Resisting Stolen Elections: Lessons from the Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, and Gambia

[ICNC October 23, 2020] Discussion has grown for months about how the upcoming U.S. election results could be contested and possibly subverted. No one knows for certain what will happen, but there are precedents we can learn from about how attempts to overturn election results have been stopped. Four cases in recent decades—one in Southeast Asia, one in Africa and the other two in Eastern Europe—involved an incumbent president or party attempting to steal an election only to have it reversed through large-scale nonviolent direct action. This article looks at these cases, and identifies key lessons. [FULL LINK]

The War on Yugoslavia, 10 Years Later

It has been 10 years since the U.S.-led war on Yugoslavia. For many leading Democrats, including some in top positions in the Obama administration, it was a “good” war, in contrast to the Bush administration’s “bad” war on Iraq. And though the suffering and instability unleashed by the 1999 NATO military campaign wasn’t as horrific as the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years later, the war was nevertheless unnecessary and illegal, and its political consequences are far from settled.

Unless there’s a willingness to critically re-examine the war, the threat of another war in the name of liberal internationalism looms large.

Crisis Could Have Been Prevented

Throughout most of the 1990s, the oppressed ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo waged their struggle almost exclusively nonviolently, using strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and alternative institutions. The Kosovar Albanians even set up a democratically elected parallel government to provide schooling and social services, and to press their cause to the outside world. Indeed, it was one of the most widespread, comprehensive, and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence. This was the time for Western powers to have engaged in preventative diplomacy. However, the world chose to ignore the Kosovars’ nonviolent movement and resisted consistent pleas by the moderate Kosovar Albanian leadership to take action. It was only after a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged in 1998 that the international media, the Clinton administration and other Western governments finally took notice.

By waiting for the emergence of guerrilla warfare before seeking a solution, the West gave Serbia’s autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic the opportunity to crack down with an even greater level of savagery than before. The delay allowed the Kosovar movement to be taken over by armed ultra?nationalists, who have since proven to be far less willing to compromise or guarantee the rights of the Serbian minority. Indeed, the KLA murdered Serb officials and ethnic Albanian moderates, destroyed Serbian villages, and attacked other minority communities, while some among its leadership called for ethnic cleansing in the other direction to create a pure Albanian state. Despite such practices, as well as ties to the international heroin trade, it was KLA’s leadership which came to dominate the subsequent autonomous and now independent Republic of Kosovo.

It’s a tragedy that the West squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy could have worked. The United States rejected calls for expanding missions set up by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kosovo, or to bring Kosovo constituencies together for negotiations. Waiting for a full-scale armed insurrection to break out before acting has also given oppressed people around the world a very bad message: Nonviolent methods will fail and, in order to get the West to pay attention to your plight, you need to take up arms.

When Western powers finally began to take decisive action on the long-simmering crisis in the fall of 1998, a ceasefire was arranged where the OSCE sent in unarmed monitors. While the ceasefire didn’t hold, violence did decrease dramatically in areas where they were stationed. Indeed, the OSCE monitors could have done a lot more, but they were given little support. They were largely untrained, they were too few in number and NATO refused to supply them with helicopters, night-vision binoculars or other basic equipment that could have made them more effective.

Ceasefire violations by the Yugoslav army, Serbian militias, and KLA guerrillas increased in the early months of 1999, including a number of atrocities against ethnic Albanians by Serbian units, with apparent acquiescence of government forces. Western diplomatic efforts accelerated, producing the proposal put forward at the Chateau Rambouillet in France, which called for the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomous status within a greater Serbia. Such a political settlement was quite reasonable, and the Serbs appeared willing to seriously consider such an agreement. But it was sabotaged by NATO’s insistence that they be allowed to send in a large armed occupation force into Kosovo, along with rights to move freely without permission throughout the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and other measures that infringed on the country’s sovereignty. Another problem was that it was presented essentially as a final document, without much room for negotiations. One of the fundamental principles of international conflict resolution is that all interested parties are part of the peace process. Some outside pressure may be necessary — particularly against the stronger party — to secure an agreement, but it can’t be presented as a fait accompli. This “sign this or we’ll bomb you” attitude also doomed the diplomatic initiative to failure. Few national leaders, particularly a nationalist demagogue like Milosevic, would sign an agreement under such terms, which amount to a treaty of surrender: Allowing foreign forces free reign of your territory and issuing such a proposal as an ultimatum.

Smarter and earlier diplomacy could have prevented the war.

The Bombing Campaign

Many liberals who had opposed U.S. military intervention elsewhere recognized the severity of the ongoing oppression of the Kosovar Albanians and the need to challenge Serbian ethno-fascism, and therefore initially supported the war. Had such military intervention led to an immediate withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and Serbian militias, one could perhaps make a case that, despite the war’s illegality, there was a moral imperative for military action in order to prevent far greater violence. But, as many experts of the region predicted, this wasn’t the case.

