Failure in Kosovo

By Terrence Hopman / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007

The single sound of that word - Kosovo - caused an indescribable excitement.... This one word pointed to the black past - five centuries.... Our mothers lulled us to sleep with songs of Kosovo.... My God, what awaited us! To see a liberated Kosovo. When we arrived on Kosovo Polje and the battalions were placed in order, our commander spoke: "Brothers, my children, my sons! This place on which we stand is the graveyard of our glory."... We felt strong and proud, for we are the generation which will realize the centuries-old dream of the whole nation: that we with the sword will regain the freedom that was lost with the sword.

This letter, written by a young Serbian soldier after he was told that his unit was going to Kosovo, was composed not in the spring of 1999 but in the fall of 1912. That year marked the outbreak of the First Balkan War, in which Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria joined forces to push the retreating Ottoman Empire from the Albanian lands it had dominated since the end of the fourteenth century. The myth of the defeat in 1389 at Kosovo Polje - the Field of Blackbirds - has been a wound in the Serbian national psyche ever since.

The First Balkan War offered a hope that the wound might be healed. The war stimulated a rebirth of Serbian nationalism, a nationalism that in 1914 became the spark that set off World War I. It was this same Serbian nationalism that over the past decade once again rekindled the desire to assert control over Kosovo, the cradle of Serbia. Last year, Kosovo again became the center of a bloody battle, one that this time involved the most sophisticated demonstration of air power the world had ever witnessed. As NATO aircraft unleashed the full fury of their power on Kosovo and the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, some 800,000 Kosovar Albanians fled their homeland into neighboring Macedonia and Albania, seriously straining the fragile economies of those two countries. Vast regional destruction and uncounted thousands of deaths were the result of the eleven-week war.

Although the major fighting ended with the June agreement between the Serbs and NATO - an agreement to permit a peacekeeping force and allow humanitarian assistance coordinated by the United Nations to enter the region - sporadic violence remains. Even more seriously, ethnic hostility throughout the Balkans has risen to a new intensity, and the shattered economy and infrastructure of the region have made any prospect of a return to normalcy fade into a distant and hard-to-imagine future. Just as the Serbs have sought to avenge the humiliation of the battle of Kosovo Polje for six centuries, so ethnic Albanians are unlikely now to forget their suffering at the hands of Serbian forces last spring. Nor are many Serbs likely to soon forget either the punishing blow which they, a small country, received at the hands of the world's most powerful military alliance, or the actions of the ethnic Albanians at whose urging this wrath was brought upon them. In short, the prospects for peace in the Balkans appear to be very poor for quite some time to come.

Could this tragic outcome have been prevented? Ethnic tensions were probably inevitable in the turmoil that accompanied the end of the Cold War; but the peoples of the Balkans had for the most part been living together in peace for more than forty years before Yugoslavia started coming unglued in 1989. Sadly, the United States, and indeed the entire Western world, managed this difficult period poorly. Many actions by the "international community" turned a fragile situation into a catastrophe. The failure to think through the consequences of well-intended policies produced results that too often were the exact opposite of those sought by policy-makers.

In order to understand how this tragedy unfolded, it's helpful to look back to the Serbian myth of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Serbia emerged in 1166 from the mixture of Slavic tribes that had migrated to the Balkan region throughout the first millennium. The territory of modern Kosovo was ruled more or less peacefully for two centuries. Toward the end of the fourteenth century, however, the Serbian state became overextended, and its enemy, the Ottoman empire, began to move north into the Balkans. The final clash came at Kosovo Polje, just north of present-day Pristina, on St. Vitus' Day, June 28, 1389.

The actual battle ended in a draw that June, but the Serbian armies were so badly weakened they were no longer able to resist the Ottomans. To Serbs ever since, the battle on the Field of Blackbirds was their greatest defeat. During 500 years of Ottoman rule, as the story of Kosovo Polje was told and retold in countless ways to all Serbian children, Kosovo's Albanian population grew. After the vast majority of them converted to Islam, they, too, became identified in Serbian mythology as "Turks," allied with Serbia's historic oppressors.

