International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 4 (October-December 1998)


US Policy and the Kosovo Crisis 1
By R. Craig Nation


Few international crises have been more consistently predicted than the one which erupted in Serbia’s Kosovo province in the winter of 1997-98. The process that led to the collapse of the Yugoslav federation was initiated by Slobodan Milosevic’s abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, and the observation that “the Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo and will eventually end there” has been a commonplace ever since. The Dayton peace accord, which brought an end to the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, did nothing to address the situation in Kosovo, where harsh Serbian military occupation provided a recipe for growing unrest. Under the circumstances, and given a tradition of local uprisings stretching back over several hundred years, the eruption of armed resistance was not only likely, it was inevitable.

Kosovo’s symbolic significance in Serbian national mythology, its overwhelmingly Albanian ethnic character, and its abject poverty have made it a trouble spot since its incorporation into the Serbian dynastic state in 1913. Albanians fought against Serbs in the region during both twentieth century world wars, and Kosovo was only reincorporated into the new Yugoslavia of Josip Broz Tito at the end of the Second World War at the price of the armed suppression of local resistance. For two decades after the war the province was subject to severe police controls under the authority of the Serbian communist Aleksandr Rankovic. Tito reacted to protest demonstrations in 1968 with a policy of liberalization, permitting the display of the Albanian national flag as a Kosovar emblem, restructuring the University of Pristina as a predominantly Albanian institution, channeling investment into the area in an attempt to close the developmental gap, and in the 1974 constitution granting Kosovo virtually full self-administration as an autonomous province within the Serbian federated republic. These were hopeful initiatives, but they were too short-lived to overcome long-standing problems. In 1981, within a year of Tito’s death, a preview of the kind of tensions that would eventually tear the Yugoslav federation apart was provided when spontaneous student protests in Pristina spiraled into a virtual insurrection before being violently suppressed. Friction between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians provided a constant backdrop to the long agony of Yugoslav federalism during the 1980s, and Milosevic’s elimination of Kosovar autonomy in 1989 touched off the country’s implosion by convincing other republics that there was no alternative within the federation to the politics of Serbian hegemony. Thereafter Kosovo has been a cauldron of overt injustices and cumulating anger, a particularly vivid example of the dilemmas of frustrated nationalism in a context of intercultural diversity and severe underdevelopment. 2


The Kosovo Liberation Army

The current Kosovo crisis is the product of a campaign of armed resistance to Serbian domination conducted by the shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosoves or UÇK). This organization, created in Macedonia during 1992 and strengthened by recruits from among the thousands of Kosovar Albanians who fought together with Croat and Muslim formations in the Bosnian conflict, began its campaign of armed struggle in 1995 with a series of attacks against Serbian police and police stations, as well as Kosovar Albanians accused of collaboration with the oppressor. In 1996, the UÇK began publicly to claim responsibility for armed attacks, and was promptly labeled a terrorist organization by Serbian authorities. By October 1997, more than 30 Serbs and Albanians had fallen victim to UÇK assaults, and The New York Times was speaking of an organization “ready to wage a secessionist war that could plunge this country [the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] into a crisis rivaling the conflict in Bosnia.” 3

The UÇK’s strength at the beginning of 1998 was estimated at around 500 active members, organized in small, mobile cells and often acting in groups of three to five men. The occasional violence perpetrated by these militants was not a major threat, but events were precipitated by the launching of a campaign of repression by Yugoslav authorities on 28 February 1998, with a large-scale police action in the central Kosovo region of Drenica that resulted in at least 80 deaths. In the face of massive state-sponsored violence and numerous civilian casualties the UÇK mushroomed, according to some (possibly exaggerated) estimates coming to control as many as 20,000 armed guerrillas and large swaths of territory. In the narrow confines of Kosovo, however, its lightly armed fighters were no match for the disciplined military forces of a modern state. The Serbian offensive, proceeding in waves as the summer progressed and gathering momentum as it rolled onward, soon took on the appearance of a raz de maree.


Western Unpreparedness

Despite every possible warning, the major western powers were unprepared for the flare-up when it actually occurred. There are several reasons that help to explain why this was so. Although the US and its allies often evoke the need for a serious approach to conflict prevention, no convincing agenda for applying the concept in the real world has been developed. The basic mode for managing conflict remains reactive—without concrete violations to focus attention the temptation to cultivate the status quo is usually too great to overcome. The one serious attempt to address the situation in Kosovo preemptively, under the auspices of the Rome-based Catholic religious order Sant’Egidio, made some progress in developing an agenda for educational reform, but was never able to move beyond the polarization of opinion among the parties to the conflict themselves. 4 Despite such polarization, against the background of the violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo offered the appearance of a deceptive stability. From 1989 the politics of resistance to Serbian domination were dominated by Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), inspired by a philosophy of non-violence which asserted the goal of full independence but sought to pursue it by building alternative governing institutions under LDK hegemony and keeping pressure on Belgrade in the international arena. Rugova was quite successful in controlling the situation within Kosovo, a fact which may have encouraged the illusion that the status quo was in some way sustainable. He was entirely unsuccessful, however, in obtaining the slightest meaningful concession from Milosevic, who for his part received little or no encouragement from the West to be more forthcoming. In the run up to the conflict, Western military and political efforts were focused upon the Dayton process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a working relationship with the Yugoslav leader was judged essential to making the peace accord stick.