The bombing campaign, which began March 24, 1999, clearly made things worse for the Kosovar Albanians. Not only were scores of ethnic Albanians accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs — unable to respond to NATO air attacks — turned their wrath against the most vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO claimed it would be defending. While the Serbs may have indeed been planning some sort of large-scale forced removal of the population in areas of KLA infiltration, both the scale and savagery of the Serbian repression that resulted was undoubtedly a direct consequence of NATO actions. Subsequent U.S. claims that the bombing was in response to ethnic cleansing turns the reality on its head.

By forcing the evacuation of the OSCE monitors, which — despite their limitations — were playing something of a deterrent role against the worst Serbian atrocities, NATO gave the Serbs the opportunity to increase their repression. By bombing Yugoslavia, they gave the Serbs nothing to lose. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes into makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia.

As the bombing continued, the numbers of Serbian troops in Kosovo increased and the repression of Kosovar Albanians dramatically escalated. Those doing the killing in Kosovo were primarily small paramilitary groups, death squads, and police units that couldn’t have effectively been challenged by high-altitude bombing, and weren’t affected by the destruction of bridges or factories hundreds of miles to the north. If protecting the lives of Kosovar Albanians was really the motivation for the U.S.-led war, President Bill Clinton would have sent in Marine and Special Forces units to battle the Serbian militias directly instead of relying exclusively on air power.

The war against Yugoslavia was illegal. Any such use of force is a violation of the UN Charter unless in self-defense against an armed attack or authorized by the United Nations as an act of collective security. Kosovo was internationally recognized as part of Serbia; it was, legally speaking, an internal conflict. In addition, the democratically elected president of the self-proclaimed, if unrecognized, Kosovar Albanian Republic, Ibrahim Rugova, didn’t request such intervention. Indeed, he opposed it.

The war was also illegal under U.S. law. The Constitution places war-making authority under the responsibility of Congress. While it’s widely recognized that the president, as commander-in-chief, has latitude in short-term emergencies, the 1973 War Powers Act prevents the executive branch from waging war without the express consent of Congress beyond a 60-day period. Only rarely has Congress formally declared war, but it has passed resolutions supporting the use of force, as with the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution concerning Vietnam, the January 1991 approval of the use of force to remove Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait, and the October 2002 authorization for the invasion of Iraq. Clinton, however, received no such congressional approval. That he got away with such a blatant abuse of executive authority marked a dangerous precedent in war-making authority in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The 11-week bombing campaign resulted in the widespread destruction of Yugoslavia’s civilian infrastructure, the killing of many hundreds of civilians, and — as a result of bombing chemical factories, the use of depleted uranium ammunition and more — caused serious environmental damage. Far more Yugoslav civilians died from NATO bombing than did Kosovar Albanian civilians from Serb forces prior to the onset of the bombing. A number of human rights groups that condemned Serbian actions in Kosovo also criticized NATO attacks that, in addition to the more immediate civilian casualties, endangered the health and safety of millions of people by disrupting water supplies, sewage treatment, and medical services.

U.S. Motivations

There are serious questions regarding what actually prompted the United States and NATO to make war on Yugoslavia. While the Serbian nationalism espoused by Milosevic had fascistic elements, and his government and allied militias certainly engaged in serious war crimes throughout the Balkans that decade, comparisons to Hitler were hyperbolic, certainly in terms of the ability to threaten any nation beyond the borders of the old Yugoslavia.

As today, there was civil strife in a number of African countries during this period, resulting in far more deaths and refugees than Serbia’s repression in Kosovo. As a result, some have questioned U.S. double standards towards intervention such as why the United States didn’t intervene in far more serious humanitarian crises, particularly in Rwanda in 1994, where there clearly was an actual genocide in progress.

But a more salient question is why the United States has never been held accountable for when it has intervened — in support of the oppressors. In recent decades, the U.S. government provided military, economic, and diplomatic support of Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, and of Guatemala’s slaughter of many tens of thousands of its indigenous people.

While Clinton tried to justify the war by declaring that repression and ethnic cleansing must not be allowed to happen “on NATO’s doorstep,” he was not only quite willing to allow for comparable repression to take place within NATO itself, but actively supported it: During the 1990s, Turkey’s denial of the Kurds’ linguistic and cultural rights, rejection of their demands of autonomy, destruction of thousands of villages, killing of thousands of civilians and forced removal of hundreds of thousands bore striking resemblance to Serbia’s repression in Kosovo. Yet the Clinton administration, with bipartisan congressional support, continued to arm the Turkish military and defended its repression.

