The Demons of Kosovo

The Demons of Kosovo

Mini Teaser: The competing claims of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have been hopelessly tangled in the webs of history and myth.

by Author(s): Warren Zimmerman

This will not be easy. Kosovo is slightly smaller than Connecticut
and only a fifth the size of Bosnia. But it is a land of mountains,
valleys, and gorges, where the medieval Serbs built many of their
churches to shelter them from the Turks. With the Serbs now the
occupiers, the rugged terrain favors the Albanian guerillas. The
character of Serbia's occupation would make Bosnia-style air strikes
against Serbian targets difficult for NATO. The Bosnian war was
partly a war of fronts. In Kosovo power operates on a smaller scale.
The Serbs have a police, and a growing army, presence throughout most
of the province. Surgical air strikes without casualties, such as
NATO accomplished in Bosnia in 1995, would be virtually impossible.
Air attacks would almost certainly victimize both Serbian and
Albanian civilians. Moreover, stealing a leaf from Saddam Hussein,
the Serbs have begun to establish military outposts in populated

NATO air power could reduce Milosevic's ability to launch a major
military campaign against the Albanians by inhibiting the Serbian
ability to move ground forces and helicopters. But air strikes would
probably have to be repeated several times to have a significant
effect. The Bosnian air war was over in two weeks; such a quick
success would seem unlikely in Kosovo.

There are legal and psychological problems as well. The West
intervened militarily in Bosnia at the invitation, indeed the
pleading, of the Bosnian government. Serbia, the recognized authority
in Kosovo, has adamantly rejected any Western involvement.
Milosevic rejected an American attempt to have a Western presence
at his first meeting with Rugova on May 15. Moreover, the emotional
hold of Kosovo on Serbs might just cause them to react to Western
military intervention by closing ranks behind Milosevic. Economic
sanctions are also unpromising; they were used so heavily against the
Serbs over Bosnia that they probably have little punch left. In
response to a major assault by Milosevic, air strikes and economic
sanctions would need to be seriously considered for credibility's
sake. But their effect might turn out to be more symbolic than

The American Factor

Is there any chance that the flammable tinder of Kosovo can be damped
down locally, by negotiation between Milosevic and the Rugova
leadership without foreign assistance? Probably not. Milosevic,
after a decade of pretending that Rugova did not exist, has finally
met him. But the chasm between them remains wide. Plenty of arguments
can be cited to Milosevic in favor of a change of direction. For
example, he will do better dealing with the Albanian moderates than
with the extremists who will follow them. If he doesn't act now
before the armed Albanian resistance becomes powerful, he may lose
Kosovo altogether. His nationalist failures may soon lose him support
in Serbia; even some of his extremist supporters are turning
critical. He has demonstrated his opportunism before by undermining
extreme nationalists in Croatia and Bosnia, so why not now in Kosovo?

The answer to these logical points resides in Milosevic's
character. He has made concessions in the past only when forced into
them. By nature he is a leader of supreme intransigence, prepared to
lie, falsely promise, and renege in the interest of avoiding even the
most trivial compromise. He came to his nationalism by opportunism,
not conviction; thus, he could back down in Croatia and Bosnia. But
Kosovo is different. Milosevic has defined his political identity
by his nationalism on Kosovo. He came to power on the issue, and--now
that he has inflamed the emotions of the Serbian people over it--he
seems to believe that his political survival depends on his
inflexibility. His recent inclusion in the Serbian government of
Vojislav Seselj, a pathological racist who has in the past called
for elimination of the Kosovo Albanians, is a disturbing indication
of Milosevic's obstinacy. If a solution to the Kosovo problem is to
be found, it will almost certainly have to be through Western--mainly
American--political and military pressure.

American involvement with Kosovo goes back to the beginning of
Milosevic's rule. When I arrived in Yugoslavia as U.S. ambassador
in 1989, three weeks before the Serbian assembly eliminated Kosovo's
autonomy, my instructions included a strong expression of concern
about the violation of Albanian rights. The U.S. Congress, prodded by
then-Senator Bob Dole, had already strongly criticized Milosevic.
Kosovo remained a major point of contention between Milosevic and
the United States throughout the Bush administration. On December 25,
1992, Bush, then a lame duck, warned the Serbian leader that the
United States would respond with force if Milosevic cracked down in
Kosovo; the new Clinton administration repeated the warning.

