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Kosovo: A Year Later



  Richard Falk
Professor , Printeon University
TFF Associate



April 2000 - A year ago, on March 23, 1999, NATO commenced a massive bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Supporters of the attack described it as "humanitarian intervention," and defended bypassing the UN as justifiable so as to coerce Belgrade to end its severe abuse of the Albanian majority population in Kosovo.

Although it remains too soon to draw definitive lessons, it begins to be possible to suggest some of the major effects of this military undertaking, which is doing more to define the post-1989 world order than has any other event, including the Gulf War. Iraq's conquest of Kuwait was a stark instance of international aggression, yet it was anomalous. In contrast, the ethnic conflict raging in Kosovo has emerged as the prototypic form of political violence of the current era. Chechnya, East Timor, Kashmir, Sierra Leone are examples of ongoing intrastate conflict that illustrate the range and pervasiveness of the Kosovo challenge..

Reflecting on the significance of Kosovo deserves to become part of the public debate during this election year, and it is a confirmation of the trivialization of presidential politics in this country that this is almost certain not to happen. As with so many other issues essential to the wellbeing of American society (and the planet), serious discussion, if it occurs at all, will be left to civil society.


The Independent International Commission on Kosovo

Returning from a recent visit to Kosovo as part of a small delegation of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (with 13 members, chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone; it was established some months ago at the initiative of the Swedish Prime Minister, and due to submit a report to the Secretary General of the United Nations in October), of which I am member, two strong impressions emerge as to the realities on the ground.


Serb repression has been lifted

The first is that the curse of Serb oppression has been definitively lifted from the majority Albanian population. The NATO campaign achieved the removal of FRY military forces from Kosovo, and even more significantly, the departure of the dreaded Serb paramilitary units and the Serb police. This should be acknowledged by critics of the US/NATO`war strategy, among whom I include myself. In this regard, it is important to admit that even the Rambouillet ultimatum, which represented an abandonment of diplomacy, rather than a good faith effort, did not go nearly this far. It would have left a Serb military/police presence in Kosovo, undoubtedly keeping ethnic violence alive, both from the KLA and the Serb sides. Such an assessment does not amount to a vindication of the Clinton/Blair approach to Kosovo, but it is a tangible achievement of genuine human benefit. The unexpectedly rapid return of the Kosovar Albanians, and their undisguised gratitude for the NATO intervention, further confirm such an interpretation.

The Albanians themselves completed the rest of the job of securing Kosovo for the Albanians, regrettably committing their own Crimes Against Humanity along the way, both by driving most of the Serbs out of the province altogether and forcing the rest into a few heavily guarded enclaves. Since the end of the bombing the Serbs have themselves become victims of ethnic cleansing, which although on a far smaller scale than what had been experienced by the Albanians, is well on its way to establishing an ethnically pure Kosovo. What remains are small Roma, Turkish, and Bosniac minorities herded into a few villages in the South, dependent for security on KFOR protection. The most contested of the Serb remnants, and by far the most significant, is the divided city of Mitrovica in the north near the Serbian border. This process of reverse ethnic cleansing was not effectively challenged by KFOR (NATO) or by UNMIK (UN), nor could (or should) it have been avoided given the passions unleashed by the greatly accelerated and massive Serb atrocities during the 78 days of bombing that induced by terror the temporary and unprecedented departure of almost half of Kosovo's total population of two million. After decades of abuse, this de facto emergence of an Albanian Kosovo seems like a reasonable outcome of the war, bringing relief to 90% of the Kosovar population, a result in accordance with the right of self-determination, and probably the best outcome given the circumstances. Its viability seems, however, to depend on a menacing uncertainty, whether a reliable long-term international commitment to provide border security against the possibility of future Serbian aggression will be sustained.

