The Mess in Kosovo

Demonstrating the power of bad precedent, the United States is about to replicate its incompetent diplomacy in the Balkans from the 1990s by recognizing an imminent unilateral declaration of independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo. A similar act helped start the brutal civil war in Bosnia back in 1992. America encouraged, and then recognized, a Bosnian declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, an act that precipitated a disastrous three-year conflict. The war accomplished nothing, as Bosnia exists today in much the same way as it would have before the war — in separate parts.

Kosovo’s independence may not precipitate a similar war, but its consequences will be far-reaching and harmful.

Today, Kosovo is inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians who think they should have their own state. Since 1999, they have been living in a condition of near autonomy under UN administration and NATO military control. Despite Kosovo being the sovereign territory of Serbia, the United States seems to agree with the demand for independence. Why is this a problem?

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It may be a stretch, but try to imagine Texas 50 years from now. Let us say it is inhabited by a majority of the descendants of immigrants from Mexico, who, preliminary to their reunion with their mother country, decide to declare the independence of Texas from the United States. Let us then say that Russia and the European Union express their willingness to recognize the independence of Texas and threaten dire action should the United States object. How would you feel? Probably very much like a Serb feels today, who wonders by what right this action is about to be taken against his country.

One might object that the analogy doesn’t apply because of the brutal treatment of the Albanian Kosovars by the Serbs in 1999, when Serb forces engaged in the notorious “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians from the area. It was then that NATO forces bombed the Serbs for 78 days to make them relent. However, before this ugly part of the story can be understood, a look back at the tragedy of Yugoslavia’s collapse is necessary.

The 1990 disintegration of Yugoslavia, aided and abetted by Western powers, set off a contest over sovereignty in its constituent parts. In the ensuing struggle, it is difficult to assign blame to only one side. There were no good guys in the Balkans. Without a framework within which to decide it otherwise, the contest was conducted by force of arms. To understand it otherwise invites further disaster than has already been caused by Western intervention.

Yugoslav political theorist Vladimir Gligorov succinctly expressed the driving force behind Yugoslavia’s breakup in the form of a question: “Why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine?” The case of Croatia illustrated this exactly: Croats no longer wished to be a minority in the larger Yugoslavia, so Croatia declared its independence in 1991. But what of the nearly 600,000 Serbian civilians living in Croatia and their wish to remain part of Yugoslavia?

In reaction, the Serbs in the Krajina area of Croatia attempted what the Kosovar Albanians would themselves try to do: establish autonomy. Here were the makings of the civil war that ensued. The final outcome of that struggle came in 1995, when Croatian military forces cleansed 150,000 Serb civilians from Croatia by roughly the same means the Serbs later employed in Kosovo.

Bosnia in 1992 can also be understood as a struggle over sovereignty, though it is far more complex, because no nationality in Bosnia enjoyed a majority. The fundamental political problem in Bosnia was that many of its people did not accept it as a sovereign entity. Nonetheless, it was made one by a unilateral declaration of independence and by international recognition. The question then arose: On what basis could those Bosnians who did not accept the sovereignty of Bosnia be forced to accept it? And who would do the forcing?

The democratic principle of “one man, one vote” did not help much, because the argument was over the legitimate entity in which it was to be exercised. Was it Yugoslavia, or only part of Yugoslavia? Was it Bosnia, which had never before existed as a state, or only part of Bosnia? Was it all right for Yugoslavia to disintegrate into ethnically denominated republics, but not all right for one of its regions to fracture further into smaller ethnically designated entities?

As stated to a U.S. correspondent before the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim leader, said he was willing to apply one man, one vote within Bosnia, but he was not willing to accept this principle within the larger Yugoslavia. According to Gligorov principle, the reason is simple: In Yugoslavia, the Serbs enjoyed a plurality, while in Bosnia the Muslims do. This history is relevant because the Gligorov principle is operating in Kosovo today, where the Albanian population enjoys a majority over the Serbs.

Nevertheless, it appeared at first that the danger of a bloody conflict in Bosnia could be avoided by letting the three sides negotiate their own settlement under the auspices of a special commission of the European Community. They agreed to a confederation divided into three ethnic regions — the Swiss cantonization of Bosnia. However, Izetbegovic publicly renounced the Lisbon agreement. According to a high-ranking State Department official quoted in the New York Times, “The [U.S.] policy was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan.” By early April, twelve European Community members and the United States granted recognition of Bosnian independence.

As predicted, full-scale civil war erupted.

What can account for the role of Western diplomacy on this issue? U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann said, “Our view was that we might be able to head off a Serbian power grab by internationalizing the problem. Our hope was the Serbs would hold off if it was clear Bosnia had the recognition of Western countries. It turned out we were wrong.” Instead, the Western powers fired the starting gun for what was an unnecessary war that took 60,000 NATO troops to end in 1995. One of the most basic principles of foreign policy is to keep local problems local, not to internationalize them. If any part of the world speaks to the danger of internationalizing local problems, it is the Balkans.