Such questions necessarily raise uncharitable speculation about what might have actually motivated the United States to lead such a military action. For some advocates of U.S. military intervention, there was no doubt some genuine humanitarian concern, which — unlike many other cases around the world — support for those being oppressed didn’t conflict with overriding U.S. strategic or economic prerogatives. There may have been other forces at work, however, which saw the use of force as advantageous for other reasons than a sincere, if misplaced, hope of assuaging a humanitarian crisis.

For example, the war created a raison d’être for the continued existence of NATO in a post-Cold War world, as it desperately tried to justify its continued existence and desire for expansion (This resulted in a kind of circular logic however: NATO was still needed to fight in wars like Yugoslavia, yet the war needed to be continued in order to preserve NATO’s credibility.).

The war also benefitted influential weapons manufacturers, leading to an increase in U.S. military spending by more than $13 billion, largely for weapons systems that most strategic analysts and even the Pentagon said weren’t needed. This came on top of an increase in military spending passed before the onset of the war (By contrast, aid from the United States to help with the refugee crisis was very limited, and efforts by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees were severely hampered by lack of funds, in large part a result of the refusal by the United States to pay more than $1 billion in dues it then owed to the UN, equivalent to approximately one week of bombing.).

Whatever its actual motivations, why would the United States lead NATO into a long, drawn-out war with no guarantee of fulfilling its objectives, given the real political risks involved? Much of the problem may have been that of arrogance. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the Clinton administration falsely assumed the threat of bombing would lead to a last-minute capitulation by Milosevic, but, having made the threat, felt obligated to follow through.

Even after the bombing began and Finnish and Russian mediators began working on a ceasefire agreement, greater U.S. flexibility regarding Serbian concerns could have brought the war to an end much sooner. What a number of NATO members suggested, but the Clinton administration refused to consider, was to agree that the postwar peacekeeping force in Kosovo be placed under the control of the UN or the OSCE. Instead, the United States insisted that peacekeeping should be a NATO operation.

This effectively would have forced the nationalistic Serbs into accepting demands that a part of their country effectively be placed under occupation by the same military alliance that attacked them. As a result, despite suffering ongoing death and destruction, the Serbs continued fighting. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, seemed more intent on dominating the postwar order politically and militarily than agreeing to a ceasefire which could have prevented further bloodshed and allowed refugees to return sooner.

Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the peacekeeping troops sent into Kosovo following a Serb withdrawal would primarily consist of NATO forces, but under UN command.

Perhaps the greatest myth of the war was that the Serbs surrendered and NATO won. In reality, not only was there a compromise on the makeup of postwar peacekeeping forces, but the final peace agreement also omitted the most objectionable sections of the Rambouillet proposal and more closely resembled the counter-proposal put forward by the Serbian parliament prior to the bombing. In other words, rather than being a NATO victory as it has been repeatedly portrayed by Washington and much of the American media, it was at best a draw.

Ramifications of the War

The war had serious consequences besides death and destruction in Serbia and Kosovo. One of the original justifications was to prevent a broader war, yet it was the bombing campaign that destabilized the region to a greater degree than Milosevic’s campaign of repression. It emboldened ethnic Albanian chauvinists, not just in Kosovo where they have come to dominate, but in the neighboring country of Macedonia and its restive ethnic Albanian minority, which has twice taken up arms in the past 10 years against the Slavic majority.

At the NATO summit in April 1999, the member states approved a structure for “non-Article 5 crisis response,” essentially a euphemism for war (Article 5 of the NATO charter provides for collective self-defense; non-Article 5 refers to an offensive military action like Yugoslavia.). According to the document, such an action could take place anywhere on the broad periphery of NATO’s realm, such as North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, essentially paving the way for NATO’s ongoing war in Afghanistan. This expanded role for NATO wasn’t approved by any of the respective countries’ legislatures, raising serious questions about democratic civilian control over military alliances.

Furthermore, the U.S.-led NATO war on Yugoslavia helped undermine the United Nations Charter and thereby paved the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, perhaps the most flagrant violation of the international legal order by a major power since World War II.

The occupation by NATO troops of Serbia’s autonomous Kosovo region, and the subsequent recognition of Kosovar independence by the United States and a number of Western European powers, helped provide Russia with an excuse to maintain its large military presence in Georgia’s autonomous South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, and to recognize their unilateral declarations of independence. This, in turn, led to last summer’s war between Russia and Georgia.

Indeed, much of the tense relations between the United States and Russia over the past decade can be traced to the 1999 war on Yugoslavia. Russia was quite critical of Serbian actions in Kosovo and supported the non-military aspects of the Rambouillet proposals, yet was deeply disturbed by this first military action waged by NATO. Indeed, the war resulted in unprecedented Russian anger towards the United States, less out of some vague sense of pan-Slavic solidarity, but more because it was seen as an act of aggression against a sovereign nation. The Russians had assumed NATO would dissolve at the end of the Cold War. Instead, not only has NATO expanded, it went to war over an internal dispute in a Slavic Eastern European country. This stoked the paranoid fear of many Russian nationalists that NATO may find an excuse to intervene in Russia itself. While in reality this is extremely unlikely, the history of invasions from the West no doubt strengthened the hold of Vladimir Putin and other semi-autocratic nationalists, setting back reform efforts, political liberalization, and disarmament.