During the course of 1997, as the UÇK began to surface, the primary concern of US policy makers was the perceived need to cultivate Milosevic’s support for the ouster of the hard-line Bosnia Serb leadership aligned with Radovan Karadzic in the Republika Srbska. Milosevic was rewarded for his tacit cooperation by diplomatic concessions including approval for direct charter flights to the US by the Yugoslav national airline, the reopening of a Yugoslav consulate in the US, and an increase in the number of Yugoslavs allowed to participate in UN activities in New York. When US special representative for the implementation of the Dayton Agreement Robert S. Gelbard came to Belgrade on 23 February 1998 to announce these blessings, he added the significant remark that the UÇK, was “without any questions a terrorist group”. 5 Terrorist organizations have a specific status as pariahs in US law, and declaratory policy toward terrorism is unequivocal: no tolerance, no compromise, no mercy. Washington seemed to be doing its best to convey the impression that the events in Kosovo could be managed at the discretion of the Yugoslav authorities, within the limits of prudence and restraint.

The Serbian blitz against the UÇK was launched within a week of Gelbard’s remarks, and the rapid escalation of violence from February 1998 onward presented US policy makers with a different kind of dilemma. The severity of Serbia’s reaction, which including the wanton destruction of villages, summary execution of prisoners, and a systematic terrorization of local populations with the intent to provoke mass flight, was clearly disproportionate. 6 In the immediate aftermath of the Serbian offensive influential voices in the US media were raised calling for “a decisive international response” and, as the extent of violations became clear, sympathy for the Kosovar Albanian position became stronger. 7 Washington quickly shifted direction to take account of these reactions. On 4 March, Gelbard ascribed “overwhelming responsibility” for events to the government of Yugoslavia and described Serbian aggression as something “that will not be tolerated by the United States”. 8 During a visit to London on 7 March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged “immediate action against the regime in Belgrade to ensure that it pays a price for the damage it has already done”, and on 13 March National Security Advisor Sandy Berger specified that Milosevic would be receiving the “escalating message... that the international community will not tolerate violent suppression of the Kosovans”. 9

Unfortunately, the UÇK, as instigator of the armed struggle and primary target of the Serb response, was a problem in its own right. The UÇK was not a unitary movement subordinated by clear lines of authority to a coherent political direction. It was a faceless organization, most of whose leaders had chosen to remain anonymous, and whose international allegiances and long-term political aspirations were uncertain. As the political expression of a chronically divided society, the UÇK was fragmented along clan lines, between regions and sub-regions, and between émigré and internal lines of responsibility. During the fighting in Kosovo it was openly supported by former Albanian prime minister and now demagogic opposition leader Sali Berisha, once the darling of the West for his outspoken anti-communism, but persona non grata since the anarchic collapse of his corrupt personalist regime in the spring of 1997.

Despite its chaotic organization, the UÇK’s links to the substantial Albanian diaspora in Western Europe provided it with sources of external support and funding and allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. Most of all, its political agenda had the potential to be highly destabilizing; independence for Kosovo grown from the barrel of a gun as a first step toward the creation of a greater Albania to include all or parts of Albania proper, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of Macedonia, and Greece. For Washington, whose regional policy had been constructed around the rubric to “restore stability”, this was the agenda from hell—an all-out assault on the fragile equilibria of the US-sponsored post-Dayton order in the southern Balkans.

There was, of course, an Albanian question to be considered, and the goal of a greater Albania was not necessarily unacceptable in its own terms. 10 What was unpalatable were the means to which the UÇK had resorted in pursuing that goal, and the organization’s unwillingness or incapacity to moderate its agenda under Western pressure. To embrace the cause of the UÇK in the midst of an ongoing armed struggle would set an unfortunate precedent for other frustrated separatist or irredentist movements tempted by the resort to arms. The logic of ethnic division which the UÇK program expressed contrasted sharply with the goal of reintegration inspiring efforts to forward the Dayton process in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any progress toward independence risked to undermine political stability in the neighboring Republic of Macedonia, with an Albanian minority constituting up to 30 percent of the population, concentrated in western Macedonia in districts physically contiguous with Kosovo, and with close links to the Kosovar Albanians reaching back to the days of shared citizenship inside federal Yugoslavia. Not least, support for the insurrection risked to set the stage for what might well become a major armed confrontation with Milosevic’s Serbia.


The Imperative of Intervention

As Yugoslav reprisals continued, however, a hands off attitude became unsustainable. The severity of Serbian repression was destabilizing in its own right. Massive assaults produced an army of helpless refugees and threatened to provoke an humanitarian disaster should fighting be prolonged into the next winter. The Western powers had justified their original intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the premise that forceful ethnic cleansing was unacceptable in modern Europe and could not be tolerated. Inaction in the face of the terror in Kosovo seemed to invalidate the entire raison d’être of their considerable Balkan engagement.

In addition, the UÇK was a reality that could not be ignored. Under siege, large segments of the Kosovar Albanian population flocked to its banner, calling into question Rugova’s ability to represent his nation in any substantial way, and raising the specter (perhaps encouraged by faulty intelligence estimates) of a massive national insurrection sweeping out of control. In the end, between Kosovar Albanian extremism and Serbian brutality there was really very little to choose. In confronting the UÇK and its Serbian tormentor, Washington found itself firmly lodged between a rock and a hard place.


