The Lessons of Kosovo

It is a good time to review the developments in Kosovo since 1999, which highlight the dire consequences of excessively ambitious long-distance social engineering and centralism in name of nation-building.

The United Nations will vote this week whether to grant "supervised" independence to Kosovo. It is a good time to review the developments in Kosovo since 1999, which highlight the dire consequences of excessively ambitious long-distance social engineering and centralism in name of nation-building and the pitfalls of imported regime designs. The most important fact about Kosovo is the split between the Serbs and the Albanians. The main failing of foreign forces has been their desire to foster, impose or otherwise bring about a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo in which Serbs and Albanians would enjoy equal status. Five days before his assassination in March 2003, the reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic put it this way: "Serbs and Albanians have never lived together in Kosovo and Metohija. They have always lived next to each other. A multiethnic Kosovo society is a great illusion. It has never existed. It has always been a society of ethnic co-existence." Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations echoed these sentiments: "In spirit as well as fact, multiethnic society is nowhere to be found. Pretending otherwise and denying or delaying independence risks a return to disorder and bloodshed."

Despite their long residence in a province of Serbia, most Albanian Kosovars do not identify with Serbia, nor do they share a sense of loyalty to the Serbian state. Even before the beginning of Milosevic's 1998 campaign to kill or expel large numbers of Albanians from Kosovo, the Serbian government had instituted a policy of wide-ranging discrimination. Milosevic oversaw policies that sought to replace Albanian workers with Serbs, to close Albanian-run schools and universities, and to shut down Albanian language television, radio and newspapers. At same time, the Albanian Kosovars hardly turned the other cheek; the Kosovo Liberation Army engaged in terroristic brutalities of its ownmainly against Serbs, such as the massacre at a bar in Pec. Hence, when the main armed conflict ended in 1999, the two groups remained extremely hostile to each other. It was into this climate of historical segregation and mutual hostility that the United States, its NATO allies, Russia and the United Nations stepped in, with their designs.

The exercise in nation-building in Kosovo began immediately after the end of the NATO bombing campaign, when the United Nations assumed governance of the province. The attempt at social engineering in Kosovo is of special interest because it resembles in many ways other unrealistic, grandiose plans crafted by superpowers to democratize and develop one nation after another. The plans for Kosovo were laid out in the several documents that were endorsed by the United Nations, NATO and Russia.

These documents, especially UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the UN Mission in Kosovo's "Standards for Kosovo", call for the introduction of democratic institutions, a competitive market economy, and the rule of law and protection of minority rights, among other lofty goals. The documents that lay out Kosovo's fate display an almost instinctive aversion to partitions and population exchanges on the part of the United States and its allies. Although they affirm a belief in pluralism, this is to be achieved only in the context of a single national community. They hence set out to form "a sustainable, multi-ethnic, democratic society, in which members of all communities can live in dignity and security." America adamantly opposed suggestions of partition, cantonization or ethnic separation. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns stated at one point, "It's a perilous exercise to begin drawingfor foreigners to begin to draw lines and redefine other people's reality, their borders." He may not have noted that he was himself not exactly a native son of Kosovo and that he too was drawing bordersonly those that suited the lofty goal of nation-building, which conflicts starkly with the assessments of those who truly know Kosovo and who are acquainted with the facts on the ground.

To this a critic might respond: "You could argue that any international effort to induce domestic change of any kind is by nature an attempt to ‘disregard facts on the ground', because the facts on the ground are deplorable. The reason for the international community's interest in statebuilding in Kosovo wasn't a response to a whim but, as you write above, a moral imperative to end ethnic cleansingyou can't fault the international community for seeming to ‘disregard facts on the ground' when there is a moral imperative to change those facts." I readily grant that the US and UN plans were not drafted on a whim, but they were nevertheless predicated on mistaken assumptions. Surely the ethnic cleansing had to be stopped; however, the plans for a sustainable, multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo were hatched for the most part after the ethnic cleansing had already been halted. No one is denying the extremely deplorable character of what transpired between Serbs and Albanians; but historical facts do not vanish because of good intentions. Nor were these intentions morally justifiedfor instance, trying to prevent Kosovo from breaking away from Serbia does not have the kind of a moral imperative attached to halting ethnic cleansing.