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The Future of Kosovo

R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
April 16, 2007

Charles Kupchan: Good evening. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Charles Kupchan, I am a senior fellow here at the Council, and it's my pleasure to welcome all of you to this evening's event as well as to welcome our guest, Under Secretary Nicholas Burns. Before we start, let me remind everyone to turn off cell phones and other electronic equipment. And let me also state that this meeting, unlike many Council meetings, is on the record.

The topic of our meeting today is Kosovo and the future status of Kosovo, and Nick Burns is here to give us a perspective from the U.S. government on this issue. I have had the pleasure of working with Nick about 10 or even more years ago on the NSC and since that time have watched his meteoric rise to the ranks of the Diplomatic Corps from the spokesperson at the State Department, where he was a avid defender of U.S. foreign policy before the firing squad of the press to the Ambassador to Greece to the Ambassador to NATO, and now Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. And Nick, in that position, is as engaged and influential on an amazing range of issues, and so I think we're quite privileged to have his perspective on this issue tonight.

One final introductory comment, and this is the main reason that I have unlimited amount of respect for Nick -- he is a die-hard fan of the Red Sox, which is a good sign of character, a good sign of judgment. Nick is going to give us some opening remarks. I will then engage him in a few rounds of question-and-answer, and then we will turn it to the audience for your participation.

Nick, thanks for coming to the Council.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you, Charlie, for that very kind introduction. The Red Sox are in first place as we speak, so the season's off to a good start.

It's a pleasure to see so many friends in the audience, including many people with whom I served in the Clinton administration, as well as the Bush administration. I want to start there.

This is a great bipartisan success story, American policy in the Balkans and Southeast Europe over the last 15 years. It did start with President Clinton. It started with President Clinton's correct decision to intervene in Bosnia in October/November of 1995 to pave the way for that extraordinarily successful 10 year peacekeeping period. Then his very courageous decision against a lot of opposition here at home and in New York and the Security Council, to intervene in March, April, May, June of 1999 to save over one million people who would have been driven from their homes and their country by the Serb Army had it not been for the United States and NATO.

I begin there because I think as we look at the question of Kosovo and we're on the verge of a major development, the looming independence of Kosovo as a new state in the international system, it's important to remember here at home in the United States this is a bipartisan success. I don't know of any difference between our two major political parties in the Congress on this issue. We've had three American Presidents -- President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, who have all said the same thing. That as communism ended in Eastern Europe in the late '80s and early '90s, as the Berlin Wall fell, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, the major strategic ambition of the United States over three Presidents in Europe has been to see Europe "whole, free, and at peace" in the words of President Bush 41. Whole, free, and at peace.

In fact, I think you can make a bigger statement. That is that the most important foreign policy objective, the single objective of our country for the last 100 years has been to see Europe whole, free, and at peace. Think about that. Since April 2, 1917 when Woodrow Wilson made his famous speech in the Congress and said that we should put one million American soldiers into the Western Front. That turned the tide of the war in favor of Britain and France and won that victory. Through the inter-war period, through the 2 nd World War, through the Cold War, and then through the wars of the Yugoslav's succession, four of them, it's been the single overriding objective of the United States that Europe should be democratic and it should be peaceful and it should be united. That's been the single overriding foreign policy objective of our lifetime and of our predecessors, one or two generations before our lifetime.

We are now on the verge of realizing that objective. That's a fairly extraordinary accomplishment for our country. It's a bipartisan success.

The one group of people that have not enjoyed the success of freedom and of liberty and of peace and have been subjected instead to division and continued warfare have been the people of Southeast Europe. The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite the very dramatic events of Dayton in November '95 and the years since then, and Roberts Owen played a huge role in that along with his friend Dick Holbrooke.

Despite that great success, I think we all understand that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to live in a more modern, democratic institution. I've had occasion to talk to Bob about that, and I think we both agree on it.

The people of Albania and Croatia and Macedonia live in countries that still don't know whether their future will be with NATO and the European Union. It's the view of the United States that it should be. We have a NATO Summit in Bucharest about a year from now where I hope the United States will be able to support an expanded NATO. Again, countries still need to meet the requirements of NATO. We need to see that performance. But those three countries have a right to think of their future as members of NATO and members of the European Union. The people of Serbia, that great state with which we have had very good and warm relations throughout almost all of our history with the exception of the last decade, the last 10 to 15 years, there's no question that Serbia, the most important and most powerful state of Southeast Europe deserves a future in NATO and the European Union. That's the position of our government.

