Frida Ghitis

writes on foreign affairs

In a few months, a new 10-foot statue of Bill Clinton will take its place overlooking Bill Clinton Boulevard - in the city of Pristina, capital of the breakaway province of Kosovo. Remember Kosovo? For a few months, it captured our attention. Now, while the American public looks elsewhere, the province is again becoming a test case for how much say the international community will have within the borders of a sovereign nation.

The surprising answer - in Kosovo as in Darfur, and perhaps elsewhere - is that this community can and must have a say. Kosovo may be the turning point that lays noninterventionism down to a quiet sleep.

In 1999, the United States led a NATO force in a bombardment that "persuaded" Serbian forces to leave the ethnic Albanian enclave in a crumbling Yugoslavia. Kosovo was a province of Serbia. Unlike the Serbs, however, the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians, Muslims, who had resented the central government in Serbia for years. When ultra-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic took Yugoslavia by military storm after the end of the Cold War, separatist guerrillas in Kosovo came under ruthless attack from his army.

The world had done too little too late to protect civilians in other parts of the now-defunct Yugoslavia, allowing thousands of Bosnians and Croats to die and millions to become displaced in independence wars against Serbs. Faced with renewed carnage in the Balkans - Serbian forces had killed about 10,000 Kosovars - Clinton finally decided to act.

With its NATO allies, the United States went to war to protect Muslims. After a 78-day bombardment, Serbian forces withdrew, and Kosovo became an international protectorate.

Now, eight years later, the time has come to decide whether Kosovo will be an independent nation - as the overwhelming majority of its population wants - or remain an autonomous region in Serbia, as the Serbs demand, with strong support from Russia.

Serbia considers Kosovo a spiritual, historical center of the nation. But ethnic Albanians have always made up the vast majority of the population. In a tragic, ironic turn of events, ethnic Albanians, the beneficiaries of Western help, have expelled 200,000 ethnic Serbs from the province since war ended.

In March, U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, proposed granting de facto independence to Kosovo under European supervision. The plan envisions full independence and acceptance of both Kosovo and Serbia into the European Union.

The Serbian government has emphatically rejected the plan. With the exception of Russia, which holds veto power, it appears that all other members of the U.N. Security Council plan to vote for approval.

The principal objection from Belgrade and Moscow is that the plan sets a dangerous precedent. If the international community can vote in favor of a separatist movement, slicing away a big piece of a country, what's to stop it from doing it elsewhere? Moscow worries about places like Chechnya, where Russian forces have waged a brutal war against separatists.

Russia may be justified in worrying about Chechnya, but the larger worry - about international interventionism - is probably a decade too late. The fact is, the international community already has accepted that interventionism will be part of its future. When NATO took on what was a domestic conflict in Serbia in 1999, it was breaking one of the cardinal rules of international politics: Never interfere in a country's internal affairs. A new doctrine is evolving. When a central government engages in the massive slaughter of its own people, it loses the right to be left alone by the international community. Genocide trumps sovereignty. That's why Kosovo deserves independence from Serbia. Incidentally, this is also why Sudan, the tormentor of Darfur, has lost the right to keep foreign forces off its soil.

The threshold for foreign intervention in another country's domestic affairs should be high, but not unreachable. Kosovo already served as a test case for military intervention. It now stands as another marker in the history of international affairs. The fact is that despite Serbian and Russia opposition, everyone knows that Kosovo will become an independent nation - a Muslim nation with streets, statues and people honoring an American president. How's that for unusual?

Contact Frida Ghitis at fghitis@gmail.com.