American Policy

During the first weeks of the Serbian crackdown the premises of Washington’s approach to the problem were efficiently recast. The castigation of the UÇK as “terrorist” was quietly cast aside without, however, any corresponding expression of sympathy for its maximalist agenda. Avoiding actions that would decisively assist the UÇK military effort was early on established as a high priority. Simultaneously, the anti-Serbian edge of Western policy was reasserted. Serbian repression was now interpreted not merely as an exaggerated reaction to a domestic insurgency, but as a campaign launched with genocidal intentions at the Kosovar Albanian population as a whole. During the first phase of the conflict, Washington sought to distance itself from both major belligerents, to encourage dialogue between the Yugoslav government and Rugova’s LDK as a means of brokering a negotiated settlement, and to contain the fighting within the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. These were complementary goals, and they were eventually combined in the framework of a coherent policy.

According to that policy, the UÇK’s agenda for national independence was unacceptable, Serbian repression disproportionate, the plea that what was at issue was a purely domestic dispute untenable in light of massive human rights abuses, as well as the implications for stability in the region as a whole, and the pursuit of military victory by both belligerents bound to fail. The preferred alternative was therefore defined as a diplomatic solution, including legal adjudication of human rights abuses, to be mediated if necessary through the good offices of the West. Rugova’s LDK was the only viable representative of the Kosovar Albanians, and Washington placed considerable pressure on the organization, with only limited success, to build a more broadly based advisory board and to distance itself from the extremist methods of the UÇK. 11

On the Serbian side there was no one to turn to other than the familiar devil Milosevic, who once again assumed center stage as his country’s primary interlocutor with the West. Though the terms of a solution were in principle to be left for the involved parties themselves to determine, the US made no secret of its preference for what Gelbard described on 26 March 1998 as “some form of enhanced status for Kosovo, within the borders of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. 12 This approach to the Kosovo dilemma was articulated during the early stages of the spring fighting, and it has been maintained with a great deal of consistency through the twists and turns that have followed.


Containment in Neighbouring Countries


Concern for spillover effects from the Kosovo conflict was greatest in the neighboring territories of the Republic of Albania and in Macedonia, and it was here that the effort to contain the conflict was concentrated. Since 1992, a United Nations Preventive Deployment Force in Macedonia (UNPREDEP) consisting of US and Scandinavian units, had been kept in place in Macedonia with the original intent of blocking any expansion of the Bosnian conflict southward. When the normal extension of the UNPREDEP mandate was discussed in the UN Security Council in November 1997, however, the US bowed to pressure from the Russian Federation and agreed to terminate the deployments after a final extension of nine months. Moscow’s opposition was based upon the practical argument that progress toward stabilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina had made preventive deployments less necessary, but also upon calculated concern for an open-ended US military presence in an area of traditional concern for Russian foreign policy, and for the generally anti-Serbian tenor of Western policy.

Faced with the need to find alternatives, Washington introduced a post-UNPREDEP package that included enhanced efforts to improve the combat readiness of Macedonian forces through expanded security assistance (the US unilaterally increased its own security assistance allotment for Macedonia from $2 million to $8 million annually), and an expanded Partnership for Peace (PfP) individual partnership program, including an intensified agenda for joint exercises, stronger military to military contacts, and the possibility of expanding Macedonia’s Krivolak firing range into a permanent PfP center for peacekeeping training. This program was being discussed at the moment when large-scale violence erupted in Kosovo in February 1998, an occurrence that quickly made the continued relevance of UN preventive deployments obvious to all. At the end of August 1998 the UNPREDEP mandate was renewed by consensus, and subsequently Washington has favored an expansion of the mission to provide as much reassurance as possible.

The UÇK’s greater Albania agenda is particularly threatening for Macedonia, and cannot help but encourage polarization between its Slavic and Albanian communities. This tendency was made manifest in the national elections of October 1998, which concluded with the defeat of the moderate Macedonian Socialist party of president Kiro Gligorov and brought the Macedonian nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolution Organization to power at the head of a coalition government. Macedonia, however, is not necessarily fated to follow the path of disintegration marked out by Kosovo. Its post-independence governments have striven with some success to create a context for tolerance and reconciliation with its various national minorities. The Albanian minority has been politically represented at the national level and has focused on an agenda for expanded autonomy within the Republic of Macedonia rather than aspirations to separatism. Needless to say, the chaos and violence in neighboring Kosovo and Albania do not make attachment to an ill-defined greater Albania a particularly attractive short-term goal. Perhaps most decisively, Macedonia’s integrity is defined by the US as an essential ingredient for stability in the southern Balkans, and support for Skopje in the economic, diplomatic, and military sectors has been correspondingly high.


In May 1998, a NATO survey team undertook a preliminary study to estimate the feasibility of a preventive deployment in Albania paralleling that already in place in Macedonia. The virtual collapse of the Albanian state after the catastrophic failure of a series of pyramid investment schemes in the spring of 1997 was one of the precipitating causes of the Kosovo crisis; during the breakdown of order military casernes were looted and over 600,000 light arms distributed to the population at large. Bearing arms has deep cultural and social roots among the Geg mountain clans of northern Albanian and Kosovo, where the ancient traditions of the blood feud and vendetta are still alive and well, and many of the weapons in question found their way into the hands of UÇK fighters, smuggled across the difficult terrain dividing Kosovo from Albania, or via western Macedonia. By April 1998, Belgrade and Tirana were exchanging accusations in this regard, with Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano speaking of Serbian responsibility for “pathological and traditional violence”, and Yugoslav UN ambassador Vladislav Jovanovic accusing Tirana of giving support to Kosovar Albanian guerrillas. 13 Blocking weapons trafficking across the border and preventing the UÇK from using Albania as a source of sanctuary and support seemed a goal well worth pursuing, but the NATO study concluded that upwards of 20,000 soldiers would be required to control the border, together with a major effort to build access corridors and ensure resupply in an isolated and underdeveloped area almost completely cut-off from the outside world. 14 The weight of the estimate was sufficiently sobering to rule out any significant preventive deployment within Albania as a practical option.