The war also had political repercussions here in the United States. On Capitol Hill, it created what became known as an “aviary conundrum,” where traditional hawks became doves and doves became hawks. It provided a precedent of Democratic lawmakers supporting an illegal war and allowing for extraordinary executive power to wage war, with which the Bush administration was able to fully take advantage in leading the country into its debacle in Iraq.

The presence of large-scale human rights abuses, as was occurring in Kosovo under Serb rule, shouldn’t force concerned citizens in the United States and other countries into the false choice of supporting war and doing nothing. This tragic conflict should further prove that, moral and legal arguments aside, military force is a very blunt and not very effective instrument to promote human rights, and that bloated military budgets and archaic military alliances aren’t the way to bring peace and security. As long as such “conflict resolution” efforts are placed exclusively in the hands of governments, there will be a propensity towards war. Only when global civil society seizes the initiative and recognizes the power of strategic nonviolent action, and the necessity of preventative diplomacy, can there be hope that such conflicts can be resolved peacefully.

Mauritania’s coup is a setback for democracy

By Stephen Zunes and Hardy Merriman

The overthrow in August of what arguably constituted the most democratic government in the Arab world marks a serious setback in Africa as well as the Middle East.

There had been great expectations for Mauritania when the country had its first free elections in 2006. As one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world and, as with many other African countries, its boundaries and nationhood largely an artificial creation of European colonial powers, Mauritania fanned hopes that if democracy could take hold there, it could triumph anywhere.

Mauritania’s elected government under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi proved a disappointment in many ways, with widespread corruption and factional disputes with parliament. What brought down the government, however, was the all-too-familiar scourge faced by many nascent democracies: the coup d’état.

Whatever the failures of President Abdallahi’s administration, history has shown that military coups against an unpopular leader, even when the generals claim the best of intentions, tend to create more problems than they solve. Furthermore, there are far more democratic means of holding leaders accountable.

Coups tend to concentrate power among a small number of individuals and therefore make it more difficult for the people to hold their government or military accountable. When military officers have taken the risk to launch a coup, they often feel entitled to exercise state power themselves. For example, in Mauritania, a puppet civilian State Council announced by the putschists never materialized, leaving no formal checks and balances available to hold the new military leadership accountable.

Furthermore, in violating international norms by taking over a government by force, coup plotters usually require the support of a foreign power, thereby compromising their country’s sovereignty. In the case of Mauritania, its powerful neighbor Morocco,­ where coup leader Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz received his training, ­appears to be backing the military takeover. Such support can hardly be reassuring for Mauritanians, since the U.S.-backed Moroccan monarchy for many years claimed Mauritania as Moroccan territory and has invaded and occupied the neighboring country of Western Sahara, on which it had made similar territorial claims.

Finally, coups set a terrible precedent for future transitions of power. As we have seen in Haiti, Thailand and a number of African countries, once coups are established as the de facto method of power transfer, they are far more likely to continue in the future. In Mauritania, the military takeover of Aug. 6 has shattered the dreams of Mauritanians who wanted political change in their country to take place through free elections, not just the force of arms.

There are better ways to hold corrupt and inept leaders accountable. If circumstances make it impossible for a population to exercise their will through free and fair elections, there is the option of massive civil resistance. In such countries as the Philippines in 1986, Bolivia in 1981, Serbia in 2000, Mali in 1991, Chile in 1988, Czechoslovakia in 1989 and Ukraine in 2004, corrupt and autocratic regimes have been brought down nonviolently without leadership from the military or external forces. In these and other cases, ordinary people, using such nonviolent methods as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, mass demonstrations and the establishment of parallel institutions, expanded the political space available to them, fought for their rights and emerged victorious.

Such nonviolent civil resistance movements avoid not only the pitfalls of coups and foreign intervention but also provide a surer basis for sustainable democracy. Nonviolent civil resistance movements help correct the imbalance of power in a society by stimulating wide and diverse civilian participation, thereby decentralizing power away from a ruling elite and toward the people themselves.

The exercise of such “people power” can do much to break the cycle of coups and other non-democratic transfers of power that have afflicted Mauritania and other countries, and holds far greater promise for bringing about democratic and responsible government. We may even see it in Mauritania.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. Hardy Merriman is a senior adviser to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Kosovo and the Politics of Recognition

Even among longstanding supporters of national self-determination for Kosovo, the eagerness with which the Bush administration extended diplomatic recognition immediately upon that country’s declaration of independence on February 17 has raised serious concerns. Indeed, it serves as a reminder of the series of U.S. policy blunders over the years that have compounded the Balkan tragedy.