There should be no illusions that an independent Kosovo is likely to be a democratic political entity that exhibits respect for human rights. As matters now stand, it is likely to be directly or indirectly dominated by the KLA. True, its most visible leaders have adopted the sort of rhetoric that wins the approval of UNMIC and the world media, but its background, outlook, and activities invite strong suspicions of widespread ties to a criminal underworld and political goals that embody the values of ethnic authoritarianism. Without a permanent UN border control in relation to some arrangement of partition, neither ethnic community is likely to be safe for very long, given the vast reservoirs of unspent hatred on both sides.

It should be noted in passing that the diplomatic leverage produced by the bombing resulted from the punishment inflicted in Serbia proper, not Kosovo, especially the damage done to the civilian infrastructure as the target list was gradually expanded due to NATO expectations of an quick surrender by Milosevic being disappointed. In Kosovo, the bombing was impressively limited to lawful targets. Ironically, at the same time, there is now uncontested agreement that almost no damage was done to FRY military capabilities. Either Belgrade knew or anticipated the original NATO target list, its forces vacating its bases and barracks in Kosovo and successfully hiding its main military assets, apparently fooling even the smartest technology in the history of warfare with its dummy targets. Aside from weakening Serb air defenses not much military damage was done in Serbia either. So much for what was proclaimed as the first victory ever achieved by reliance on air power!

Of course, it is fair to ask, then, "why did Milosevic strike a deal that resulted in the loss of Kosovo?" There is no denying that the bombing was destroying Serbia step by step. The point is that this destruction was achieved by aiming the bombs and missiles at the entire civilian infrastructure of Serbia. There were incentives to strike a bargain, and it should be remembered, that as compared to Rambouillet, Milosevic was given several face-saving concessions: especially, a diminished role for NATO, an enhanced role for the UN, and no intrusion upon the territory of the FRY except for Kosovo, thereby endorsing the Serbian view of its sovereign rights.


UNMIK - "mission impossible"

The second strong impression of the situation in Kosovo is that of "the mission impossible" assigned to UNMIK by the UN Security Council. UNMIK has been mandated to establish a multiethnic Kosovo that remains subject to the sovereignty of the FRY. Such was the bargain negotiated to end the war, which included vesting political authority in the UN, while assigning the peacekeeping role to NATO. The price paid for securing the acquiescence of China and Russia in the Security Council was the reaffirmation of the status of Kosovo as part of former Yugoslavia, as well as the assurance that the Serbs would be able to retain their ethnic presence in Kosovo. Neither of these goals was ever really attainable, and the lip service that still must be paid to them ensures constant tension, recurrent violent incidents (including against UNMIK), frustration with the restoration of normalcy to Kosovo, and an eventual probable perception of UN failure.

Such a result is particularly tragic, considering the dedication and ability of the excellent UNMIK team led with conviction and compassion by Bernard Kouchner, the French founder of Doctors Without Borders. The reputation of the UN was severely damaged by its earlier emission impossible in Bosnia. It had been there assigned by the Security Council a role of impartiality amid a gathering storm of genocidal practices, culminating in the 1995 massacre of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica. A second mission impossible in Kosovo will carry further the dangerous work of weakening the UN role in the very settings of internal conflict where its presence is most needed in many troubled countries throughout the world. It should be noted that the withholding of resources from UNMIK, the failure of the European countries to follow through on their pledges of funds and police represents a failure of will that hampers the effectiveness of UNMIK in restoring normalcy to Kosovo. This shortage of funds has also delayed the establishment by the UN of a massive public works program in Kosovo that is needed to rebuild the country and attract invest, but even more so, to reduce the level of unemployment from its current figure of over 85% of the workforce. Serious as are these shortages of resources, it is the Procrustean UN mandate that neither can accommodate the complex realities of the situation nor realize the goals of humanitarian diplomacy that remains the fundamental difficulty a year after the NATO bombs and missiles.