In April 1987, a rising Serbian politician named Slobodan Milosevic paid Kosovo a visit. He was greeted as a hero by Kosovo's frustrated ethnic-Serbian minority, which had long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Albanian majority. Milosevic realized that he could use the Kosovo issue to promote his own prominence in Serbian politics. Over the next two years, Milosevic helped fan the flames of resentment that eventually led to the reversal of Kosovo's autonomous status and the replacement of local police and judicial officials by those from Serbia proper. On St. Vitus' Day 1989, the Serbs held a large rally at Kosovo Polje to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the great battle. In a speech to the crowd, Milosevic proclaimed: "The moment has come when, standing on the fields of Kosovo, we can say openly and clearly - no longer!"

Over the next decade, violence always seemed to be around the corner. In early 1990, a new Serbian constitution was adopted. The Serbian parliament began to standardize teaching throughout the republic, making Serbian the principal language of instruction. The Kosovo provincial parliament was expelled, and eventually the Serbs dissolved all branches of Kosovo's govern-ment and eliminated the Albanian-language media.

In December 1989, the Albanians responded by forming the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) under Ibrahim Rugova. As the Serbs replaced most Kosovar institutions, the Albanians responded by setting up parallel structures of their own. Large factories fared poorly, but Albanian-run private shops and family-run businesses prospered. Indeed, by the early 1990s international observers in Kosovo noted the relative prosperity of the Albanian population compared to its ethnic-Serb counterpart. The relative economic success of the Albanians in Europe's poorest region only intensified the resentment of ethnic Serbs.

In December 1992, nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic scored a stunning victory in the Serbian election. The defeat of the moderate candidate, Milan Panic, a Serb American who had returned to his native land, was achieved in large part because a million ethnic Albanians, mostly from Kosovo, boycotted the vote. On December 24, 1992, the acting U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade was instructed to read the following ultimatum to Milosevic: "In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and in Serbia proper." The seeds of war had been sown.

The situation simmered for six more years. Serbian authorities in Kosovo arbitrarily searched Albanian homes, arrested Albanians at will, and fired ethnic-Albanian health-care workers and teachers. As the war escalated in nearby Bosnia, Serbs launched an intense campaign against the "Islamic threat" throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Yet Rugova and other moderate Kosovar leaders believed that a settlement of the Bosnian war might produce a larger political solution to the problems of the former Yugoslavia. Rugova and his allies hoped that the November 1995 Dayton Accords would signal a new era of international involvement in the region. The Dayton Accords, however, paid only lip service to the Kosovo problem, keeping largely ineffective sanctions on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until it improved its human-rights record. About the long-term Albanian goal of an independent Kosovo, the accords said nothing. According to Noel Malcolm in his book Kosovo: A Short History, "The Dayton settlement had the general effect of strengthening Milosevic's rule in Serbia: Western diplomats made it clear that they were grateful to him for his 'peace-making' efforts."

A substantial number of Kosovar Albanians began to support a violent independence movement that had for years been engaging in random acts of terrorism against Serb officials, police officers, and even the rector of the University of Pristina. In the summer of 1997, a spokesman for a group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) announced in Switzerland that it was behind many of these attacks. Brandishing rifles, members of the KLA made their first public appearance before a crowd of 20,000 mourners at the funeral of an Albanian teacher killed by Serbian security forces. One soldier declared to the crowd: "Serbia is massacring Albanians. The Kosovo Liberation Army is the only force fighting for the freedom of Kosovo."

In late 1997 the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Macedonia presented the permanent council of the fifty-five member organization with what he described as "early warning" of an impending tragedy in Kosovo. The OSCE chairman-in-office then appointed the OSCE's high commission on national minorities, former Dutch foreign minister Max van der Stoel, as his special representative in Kosovo. Van der Stoel warned the permanent council once more of an impending disaster if immediate international action was not taken to mediate between an increasingly radicalized leadership of Kosovar Albanians and an increasingly truculent regime in Belgrade. Representatives of the United States, the European Union, and other major Western governments praised his recommendations, but their governments failed to take any timely action.