This is not the first time Kosovo has declared its independence. In 1989, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic revoked the province’s autonomous status, allowing the 10% Serb minority to essentially impose an apartheid-style system on the country’s ethnic Albanian majority. The majority of ethnic Albanians in the public sector and Serbian-owned enterprises were fired from their jobs and forbidden to use their language in schools or government.

In response, the province’s ethnic Albanians – consisting of over 85% of the population – declared an independent republic in 1990, establishing a parallel government with democratic elections, a parallel school system, and other quasi-national institutions. The movement constituted one of the most widespread, comprehensive and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence. In response, Serbian authorities engaged in severe repression, including widespread arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killings.

For most of the 1990s, the Kosovar Albanians waged their struggle nonviolently, using strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and strengthening their parallel institutions. This was the time for Western powers to have engaged in preventative diplomacy. However, the world chose to ignore the Kosovars’ nonviolent movement and resisted the consistent pleas by the moderate Kosovar Albanian leadership to take action. By the end of the decade, the failure of the United States and other Western nations to come to the support of the Kosovars’ nonviolent struggle led to the rise of a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, ultra-nationalists with links to terrorism and the drug trade, who convinced an increasing number of the province’s ethnic Albanians that their only hope for national liberation came through armed struggle.

By waiting for the emergence of guerrilla warfare before seeking a solution, the United States and other Western nations gave Milosevic the opportunity to crack down with even greater savagery than before. The delay also allowed the KLA to emerge as the dominant force in the Kosovar nationalist movement. Rejecting nonviolence and moderation, KLA forces murdered Serb officials and ethnic Albanian moderates, destroyed Serbian villages, and attacked other minority communities. Some among its leadership even called for ethnic cleansing of the Serb minority to create an ethnically pure Albanian state.

Tragically, former KLA leaders and their supporters now dominate the newly-declared independent Kosovo Republic.

Western Dithering

The United States and other Western nations squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy could have worked. The United States rejected calls for expanding to Kosovo the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) missions set up in Macedonia or to bring Kosovo constituencies together for negotiations. Though many Kosovars and others expected that the U.S.-brokered 1995 Dayton accords would include an end to the Serbian occupation and oppression of Kosovo, the United States and other parties decided it did not merit attention.

When Western powers finally took decisive action toward the long-simmering crisis in the fall of 1998, a ceasefire was arranged where the OSCE sent in unarmed monitors. However, they were given little support. They were largely untrained, they were too few in number, and NATO refused to supply them with helicopters, night vision binoculars, or other basic equipment that could have made them more effective.

As Serb violations of the cease fire, including a number of atrocities, increased, Western diplomatic efforts accelerated, producing the Rambouillet proposal that called for the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomous status within Serbia. While such a political settlement was quite reasonable, and the Serbs appeared willing to seriously consider such an agreement, it was sabotaged by NATO’s insistence that they be allowed to send in a large armed occupation force into Kosovo along with rights to move freely without permission throughout the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Also problematic was that is was presented essentially as a final document without much room for negotiations. One of the fundamental principles of international conflict resolution is that all interested parties are part of the peace process. Some outside pressure may be necessary — particularly against the stronger party — to secure an agreement, but it cannot be presented as a fait accompli. A “sign this or we’ll bomb you” attitude also doomed the diplomatic initiative to failure. Few national leaders would sign an agreement under such terms, which amount to a treaty of surrender: allowing foreign forces free rein of your territory and issuing such a proposal as an ultimatum.

Smarter and earlier diplomacy could have prevented the war. Instead, the U.S.-led NATO allies began bombing Serbia in early 1999, prompting a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces, resulting in nearly one million refugees. After 11 weeks of bombing, a compromise was reached in which Serbian forces would withdraw and the province would be placed under a UN trusteeship.

Though initially set back by the nationalist reaction to the NATO bombing of their country, pro-democracy Serbs were able to gain enough support to mobilize a popular nonviolent insurrection in October of 2000 that ousted Milosevic. Serbia has been under a democratic center-left coalition ever since. Meanwhile, UN administrators and a multinational peacekeeping force have tried to keep peace in Kosovo, even as KLA remnants and their supporters have continued to harass the ethnic Serb minority, forcing nearly half of its population to flee.

U.S. Support for Independence

Despite widespread sympathy for Kosovo independence, many in the international community had hoped for a compromise settlement that would grant the province genuine autonomy under nominal Serbian sovereignty. As with Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan, most nations have had to balance their support for the right of self-determination with concern over the threat of the violence and regional instability that could result if the country’s de facto independence became official. In this case, however, no such balance was found, and the fallout from Kosovo’s declaration of independence and recognition by the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and other countries could be serious.

