Kosovo almost got its own flag.

According to the compromise proposal of UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the international community was to grant “supervised independence” to Kosovo, the largely Albanian enclave in southern Serbia. This compromise plan provided Kosovo with its own constitution, its own national anthem, and perhaps most symbolically, its own flag.

And so, over the summer, the Kosovo parliament launched a competition: anyone could submit their proposal for the new flag. There were, however, a few no-nos. First of all, the new flag couldn’t feature any double-headed eagles, which Albanians and Serbs both claim for their own. Then there were the forbidden color schemes. The flag couldn’t borrow the blue, white, and red of the Serbian flag or the black and red associated with the Kosovo independence movement. Finally, in an acknowledgement of the power of text, the parliament said: no words.

Despite these design restrictions, Kosovars submitted a thousand proposals. Some submissions showed an outline of the new country. Others incorporated a European Union motif of a circle of stars that reflected the aspirations of this not-yet country.

And then Russia made its own submission: an outline of Kosovo with a big X through it. Siding with Belgrade, which insists that Kosovo is the cradle of Serb civilization although only 10% of the population is ethnically Serb, Moscow made it clear that it did not support the Ahtisaari compromise. The flag committee had to postpone the competition. And Kosovars have returned to the waiting room of nations, where they sit impatiently for their number to be called, along with the Kurds, the Transdniestrans, and the Taiwanese.

Like Taiwan, Kosovo is a state and not a state. But the Kosovars desperately want to avoid Taiwan’s fate — an unresolved international status, a hostile stand-off with a neighboring country, and a coalition of countries that have decided to pragmatically back the larger, stronger country in the conflict. Unlike the Taiwanese situation, however, the United States is squarely in Kosovo’s corner. Kosovars practically worship America, particularly the guy who ordered the bombing of Serbia. There is Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital Pristina, and there are little Kosovars running around with Bill Clinton as their first and middle names.

Negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, along with the troika of mediators from the United States, European Union, and Russia, are expected to drag on until the December 10 deadline set by the UN. After that, Kosovo leaders have threatened to declare independence unilaterally and seek recognition from the United States and EU. The most recent proposal on the table is the post-independence “friendship treaty” that Kosovo has offered Serbia. Belgrade is not biting. Serbia is adamant about preventing secession, even to the point of giving up its hopes of one day joining the EU. As one analyst told me in Pristina, “500 years from now, Serbs will be singing songs damning the political leader who ‘lost Kosovo.'”

The key actor in all this is, of course, the EU. Having been accused of blowing it in the early 1990s by jumping the gun and recognizing the breakaway states of Croatia and Slovenia, European countries want to get it right this time. Getting it right, though, requires coming to consensus — Britain and France favor recognition while Spain, Greece, and Bulgaria are deeply ambivalent. As Richard Caplan argued in his piece for FPIF at the end of August, the three options of stalemate, partition (with the predominantly Serbian part of Kosovo joining Serbia), and a unilateral declaration of independence are all bad options. The EU should stick to the option of managed independence, with concessions for ethnic Serbs that satisfy Belgrade and some immediate symbols of sovereignty — like a flag — to satisfy Kosovo. Easier said than done.

Even more frightening, however, is the prospect that resolving the status issue is one of the easier problems facing Kosovo. Unemployment runs high, as does political corruption. The environment is despoiled, and a deep divide separates the very cosmopolitan Pristina from the traditional countryside. Having a flag, and managed independence, is no small thing for Kosovo. But it’s only the beginning.

The Decider Speaks

Last week came the Petraeus report on the Iraq War and the U.S. occupation. Predictably, General Petraeus evaluated the “surge” a success and called for more resolve (time, money, firepower) to achieve an unambiguous win. As Steve Coll has written in The New Yorker, Petraeus is no fan of the Powell Doctrine of the United States fighting only winnable wars with massive force. Instead, he sees a future of small, dirty wars — with a large part played by counterinsurgency operations — so he needs a win in Iraq to prove his military theories. His political handlers, meanwhile, have a very different motivation. “Surely, for example, the General is conscious of the partisan Republican campaign to promote him as ‘Bush’s Grant,’ and is aware of the cause: the Party expects to lose the next Presidential election because of the war,” Coll writes. “But Petraeus offers hope, however faint, that a Republican nominee might find something in Iraq to embrace.”