It is impossible to know what might have happened had high-level negotiations been convened in the spring of 1998. But it is likely that the engagement of high-level American, Russian, and European leaders at that stage could have initiated a process to begin addressing the underlying problems in Kosovo without the pressure of an impending disaster. Tensions mounted throughout the year, and violence became widespread. No international institutions were formally allowed to operate inside Kosovo to report to the world the chain of events that was causing the violence to spiral out of control. No one tried to broker solutions.

Eventually, in October, the United States sent special envoy Richard Holbrooke '62, the architect of the Dayton Accords, to Belgrade. Under the terms of the cease-fire Holbrooke negotiated, Serbian military and special-police forces who entered Kosovo after 1997 would withdraw, and the KLA would lay down (but not surrender) their guns. Verification of compliance was left up to the OSCE, which established a Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) consisting of 2,000 unarmed, civilian observers recruited from member countries. These observers were to assist in mediating disputes that might arise on the ground and to assist the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Red Cross with the repatriation of refugees who wished to return to their homes. The mission was headed by William Walker, a senior U.S. ambassador who had served in El Salvador during the civil war in that country.

It took some time to set the KVM in place, but the mission was eventually successful in dozens of tense situations. U.S. policy-makers apparently believed that the situation was being brought under control. It's now clear that, although the mission was able to accomplish a great deal to promote peaceful resolution of differences at the local level, it was unable to cope with the much larger strategic actions taken by the Serbs and Albanians to escalate the conflict.

Kosovo, which had always occupied a place on the periphery of senior U.S. policy-makers' radar screens, moved into the center of the screen suddenly and dramatically on January 15, 1999, when forty-five Kosovar Albanians were found massacred in the Kosovo village of Racak. After viewing the bodies, and before establishing with any certainty who was responsible for them, Ambassador Walker called Washington, waking National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to inform them of the tragedy. Albright then went to the White House and persuaded an embattled President Clinton, who at that moment was facing impeachment hearings in the Senate, that it was time to abandon a policy of containment and to pursue a solution to the Kosovo conflict by force. Shaped by six years of inaction, however, the situation in Kosovo had deteriorated to the point where the choices ranged from bad to awful; the "window of opportunity" for negotiating a constructive and peaceful solution to the crisis had been firmly shut.

On January 30, NATO ministers approved an "activation order" to prepare for combat over Kosovo. On February 1, President Clinton met with his national security advisers and concluded that bombing might be necessary to force the Serbs to accept his terms for a settlement. The result was a peace conference between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, which took place in February 1999 at Rambouillet, a French presidential chateau outside Paris. The key to this "negotiation," however, was a "peace plan" drafted almost exclusively in Washington and relying heavily on precedents established by the Dayton Accords.

Unlike most negotiations, in which outside parties might assist the conflicting parties to move toward an agreement acceptable to each, the Rambouillet talks consisted primarily of an attempt by the United States to impose its desired solution on the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. There appears to have been little effort to listen to the views of either party and fashion an agreement that might solve their problem or offer each a face-saving formula. Instead, the focus was solely on solving the West's problem, by providing a pretext for introducing "peace enforcement" troops onto the territory of Kosovo and forcing Milosevic from power.

Not surprisingly, both sides were reluctant to go along with the Rambouillet proposals. The Kosovar Albanians objected because the agreement called for restoring Kosovo's autonomy for a period of three years, far short of their goal of complete independence. Similarly, the Serbs objected because the Rambouillet accords called for a deployment of large numbers of NATO troops in Kosovo; even worse, one section of the Rambouillet proposal called for substantial freedom for NATO troops to operate throughout all parts of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a provision that would, in effect, have transformed the entire republic into an occupied country, similar in status to Japan after World War II.