Any effort by Kosovo to join the UN will be unsuccessful in the foreseeable future given the certainty of a veto by Russia and China. Both countries have their own “autonomous regions” composed of national minorities – a number of which have dreams of formal independence – and thus fear the precedent such international recognition could establish. Kosovo is the only state recognized by the United States not also recognized by the United Nations.

Ironically, the United States refuses to join the more-than-75 nations that have recognized the independence of Western Sahara, originally declared back in 1976. Indeed, the Bush administration is on record supporting Morocco’s call for international recognition of its unilateral annexation of Western Sahara as an “autonomous region” of that kingdom. This double standard is particularly glaring in light of the fact that Kosovo had been legally recognized as part of Serbia whereas Western Sahara is legally recognized as a non-self-governing territory under belligerent military occupation, a status confirmed by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice.

The United States has rejected proposals that would allow Serbia to annex a small strip of land in the northern part of Kosovo with a predominantly ethnic Serbian population and several sites that the Serbs consider to have important historical significance. At the same time, however, the United States is on record supporting Israeli proposals to annex strips of Palestinian land on the West Bank populated by Israeli Jews and other areas considered by Israelis to be of important historical significance. Ironically, the Kosovar Serbs have mostly lived on their land for centuries while the Israelis in the West Bank are virtually all colonists occupying illegal settlements built recently and in direct defiance of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Such double standards help expose the fallacy of U.S. claims that its recognition of Kosovo is based upon any moral or legal basis.

Potential Problems

Recognition of Kosovo independence by the United States and some Western European nations under these circumstances could lead to a number of potential problems.

In Serbia, radical national chauvinists – in large part due to the incipient threat of Kosovar independence – came very close to defeating the moderate democratic coalition in the recent national elections. Hostility toward the United States and Europe as a result of what most Serbs see as a renegade province could retard the country’s efforts at European integration, worsening its economy and further strengthening reactionary forces. Though the government appears unwilling and unable to try to resolve through force what they see as a secessionist movement and the initial response from most Serbs appears to be more that of resignation than defiance, fears of rekindling Serbian national chauvinism are real. Masked Serb arsonists setting fire to UN and NATO border check posts in recent days is one such sign of looming unrest.

Another potential problem could emerge in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Here, a restless Albanian minority concentrated along its western border with Kosovo could be inspired to resume an armed secessionist movement in an effort to join with its newly independent Albanian-populated neighbor.

There is potential for fallout in the Caucasus region, with the possibility that the autonomous South Ossetia region in Georgia could declare itself independent and be immediately recognized by its neighbor Russia and its allies. With the Kosovo precedent, the Georgian government could do little diplomatically to garner support and, with Russian troops already in the territory, little militarily either.

The impact of Kosovo’s independence and recognition by the United States and other Western nations could also seriously worsen U.S.-Russian relations, exacerbating differences that hawks on both sides are warning could evolve into a “new Cold War.”

It is also quite possible that there will not be any serious negative long-term impact of these recent events and, with its legacy of nonviolent struggle and democratic self-governance, an independent Kosovo could prove itself worthy of universal recognition. Nevertheless, U.S. policy has contributed a great deal to the tragic political climate in this corner of the Balkans, a climate so poisoned that the international community is greeting Kosovo’s long-awaited independence with more apprehension than joy.

Strategic Dialogue: Kosovo

Was the United States too hasty in recognizing the new state of Kosovo? Ian Williams and Stephen Zunes have different takes in this strategic dialogue. To see the original essays, follow these links to Williams and Zunes.

Ian Williams

Stephen Zunes is quite right to point out the inconsistencies of U.S. policy in the Balkans, which has been fairly consistently wrong! Beginning when James Baker declared that the United States had no dog in the fight in the Balkans. Contrary to what some far leftists claim, U.S. policy in the beginning depended on keeping Yugoslavia together even though it was clear that Milosevic’s power grab had effectively dissolved the fragile federation. Once Slovenia declared independence, that was the end.

The United States and the European Union (EU), and indeed Russia in its various avatars, should have laid down the rules and effectively supervised the Yugoslav successor states. Guaranteeing boundaries and rights for minorities, establishing dual or even common citizenship, were all possibilities that could have ensured a soft landing for the wreck of Tito’s enterprise.

The hands-off U.S. policy in effect removed the only threat that would have curbed Milosevic’s excesses. Left to their own devices, the Europeans failed badly. Both Britain tacitly and France overtly, acted on the principle that the Serbs would win, and if it were done, then best t’were done quickly.

When the United States did intervene, it quickly produced results. Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that produced an agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia, emulated Kissinger in realpolitik. Honoring promises to Milosevic, the Republika Srpska was effectively rewarded for successful ethnic cleansing, which encouraged Milosevic.

But while the State Department maintained close back-channel relations with Rugova’s shadow administration in Kosovo, bringing him and other leading figures to meet opinion formers, it was back-burner as well as back channel. One thing was clear: whenever Milosevic saw a clear and present danger of intervention, he backed down. But U.S. and Western policy was consistently unclear.

