On March 17 and 18, 2004, the surface calm in Kosovo was shattered by an outbreak of violence against the Serb minority, which makes up less than 10 percent of the population of Kosovo. This violence occurred while the region was being guarded by nearly 20,000 UN troops, including about 3,000 from the US. Rioting bands of Albanians killed about 19 people and thousands were forced from their homes as hundreds of dwellings and several orthodox churches (some of them UNESCO protected sites) were burned and destroyed. In the aftermath of the violence in Kosovo, EES organized a two-panel meeting on April 20, 2004, sponsored by the Niarchos Foundation, to discuss the problems in the region and the reasons behind the resurgence of violence despite a long-standing international presence there since 1999.

The first panel considered the situation as viewed from the region. Martin Vulaj, Executive Director of the National Albanian-American Council, provided the perspective of the Albanians in Kosovo. He outlined the seemingly positive developments in the period immediately preceding the violence in March. Although the so-called "standards before status" policy for Kosovo which was adopted by the US, the EU and the UN, seemed to doom the region to political and economic stagnation, this had been ameliorated by renewed attention from Mark Grossman (Undersecretary for Political Affairs, US Department of State). His visit to the region in fall 2003 introduced a specific time-frame for assessing whether or not certain standards had been met. This was to be completed by mid 2005. Also positive was the decision to convene more frequent meetings of the Contact Group, which consists of the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and Italy as well as the UN and NATO. The Contact Group was originally created to coordinate the international community's policy on Bosnia-Herzegovina and was resurrected to discuss problems and progress in Kosovo. Vulaj asserted that these small changes helped relieve the pressure in Kosovo, and gave a sense of movement and hope to the stagnant process. People seemed to have a renewed sense of optimism and it was thought that this was a decisive step in shifting attitudes towards the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which most Albanians in Kosovo had come to resent as an occupying power forever deferring the key question of independence from Serbia.

However, after the violent destruction of Serb property and religious buildings last March, stagnation and instability are threatening once again. Vulaj offered several suggestions for how to reestablish the momentum that was destroyed by the violence. First, he suggested that competencies ought to be transferred from UNMIK to the Kosovar government. The weak government created a vacuum of power, which has been filled by illegal and corrupt elements. Using this opportunity to build a solid foundation for a functioning government in Kosovo would help stabilize the region. Second, Vulaj called for UNMIK to be disbanded, since it has failed both as a governing authority and in its advisory capacity. The institution is neither accountable nor transparent, and is hampering governance in Kosovo. Third, the international community, together with Serbia and Albania, must create a credible plan to protect Serbs in Kosovo, while also integrating Albanian Kosovars in the process. Finally, like many others, Vulaj called for the decentralization of Kosovo, but with two caveats: that decentralization not be implemented on an ethnic basis and that the timing of the decentralization coincides with the determination of Kosovo's status.

Obrad Kesic, Senior Partner at TSM Global Consultants, assessed the prospects for moving forward after the recent outbreak of violence in Kosovo from the Serbian perspective. Noting that UNMIK had lost credibility following the March violence, Kesic pointed to certain positive developments in Belgrade, most notably that feuding democratic parties have nearly reached a consensus on several important issues. First, there is now agreement that Serbia must be more active in its policy towards Kosovo and do more to protect the Serbs there. Second, there is an acceptance that negotiations with Albanians need to be carried out and that all options be kept on the table. Finally all parties seem to agree that decentralization must be carried out in Kosovo, giving greater autonomy to the Serbs in Kosovo. No party or political leader has yet publicly endorsed or even considered formal separation of Kosovo from Serbia. Of course, there are also divisive elements countering progress in Kosovo, most notably, the fact that Kosovo can be used to manipulate politics and radicalize the Serbian electorate. This is already in evidence in the press, as it has become popular to blast UNMIK, call for the return of Serbian military and police to protect Serbian property and religious structures in Kosovo and accuse the United States of conspiring to produce violence in an attempt to reach a final status in Kosovo.

Overall, Kesic assessed the Serbian government as having reacted maturely and positively to the crisis in Kosovo. However, this policy could be derailed quite easily, especially since, given the imminent departure of long-term overseer of Kosovo affairs Nebojsa Covic in the aftermath of the December 2003 elections, there is no credible point person on Kosovo in the government. Moreover, politics within the Albanian community also have a clear effect on Kosovo. With local elections due later this year, Kosovo Albanian leaders may be reluctant to give concessions to the Serbs if they believe that it may cost them at the polls. Other neighbors may soon echo the unrest in Kosovo, since Bosnia seems to be only one step away from a popular uprising, with the situation there among the Serbs as explosive as it was at the end of the war in 1996. Macedonia already shows warning signs that we should be heeding regarding unresolved problems between Macedonians and the minority Albanians there. Finally, the international community's attitude towards Kosovo and attention to the region will make a strong impact on the outcome. The problem in this respect is the question of whether the US is willing to remain engaged given the problems in Iraq, and not to settle for a quick-fix solution that allows it to pull out of the Balkan region.

Mark Baskin, former Deputy Regional UN Administrator in Prizren, spoke about the role of the international community in Kosovo. Baskin contended that UNMIK has been problematic in part because of the ideology of the UN, which demands that Kosovo be more democratic than other democracies in Europe and North America and yet tends to support strong local leaders regardless of their democratic credentials. Moreover, UNMIK suffers from a limited ability at self-critique, difficulty in coordinating its work with local colleagues and other international actors, and from the vagaries of the Security Council. Despite all of these shortcomings, however, UNMIK is a fact of life in Kosovo. Certainly the region and future UN missions would benefit from an internal review of UNMIK, but in the short term, Kosovo would best be served by an organization that can focus on three key areas: jobs and economic development, the development of government institutions and combating organized crime and terrorism. Baskin ended his remarks by stating that there is really no final status for Kosovo. Rather, there are many issues that need to be resolved and this will take time, but the current uncertainty about the future of Kosovo is preventing these issues from being addressed.

