By Dana Rohrabacher
With America's focus on the war in Afghanistan and the crises in the Middle East and northern Africa, it is understandable that the Balkan war of a decade and a half ago has fallen off the international radar screen. But the still-smoldering embers of this conflict threaten to ignite yet another conflagration, and it's crucial that Western leaders and policy makers work quickly to reestablish and strengthen the region's hard-won peace.
Serbia is still refusing to recognize Kosovo as an independent state and has been supporting ethnic Serbs who form the majority population in northern Kosovo. Over recent months, those Belgrade-backed Kosovar Serbs have become increasingly aggressive and violent against the Kosovar government they refuse to recognize. The peace and stability negotiated between the region's warring ethnic factions in the late 1990s is now at risk of falling apart completely.
On Sept. 27 the situation became even more urgent, when EU-sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo broke down. This came after four NATO soldiers and 16 Serb civilians were seriously injured in a struggle over the illegal barricades that Belgrade-backed extremists had erected throughout North Kosovo. The barricades are part of Serbia's campaign to maintain the embargo on Kosovar products that it imposed after Pristina declared independence in 2008.
Such warning signs should not be ignored, not least because they threaten to unravel the orderly diplomatic strategy designed to resolve the conflict. Contrary to the peace plans of the 1990s, Belgrade has often repeated its intention to make the current de facto partition of North Kosovo a permanent de jure reality. This has fueled the violent factions currently operating in North Kosovo and could result in a repeat of the senseless killing sprees that the region thought it had left behind.
Part of the problem is that the peace agreements of the 1990s were not comprehensive, leaving core issues unresolved. To prevent these issues from unleashing a new era of Balkan bloodshed, a new peace initiative--one that addresses the root causes of the conflict--needs to be launched. The first step should be for the international community to admit that while it has helped Kosovars rebuilt their country, revitalize their economy, establish democratic institutions and heal the scars of war since 1999, the hardening informal partition of North Kosovo could undo all they've accomplished so far.
So the next step will be a for a bold, new strategy that recognizes Kosovar Serbs' right to self-determination while respecting Kosovo's sovereignty. Throughout my career in the U.S. Congress, I have argued that if the Kosovars want to be independent of Serbia, they should be. Likewise, if a majority of people in North Kosovo would rather be a part of Serbia, they should be too.
One option that would be consistent with the right to self-determination and that would bolster long-term stability would be for an honorable transfer between Serbia and Kosovo of roughly equal pieces of territory and population. In North Kosovo the ethnic Serbs would, should they choose to do so by a vote, be transferred to the sovereignty of Serbia. Simultaneously, the Kosovar majority in southern Serbia could become part of Kosovo should they so desire. This would offer all parties the opportunity for an equal exchange, based on fairness and self-determination for both sides.
To be sure, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in the U.S. and in European capitals about the viability of land swaps for peace. Critics warn that such exchanges will only set in motion currently dormant conflicts--the ultimate domino effect, leading every disenfranchised minority population to feel that they can and should pursue independence, regardless of the circumstances.
That view, however, is unduly pessimistic. I happen to agree with Austrian politician Erhard Busek, the former head of the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe, who told Serbia's Novi Magazin last month that "Brussels and Washington say that the borders cannot be changed, but if Pristina and Belgrade would agree among themselves, then the Europeans and Americans would also agree." If executed properly, the land-and-population-swap option would calm rather than exacerbate hostilities.
Today Serbs and Albanians are facing the prospect of once having to fight rather than accept an untenable status quo. With this land swap, based on both groups' right to self-determination, Belgrade, Pristina and their Western partners could improve the status quo and settle arguments peacefully, rather than ignoring them and, eventually, warring over them.
Mr. Rohrabacher is a Republican congressman from California and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation in the House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Affairs.