In effect, the UN is being prevented from achieving success in Kosovo despite the heroic efforts of those who are risking their lives in service there. At this point, the overwhelming majority in Kosovo is committed to full independence as a sacred cause. To deny this aspiration is to ensure a return to violence within Kosovo. To slow it down, as the UN now plans, by holding municipal elections in a few months, and general elections somewhat later, is a gamble, hoping that by playing for time, some sort of compromise becomes feasible. Such a plan amounts to an electoral charade designed to defer the seemingly unconditional and united Albanian insistence that Kosovo's destiny is to be a state, and no longer a province of the FRY, however autonomous. Restored autonomy might have been a solution back in 1995 when Milosevic's cooperation in ending the war in Bosnia was "purchased" by Washington at the price of keeping Kosovo off the table at Dayton and giving Belgrade a free hand subsequently. It is important to note that the KLA surge followed directly upon this diplomatic signal, thereby abruptly ending the popular appeal of the brave movement of nonviolent resistance to Serb domination led by Ibrahim Rugova.

The post-conflict international response in Kosovo is also weakened by the application of a punitive policy toward Belgrade. It seems scandalous to once more make a captive civilian population pay for the crimes of its repressive leader. It is also dysfunctional apparently having strengthened Milosevic's hold on power, as well as his nothing-to-lose posture of intransigence. As with Saddam Hussein, any likely successor to Milosevic in the FRY would almost certainly adhere to nationalist claims that Kosovo was a part of Yugoslavia, and thus the alleged hope of awaiting a change in Belgrade leadership seems one more Washington no brainer. Or worse, a shameless fear that allowing Serbia to recover from the devastation of the NATO attacks, would expose more plainly the criminality of imposing punitive sanctions on Iraq for almost a decade. Milosevic, an opportunist to his marrow, might have opted for stability by accepting the partial loss of Kosovo, if Serbia had been allowed to resume some measure of normalcy. Without incentives, his natural temptation is to provoke turmoil throughout the South Balkans with the hope of testing the political will of the US and its European allies. In this regard, one already hears demands from Congress and the media for a KFOR exit before the next cycle of violence commences.

This mixed assessment of the NATO/UN efforts in Kosovo needs to be related to the wider international impacts of the military campaign and the subsequent year. The international response to the Russian devastation of Chechnya was definitely muted by NATO warmaking in Kosovo. It was notable that both Putin and Ivanov wrote op/ed columns in Western newspapers repudiating criticism of its Chechnya policies by direct reference to Kosovo. But the opposite effect needs also to be noted. Undoubtedly, the US in particular, exerted pressure on Jakarta with respect to giving up East Timor, partly to deflect a rising tide of criticism at home and abroad that in the face of Kosovo, it was treating equals unequally.


Possible global consequences

There are important global effects of the NATO War. Apparently, China increased its nuclear weapons program in response to the bombing of its Belgrade embassy during the war, and as a reaction to US-led NATO unilateralism. It is also reliably reported that India's leaders were influenced in a similar direction, growing more convinced that their security was dependent over time on retaining and further developing their nuclear weapons capability. More speculatively, it has been claimed that the KLA strategy of provoking an international response by inducing Serb oppressive reactions to their anti-Serb insurrectionary violence, sets a model in the period 1995-98, for other discontented ethnic groups, putting a premium on violence as the path to political fulfillment.

A year after the bombing it is possible to reach a few tentative conclusions: the Albanian Kosovars have been provisionally liberated; Kosovo and the region remains a tinderbox; the UN due to the lack of consensus among its principal members is likely to emerge further weakened; heightened suspicions surround are likely to greet any proposed humanitarian interventions in the future that does not have the benefit of a UN authorization; neither the resources nor political imagination have been devoted to taking some obvious steps to prevent future Kosovos such as establishing a volunteer UN peacekeeping force, creating an independent "Genocide Watch," and moving ahead with the establishment of an international criminal court. In sum, in light of Kosovo, the authority of the UN is more important than ever, while its reputation and capabilities for effective action are likely to continue to decline, not a happy combination of circumstances on the first anniversary of the first NATO War.




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