We should not exclude Russia from this. Russian diplomats at the time of the Kosovo crisis told me that what the Serbs were doing was unconscionable, but effectively the United States was not consulting them, and was being arrogant. This was true, but did not make Moscow’s role much more moral or constructive.

Clinton then fatally refused even to consider UN authorization for intervention, for fear of a Russian veto, and refused to take the issue to the General Assembly, where he would have won support. He then began the campaign by effectively ruling out the one option that Milosevic feared: a ground invasion. Instead, Clinton launched a bombing campaign, which was all the more foolish for being conducted from on high to avoid the political embarrassment of American casualties abroad. (The now-interventionist Republicans were then quite the opposite of course). The mounting “collateral damage” allowed Milosevic to crawl to the moral high ground in some quarters. Notably, the day that NATO decided on a ground invasion, Milosevic ran up the white flag and pulled out of Kosovo – as he would have done months earlier if he had seen a real threat of ground attack.

The UN trusteeship of Kosovo has not been an unmitigated success. Despite the efforts of some, the mission was colonial and condescending to the Albanians, and in my experience, many of the UN staff had no appreciation for what had happened to the Kosovars earlier. It is difficult to know what Washington could do at the end of a trail of so many mistakes. Mostly, constructive engagement with Moscow may have averted the latter’s amoral and expedient support for Serbian nationalism.

Insofar as I disagree with Stephen Zunes at all, it is over American responsibility for the declaration of independence and for the nature of the Serb governments since Zoran Djindjic’s assassination. They have been much more center-right than center-left and are strongly nationalistic.

That is why the United States was once again reacting rather than initiating events. The Kosovars were determined, and gave Thaci’s government a popular mandate to declare independence. The Kosovars were calling the shots. The trade-off with the United States and EU was to postpone the declaration from last year until now, after the elections in Belgrade, in return for recognition.

Looking back in history, and indeed at the Serb mobs and gangs at the border now acting with the same quasi-governmental backing that the paramilitary murder squads had a decade before, recognition and NATO back-up were essential to stop yet another Balkan War from breaking out. The Czech/Slovak dissolution could serve as a model here. But that presupposes realism and democracy on both sides. Every action the Belgrade government took showed the taint of old-style Balkan nationalism. And it showed no appreciation, let alone contrition, for what so many of its citizens had perpetrated back in 1999.

Negotiation is fine, but there comes a point when it is delaying the inevitable and keeping the wound open. That point was reached last year. Russia could make a precedent out of it for its various adventures in the near-abroad, in Moldova and Georgia, but it would be very foolish to do so. Chechnya and many other autonomous republics inside the Russian Federation would be delighted to cite it right back at them. Moscow would be better to join the EU chorus of how Kosovo is a one off.

Stephen Zunes

I have little fundamental disagreement with Ian William’s response to my article or in his original article, but I would like to challenge him on a couple of minor points.

My interpretation of what led to the end of the fighting in 1999 was not the threat of a NATO ground invasion, which was fraught with dangers and the prospects of which produced serious internal divisions within the alliance. Nor did Milosevic “run up the white flag.” Instead, it appears that it was the United States and NATO that were also forced to compromise due to the failure of the 11-week bombing campaign to coerce the Serbs to give in. If one looks at the original U.S./NATO proposal at Rambouillet and the counter-proposal presented by the Serbian parliament immediately thereafter, and then compares both of them with the text of the final cease-fire agreement, the agreement that ended the fighting pretty much splits the difference, perhaps even coming a tad closer to the Serb position. In other words, the United States and NATO had to compromise at least as much as did Milosevic. This raises the possibility that the Western nations could have worked out a similar deal without the tragic decision to go to war, a war that not only resulted in enormous human, economic, and environmental damage to Serbia, but led to Serbian repression in Kosovo that escalated dramatically into full-scale ethnic cleansing.

The Serbs agreed to the ceasefire on the condition that while Kosovo’s autonomous status and right to self-government would be restored, the province would not be allowed to secede. Indeed, UN Security Council resolution 1244 (1999), while calling for “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration for Kosovo,” also reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other States of the region.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the Serbs feel betrayed by the international community.

I certainly agree with Kosovo’s right to independence on a moral level, for reasons spelled out in Ian’s original article. It would have been better, however, to have pressured the Kosovars to put off their declaration until after Serbia’s entrance into the European Union (and provide whatever combination of pressure on and assistance to the Serbian government to make that happen sooner rather than later.) When a country becomes part of the EU, national boundaries and what constitutes an independent nation-state become far less significant. Supporting Kosovo’s secession beforehand, however, has strengthened hard-line nationalists in both Serbia and Kosovo and will likely delay both nations’ integration into Europe.