But the people of Kosovo are the one people in this region who for a decade have not known what their future would be or what state they would live in or what the borders of that state would be. They were nearly annihilated by the Serb Army and by Milosevic in 1998 and again in 1999. We went in correctly, as I have said, and now eight years later, after eight years of tutelage by the United Nations and supervision by the United Nations and security provided by NATO, it's very clear to the United States that the future of Kosovo should be one of independence. We will lead the way as authors of a resolution that would allow that to happen. We'll lead the way for that to happen we hope in the next four to five to six weeks.

So we meet at an important time, and I just wanted to give you a sense of how we're thinking, how diplomacy is going to proceed, of the stakes for the United States and for our allies, and then look forward to a good conversation.

We've known this day was going to come. We've known that the people of Kosovo couldn't live under UNMIK, the United Nations authority, forever. That's why Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, to lead negotiations between Serbia and the Kosovar Albanian leadership, as well as the Kosovar Serbs over the last 18 months. He did that. He tried to bring them together many times. He succeeded a few times. Most of the time, the Serb government refused to appear at these negotiations. He submitted a plan a few weeks back to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that calls for supervised independence. A period of supervised independence. That would mean that Kosovo would become an independent state, a member of the United Nations, a country that could have relations with the World Bank and the IMF, a country that would be in control of its borders but would continue for some undetermined period of time, a short period of time, to have NATO provide the border security for the country, to have the European Union lead a continued international effort to provide for international support, but after a brief period of time Kosovo would become fully and unalterably independent.

That proposal has been met by President Ahtisaari, has been met by most of us in the United Nations system with a great deal of relief, that it was eight years in coming. The United States supports it. The 25 members of the European Union support this plan. As we look at the Security Council now, the council that has to vote to undo Resolution 1244 from June 1999 and prepare the way for the Kosovars to declare their independence, and then for the rest of us to recognize them -- in that sequence -- it's clear to us that Ahtisaari has arrived at the right solution. Because having gone through what the people of Kosovo went through in the spring of 1999 and having lived for so long wondering what the future would be, there's no question that independence is the only answer.

Serbia effectively gave Kosovo up during that war by its policies, by its brutal treatment of the people of Kosovo and by its lack of attention and regard over the last eight years. There's only one option, and that is independence. Any other option would not deal with reality.

There's no way that the 92 or 93 percent of the people of Kosovo who are Kosovar Albanians would accept even an autonomous relationship within a greater Serb state. There is every reason to think that that solution put forward by Russia, put forward by the Serb government itself, would lead to more violence rather than less. We've become convinced, having looked at this in a very careful way, that the recipe that would give us the prospect for the least amount of violence and for the greatest amount of stability, would be the quickest route towards independence.

At this point, after eight years, any delay in the final status to the people of Kosovo would likely engender the complete opposition of the great and vast majority of people who live in that province.

So our view is that on this exceptional basis, given the extraordinary nature of how Kosovo and the people of Kosovo came to the present situation, the treatment by Milosevic of Kosovo as Yugoslavia began to break up, the brutal nature of his rule in Kosovo, the unprecedented war crimes -- the worst, in our view, since the Nazis in Europe -- and the fact that the United Nations Security Council in June of 1999 effectively said this province is being taken away from the direct control of Serbia. It's going to be put into a state of limbo. The United Nations will provide for its supervision and at some point, and we've come to that point this spring, at some point the people of Kosovo will have to determine along with the international community their final status. That point has come.

I believe you'll see over the next month a very rapid movement towards a resolution that will set up, not provide for on a legal basis, but set up a process that would lead to the independence of Kosovo.

The Security Council ambassadors have decided this is such an important issue they're all going to take a trip next week to Brussels to meet with NATO and the EU -- the two institutions that have done so much to support the Kosovar population over the last eight years. Then on to Belgrade to meet with President Tadić and Prime Minister Koštunica and then finally to Pristina to meet with President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Ceku and the Assembly and the leaders, both Albanian and Serb, of Kosovo itself.