Even without these deployments, US containment policy has been quite successful. Its components, as detailed in the 28 May 1998 Declaration on Kosovo issued by the NATO ministerial session in Luxembourg, have included: (1) expanded PfP assistance to help both Macedonia and Albania secure their frontiers with indigenous national forces; (2) the successful coordination of an expanded NATO-PfP joint exercise in Macedonian during September; (3) the establishment of a PfP partnership cell in Tirana and the conduct of a small PfP-led exercise during August; (4) the establishment, beginning in July, of a permanent NATO naval force at the Albanian port of Durrs; and (5) a commitment to assist UN and OSCE surveillance in the region. 15 This basket of measures has been sufficient to convey the message that NATO is committed to preventing the spread of the conflict beyond the borders of the Serbian republic. The effort has also been aided by the military policy of the Yugoslav armed forces, which have their own vested interests in assuring that Kosovo’s borders remain closed, and by the military misfortunes of the UÇK, quickly driven onto the defensive by its Serbian opponent and of necessity more concerned with survival than expansion and escalation.


Efforts at Finding a Diplomatic Solution

Efforts to impose a diplomatic solution were pursued through a combination of multilateral and bilateral channels. At the first signs of trouble in Kosovo, the international “Contact Group,” an ad hoc diplomatic forum with six members (US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia), which had played a quiet role behind the scenes since the signing of the Dayton Accord, was brought back to center stage as a vehicle for coordinating Balkan policy. In a statement of 9 March 1998, the Contact Group condemned “the use of excessive force by Serbian police against civilians” as well as “terrorist actions by the Kosovo Liberation Army” and outlined a series of measures intended to encourage diplomatic dialogue. 16 Similar language appeared in UN Security Council Resolution 1160, promulgated on 31 March 1998, which imposed an arms embargo upon the region and concluded with the vague threat of “additional measures” in the absence of constructive progress toward a peaceful settlement, and in UN Security Council Resolution 1199 of 23 September 1998, which demanded a Serb pullback in more urgent terms. 17 At the end of May, the North Atlantic Council ministerial in Luxembourg issued a strong statement defining the situation in Kosovo as “unacceptable”, and in June the foreign ministers of the fifteen European Union countries agreed, together with the United States, to impose a ban on new investments in Serbia and to freeze Serbia’s foreign assets. 18 In July, a Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission under the auspices of the Contact Group, the European Union, and the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was charged with monitoring the human rights situation in the war-torn province. The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia was accorded full authority to investigate and prosecute violations in Kosovo, and during July its head prosecutor Louise Arbour announced that the situation corresponded fully to the tribunal’s definition of “armed conflict”. The US weighed in diplomatically through the auspices of its ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, who took the lead in coordinating diplomatic communication inside of Kosovo with representatives of the UÇK and LDK, and of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who initiated a series of discussions with Belgrade in June. These varied initiatives brought a considerable amount of pressure to bear upon the Yugoslav authorities. Beginning with a 15 May meeting between Milosevic and Rugova, Belgrade formally committed itself to open-ended discussions with representatives of the Kosovar Albanian community to discuss the province’s future. The negotiations led nowhere, however, and the momentum of Serbia’s ongoing offensive on the ground was not discernibly slowed.

The missing ingredient was coercion. In its efforts to build a united front of opposition to the Serbian crackdown, Washington was broadly successful in creating a façade of unity among key Western allies around the lowest common denominators of concern for humanitarian violations and respect for international law. Early on in the diplomatic campaign the possibility of military action to compel Serb compliance was evoked as well, and on 15 June NATO conducted an admonitory exercise in the skies over Macedonia, Albania, and the Adriatic Sea, but it quickly became clear that in the case of Kosovo a military option would be highly disputatious and potentially divisive. The legal basis for military intervention was questionable at best. Whatever the violations for which it was responsible, Yugoslavia was a sovereign state engaged in putting down an armed insurgency on what was universally acknowledged as its own national territory. The precedent of external intervention on behalf of an armed secessionist movement represented a disturbing precedent with potentially important implications. Any kind of military strikes against Serbia would inevitably contribute to the military effort of the UÇK, an outcome that Washington and its allies were anxious to avoid.

And there were significant sources of dissension. Russia, clinging to its historical role as protector of the Serbs in an almost desperate effort to salvage some leverage in world affairs, rejected the military option point blank, refused to sanction air strikes against Yugoslavia in UN or OSCE forums, and warned of “serious international consequences” should NATO proceed to act without an international mandate. 19 NATO asserted a right to intervene regardless, but the issue of the mandate remains a contentious one. In the end, Washington was able to win support within NATO councils for the launching of air strikes against Serbian command and communication facilities in the event that Milosevic refused to accept the terms of UN Resolution 1199, but behind the scenes several allies, including Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain, expressed reluctance to act without approval from some kind of larger mandating authority. The debate in NATO circles was intense, it was waged right up to the issuance of a NATO activation order on 12 October, and it will continue as NATO undertakes the preparation of a new strategic concept to guide it into the twenty-first century.

