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A Shattered Showcase

22 March 2004 The violence in Kosovo has shown up Western policy as a complete failure. The uncertainty over Kosovo’s future must be ended.

Last week’s violence in Kosovo clearly demonstrated what everyone concerned knew all along: the West’s policy of creating a tolerant multiethnic society in the province has been a complete failure. The international community now needs to think quickly, imaginatively and honestly about the future of the troubled territory.

But how did we get here in the first place? And what lessons can be learned from the failure?

A lot of past frustrations and brave new ambitions converged on Kosovo back in 1999 when NATO governments decided to take hold of the province.

To start with, just about everyone in the international community, including Yeltsin’s Kremlin, had had enough of the Belgrade strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, who had played with impunity the leading role in a series of orgies of killing and expulsion, often taking top Western and Russian negotiators for a ride.

More specifically, NATO had been simultaneously going through an identity crisis and a process of eastward enlargement. The Cold War alliance was on the lookout for a mission that would help define its future. When Kosovo came along, it looked like a perfect opportunity to venture out into the business of intervention on humanitarian grounds outside the territory protected by the North Atlantic Treaty.

Kosovo also provided NATO with an opportunity to bridge its very own transatlantic divisions over Bosnia.

This attracted the Clinton administration, which was keen to redeem itself for what had become commonly regarded as its failure to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

In London, the internationally ambitious center-left government had just started entering its foreign policy heyday, with Prime Minister Tony Blair even molding a whole new international relations doctrine out of the Kosovo mire.

In Bonn, which then was still the seat of the German government, the new red-green governing coalition sought to demonstrate that the era of an internationally shy Germany had ended. German troops went to their first combat mission since World War II.

Put simply, the West went rather enthusiastically to war over Kosovo for things far larger than Kosovo. While the levels of vigor that went into the venture were not necessarily a matter for concern, the accompanying self-righteousness and recklessness, in Washington and London in particular, spelled trouble.

But the discrepancy between Kosovo’s true importance and the size of the political investment into it created psychological obstacles to contemplating troublesome scenarios for the province. Kosovo was not important enough to warrant a no-nonsense, hands-on commitment guided by clear self-interest, a reality that became too obvious under the Bush administration. Yet failure was not an option given the profile of the 1999 intervention. In fact, any mention of the word ‘failure’ in relation to Kosovo seemed until very recently to insult many of those who supported the 1999 intervention.

In reality, the Kosovo project was, from the start, a failure in many important respects. While expelling the vicious Milosevic regime from the province, NATO made little effort to make sure that the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) was not the main beneficiary. On the contrary, top American military and political officials openly fraternized with UCK leaders, even though U.S. intelligence described them as a bunch of heroin dealers, terrorists, nationalist fanatics, and (even) communists.

As NATO was entering the province in June 1999, UCK-led mobs attacked Serbs and other minorities in scenes very similar to those seen last week. Those Serbs who dared to remain in Kosovo were driven into tiny enclaves. The enclaves survived only thanks to the heavy NATO presence around them. NATO also found a purpose in Kosovo as a provider of relatively safe travel services to the Serbs, as any Serb--or anything to do with them--attracted attacks outside the enclaves.

While at times it looked as if the offensive of ethnic Albanian extremists against non-Albanians might at some point in the future run out of steam, at no point during the past five years has any significant number of Serbs or other minorities felt safe enough to go back to living among Albanians.

While the campaign of murder and arson never stopped, the international community in Kosovo reported one success after another in its campaign to create a multiethnic society. Slaloming around dead bodies and fire sites, the UN administration (UNMIK) and NATO gave Kosovo all the right institutions and even incorporated the UCK into Kosovo’s institutional structure, as the Kosovo Protection Corps. The province also held democratic elections. Despite that, it remained a lawless place in which the only true authority remained with former UCK and underworld bosses.