Following that trip, I think it will be a short period of time before the United States would introduce with a variety of co-sponsors a resolution that would in effect undo the resolution of June '99 and that would prepare for a future system of international support for Kosovo. The EU has volunteered to lead a civilian mission in Kosovo. NATO has agreed that our troops would stay. That would mean that United States troops would continue to serve in Kosovo for the life of that mission, until they're no longer needed.

At some point after a period I think of weeks of debate, the United States will put this to a vote.

I think we are close to the point of having enough votes already to pass this resolution today should we choose to bring it to a vote today which, of course, we will not. But that gives you a sense of understanding of the wide support internationally for this decision.

We hope very much that Serbia will understand that what we want with Serbia is a positive future and the Ambassador of Serbia has been good enough to come tonight. He's a man I very much respect, he's a friend, and he knows that we're going through, without any question, the most difficult period in U.S.-Serb relations in a long, long time, since the war in Kosovo eight years ago. But we're convinced in the State Department, in our government, that we'll get through this. That following this very painful separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the United States will signal very clearly our belief that we should have a good future with the Serb people. That we would like to see Serbia pointed towards a future relationship with NATO. In fact our government took the lead in bringing Serbia into Partnership for Peace last November. That we would encourage the European Union to develop the closest possible ties with Serbia. And I would think that given the fact that we're the second leading investor right now, our private sector in Serbia, you would see a great interest on the part of the American private sector and the NGO community to take its place in Belgrade and the other parts of your great country.

We want to signal that now because we don't want this very painful and difficult decision about the independence of Kosovo to, in effect, scuttle the possibility of good relations between our two countries. We want to ensure that future.

I think I can say as a career Foreign Service officer, someone who's non-partisan, that I hear the same message from our leadership -- President Bush, Secretary Rice -- but also the Democratic leadership in our Congress. And that is we all recognize the importance of Serbia. Most of us would liken it to the keystone country in Southeast Europe. The country that's going to be historically in the future the anchor of economic and political stability.

So this rather abrupt separation between Kosovo and Serbia need not lead to a downturn that would be permanent in relations between Serbia and the United States. I did want to ensure the Ambassador this evening of our high regard for him and for his government leaders and for that sense of how we should work together.

I would say this. While the people of Kosovo, the overwhelming percentage of whom are Kosovar Albanian, can rejoice in the fact that they will soon be independent, they have some responsibilities. Kosovar Serbs have lived in Kosovo for well over a thousand years. Kosovo is a place of enormous historical importance to the Serb people and to those Serbs who are Orthodox. Many of us have visited the beautiful monasteries there, the historic sites, and we continue to tell the Kosovar Albanian leadership it is your responsibility not just to be tolerant of all the minorities in your country including most especially the Kosovar Serb community, but to embrace them and to let them know that they have an absolute right not just to live there, but to be fully part of the government and of the society, the Kosovo for generations to come. That is a very important responsibility of the Kosovar Albanian leadership.

We just had that leadership conference up at the Rockefeller Estate north of New York City last weekend. Richard Holbrooke and I met them together along with Ambassador Frank Wisner, our emissary to the Kosovo talks; had dinner with them Thursday night and impressed upon President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Ceku and the 20 other leaders who were there, that while we are with them in supporting their independence, it is on the condition, of course, that they will accept and embrace the Kosovo Serb community, and that's very important for us.

In my many trips to Kosovo I have always made it a point to go and visit members of the Kosovar Serb community. In my last two trips, I've gone to the town of Obilic, a town that is exceedingly important in Serb history. I visited with one family on both occasions. These are older people who came to Kosovo in the early 1960s, built their own home there, raised their kids there. That's home for them. They now live in a town that is by an overwhelming majority Kosovar Albanian, and they sometimes feel threatened in that town. They sometimes feel that they're not welcome when they go to the market, when they do their business in town. I think the test for the Kosovar Albanian leadership will be for that older couple to feel that they can stay. That they can live out their years there and that their kids and their grandchildren can live there, as well. That's a test that the Albanian leadership has to meet.

There's also no question that as we go through this very difficult period we are asking the Kosovar Albanian leadership to make sure that there is peace on the streets of Kosovo, that there are no provocations or demonstrations against the Serbs and there are no attacks against Serb churches or Serb homes or Serb civilians.