Western unity was made possible by the presumption that the threat of a resort to force, though orchestrated to appear as credible as possible, would in the end not have to be acted upon. Milosevic’s eleventh hour acceptance of Western conditions made the point moot, but if NATO’s bluff had been called on the air strike option, the implications could have been considerable. The speaker of the Russian parliament Gennadi Seleznev stated bluntly that he would initiate legislation to withdraw from the Permanent Joint Council, defining a special relationship between Russia and NATO, in the event of an alliance attack upon Yugoslavia. The new German government of chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer confronted the difficult issue of NATO intervention almost as its first significant foreign policy decision, and though agreeing to honor the commitments of its predecessor, asserted the right to repose the question in the future. The kinds of strains inherent in the use of NATO as an intrusive peace enforcer in dealings with other European states was made clear by the eruption, in the days immediately following the negotiation of a NATO-Belgrade accord, of a serious spy scandal, with NATO staff officer and French Major Pierre-Henri Bunel accused of passing targeting data for eventual NATO air strikes on to Belgrade. Bunel’s actions have been interpreted as the product of “a dominant climate within French military circles of sympathy for the Serbian cause”, born of deeply-rooted empathy for a traditional ally. 20

In the end, these various political complications were not manifested because no air strikes were launched. An orchestrated campaign of US-sponsored coercive diplomacy arrived at its culmination in the autumn, with the 23 September UN Security Council resolution demanding “immediate action” to bring peace to Kosovo, the publication on 5 October of a long-awaited report from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sharply critical of the “wanton killing and destruction”, Holbrooke’s presentation to Milosevic of an ultimatum demanding a Serb pull-back, and the release of the NATO activation order clearing the way for air strikes on 12 October. 21 In an address to the Cleveland Council on World Affairs on 9 October, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott provided a rationale for the use of force by defining the situation in Kosovo as “a clear and present danger to our vital national interests”. 22 The threat of reprisals was ratcheted nearly to the point of no return when on 13 October Holbrooke announced the conclusion of an arrangement with Milosevic in conformity with UN Security Council and Contact Group demands. It was not until 27 October, however, after another round of brinkmanship over the pace of implementation, that Serbian compliance became sufficiently manifest to permit the suspension of a threat of air strikes that the Western alliance was clearly unenthusiastic about carrying out.

The Holbrooke-Milosevic accord arrived a full eight months after the Serbian offensive had been launched and in the wake of a vicious campaign of military repression that left large swaths of Kosovo in ruins, some 750 dead, and a mass of over 250,000 homeless and embittered refugees. Under the circumstances, and given the effort that the West had expended in preparing an apparatus of coercion to force the issue, the agreement was remarkably favorable to Belgrade. Yugoslav authorities agreed to pull their special military units out of the rebellious province, but the withdrawal came with the UÇK infrastructure already reduced to tatters and at the onset of the winter season where serious campaigning was at any rate impossible. The Serbs are permitted to maintain police and military levels equivalent to those in place in the province under what had been a virtual martial law regime prior to February 1998. Compliance is to be monitored by 2000 unarmed members of an OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission, assisted by an “eyes in the sky” Kosovo Air Verification Mission coordinated by NATO, and protected, in the event that they should come under threat, by a 1500 man extraction force, probably to be based in Macedonia and off-shore in the Adriatic, with French forces in the lead. 23 The accord also included pledges to engage in good faith negotiations with Kosovar Albanian representatives aimed at re-establishing local self-government with a three year time-frame for restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy, a general amnesty for resistance fighters, cooperation with the work of a UN war crimes tribunal to identify responsibility for violations of the laws of war, the convening of democratic elections by the autumn of 1999, and a program to facilitate the systematic return of refugees.

These unique arrangements have sufficed in the short-term to bring an end to large-scale bloodshed and to head off a potential humanitarian catastrophe, but they leave many questions unanswered. Politically, the accord rests upon the dubious assumption of good will on the part of the Milosevic regime, and the capacity of Rugova’s LDK, still the West’s preferred partner despite efforts to establish a broader dialogue with the UÇK, to reconstruct itself as a legitimate voice for Kosovar Albanian national aspirations. Talks on the future of the province, launched on the initiative of US Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, confront a difficult series of challenges to say the least. Militarily, the UÇK is down but not out. It has accumulated a certain amount of respect for its tenacity, continues to denounce the peace plan through its self-styled “General Political Representative” Adem Demaçi, and has no obvious motives for encouraging the success of a project intentionally designed to marginalize it. 24 Eventually and inevitably the UÇK will resurface and attempt to pick up its campaign of armed resistance where it has left off. When this occurs, many of the problems temporarily pushed aside in the autumn of 1998 will reappear. Milosevic continues to rally his political base around the defense of the “sacred soil” of Kosovo and his ability to stand up to an American imperial power judged irretrievably hostile to Serbian interests. His domestic position has once again been strengthened by a defiant exercise in brinkmanship, in which he cast himself in the starring role. During the test of will over Kosovo, the authoritarian character of his regime was reinforced by draconian measures against the last few remaining bastions of an independent Serbian media, and against the autonomy of Serbian universities, all justified in the name of the sacrosanct cause of national unity faced with an external threat. Though NATO has reconfirmed its determination to see the accords through to a successful conclusion, the viability of the unusual monitoring agreements, the willingness of Serbian authorities to play by the rules, and the capacity of Western authorities to discipline and control the UÇK remain to be tested. 25 The balance sheet, in sum, is not positive. Great expenditures of energy have culminated in precious little gain, US engagement in Balkan crisis management has been considerably intensified without being attached to clearly defined or realistically achievable goals, and a lasting resolution to the Kosovo dilemma seems as far away as ever.



