seek international lending from the World Bank, other institutions, the European Development Bank.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Kosovo is going to be one of the poorest countries in Europe, very high unemployment, a lot of organized crime. Does the United States and the rest of Europe have a responsibility not only to safeguard the security of Kosovo, but, in fact, to make sure it's not a basket case, having essentially midwifed this separation?

FRANK WISNER: That's right. And it's not only the right thing to do; that's exactly what we are going to do. The European Union has made a substantial commitment. The United States will.

But I think the way I would suggest you look at it is with sovereignty, with independence, Kosovo can now develop itself. It can now seek international lending from the World Bank, other institutions, the European Development Bank.

It can begin to give some legal certainty to the many thousands and thousands of Albanian communities living abroad that would like to invest in the country but needed legal certainty. There's a chance now to move forward.

The country is not without resources: clever, inventive, very well-educated people. It's now time to mobilize those talents. And inside a growing Balkans that's increasingly being integrated into the European Union. I think there's real hope for Kosovo.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, in about 10 seconds, you don't think Russia can frustrate that, its access to international institutions, to the U.N.?

FRANK WISNER: No, I don't think so. I'm stymied to explain why Russia has been so obdurate in this process. It's found itself severely isolated in Europe and in, most recently, the Security Council. But so be it. I think it's time for all of us to move on.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Frank Wisner, thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK WISNER: Thank you for having me.