I was an Ambassador to NATO, the American Ambassador to NATO in March of 2004 when on two successive nights, March 17 th and 18 th of 2004, mobs went into the streets of Pristina and other towns, attacked Serbs, killed them, burned Serb churches, and burned Serb homes. It was one of NATO's worst moments because about half of our troops followed the commands of our German commander, went into the streets and put down those demonstrations; about half stayed in their barracks and waited for orders from their capitals. It was a shameful moment in NATO's history that we did not rise to that occasion to protect the Serb civilians.

General Jim Jones who is now a private citizen but was our SACEUR at the time vowed, and we all as ambassadors vowed that would never happen again. I am now 100 percent sure that if there are any provocations in Kosovo, NATO will put those demonstrations, if there are violent demonstrations, down and will protect the minority population of Kosovo.

I think this is something that we can't talk about enough. It's one thing to support independence, but it's never unqualified. We have to ask that if we're to entrust an independent state in the hands of very good people, this group of, the unity team, this group of Kosovar Albanian leaders, that they must rise to the task of democratic values, of protection of minority rights, of the protection of the rule of law. This is a point that we made -- Dick Holbrooke and Frank Wisner and I -- together on Thursday evening, that I understand President Clinton made when President Clinton visited with them Friday morning, and I just had a chance to talk to Secretary of State, former Secretary Madeleine Albright, I know it's a point she made to them on Saturday when she met with them.

So while we are fully behind this leadership, the Kosovar Albanian leadership, we trust them, we have great respect for them. We also want to make sure that we are party to an agreement that meets the highest standards of democratic pluralism and tolerance. I thought with the Serb Ambassador here tonight it was only fair that I would address this issue at some length to assure him and his government, as well as the Kosovar Serb population, that we have this idea and this issue firmly in mind as we go ahead.

I would just like to conclude, Charlie, by saying this is not going to be an easy time for the people of the region. It's not going to be an easy time for the permanent members of the Security Council. There's no secret that the Russian government is not exactly thrilled about the proposition of the United States and Britain and France; we've put together and put forward a resolution that would support this process that would lead to independence. But there's no question in our mind that there's no other alternative. Any other alternative risks the greatest possibility of violence. This option is the surest way towards peace and the maintenance of stability and of justice, of doing the right thing as an international community for the people of Kosovo itself.

I would say that it's been a great effort by Europe and the United States and something we can be very proud of. We did go into Bosnia and stop a war and have kept the peace successfully with the people of Bosnia Herzegovina. We did go into Kosovo and stop that war and have kept the peace. And we were surely right, President Clinton was surely right to make those decisions, and President Bush has surely been right to maintain the American military presence in the Balkans to ensure this peace.

The United States and Europe have born the great share of the international responsibility in putting our soldiers there, in keeping them there, in our economic support for Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as our political support. So as countries begin to consider when they will vote for or abstain, or some countries have even threatened to veto, I think those of us in Europe and the United States are convinced that we are doing the right thing and that the international community should judge us on the commitment that we have made and are willing to continue to make.

I sometimes say to my colleagues from countries that sometimes talk about vetoes -- think about what that means, if a country should veto this resolution that will lead to the independence of Kosovo. It means that you're asking Europe and the United States and our soldiers on the ground to take all the responsibility for the morning after in what will undoubtedly be, if this scenario unfolds, a very very difficult situation indeed on the ground.

I think this message from Europe and the United States which is very much a unified message is, we have been there, we've made the commitment, we're willing to take the responsibility. I think that message has begun to resonate with some of the non-permanent members of the Council and the permanent members who have not made that kind of commitment over the last ten years and are unlikely to make it in the ten years to come as we shall be the surest supporters of Kosovo's democracy and an independent state in the years ahead. That's an important message for those countries that are wavering or considering what their vote should be in the month of May when this comes to a vote in the Security Council.

So Charlie, I wanted to give you and this audience a sense of why the United States has taken this position, but also what the difficult diplomacy ahead entails. I'm happy to stop here to be subject to your questions and then to have a good discussion with this audience.

Thank you very much. 

Released on April 16, 2007

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