US policy in the Kosovo crisis is only the latest example of a long-standing and ambitious involvement in the entire southeastern European region. Washington remains the keystone of post-conflict peace-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has cultivated relationships with a number of emerging regional actors (Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Albania) that include significant elements of sponsorship and dependency. It is committed to managing the contentious Greek-Turkish rivalry, and has intervened diplomatically on a regular basis to keep strategic tensions in the Aegean under control. The US-Turkish relationship has become a crucial element of US policy in the Balkans, the Islamic Middle East, and the Black Sea and Transcaucasus areas. Nowhere is a declaratory US policy of engagement and the country’s objective status as the “sole remaining superpower” more clearly demonstrated. 26

Despite the intensity of its regional commitments, US policy suffers from chronic deficiencies that have been exposed to the full during the Kosovo crisis. The problems posed by the UÇK insurgency have led to a resolution “of sorts” that hopes to contain the worst manifestations of violence and offer a valid diplomatic forum of which both sides can take advantage, if they so choose. 27 It does little or nothing, however, to resolve the underlying sources of goal incompatibility that have created the problem in the first place.

What kind of deficiencies are in question? To begin, there is the problem of principle. The Wilsonian rhetoric of human rights and self-determination has been prominent in Western approaches to the Balkan conflict, but it has not been matched by a consistent approach to core issues. At the origins of the conflict, independence was granted to Slovenia and Croatia on the basis of the principle of self-determination. Simultaneously, a similar right was denied to the Serbian population of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Republic of Macedonia was graciously granted a right of national self-determination, but not the right to determine its own name. In the cases of the Kninska Krajina or Herzeg-Bosna, the inviolability of internal frontiers was offered as a justification for the lack of concessions, but the destruction of the Yugoslav federation meant that its external frontiers were torn apart with impunity. 28 In the summer of 1995, Croatia resolved the problem of its insurgent Serbian minority by launching a full-scale military blitz which drove the entire concerned population of over 150,000 into exile—the worst single instance of ethnic cleansing in all of the post-Yugoslav wars. 29 This was, of course, precisely the “genocidal” scenario that the Western powers have decried with justifiable outrage in the case of Kosovo. Minority issues and conflicting claims to sovereignty have always been features of the Balkan political landscape, but they have been greatly aggravated by the crisis of regional order that has followed the collapse of Yugoslav federalism.

All of these dilemmas have resurfaced once again in Kosovo, and once again the absence of reliable guidelines for resolving them has been flagrant. At some point the Western powers which have assumed such heavy responsibility for recasting regional order will have to develop more consistent and compelling formulas for dealing with the dilemmas of nationalism and irredentism in the context of Balkan inter-culturalism, including arrangements for expanded local autonomy and the creation of multi-state federated regions. They would also be well advised to attempt to fix more convincing principles for reacting to armed challenges to domestic order, be they in Kosovo, Krajina, or Kurdistan.

Second, there is the issue of equitable standards. If there has been any consistent and reliable point of orientation in US Balkan policy, it has been opposition to Belgrade, posed as a geostrategic as well as an ethical and legal construct. The anti-Serbian direction of US policy rests in part upon a realistic assessment of the Milosevic regime’s responsibility for affecting the destruction of the Yugoslav federation, perpetrating a war of aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and repressing its own citizens’ best democratic and European aspirations. But it also expresses atavisms that are deeply rooted in the policy establishment and widely shared by the population at large, and therefore potential sources of a much-desired national consensus—fashionable Orientalist judgements about the barbaric East, a facile comparison between Milosevic’s authoritarianism and an ever green communist threat, and the tendency to simplify complex issues by personalizing the presumed source of distress. The currently fashionable argument that the silver bullet capable of “eliminating” Milosevic will serve as some sort of magical amulet capable of generating regional stability is a good example of such thinking. 30 In the case of Kosovo, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the evocation of Serbian atrocities quickly proved to be an irresistible plaidoyer for action. However, as is often noted almost apologetically, Serbia does not bear sole responsibility for the current Balkan malaise, and a blinkered concentration upon its sins alone can lead to badly distorted policy choices. The primary barrier to the progress of the Dayton process at present, for example, is less the hard liners of the Republika Srpska than the uncompromising ultra-nationalists of Croatian Herzegovina, and Belgrade’s savage reactions in Kosovo were not altogether unprovoked. Moreover, projects to recast regional order that envision some sort of black hole shielded by an “outer wall” in the place of ten million Serbs, strategically placed in the heart of the Balkans, are doomed to fail. As the Kosovo imbroglio should make clear, there is also a Serbian question on the Balkan agenda, and it too cries out for principled resolution.

Third, there is a problem of commitment. The United States has assumed great responsibility as the driving force behind international conflict management efforts in the Balkans, and repeatedly evokes the need for American leadership. This was made clear once again during the Kosovo crisis, where Washington immediately seized the lead in organizing an international response and expended considerable political capital in rallying the international community behind a program of coercive diplomacy. Its commitment to follow up on initiatives and see the job through to a successful conclusion is nonetheless suspect.

