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A Pause that Refreshes

August 9, 2007

By David Binder

Remember what it was like last winter and spring with the Kosovo issue? Hardly a day went by without a declaration or a prediction that a resolution would be achieved in days, weeks, a month. Independence was just around the corner. Condoleezza Rice, Nicholas Burns, Daniel Fried, Frank Wisner and the pathetic Michael Polt went before microphones and cameras to make these vows with the seeming assurance of biblical prophets on behalf of the Bush Administration.

They were echoed by longtime advocates of independence for Kosovo (some of them paid by Albanians) like Richard Holbrooke, Morton Abramowitz, Rep. Tom Lantos and Janus Bugajski. And those were only the Americans speaking.

Then on April 3, Marti Ahtisaari submitted his version of a solution-resolution to the United Nations Security Council. Did anyone hear a “kerplunk” sound of something dropping into the Hudson River behind the U.N. Building?

Since then the silence has grown.

It seems that Serbia, with a huge boost from Vladimir Putin and his able team of diplomats has succeeded in torpedoing Ahtisaari, paralyzing the Security Council and stalling the Albanian drive for independence. At least for a moment it leaves Serbia with more to hope for than could have been expected last winter and the Kosovo Albanians with less than they were counting on as late as April.

We now have a pause. (For an American it calls to mind the first great advertising slogan for Coca Cola, from 1929: “The pause that refreshes”).What might we expect when the pause ends sometime in the autumn? Predictions in foreign affairs are dangerous, especially concerning the Balkans. Yet I think we can discern several changes that may influence the Kosovo deliberations.

Even before his July meeting with Putin in Maine, President Bush seemed to be in the process of scaling down United States plans on Kosovo, leading him to one of his “what did I mean when I said that?” moments. In Rome on June 9 he stated: “In terms of the deadline there needs to be one”

However, a day later in Tirana, the president forgot that he had mentioned a “deadline” and then said: “The question is whether or not there is going to be endless dialogue on a subject that we have made up our mind about. We believe Kosovo ought to be independent.” And, a bit later, “At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you’ve got to say: Enough is enough – Kosovo is independent.”

Whether he expressed such plaintive thoughts to Putin in Maine is not known. But it was clear that the two presidents decided not to tangle on the issue and to delegate it to their foreign secretaries. At least the Kosovo conundrum momentarily reached that height between the superpowers, which it had never ascended before.

Another factor has appeared, which may gain some bearing on the next stage of Kosovo deliberations: a decline in the political influence of the United States as President Bush’s time in office draws to a close.

A Pew poll conducted among 1,000 citizens in each of 47 countries and made public in June showed the United States in disfavor in 26 countries. Germans, French, Canadians and Britons said they trusted Putin more than Bush. Two-thirds of Germans said they disliked American ideas about democracy. Three-quarters of the French polled said the same.

Conceivably, these sentiments could translate here or there into government policies. Still, the Bush Administration continues to be numb to the interests and commitments of others. Among the numbest it seems is Condoleezza Rice. On June 28, she said at the US-India Business Council: “What is the meaning of non-alignment? It has lost its meaning. One is aligned not with the interests and power of one bloc or another, but with the values of a common humanity.” The next day India‘s foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, icily retorted: “India is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement and believes that the movement has contributed substantially to the struggle against colonialism and apartheid.”

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*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade‘s Politika on July 7, 2007.

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