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.