The United States has never challenged the legitimacy of Serbian
authority in Kosovo, but neither has it consistently accepted Serbian
sovereignty. The current American position is that Kosovo is a part
of Milosevic's new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (created
following the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia),
but not a part of the Serbian republic within "Yugoslavia." American
acceptance of Serbian authority in Kosovo derives from the view that
Kosovo has been historically Serbian, that all of Tito's
constitutions recognized Serbian primacy there, and that denial of
that primacy could start the Balkan dominoes falling. The need to
maintain a multi-ethnic Bosnia adds additional weight to the argument
for opposing the ethnic separation of Kosovo. The U.S. refusal to
recognize Serbian sovereignty in Kosovo, on the other hand, is meant
to acknowledge that the Albanian majority there has valid rights that
are being denied.

The balance in American policy between Serbian control and Albanian
rights will look less viable if Milosevic continues his repressive
tactics. For the time being, though, it has the advantages of opening
paths to a compromise on Kosovo's status and of qualifying the United
States as an objective potential mediator.

The choices facing the Clinton administration are narrow and
difficult. It would be unthinkable, given America's political and
moral investment in Kosovo, to stand by and let Milosevic put the
Albanians down. Moreover, it would make no geopolitical sense, since
a Serbian bloodbath would probably call forth a genuine Kosovo
national liberation army, supplied along the sixty-mile border with
Albania and helped by Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro, and by
Muslims in Bosnia and Serbia. Without American firmness, however, a
permissive passivity is probably what the pusillanimous Europeans
(not only Serbia's overt backers Russia and Greece, but France and
Italy as well) would be inclined to display.

On the other hand, American support for Albanian independence would
carry major risks. The Serbs would surely fight to avoid the loss of
Kosovo. To prevent Bosnia-magnitude casualties, NATO would therefore
have to contemplate massive military intervention, with its attendant
dangers. Even if independence were achieved without great bloodshed,
its potential to destabilize the Balkans would be enormous. A
decision by the Kosovo Albanians to join Albania could stimulate
fears of a greater Albania threatening its neighbors. More
immediately, the Albanians of Macedonia, feeling isolated, could well
press to join their brethren, thus raising the specter of Macedonia's
collapse. U.S. officials are particularly worried that Western
acceptance of an independent "Kosova" would destroy the Dayton
agreement on Bosnia, which is based on integration, not separation.

Still, U.S. acceptance of Serbian authority over Kosovo need not be
absolute or irrevocable. If Milosevic provokes a conflict with the
Albanians, or even if he continues to disdain opportunities to
negotiate seriously with them, the U.S. government should ask itself
whether he has lost his legal authority over them and should consider
reversing its position on sovereignty. The time may come when we will
have to take sides. Even threatening such a reversal would help
Milosevic see how strongly the United States opposes him over

Doubtful Compromises

Less absolute outcomes would be safer and more equitable than extreme
ones. The idea of partitioning Kosovo has been floating in Serbian
nationalist circles for over a decade. The Serbian version would of
course arrogate to the Serbs all the cultural and mineral
wealth--Kosovo has 50 percent of the former Yugoslavia's lead, zinc,
and nickel reserves. But the map could be drawn to balance
advantages. The Albanians would get most of the territory. The Serbs
would get land containing some of the medieval monasteries, while the
others would be putunder international protection.

The working assumption of partition is that the Serbian part of
Kosovo would probably become an integral part of Serbia, while the
Albanian part would become independent or would elect to join
Albania. If partition were achieved by agreement, a war in Kosovo
could probably be avoided, though the Serbs might attempt a
pre-partition campaign of ethnic cleansing--a tactic they used with
criminal effect in Bosnia. But there would be no guarantee of
stability elsewhere, since the area-wide dangers would be the same as
in the independence scenario.

Another compromise outcome, currently under active study, would make
Kosovo a republic within Yugoslavia (the other republics would be
Serbia and Montenegro). To have any chance of working, this approach
would have to guarantee the Albanians full powers to run their own
republic (with protection for Serbian residents, property, and
monuments). Kosovo would become a kind of Chechnya, nominally under
the parent state but effectively independent. Since Yugoslavia would
be the parent state, and Milosevic is currently president of
Yugoslavia, the prospect of his meddling--whatever commitments he
might make--would be real. This outcome would easily be the best for
keeping the dominoes in place and thus for maintaining peace in the
Balkans. Its major drawback is the residual authority it might
concede to Serbia.

Essay Types: Essay