Engagement in southeastern Europe rests upon a weak domestic political foundation, including a great deal of public apathy and ignorance, considerable congressional skepticism, and substantial military opposition to open-ended peacekeeping responsibilities. Increasingly, policy discourse regarding the region is dominated by an essentially negative concern with the potential for disengagement, rather than a positive commitment to what needs to be achieved. During discussions of military options in Kosovo, to cite one significant recent example, the Pentagon strongly opposed a NATO plan calling for the deployment in Kosovo of a 26,000 member peacekeeping force, to include an enhanced brigade-sized US component of about 5000 troops. 31 Such hesitancy, already familiar from the years of frustration experienced by international peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, reflects legitimate concern for the long-term impact of extended peacekeeping deployments upon military readiness, as well as a fair case for more equitable burden-sharing in European crisis management, but it would be more defensible if Washington’s status as the dominant regional power did not make it so central to the course of events. The situation in the southern Balkans has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where almost any viable solution will require the long-term presence of international peacekeepers. A willingness to deploy ground forces is a decisive gesture of commitment to achieve long-term solutions, and if Washington is unwilling or unable to make that commitment the effectiveness of its diplomatic efforts will inevitably be reduced.

The problem of commitment is related to the question of long-term strategic goals. Discussions of US Balkan strategy often begin with the assertion that Washington has no “vital” interests at stake in the region, but the extent of its commitment seems to belie this assertion. What is at stake and why it is important are fundamental questions for which there is no national consensus. In part this is a consequence of chronic division between isolationalist and internationalist visions of the US global role. To some extent it is the result of domestic preoccupations and the lack of strong presidential leadership—President Clinton’s failure to engage the nation in a frank and compelling discussion of America’s Balkan engagement has been a striking aspect of US regional policy over the past six years. It is also, however, the consequence of a simple failure to address Balkan issues with the seriousness that they merit. When this is done it should become clear that the protracted and deepening US presence in the region has the great merit of keeping Washington at the vanguard of European security affairs, that quite a number of important interests are at stake—the premises of the post-Cold War world order, the new strategic responsibilities of the North Atlantic Alliance, the US role in Europe, the future of peace operations, the stability and well-being of a major European region which is also the land bridge between Europe, Africa, and the extended Middle East, and so on—and that more consistent long-term strategic planning in pursuit of these interests is long overdue. 32

There is a short list of potential long-term outcomes to the Kosovo problem—full independence, partition, expanded autonomy within a reconfigured Yugoslav federation, or something like the status quo where Serbian intransigence and Kosovar Albanian desperation seem well on the way to transforming the province into the Ulster of the twenty-first century. The Holbrooke-Milosevic arrangement has succeeded in creating an apparatus for international oversight and control, but it does little to forward positive alternatives. Forcing the issue will mean making strategic choices about the future of the Balkan regional order, and the US stake in shaping that order, that Washington has been reluctant to make. At some point, however, these choices will have to be made. 33 The current geopolitical configuration of the Balkan area—an accumulation of petty-minded post-communist authoritarian states, de facto military protectorates, and struggling transition regimes—is neither stable nor desirable from the perspective of Western interests. America’s considerable strategic weight and well-intentioned diplomatic efforts provide it with tremendous assets to call upon in forging alternatives, but they will have to be used in conjunction with a more compelling strategic vision than has been manifested in efforts to resolve the Kosovo dilemma to date.

R. Craig Nation is Elihu Root Professor of Military Studies, US Army War College,Carlisle, Pennsylvania.



Note 1: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the US government.  Back.

Note 2: Despite its relative isolation and backwardness, Kosovo’s status as a focus for Serbian nationalism and point of international tension has generated a large and high-quality literature describing the region’s history. The “Kosovo Problem” is evoked from a Serbian perspective in D. Bogdanovic, Knijga o Kosovu (Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986). A fine study of the region’s experience under Tito’s Yugoslavia which puts a special emphasis upon the failure of Yugoslav developmental strategies is M. Roux, Les Albanais en Yougoslavie: Minorité nationale, territoire et developpement (Paris: Fondation de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1992). Recent studies inspired by the breakup of Yugoslavia include M. Dogo, Il Kosovo: Albanesi e Serbi–Le radici del conflitto (Lungra di Cosenza: Marco Editore, 1992), N. Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), and M. Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).  Back.

Note 3: C. Hedges, “Albanians Inside Serbia Set to Fight For Autonomy”, New York Times, 19 October 1997, p. 15.  Back.

Note 4: H.-G. Ehrhart and M. Z. Karadi, “Wann brennt der Balkan? Plädoyer für eine komplexe Präventionspolitik im Kosovo-Konflikt”, Frankfurter Rundschau, 25 March 1998.  Back.

Note 5: See “Progress in Bosnia”, The Washington Post, 22 January 1998, p. 20, J. Brown, “As Balkans Tense, a US Twist”, The Christian Science Monitor, 3 March 1998, and the text of Gelbard’s remarks in Special Representative Robert S. Gelbard, Press Conference, Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, 23 February 1998, cited from Gelbard went out of his way to reiterate the point, asserting that “having worked for years on counterterrorist activity, I know very well that to look at a terrorist group, to define it, you rip away the rhetoric and just look at actions. And the actions of this group speak for themselves.”  Back.

Note 6: See the eyewitness accounts in “Kosovo: l’horreur en Europe”, Le Monde, 28 October 1998, pp. 1-3.  Back.

Note 7: Cited from “A Warning to Heed”, The Christian Science Monitor, 4 March 1998.  Back.

