On March 24, 1999, NATO began a massive bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in what was described as a “humanitarian intervention” to stop Belgrade’s oppression of the Albanian Kosovars. We opposed the NATO bombing campaign at the time because the catastrophic effects of the air war on Serbia, including violations of international law and civilian casualties, subverted the Clinton Administration’s declared humanitarian intentions. Furthermore, NATO chose to launch a war against a sovereign nation without seeking United Nations approval, thereby undermining the UN’s authority. Against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Chechnya, a flare-up of tensions between Taiwan and China, and President Clinton’s peace-talking mission to South Asia, Kosovo emerges as a key test case of international efforts to deal with internal conflicts and human rights abuses. Richard Falk, who recently traveled to Kosovo with a thirteen-member delegation of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, offers the following report.
During my recent visit to Kosovo two strong impressions emerged. The first is that the curse of Serbian oppression has been definitively lifted from the majority-Albanian population. The NATO campaign achieved the removal of Yugoslav military forces from Kosovo and, even more significant, the departure of the dreaded Serbian paramilitary units and police. This should be acknowledged by critics of the US/NATO war strategy, among whom I include myself. In this regard, it is important to acknowledge that even the Rambouillet ultimatum to Serbian President Milosevic, which was the abandonment of diplomacy rather than a good-faith effort, would have left a Serbian military and police presence in Kosovo, keeping ethnic violence alive, from both the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Serbian sides. That is not a vindication of the NATO bombing campaign, but it is a tangible benefit to the Kosovars.
The unexpectedly rapid return of the Kosovar Albanians who had fled Serbian terrorism during the war, and their undisguised gratitude for the NATO intervention, further confirm such an interpretation. The Albanians themselves completed the job of securing Kosovo for the Albanians, regrettably committing their own crimes against humanity along the way, by driving most of the Serbs out of the province altogether and forcing the rest into a few heavily guarded enclaves. Thus, the Serbs have themselves become victims of ethnic cleansing, which although on a far smaller scale than the Albanians experienced, is well on its way to establishing an ethnically pure Kosovo. What remains are small Roma, Turkish and Bosniak minorities herded into a few villages in the south, dependent on KFOR (NATO troops) for protection. The most contested of the Serbian enclaves, and by far the most significant, is the divided city of Mitrovica in the north, near the Serbian border. That process of reverse ethnic cleansing was not effectively challenged by KFOR or by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK); nor could it have been avoided, given the passions unleashed by the massive Serbian atrocities during the seventy-eight days of bombing that drove out almost half of Kosovo’s 2 million people.
After decades of abuse, this de facto emergence of an Albanian Kosovo seems a reasonable outcome of the war, bringing relief to 90 percent of the Kosovar population, a result in accordance with the right of self-determination. The viability of this outcome depends, however, on whether a long-term international commitment to provide border security against the possibility of future Serbian aggression will be sustained.
There should be no illusions that an independent Kosovo will be a democratic entity that respects human rights. As matters now stand, it is likely to be directly or indirectly dominated by the KLA. Although its leaders have adopted the sort of rhetoric that wins the approval of the UN and the world media, its background, outlook and activities invite strong suspicions of widespread ties to a criminal underworld and political goals that embody the values of ethnic authoritarianism. Without a long-term UN border control linked to some partition arrangement neither ethnic community is likely to be safe for very long, given the vast reservoirs of unspent hatred on both sides.
As for NATO’s bombing campaign, the diplomatic leverage it produced resulted from the punishment inflicted on Serbia proper, rather than on Serbian forces in Kosovo, especially to the civilian infrastructure, as the target list was gradually expanded when NATO expectations of a quick surrender by Milosevic were dashed. In Kosovo, the bombing was generally limited to lawful targets; even so, almost no damage was done to Yugoslavia’s military capabilities. Belgrade either knew or anticipated the original NATO target list. Its forces vacated its bases and barracks in Kosovo, and it successfully hid its main military assets, fooling even the smartest technology in the history of warfare with dummy targets. So much for what was proclaimed as the first victory ever achieved by reliance on air power!
Of course, it is fair to ask, Why then did Milosevic strike a deal that resulted in the loss of Kosovo? There is no denying that the bombing was destroying Serbia’s civilian infrastructure. There were incentives to strike a bargain, and it should be remembered that Milosevic was given several face-saving concessions, especially a diminished role for NATO, an enhanced role for the UN and no intrusion upon the territory of Yugoslavia except in Kosovo, thereby endorsing the Serbian view of its sovereign rights.