Ambassador Geert Ahrens, former Head of the OSCE presence in Albania, underlined that the international community's attitudes towards the Balkan region have had a decisive impact on the developments there and that transatlantic unity has been, and will continue to be, vital to the success in the region. He pointed to specific difficulties with the issue of the future of Kosovo, noting that although Kosovo was a constitutionally recognized part of Titoist Yugoslavia, it has been treated very differently than other parts of the country. The international community has treated Kosovo as a "human rights case" and as such has ignored or written off some of the historical, cultural and mythical claims on that territory. While observing that nearly half of all Albanians are outside the borders of Albania proper, Ahrens stressed the importance of maintaining sympathies for both sides—Serb as well as Albanian—in order to better understand the positions of the relevant players. For instance, he contends that Serbia has been put in a very difficult psychological position by the ethnic-based violence in Kosovo and threats to separate the region from Serbia. It is important to acknowledge that Kosovo is a very real part of Serbia's history and mythical past; that Serbia has suffered losses in Bosnia and Macedonia and that its grip on Kosovo has already slipped. Serbia is in many ways like post-World War I Germany: unwilling to accept defeat and its consequences. Only a divorce from Serbia will work for Kosovo, but the critical question is how this can be done without creating even more difficulties.

The Second Panel focused on the response to the crisis in Kosovo by the United States. First to speak was Joshua Black, Desk Officer for Kosovo at the Department of State. Black stated that the uprising in Kosovo in March began spontaneously but was then manipulated by extremists, ultimately involving as many as 70,000 people. He recounted the steps taken at the State Department to review its policy in Kosovo after the crisis. Two basic guidelines emerged from these debates: first that the US cannot reward violence by altering its policies and that business as usual is not working. The State Department continues to be committed to the standards before status policy, but has indicated three areas that need improvement. First, a specific implementation plan must be finally developed in order to achieve progress. Although UNMIK promised to develop such a plan, it has never delivered. Second, the Contact Group's role in this process should be increased, particularly its ability to focus on issues that matter most to Kosovo residents. Third, more must be done to ensure effective local governance. Finally, dialogue at all levels should be increased, and discussions should be inclusive—encompassing Belgrade, as well as other international actors such as the EU, NATO and OSCE. Black also reiterated the importance of focusing on the economy by making progress on privatization and foreign investment. He stressed that Under Secretary Grossman's mid-2005 deadline for assessing progress is fast approaching, but that the issue of status cannot be rushed and needs to be considered in "a reasonable time-frame."

David Kanin, formerly a Senior Political Analyst of the DCI Interagency Balkan Task Force, noted that although no one in the region was likely to have been surprised by the violence of March 17, the events of last month were extremely disorienting for people in Washington. The surprise stemmed from the fact that Washington international policy circles believed— incorrectly—that progress was being made in Kosovo and that final status would soon be possible. This surprise might have elicited changes to the policy, but Kanin asserted that the policy has a momentum of its own and that after a few days US policy was back on its old track, unresponsive to what happens in the region. Basically, Kanin said, US policy in Kosovo and the Balkans is "to keep the place quiet" because we have other more pressing priorities to confront.

Kanin contends that the crisis in Kosovo shows that the standards before status process has failed, and that the policy will need to be changed if there can be any hope for a peaceful settlement. Moreover, Kanin urged people in the region to take control of their own destinies, because they cannot expect the US to keep its attention focused on them. He suggested three priorities for Kosovo. First, it is important to keep open the east-west and north-south corridors throughout the whole Balkan region created in the post-Dayton settlement. These lifelines would continue to permit freer trade and allow the various economies to begin to improve. Second, he warned that decentralization and state strengthening are incompatible goals. Finally, he urged that the issue of Kosovo's status be resolved, and no longer side-stepped, since it is the main issue blocking progress in the region. He suggested independence with border adjustments returning the Serb-dominated region of northern Kosovo to Serbia.

The second panel was capped by Louis Sell, former Foreign Service Officer and currently Executive Director of the American University in Kosovo. Sell reiterated that the question of the status of Kosovo underlies every problem there and that Kosovo continues to be the powder keg beneath the entire Balkan region. What can be done? Sell welcomed the fact that the US and the EU have recently increased their engagement in the region, and that engagement may ultimately be more important than the content of the policy. He agreed that UNMIK must be replaced with a monitoring mission, and that governance be turned over to local authorities. For this to take place, decentralization is key, but this would not resolve the fundamental question: to which capital would regions report—Pristina or Belgrade?

In summary, this question, and most of the others posed throughout the two-panel meeting will only be answered once the status question is finally addressed. And while many proposals on the status of Kosovo and methods for partitioning the region were offered during the meeting, several participants reiterated that these are precisely the issues that must be debated and determined by the actors in the region and warned that making those decisions from a distance could stymie progress on settling this issue. Obrad Kesic, for example, reminded other participants that talk of partitioning Kosovo necessarily means partitioning Serbia, to which the region still officially belongs according to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244. Moreover, making assumptions about Kosovo's final status before serious negotiations even begin impacts those negotiations by taking certain possible concessions off the table and tying the hands of negotiators in other ways.