Finally, I would have been thrilled if the United States had recognized an independent Kosovo a decade ago, when the Serbs were led by the autocratic and militaristic Milosevic and the Kosovar Albanians were led by the pacifist and democratic Rugova. Today, however, the roles are partly reversed, with Serbia led by democratic moderates, Kosovo led by national chauvinists, and the Kosovar Serbs being subjected to attacks and (small-scale) ethnic cleansing by Kosovar Albanians. Most of the Serbs governing in Belgrade today, while strongly nationalistic, were not responsible for and in most cases were strongly opposed to Milosevic’s brutal repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Indeed, they supported – and, in some cases, participated in – the nonviolent democratic revolution in October of 2000 that ousted Milosevic. With Kosovo’s secession having been recognized by the United States and other key Western states on their watch, however, these democrats will likely get the blame for having “lost” Kosovo. This will thereby create the conditions for a comeback by some of the hard-line Serbian nationalists responsible for the innumerable war crimes of the 1990s.

Bombing Is Not The Answer

The ongoing threats of NATO air strikes against Serbia to end the Milosevic regime’s repression against Kosovo’s Albanian majority is a prime example of the wrong policy at the wrong time.

The cause is certainly just: The Serbian authorities have imposed an apartheid-style system on the country’s ethnic Albanian majority and have severely suppressed cultural and political rights. However, this suppression has been ongoing since Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989. Until a year ago, the Kosovars waged their struggle nonviolently, using strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and alternative institutions–indeed, it was one of the most widespread, comprehensive and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence earlier this century. However, the world chose to ignore the Kosovars’ nonviolent movement.

Only after a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army emerged about a year ago did the world media, the Clinton Administration and other Western governments finally take notice.

By waiting for the emergence of a guerrilla group before seeking a solution, the West gave Slobodan Milosevic the opportunity to crack down with an even greater level of savagery than before. The delay has allowed the Kosovar movement to be taken over by armed ultra-nationalists who are far less ready to compromise or guarantee the rights of the Serbian minority in an autonomous or independent Kosovo.

It is a tragedy on which the West squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy could have worked. It has also given oppressed people around the world a very bad message: in order to get the West to pay attention to your plight, you need to take up arms.

There are problems with current NATO strategy that run deeper than its belated response to the problem.

The threatened bombing has led to the withdrawal of the unarmed OSCE monitors, which served as at least a partial deterrent to the worst Serb atrocities. As predicted, violence against the civilian population has dramatically increased with their departure. Unable to effectively challenged NATO air power, the Serbs will likely take their vengeance on the unarmed ethnic Albanian population should the bombing commence.

The root of the Kosovar crisis, as was the root of the Bosnian tragedy, is the extreme Serb ethno-nationalism that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia. The paranoid view of Serbia as a besieged, isolated, and threatened nation put forward by Milosevic and other Serbian demagogues has brought untold tragedy to a once peaceful–if mildly autocratic–multi-ethnic federated system. The best way to undermine such dangerous ideologues is through supporting the growth of a more pluralistic Serbian society, such as encouraging Serbia’s burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

Instead, the threat of military action only reinforces the Serb’s self-perception that they are a people under siege, playing right into the hands of Serbian ultranationalists.

Furthermore, as any authority on conflict resolution can attest, workable conflict resolution cannot come from a pre-packaged “settlement” imposed from the outside through threat of force. True conflict resolution can only come from the interested parties themselves. At best, an imposed Western formula on Kosovo will result in an uneasy truce in a badly divided society that will not heal the wounds, encourage democracy, or lead to real peace.

There are also questions about the Clinton administration’s motivations. One does not have to be a Serb apologist to wonder why the U.S. so forcefully pushes for the same rights for Kosovars in Serbia that they oppose for the similarly suppressed Kurds in Turkey. Indeed, the record of both the current and previous U.S. administrations of supporting repressive armies against occupied and indigenous peoples is scandalous.

This has led to uncharitable speculation that Clinton may be motivated less out of concern for human rights than by a desperate search for a post-cold war mission for NATO or perhaps even an effort to destroy what remains of Yugoslavia, one of the last European holdouts to an neo-liberal global order. This has prompted some on the American and European left to make an unfortunate alliance with Serbian ethno-fascists.

There are still other choices besides bombing and doing nothing.

There could be the deployment of a large-scale, unarmed multinational force to both monitor the situation and physically intervene to discourage bloodshed. Direct contact between the Albanian and Serbian communities within Kosovo could be facilitated to work out a settlement that would meet the legitimate needs of both. Greater support could be given to democratic forces within Serbia. A more creative and flexible, yet rigorous, enforcement of economic sanctions against Serbia could be imposed, as well as re-enforcing the arms embargo against both sides.

On the eve of a new century, the people of the United States and Europe should not be forced by their governments to choose between abandoning an entire people to terror and repression or the unwise utilization of military power.