The second strong impression I took away from Kosovo is that the UN Security Council has assigned UNMIK a mission impossible: establishing a multi-ethnic Kosovo subject to the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. That is in accord with the agreement negotiated to end the war, which vested political authority in the UN while assigning the peacekeeping role to NATO. The price paid for securing the acquiescence of China and Russia in the Security Council was the reaffirmation of the status of Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia, as well as the assurance that the Serbs would be able to retain their ethnic presence in Kosovo. Neither of those goals was ever really attainable, and the lip service that still must be paid to them insures constant tension, recurrent violent incidents (some against UNMIK people), frustration with the restoration of normal life to Kosovo and in the long run a probable perception of UN failure. Such a result would be tragic, considering the dedication and ability of the excellent UNMIK team, led with conviction and compassion by Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders.
The reputation of the UN was severely damaged by its earlier mission impossible in Bosnia. There it had been assigned a role of impartial peacekeeping amid a gathering storm of genocidal practices, culminating in the 1995 massacre of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN “safe haven” of Srebrenica. A second mission impossible in Kosovo will further weaken the UN role in the kind of internal conflict in which its presence will be most needed. The failure of the European countries to follow through on their pledges of funds and police does not enhance UNMIK’s prospects in Kosovo. The shortage of funds has also delayed the UN establishment of a massive public works program to rebuild the country, attract investment and reduce the level of unemployment from its current figure of more than 85 percent.
Serious as these shortages of resources are, it is the Procrustean UN mandate, which can neither accommodate the complexities of the situation nor realize the goals of humanitarian diplomacy, that remains the fundamental problem a year after the NATO bombs and missiles fell. In effect the UN is being prevented from achieving success in Kosovo despite the heroic efforts of those risking their lives in service there. At this point, an overwhelming majority of Kosovars are committed to full independence as a sacred cause. To deny this aspiration is to insure a return to violence in Kosovo. To slow it down by holding municipal elections in a few months and general elections sometime later, as the UN now plans, is a gamble–playing for time in the hope that some sort of compromise will become feasible.
Such a plan amounts to an electoral charade designed to defer Kosovo’s destiny to become a state, no longer a province of Yugoslavia, however autonomous. Autonomy might have been a solution in 1995, when Milosevic’s cooperation in ending the war in Bosnia was “purchased” by Washington at the price of keeping Kosovo off the table at Dayton and giving Belgrade a free hand there. It is important to note that the surge of armed resistance by the KLA followed directly upon this diplomatic signal, abruptly ending the popular appeal of the brave movement of nonviolent resistance to Serbian domination led by Ibrahim Rugova.
The postconflict international response in Kosovo is also weakened by the application of a punitive policy toward Belgrade. It’s scandalous once more to make a captive civilian population pay for the crimes of its repressive leader, as in Iraq. Such a policy has strengthened Milosevic’s hold on power, as well as his nothing-to-lose intransigence. Any likely successor to Milosevic would almost certainly adhere to nationalist claims that Kosovo is a part of Yugoslavia, and thus the hope of a change in Belgrade leadership seems one more Washington pipe dream. Milosevic, an opportunist to his marrow, might have chosen stability by accepting the partial loss of Kosovo if Serbia had been allowed to resume some measure of normal life. Without incentives, his natural temptation is to provoke turmoil throughout the South Balkans with the hope of testing the political will of the United States and its European allies. There are already demands in Congress and the media for a KFOR exit before the next cycle of violence starts.
To this mixed assessment of the NATO/UN efforts in Kosovo must be added a consideration of the international impact of the military campaign. The international response to the Russian devastation of Chechnya was definitely muted by NATO war-making in Kosovo. It was notable that acting President Putin and Foreign Minister Ivanov both wrote Op-Ed columns in Western newspapers rejecting criticism of Russia’s Chechnya policies by direct reference to Kosovo. But the opposite effect should also be noted. Undoubtedly, the United States in particular exerted pressure on Jakarta to give up East Timor partly to head off a rising tide of criticism at home and abroad that, given US intervention in Kosovo, it only selectively defends human rights. Apparently China increased its nuclear weapons program in response to the bombing of its Belgrade embassy during the war and as a reaction to US-led NATO unilateralism. It is also reliably reported that India’s leaders became more convinced that their security was dependent over time on further developing their nuclear weapons capability. More speculatively, it is possible that the KLA strategy of drawing an international response by provoking the Serbs to crack down on their insurrectionary violence set a model in the period 1995-98 for other discontented ethnic groups to use violence to achieve their goals.
A year after the bombing one can reach a few tentative conclusions: The Albanian Kosovars have been provisionally liberated; Kosovo and the region remain a tinderbox; the UN, because of the lack of consensus among its principal members, is likely to emerge further weakened; heightened suspicions are likely to greet any future proposed humanitarian intervention that does not have the benefit of UN authorization; neither resources nor political imagination has been devoted to taking some obvious steps to prevent future Kosovos, such as establishing a volunteer UN peacekeeping force, creating an independent genocide watch and moving ahead vigorously with the establishment of an international criminal court. In sum, in light of Kosovo, the authority of the UN is more important than ever, while its reputation and capabilities for effective action are likely to continue to decline–not a happy combination of circumstances on the first anniversary of the first NATO war.