Along with security and human rights implications, NATO's failure to deal with the UCK and address Kosovo's fundamental problems had a detrimental effect on ethnic Albanian attitudes. The absence of a strong international reaction to the persecution of Kosovo's minorities was read as tacit approval of the goal of independence. The lack of public reaction from leading Kosovo Albanian public figures to the persecution spoke of a morally ruined and frightened society. In fact, there has barely been any condemnation of the persecution per se. Those Kosovo Albanians who nevertheless dared to condemn it regularly felt they also needed to throw in a little declaimer explaining that violence against the Serbs did not help the ethnic Albanians' independence cause.

Most of them probably find little consolation today in discovering that their warnings turned out to be prophetic. The outbreak of violence last week marks the end of an era in which it did not look impossible that the West would simply keep turning a blind eye to gradually decreasing Albanian extremism until such time as a more relaxed Serbia north of the border proved ready to let go of the troubled territory. The sheer shame effect of last week's orgy now makes that option impossible.


The international community, and not only members of NATO, now need to work out meaningful policies on three fronts simultaneously. It first needs a viable strategy to physically protect the Kosovo Serbs until the final status of Kosovo is solved. It also needs a comprehensive long-term program that would marginalize the UCK elements and foster civic life and values within the ethnic Albanian community. Most of all, it needs to start working on ideas and viable implementation plans for Kosovo’s final status.

In order to make good on all three jobs the international community must first make an honest and accurate account of the last five years, including owning up to its own mistakes. Most of all, it must not fear tackling the status issue.

But if the last five years have demonstrated beyond any doubt that a tolerant, multiethnic and eventually fully or semi-independent Kosovo in which ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs live together and share power is impossible--and if everyone, including Belgrade, agrees that there can be no return to the prewar status quo--what solutions are we left with?

This realization has already led many to talk of partition scenarios, a no-go area until last week among those who, willingly or unwillingly, have been inventing “progress” in Kosovo.

This is the kind of music that--unexpectedly--pleases many an ear in Belgrade. While most Serbian parties officially advocate a Kosovo inside Serbia, but internally made up of self-governing ethnic cantons, many privately believe that a better and more realistic solution would be an outright territorial partition, with the north and some other chunks of territory going to Serbia and the rest becoming an independent Albanian entity.

The fact that such ideas come from Belgrade does not make them necessarily unworthy of consideration. For all its people, Kosovo needs a final status as soon as possible, and painfully divided communities need to be able to move away from the nightmare in which they have lived for so long.

While the brave new world of benign interventionist internationalism and nation building showcased in Kosovo since 1999 was meant to be made up of things such as power-sharing and multiculturalism, rather than partitions and border changes, a bit of common sense should now also be allowed into the equation.

That may show that some form of territorial partition is the least bad of all the available options--or it may not. But in analyzing any possible solution for the territory’s future, the international community would be well advised to think in terms of legitimate stakeholders in Kosovo rather than any high-minded principles and political concepts. In other words, move away from cookie-cutter formula and toward the three main stakeholders: the ethnic Albanian community, the ethnic Serb community and the state of Serbia, of which Kosovo is formally still a part.

The region as a whole also badly needs to see a solution to the Kosovo problem. The province’s ability to rock the neighborhood was once again demonstrated last week. While the majority of Serbs in Serbia reacted to the violence in Kosovo with dignity, radical groups set on fire mosques in Belgrade and Nis. An Orthodox church was set on fire in response in Bugojno, Bosnia, while another mosque was in flames over the weekend in Kumanovo, Macedonia.

While different communities in Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro will inevitably try to interpret the arguments behind any future Kosovo solution to their advantage, prolonged uncertainty over Kosovo’s future may also reinvigorate some old wild claims.

Related Articles:

Kosovo: Talk Endgame Now
Whatever Albanian national goals are ultimately judged as legitimate by the international community, they must be achieved at the
negotiating table, not through hit-and-run attacks.
18 August 2003
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