With Petraeus providing military cover, President Bush gave a speech on September 13 to prop up the sagging center of his foreign policy. In their latest edition of Annotate This, FPIF’s Stephen Zunes and Erik Leaver refute Bush’s speech point by point. Contrary to the president’s remarks, they argue that Baghdad is still under siege, factional fighting has increased even in Anbar province, the Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of 18 political and economic benchmarks, overall U.S. troops levels are set to increase not decrease, the vast majority of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. troops, and most of the predicted nightmare outcomes of U.S. withdrawal are already in place in Iraq today.

Furthermore, U.S. soldiers in Iraq have not made either Iraq or the United States safer. “If the escalation in American troop strength in Iraq was really resulting in the finding and elimination of terrorists who could attack the United States, nobody would want to withdraw any troops,” Zunes and Leaver write. “But this simply is not the case. Indeed, in response to a question by Republican Senator John Warner as to whether the administration’s policies in Iraq was really making the United States safer, General Petraeus replied, ‘Sir, I don’t know, actually.'”

One of the disturbing aspects of the Petraeus report was its several references to Iran trying to gain influence in Iraq through the creation of something similar to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. This rhetoric is connected to the U.S. attempt to seek stronger UN sanctions against Iran and Gen. Petraeus’s pressure on the British to shift their troops in Iraq to the border with Iran. It may also ultimately help build a case for war.

As FPIF contributor Nathan Gonzalez writes in Burning the Ships?, “As the United States continues to move toward confrontation on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program by attempting to link potential cooperation on Iraq and Afghanistan with the immediate cessation of nuclear enrichment, the irony is that America has thus systematically forced Iran into a corner, from which it is only likely to emerge armed with a nuclear warhead — turning what is considered by many a nightmare scenario into a reality.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the region, the Bush administration continues to hang its hopes on General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan despite an upsurge in popular protest against the authoritarian leader. Two-thirds of Pakistanis want Musharraf out of politics altogether. “Many educated middle-class Pakistanis resent the administration’s Musharraf policy,” writes FPIF contributor Tarique Niazi in Inside Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy. “Interestingly, this is the same class of people whom the administration intends to court to fight extremism. Washington expects Musharraf to lead the charge on extremism and terrorism, which, on his watch, have peaked to unprecedented levels. The negative fallout, for the U.S., of growing extremism in Pakistan is evident in the rising anti-American sentiment that is shared by 90% of its citizens.”

Voice of the People

Popular anger is rising as well in Burma. After the government there raised the price of gas in the middle of August, peaceful protests spread throughout the country. The police have arrested 193 protestors, and Buddhist leaders are calling for a boycott against all those involved in the crackdown on the protestors. Activists in ten different countries are planning a global day of protest on September 18, with a focus on pressuring China to change its policy of uncritically supporting the Burmese military junta.

“In 1988, the general consensus among Burmese citizens and Burma watchers alike was that the military government came within a hair’s breadth of losing power. But it managed to regain its control by the use of massive force and by an increasingly ratcheted up control, which remains in force to this day,” writes FPIF contributor Kyi May Kaung in Burma — Growing Darker Daily. “The difference between 1988 and now is that now, due to the internet and citizen journalism, it is much more difficult for the junta to hide its human rights abuses. The outside world is much more aware of the Burmese situation, the National League for Democracy is still an important force for change in Burma, exile groups are much more galvanized, and the gap between the power holders and everyone else is much wider than it ever was before.”

In Bulgaria, as I write in my Postcard from…Sofia, the exercise of political voice is not always so pleasant. The ultra-nationalist political party Ataka has members not only in the Bulgarian parliament but, after May elections, in the European parliament as well. “Ataka’s representatives in the European parliament helped to form an extremist coalition called Identity, Tradition, and Sovereignty with some of Europe’s ugliest parties, such as France’s National Front, Italian neo-fascists, and Austria’s xenophobic Freedom Party,” I report. “A multinational coalition of xenophobes might seem a contradiction in terms, but the European project of integration has generated some strange offspring.”

Ataka is in part a Bulgarian reaction to being treated like second-class citizens in Europe. Alas, this feeling of discrimination has not meant greater empathy by the majority population toward minorities like Roma and ethnic Turks. The Balkan region is rife with such competing feelings of victimhood, nowhere more so than in what will likely be the last country to be carved out of former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, Albanians and Serb disagree about many things. But they both think they’ve gotten the short end of the European stick.

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