Note 8: Cited in R. J. Smith, “US Assails Government Crackdown in Kosovo”, The Washington Post, 5 March 1998, p. 23.  Back.

Note 9: Cited from S. Erlanger, “Albright Tours Europe to Whip Up Resolve to Punish Yugoslavians”, New York Times, 9 March 1998 and B. Slavin, “Berger: US Goal is to Keep Kosovo from Spilling Over”, USA Today, 13 March 1998, p. 8.  Back.

Note 10: Credible cases for support for an independent Kosovo are offered by N. X. Rizopoulos, “An Independent Kosovo: Waiting for Another Navarino?” World Policy Journal, vol. XV, no. 3 (Fall 1998), pp. 13-16 and P. Garde, “Il faut donner au Kosovo la maîtrise de son destin”, Le Monde, 24 October 1998.  Back.

Note 11: The LDK has remained in principle supportive of cooperation with the UÇK in building representative national institutions. Its platform calls for full national independence with all guarantees for the local Serbian community, with the establishment of an international protectorate over the province as an interim solution during a phase of transition. See “President Rugova’s Press conference”, Kosova Daily Report #1605, 6 November 1998, pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 12: In a press conference with Jeremy Greenstock, Political Director, United Kingdom Foreign Commonwealth Office, Pristina, Serbia and Montenegro, 26 March 1998. Cited from  Back.

Note 13: P. Smucker, “Albanian Guerrillas are Ready to Do or Die”, The Washington Times, 27 April 1998, p. 1.  Back.

Note 14: R. J. Smith, “NATO Albania Deployment Less Likely”, The Washington Post, 28 May 1998, p. 30.  Back.

Note 15: “Erklärung zum Kosovo: Herausgegeben auf der Ministertagung des Nordatlantikrates am 28. Mai 1998 in Luxemburg,” NATO Brief, vol. 46, no. 3 (Autumn 1998) p. D5.  Back.

Note 16: “Statement on Kosovo”, London Contact Group Meeting, 9 March 1998, cited from  Back.

Note 17: UN Security Council Resolution 1160, Adopted by the Security Council at its 3868th meeting, 31 March 1998, cited from ttp://  Back.

Note 18: “Erklärung zum Kosovo,” NATO Brief, no. 3 (Autumn 1998), p. D5.  Back.

Note 19: C. Bohlen, “Russia Vows to Block the U.N. From Backing Attack on Serbs”, New York Times, 7 October 1998.  Back.

Note 20: R. Ourdon, “Six années de liaisons dangereuses franco-serbes”, and J. Isnard, “Un officier français de l’OTAN est accusé d’espionnage au profit des militaires serbes”, Le Monde, 4 November 1998, p. 4.  Back.

Note 21: “Les alliés s’apprêtent a donner l’ ‘ordre d’action’ aux militaires”, Le Monde, 13 October 1998 and B. Crosette, “Serbs Continue Kosovo Terror, Annan Asserts”, New York Times, 6 October 1998, p. 1.  Back.

Note 22: Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott, Kenyon C. Bolton Memorial Lecture to the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, Cleveland, Ohio, 9 October 1998. Cited from remarks/ 981009_talbot_forpol.htm11/6/98.  Back.

Note 23: J.Isnard, “750 soldats français pour protéger l’OSCE au Kosovo”, Le Monde, 5 November 1998. Madeleine Albright defined this arrangement on 27 October as keeping NATO “overhead and next door”. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Remarks on Kosovo, 27 October 1998, Office of the Spokesman, US Department of State. Cited from  Back.

Note 24: “Presidency of Kosova Parliament Meets with Adem Demaçi”, Kosova Daily Report # 1599, 31 October 1998, pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 25: See the interview with NATO General Secretary Javiar Solana, “Binnen 48 Stunden startbereit”, Der Spiegel, no. 45 (2 November 1998) p. 194-6.  Back.

Note 26: The current US National Security Strategy defines the “imperative of engagement” and “global leadership” as primary national goals. A National Security Strategy for a New Century (Washington DC, October 1998), pp. 1-2.  Back.

Note 27: For a reasonable scenario defining how a diplomatic settlement might be achieved (over nothing less than a 25 year time frame) see E. Kofos and T. Veremis, “Kosovo: Efforts to Solve the Impasse”, The International Spectator, vol. XXXIII, no. 2 (April-June) 1998, pp. 132- 41.  Back.

Note 28: In the words of one disillusioned critic, “The country’s external borders were made of cotton, its internal and regional frontiers of cement.” Slobodan Despot in his postface to V. Radovic, Spectres de la Guerre: Choses vue par un Yougoslave privé de son pays (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1992) p. 216.  Back.

Note 29: G. Scotti, Operazione tempesta: La cacciata dei Serbi dalla Krajina nell’estate 1995 (Rome: Gamberetti Editore, 1997).  Back.

Note 30: J. Perlez, “Unstacking Milosevic’s Deck”, New York Times, 25 October 1998.  Back.

Note 31: J. Fitchett, “A Role on the Ground? Alliance Studies Need for Monitoring Force”, International Herald Tribune, 7 October 1998.  Back.

Note 32: See the argument in J. Hoaglund, “Into the Balkans”, The Washington Post, 25 October 1998, p. C7.  Back.

Note 33: See the argument by T. di Francesco, “Pour une paix à l’irlandaise au Kosovo”, Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1998, p. 20.  Back.