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Kosovo

William Montgomery

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The first indication (to the West) that there were serious human rights problems in the former Yugoslavia came in Kosovo in the late 1980s, when Slobodan Milosevic made his famous "They will never beat you again" speech and turned increasingly to nationalism to propel his way to power. Ironically, long after the firestorm of violence and ethnic conflict had played itself out in most of the rest of the former SFRY, Kosovo remains a center of ethnic conflict with no defined future. Unless and until a satisfactory solution is found for Kosovo (and by that I mean one that both the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians can accept), Serbia itself can never rid itself of the scourge of nationalism and will be unable to move as rapidly towards the European Union as it would like. Far more importantly, the whole democratic transition in Serbia will be imperiled.

The Kosovo experience should be a case study for the limits -- and risks --of international intervention. The United States and its Western allies tried virtually everything to encourage Milosevic to treat the Kosovar Albanians humanely, recognizing full well the implications of his policies. It was an effort doomed to failure, as the combination of Milosevic's desire to remain in power, historical enmity among the ethnic groups, growing national awareness on the part of the Albanian population, and the conflicting views of Kosovo itself of the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians were too much to overcome.

I can remember vividly my frustration in 1992 when Bosnia and Croatia were in flames and the Bush Administration was unwilling to get involved. Ironically, and somewhat cynically, key leaders of that Administration were concerned more about the potential violence in Kosovo and its international implications than they were about the tragedies actually taking place in Bosnia and Croatia. Thus, we took no action there, but issued the famous "Christmas warning" to Milosevic in December, 1992 that if he were to be responsible for initiating serious violence in Kosovo, we would respond - including with military force.

Ultimately, of course, the Clinton administration did use military force in the form of a massive bombing campaign to compel Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo and turn the administration of that area over to the organizations of the international community under the leadership of the UN. Was the bombing campaign the only option left? Did it achieve its purpose? Could it have been done differently?

I don't have good answers to many of these questions. But I can tell you that during my time as Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro I thought about them a lot as I tried to deal with the aftermath. Basically, we solved one problem at great cost (Serbian government massive human rights violations in its treatment of its ethnic Albanian minority) but we created others that thus far have defied solution. What to do about Kosovo? How does it fit into modern Europe? How does it interact with Serbia? How to dissuade the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, southern Serbia, and Macedonia from the use of violence? How to proceed in Kosovo in a way that does not re-radicalize Serbia? How to moderate the still raw forces of nationalism in Serbia and among Serbs, which the bombing campaign fuelled?

The job has been made much, much more difficult because of the international community's unwillingness or inability to come to terms with what future it expects for Kosovo and to act decisively to bring that about. Most speeches and policy statements emphasize the importance of a multi-ethnic society. Certainly we make considerable efforts to portray Kosovo as moving towards that ideal end. But the reality is that the degree of hatred, fear, and suspicion among the various ethnic groups remains at or near the levels seen immediately after the cessation of bombing in 1999. For most of the past five years, the international community has failed to recognize that fact and even in the face of incidents to the contrary, continued to portray Kosovo as making great strides toward multi-ethnicity. Even after the violence of this March, a depressingly large number of the UNMIK personnel (and influential government and non-government people in key capitals) do not understand the depth of the problem.

This isn't simply a question of naiveté. There has also been an underlying double standard in Kosovo on the part of the international community, based on the very real persecution of the Kosovar Albanians under Milosevic and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians that took place at and around the initial NATO bombing. The overwhelming feeling of the vast majority of international personnel that flooded into Kosovo in June 1999 was rather black and white with the Serbs as the oppressors and the Kosovar Albanians as the oppressed.

What the international community has been fundamentally unable to fully comprehend and accept is that the situation is now turned on its head with the oppressors becoming the oppressed and vice-versa. I would argue that some (perhaps most) of the civilian international personnel in Kosovo even today still have major problems with this concept. And it has led to a lack of sympathy to the very real plight of the Serbian minority even today and a corresponding lack of toughness in response to provocations by the Albanian majority. This has limited the efforts of the international community to effect return of Serb refugees in the face of Albanian intransigence. It has also led, for example, to full support for institutions (such as the University of Pristina) that are totally Albanian (no Serbs are willing to attend because of its location) but antagonism towards a similar university run by Serbs in Northern Mitrovica. The International Community has also accepted and funded the Kosovo Protection Corps, which is the successor to the KLA, is led by General Ceku, the head of the former KLA, is staffed by former KLA members who rather routinely are found responsible for acts of violence against the Serb or Macedonian communities, and whose head (Ceku) routinely declares that he is the head of the Kosovo Army. While it should seem rather obvious that the Kosovo Serbs could never be comfortable with such an organization and that it would be a major impediment to chances of a true multi-ethnic society, it still exists.

So what to do about Kosovo now? On the one hand, if the Kosovo Serbs do not come to feel that their religion, culture, language, and way of life are secure, they will never accept rule by an Albanian majority. They will leave, as they left Sarajevo in 1996. There is no question that this exodus will be fuel for the nationalists in Serbia and will also force even moderate politicians in Belgrade to take radical stances in order to survive politically. One is starting to see this even now.

On the other hand, Kosovar Albanians will accept nothing less than full independence in current borders. A significant percentage are determined to drive all Serbs from Kosovo, reasoning that as long as any remain, the possibility of Belgrade re-imposing itself over them remains.

My solution is pretty simple. Give every city and town in Kosovo the same degree of autonomy and responsibility enjoyed by any single town or city in the United States. I grew up in a town of 10,000 people. We had our own school system, police force, local government, hospital system, and taxing authority. There were clear guidelines for which things were the responsibility of the local government, which belonged to our State governments, and which were the purview of the federal government. If this were done - NOW - and with the full authority and power of the international community to make it stick and be effective - it would be far, far easier to deal with the broader questions of the future of Kosovo later on.

But the trick is to persuade, force, cajole the Kosovar Albanians to accept this, as the radicals among them will be bitterly opposed - wanting all authority to be centralized under majority Albanian control. It will also be critical to get the Serbs to accept this concept, because while they may well embrace it totally in Kosovo, they have proved to be very reluctant to de-centralize in Serbia proper despite recurring promises to do so.

If this solution or a similar one is not instituted well in advance of any decision on final status, my prediction is that any "final" solution will not be final at all, but we will just move into the next stage of the Kosovo tragedy.

 

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