Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



Kosovo, like Bosnia, has in many ways been a trap the West set for itself. Resolving the contradictions in its approach should be the first step in moving the peace process forward.

By Anthony Borden
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
February 1999

Western diplomats hope that what is now called "the Rambouillet process" will deliver some kind of deal to give Kosovo Albanians increased autonomy. But even if an agreement is ultimately struck, it will leave the fundamental issues of the conflict unresolved. Much as was the case with the Dayton agreement for Bosnia, a complex formula for Western involvement to stabilise the conflict masks fundamental contradictions in the approach.

These contradictions, as in Bosnia, have in many ways been a trap the West set for itself. The main problem has been simple lack of resolve. Kosovo has been the most foretold conflict of the decade, yet throughout the long period of Yugoslav crises it was given only the most minimal attention.

In particular, players in the region squandered the opportunity to encourage alternative political approaches, within Serbia generally and also among Kosovo Albanians. The lack of any serious mediation effort since Belgrade violently revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1990 has allowed the political positions and emotions of the Albanian and Serbian communities to harden.

While Milosevic continued to play Kosovo as a core nationalist rallying card, both the moderate and radical wings of Kosovo's Albanian community unanimously supported independence. Many observers cite the Albanians' complete exclusion from the Dayton peace talks as the trigger for their new violent radicalism. Then as violence erupted in spring 1998, the West continued to dither, sometimes making firm threats, other times seeming to condone Serbian attacks on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The second problem has been conceptual and legal--and in its own way as damaging. With the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, the West granted independence to all those republics within the federation that requested it: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Montenegro (pop. 600,000), the remaining republic linked to Serbia within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is cautiously setting out its case for independence now, and is being quietly encouraged. [See "Belgrade v. Podgorica: the New Cold War," Ljubinka N. Cagorovic, Balkan Crisis Report, No. 1.] The status of all the republics was determined by the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

Under the same constitution, Kosovo had almost identical rights as the other areas. But as a concession at the time to Serbian feelings--it (and a second region, Vojvodina) was deemed a "province," mainly lacking only the theoretical right to secede. The West has fully accepted this distinction, and thus conceived of Kosovo independence not as converting an old internal Yugoslav border into an international one (as occurred with the republics) but rather "redrawing" international borders themselves. The distinction is crucial: seen as the confirmation of already existing borders, Kosovo independence could be presented as a factor for stability rather than new conflict. Yet such a scenario is universally opposed by other states, as well as by state-based organizations such as the UN and European Union, who face similar issues.

In this way, Kosovo become tied up in the Bosnian quagmire too: If Kosovo can have independence, hard realists ask, why not the Serbian and Croatian territories within Bosnia? (For a prime example of this, see the February 5, 1999 New York Times commentary by Thomas Friedman drawing extensively on remarks by Lord David Owen.) This argument neglects a key consideration: Such "ethnic territories" have not been based on existing political units/borders and were formed in the 1992-95 war through genocide. But this point is primarily used as a negative case, to buttress the argument against Kosovo independence.

Concerns over a possible "spillover" of conflict to neighbouring Macedonia--which also has a large Albanian population--and potential implications for Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and possibly Turkey also convinced Washington and London not to back the Albanians' full demand. Yet it could equally be argued that peace in Kosovo--under whatever flag--would contribute more to Macedonian democracy and stability than conflict within a sovereign Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Western policy thus supports the Albanians' humanitarian aims but at the same time firmly backs Milosevic's political aims of maintaining Yugoslav sovereignty. This contradictory approach has encouraged further violence on both sides. It has also meant that throughout most of 1998, Western policy was seriously stuck--again as in Bosnia. As at the closing press conference at Rambouillet, Western ministers often lamely blame the violence on "both sides"--while killings continue. (Both have been violent, but the Serb tally is of a fundamentally different order.)

In the long term, Serbia is all but certain to lose Kosovo. Cynical Belgrade observers believe Milosevic has long been reconciled to getting rid of Kosovo--and those annoying Albanians--and is only trying to extract the highest price, including re-entry into the UN and other international institutions. Enduring a few NATO bombs along the way would only further enhance his patriotic credentials.

The recent diplomatic footwork appears--at least to the Western mediators and to Serbia--to rule out formal independence. But it does offer Kosovo Albanians a big first step in that direction, and some argue that it is independence in all but name. (See Robert M. Hayden, The State as Legal Fiction, Eastern European Constitutional Review, Vol. 7 No. 4, Fall 1998.)

One practical result of Rambouillet was the mushrooming of the outline plan formulated by US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill into a massive 85-page draft accord. But the fundamental details are presumably the same. While the details of Serbian, Albanian and international force deployments are haggled over, under any deal, a reduction of Serbian control and a limitation on Serbian police and military movement within the province would be certain. The details of Albanian control over economic and other key governmental matters have also been heavily disputed, but the establishment of a Kosovo administration, including a strong Constitutional Court, would also mark a fundamental shift. So of course would potential Western support for a reformed and retrained KLA as the basis of an Albanian security force, which has been raised. If Belgrade has acceded to these outlines, then the Contact Group ministers may be right in arguing that they have indeed won substantial renewed authority for the province itself. But can the West's support for autonomy hold?

The contradictions will remain, and especially when renewed conflict, political divisions and other crises hit in the coming weeks, they will come under renewed strain. Both Belgrade and the Albanians would see benefits in pushing the West to choose, especially over Yugoslav sovereignty vs. independence, but also over the real scale of its commitment. Resolving the contradictions in its own approach should thus be the first step by the West in moving the peace process forward.

Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR.

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