The Kosovo case is also a struggle over sovereignty and nationality. Kosovo is universally recognized, except by many Kosovar Albanians, to be part of Serbia. The Yugoslav federal government, not Slobadan Milosevic, revoked Albanian autonomy in 1989, after a 14-year period of substantial autonomy granted by President Josef Tito. Milosevic had made his political reputation in an earlier visit to the region, when he told the Kosovar Serbs that no one would beat them any more. {mospagebreak}

The term, if not the practice of, “ethnic cleansing” was formulated not by an Albanian, but by a Kosovar Serb parliamentarian in 1983 to describe the treatment of Kosovar Serbs by Kosovar Albanians. The Serbs had been cleansed from Kosovo during World War II by the Fascist Albanians, and were not allowed to return by Tito, whose policy was to weaken Serb influence in Yugoslavia. In June 1942 in Kosovo, Mustafa Kruja, the prime minister of Albania, told the Albanian Kosovar leaders: “We should endeavor to ensure that the Serb population of Kosovo . . . be cleansed . . . and all Serbs who had been living there for centuries should be termed colonialists and sent to concentration camps in Albania. The Serb settlers should be killed.”

Subsequently, the sizable Serb minority was eclipsed by the Albanian birth rate. Also, the Kosovar Albanians made it sufficiently uncomfortable for the Serbs that an estimated 130,000 left the region between 1966 and 1989, 50,000 during the period of autonomy. One might call it “ethnic cleansing” in slow motion. After Serb forces withdrew in 1999, more than 200,000 of the remaining Serbs fled Kosovo.

The Serbs missed an opportunity in not working with Ibrahim Rugova and other moderate Albanians who espoused non-violent means for their political goals. The alternative was the violent Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), with origins in both the fascist and communist pasts. In the late 1990s, the KLA began a series of provocations that included weekly assassinations of Serb postmen and policemen, as well as of moderate Kosovar Albanians. Serb forces obligingly retaliated with the expected viciousness.

Through the loss of a relatively small number of people (less than 3,000 in the preceding several years), the KLA was able to obtain in its service the finest air force in the world. In 1999, NATO enlisted on the KLA side in its civil war against the Serbs. The fact that NATO thought it was fighting for democracy in Kosovo in no way changed the consequences of the outcome. The sorry lesson awaiting the West is that Albanian ethnic supremacy is not morally superior to Serbian ethnic supremacy.

Earlier this week, I asked an astute Slovenian friend in Ljubljana what he thought of the impending independence of Kosovo. He replied: “Leaving aside the attack on the Helsinki accords and a complete breakdown of international law, I just don’t understand why the USA and EU would support the establishment of the second Albanian state. Such a ‘solution’ of the Albanian question will destabilize the region. In the near future you can expect the demands for a third Albanian state in western Macedonia, secession of Southern Serbia populated by a tiny Albanian minority, and there are further Albanian territorial demands in Montenegro. In my view you just shouldn’t play with the borders that guaranteed the European stability after World War II.”

These could be only some of the consequences — the ethnic Albanian ones. Add to them these thoughts: How might the Serbs left in northern Kosovo react when suddenly finding themselves outside of their own country? Why should they not declare their own statelet inside of Kosovo? And what principle will be invoked to tell them that they do not have the right to do so?

Even more likely will be a declaration of independence by the Serb portion of Bosnia, called Repulika Srpska. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Richard Holbrooke, the man who negotiated the agreement that “ended” the war in Bosnia, referred to Milorad Dodik, the Serb leader in Bosnia, as “a nasty nationalist who began threatening secession” at the prospect of independence for Kosovo. But why is Dodik nasty for calling for independence, and Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci not nasty for doing the same thing? Adding to this dilemma is the fact that Kosovo is a mafia center steeped in drugs and human trafficking, with every prospect of becoming a mafia controlled failed state.

The peaceful devolution of Yugoslavia was probably the only practical goal for Western policy after 1990. The West consistently mismanaged the disintegration of that state by imprudently taking sides in the struggles over sovereignty, and then blaming the results of its own bungling on “Serbian aggression.” The U.S. and Western powers should have dispassionately endeavored to understand the political forces at play to see if they could facilitate the accommodation of those forces (this was close to accomplished in the 1992 Lisbon accords, until subverted by U.S. diplomacy). If we could not, then our role should have been to limit the damage from the conflict to prevent its spread, until a resolution was reached. The very last thing we should have done was to enter the conflict ourselves. Yet here we go again.

Why is it in the national security interests of the United States to internationalize the problem of Kosovo by changing the borders of another country without that county’s consent? A presidential election has just been held in Serbia, and the pro-Western Boris Tadic was reelected by a slim margin. That may have produced a sigh of relief in Washington, but both Tadic and his opponent oppose Kosovo’s independence. They may differ in that Tadic would not employ violence to try to prevent it.

Outside of the immediate consequences in the Balkans, the Kosovo precedent will further antagonize Russia, which firmly sides with the Serbs. Russia has its own problems with ethnic unrest. Muslim writer Zul’fiya Kadir has already suggested that Kosovo should be an example for Tatarstan and other Turkic peoples on the territory of the Russian Federation.

And what if, at Russia’s urging, South Ossetia and Abkhazia should chose to follow Kosovo’s lead and declare their independence from Georgia? On what grounds would the United States tell Russia not to interfere with the borders of sovereign Georgia, when that is precisely what Russia is now telling us not to do in respect to Serbia’s sovereign borders? Dare we invoke international law?

John Bolton, Lawrence Eagleburger (former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia), and Peter Rodman, three foreign policy experts, warn in a recent Washington Times article against precipitous U.S. action in recognizing Kosovo. They point out that the Kosovo model “already has been cited by supporters of the Basque separatist movement in Spain and the Turkish-controlled area of northern Cyprus.” And why not?

It is hard to divine by what consistent principle we are operating in the Balkans, and why the confusion we are helping to sow there should not spread more widely. One thing is consistent: We were wrong in the 1990s, and we seem unable to learn from our mistakes.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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