By Martin Woollacott
Friday April 2, 1999
The Guardian

The Kosovo disaster is the culmination of a decade in which Europe and America have not only tolerated Slobodan Milosevic but have made him into their principal partner in former Yugoslavia. Our shameful dependence on Milosevic is only now becoming fully visible. Only now are Western politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair calling him by the names which he has always deserved, charging him with the crimes it has always been known he has committed, and preparing, perhaps, to take the direct action against him which should always have been the main object of policy.

The war in Kosovo is thus not just the product of dithering Western diplomacy since last March, when fighting first began there, nor of the inadequacies of the settlement brokered by Richard Holbrooke last October, nor of Nato's failure to create a capacity to intervene on the ground. It is the terrible pay-off for years of circling the problem rather than confronting it, of dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause, and, above all, of falling with relief on Milosevic's shoulder when he offered, as he did time after time, ways of easing the conflict that would not involve Western countries in the military risks they were obsessed with avoiding.

There were of course many tussles with Milosevic in the past, many moments of anger, and even some instances where Western governments thought they had outwitted him. But the reality has been, as Quintin Hoare of the Bosnian Institute wrote recently, that Slobodan Milosevic has been 'Our Man in Belgrade'. For Carrington, Vance, Owen, Stoltenberg, Hurd, Holbrooke and all the others handed the dismal task of dealing with the Yugoslav mess, he has been the indispensable leader who alone could deliver solutions. All have sat on the famous sofa in the presidential palace, squirming as Milosevic smiled his flabby smile, but knowing that they needed him if the clash that Western countries so feared was to be avoided.

And yet in return for these 'solutions', we fed his power and enabled him to move from conquest to conquest. His early moves in Kosovo and Vojvodina were watched with a certain equanimity, even though Western policy was against the break-up of Yugoslavia which they clearly portended. Later, Milosevic's reward for aggression in Croatia was to have the Serbian conquests of Croatian territory stabilised by the introduction of UN troops. That enabled him to switch his military assets to Bosnia, which he promptly did. Ending one war, the West provided Milosevic with the means to start a new one. That conflict finally finished because the Serbs were faced by a reinvigorated Croatian army and by dogged and much improved Bosnian forces. Nato bombing, although a lesser factor, also helped Milosevic decide he needed to cut his losses.

Again, Western diplomacy let him keep more than he would otherwise have been able to keep, and gave the Serb holdings in Bosnia a status they should never have been accorded. And again -ending one war enabled Milosevic to start another, this time in Kosovo. It is difficult in retrospect to credit that the same mistake was made three times.

The reason why is not much to do with the faults of particular men and women. Almost every European and American, politician, official, or soldier, who has had any responsibility for former Yugoslavia has been burned. Their memoirs are full of their explanations, frustrations, and justifications. One or two, it is true, seemed to have an inexplicable leaning toward Milosevic or the Serbs in general.

But the real problem was that they were given the task of sorting out the Yugoslav wars with the express, although usually unspoken, stipulation that they do so without getting Western governments and forces in any deeper than they already were. Hence the unavoidable pilgrimages to Belgrade, the whisky toasts and the lamb dinners with the Serbian chief. Western countries, especially Britain, had a tradition of dealing in a 'practical' way with strong regimes that were also politically unattractive. That was realism. After all, detente, which can be seen as a benign form of appeasement, had led to beneficial change in the Soviet Union.

And in addition, European leaders were keeping a rather important little secret from their taxpayers, which was that, in spite of 40 years of profligate spending, our countries had virtually no capacity to fight a war of any intensity or duration. This meant the tough stuff had to be left to the Americans, and they were hugely reluctant to put their troops in harm's way. This was not so much because of Vietnam as because of the old American anxiety, going back to the first world war, about being manipulated into pulling other countries' chestnuts out of the fire. These weaknesses thrust us into Milosevic's arms, and led to all the nonsense - about the conflict 'burning itself out', about 'containment', about his supposed 'pragmatism' - with which that was justified.

What happened at Rambouillet was that Europe and America laid out their terms for continuing the partnership, which were that Milosevic should hand Kosovo over to Western protectors, in return for which he would be helped to stay in power in Serbia proper. That, we now know, was a bargain he was not prepared to make, no doubt sensing that his rivals in the opposition would use it to unseat him. So he tempted them into what amounts to a national government and put everybody on the same road to perdition.

The means he chose to hold Kosovo ought to mean that, finally, the long and shameful collusion with Milosevic is at an end. Yet that is not quite yet the signal contained in statements from Clinton, Robin Cook and others. The signal is, rather, that he could still, just, for one or two days more, hope for title to Kosovo, albeit empty title, if he stops now.

But as wars reveal their nature, and the nature of those who wage them, war aims change in a way that governments cannot wholly control. Each fresh brutality to the Kosovans, and each additional humiliation of the Nato powers, assists Milosevic's transition from a man we could do business with to a man who must be destroyed. It is already inconceivable that he could be allowed to maintain any real power over Kosovo, whatever form of diplomatic or military action ends the conflict.

If Ibrahim Rugova has been coerced or persuaded into some form of co-operation, it seems improbable that any scheme that emerges could be acceptable to Kosovans or to Nato. Three months ago, it could have been, but not now. And it is, finally, likely that, once out of the Kosovo nightmare, Western countries will bend their efforts to bring him down in Serbia itself. General Wesley Clark said this week: 'We have a long memory of those things.' He was speaking of the captured American soldiers, but the remark has a more general implication.

The Serbian offensive in Kosovo has its antecedents less in the second world war than in the Serbian conquest in 1912 and 1913. The Kosovans and the Albanians had just secured a remarkably broad autonomy from the Ottoman government when the Serbs swept in and, in the words of the Carnegie Report on the Balkan Wars, 'Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred... acts of violence, pillage and brutality... such were the means employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.' The remarkable thing is that there was more protest in Serbia itself about excesses in 1913 than there has been in 1999. The broader question that arises is to what extent the West has been appeasing not only Milosevic but a Serbian society which, with honourable individual exceptions, seems unable to grasp the terrible damage it has done to its neighbours.

The preoccupation with self which allows even liberal opponents of Milosevic to condemn Nato bombing without one word condemning his actions in Kosovo suggests how narrow and morally blind the Serbian view of the world has become. We have helped this happen, and our inaction and timidity stoked this final phase of the Yugoslav wars. Our action now must end them. More than just the fate of Kosovo depends on that.

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