That this would be completely unacceptable to Milosevic or even to far more moderate elements of the Serbian leadership should hardly have come as a surprise to anyone. Indeed, several individuals who participated in the decision-making process in Washington have revealed that the "bar was set high" at Rambouillet in full recognition of the fact that the Serbian leaders could not accept this agreement. That would then provide the pretext for the option advocated by Secretary Albright and other U.S. leaders to engage in a full-scale aerial bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Such a bombardment would not only solve the Kosovo problem; it would force Milosevic from office. In the view of these U.S. leaders, the entire Yugoslav problem would then be solved once and for all.

Rambouillet, therefore, collapsed in a way that was particularly frustrating for the United States. Because the proposals had been rejected by both sides, the rationale for a bombing campaign against the Serbs had been undermined, since they could not easily be painted as the sole "bad guys." Therefore, a follow-up meeting was scheduled in Paris for three weeks later; during the intervening time a great deal of pressure was directed at the Kosovar Albanians, who were reminded that their failure to sign the Rambouillet accords would lead to an inevitable Western withdrawal from Kosovo, exposing them to the full fury of the Serbs.

Faced with this pressure, the Albanians trumped the United States and NATO. Knowing the Serbs were unlikely to sign the agreement, the Kosovar Albanians calculated that it would not be binding whether they signed it or not. By signing, the Albanians got the best of both worlds: no agreement (since the Serbs would refuse to sign) and the world's best air force to support them in achieving independence. For them, it was a brilliant gambit, and NATO and the United States walked right into the trap, apparently unaware of how they were being used by the most radical Kosovar Albanians.

For his part, Milosevic at first believed that he, too, had outmaneuvered NATO. As one anonymous U.S. official told the Washington Post, Milosevic seems to have assumed "that we would bomb them as we had just done in Iraq - hit them for three days and then stop, whether we accomplished the mission or not." NATO bombing would consolidate Serbian public opinion behind him as the savior of the nation. What's more, under the cover of the bombing, he could drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo - creating just the Serbian Kosovo he had promised ten years earlier on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje.

The bombing began in full force on March 24, 1999. In embarking on this campaign, the United States and its NATO allies miscalculated in several important ways. First, they believed that Milosevic in the final hour would back down and sign the agreement at Rambouillet before the bombing started, as he had done at Dayton. At worst, they believed he might tolerate a few days of bombing before throwing in the towel.

What they failed to understand was that for Serbs - and for politicians riding the wave of Serbian nationalism - Kosovo was not the same as the Serb-populated regions of Bosnia. While much of Bosnia may be more heavily populated by Serbs, it is Kosovo - not Bosnia - that is the cradle of the Serbian nation. Serbs were simply not prepared to accept foreign occupation of Kosovo as readily as they had been to permit NATO troops into Bosnia under the terms approved in Dayton. This fundamental foundation of Serbian history - the significance of the myth of Kosovar Polje - was simply not understood or appreciated in Washington or Brussels.

The second miscalculation was the NATO and U.S. failure to predict the consequences of the aerial bombardment for the people they were defending, the Kosovar Albanians. The worst-case scenario envisioned by policy-makers was that Milosevic would try to destroy the remnants of the KLA. U.S. leaders misjudged both the ability of the KLA to hide from Serbian troops and the degree to which the vast majority of the ethnic-Albanian population was defenseless against the highly mobile and mechanized Serbian army. In the absence of a credible threat by NATO to introduce ground troops into the fighting, there was nothing to deter Serb forces from undertaking this massive depopulation campaign. And, with its reliance on high-flying aircraft incapable of accurately targeting moving objects on the ground, or even distinguishing between Albanian refugees and units of the Serbian military, NATO was completely unprepared to defend the Kosovar civilians. The allies became increasingly frustrated and expanded their bombing into wider areas of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, often hitting targets in the strongholds of the Serbian opposition. In effect, NATO crippled Milosevic's political foes and gave the president a new rallying cry with which to shore up his sagging popularity at home.

1. Preventing conflict is preferable to rebuilding societies after conflict. Greater efforts and more resources devoted to preventing violence in Kosovo might have obviated the need to spend billions of dollars on the prosecution of NATO's aerial campaign and billions more on reconstructing the former Yugoslavia afterwards.

2. Conflicts must be settled by the parties to the dispute. Outsiders can assist them in reaching agreement but should not impose solutions that do not take account of the needs and interests of those embroiled in the dispute. The proposals that Western leaders tried to force on the parties at Rambouillet failed to take into account the real interests of any of the parties, thereby making a mockery of the concept of negotiation.

3. The international community needs a standing force of civilian peace monitors to send rapidly into troubled regions like Kosovo to prevent conflicts from escalating.

4. Threats of violence rarely promote conflict settlement. If anything, they cause parties to dig in their heels. Such threats may also strengthen the role of radical and extremist elements on all sides, undermining moderates who might be able to fashion solutions to the problem. The entire history of the Kosovo conflict is one in which extremists solidified their positions while moderates were forced out of the process.

5. Air power may offer a "sanitary" and "risk-free" means of employing military force, but it's of limited utility when used alone against ground forces operating in difficult, but familiar, terrain.

6. Multilateralism is preferable to unilateralism. In Kosovo, NATO cast aside both the Organization for Security and Cooperation and the United Nations as legitimators of its actions and as possible tools to solve the problem peacefully. Russia, which not only had interests in the region but also was capable of influencing Serbian leaders, was largely pushed aside. - P.T.H.

The aerial campaign was thus the result of miscalculations on all sides. It led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians, including both Kosovar Albanians and Yugoslav Serbs. It created 800,000 Kosovar-Albanian refugees who overran camps in the unstable neighboring countries of Macedonia and Albania. The bombing and ensuing battles destroyed the homes, farms, and factories of hundreds of thousands of people. (The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 300,000 to 400,000 are homeless in Kosovo this winter.) The NATO campaign damaged the infrastructure of much of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, undermining an already weak economy. Bridges across the Danube were destroyed, blocking road, rail, and boat traffic on the river, thereby affecting the major trade routes of such countries as Romania and Bulgaria, who are also struggling to reform their faltering post-communist economies.

The war did eventually come to an end, on June 5, 1999, with an agreement brokered by Finnish President Martti Ahtisarri and former Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. Milosevic and other Serb leaders ultimately did submit to terms that permitted an international force into Kosovo. Yet this agreement was quite different from the Rambouillet dictat, and it is at least plausible that Milosevic might have been willing to accept similar terms before the bombing campaign - had they been offered.

In any case, the final outcome of the Kosovo conflict has fallen far short of the complete capitulation of Belgrade often proclaimed by Western leaders. Nor does it represent a victory for the vast majority of Kosovar residents, most of whom have returned to bombed-out homes, farms, and factories; even Serbs, whether or not they were part of the pre-conflict violence, have had to flee from Albanians bent on obtaining quick revenge. What the Kosovo campaign has done is to strengthen the position of the most radical elements on both sides. The KLA seems vindicated by the de facto independence which has come to Kosovo and the increased likelihood that the region will soon achieve the ultimate goal of formal independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And the loss of Kosovo, the heart of historic Serbia, is almost certain to guarantee that Milosevic, or even more nationalistic leaders, will retain control in Belgrade, retarding indefinitely any hope for a democratic Serbia committed to ethnic and religious pluralism. There can be little doubt, in other words, that the situation in southeastern Europe is even worse after the war in Kosovo than it was before.

One can only wonder how different the situation in that region might be today if the U.S. government and those of other NATO countries had not tried arrogantly to impose their own solution on the parties, but had instead initiated much earlier a serious negotiation aimed at finding a genuine solution - one that truly incorporated the basic needs and interests of all parties in the region. ***

Professor of Political Science P. Terrence Hopmann directs the Program for Global Security at the Watson Institute for International Studies. He is the author of The Negotiation Process and the Resolution of International Conflicts.

Born in Belgrade, Dusan Petricic is a Serb who moved to Toronto in 1993 as a result of the political situation in Yugoslavia. Six years later, he was deeply chagrined by the U.S.-led bombing of his native country and the strong involvement of Canada, his adopted country. An award-winning illustrator and editorial cartoonist, Petricic's work regularly appears in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and the Toronto Star.

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