Kosovo: Waiting for War, Dreaming of Diplomacy

The United States and its European allies have announced that diplomacy has failed to solve the Kosovo problem. When diplomacy fails, that means war. Especially in so serious a matter as unilaterally declaring the independence of a part of another country’s territory. 

But the next Kosovo war is supposed to be such a small, muted, insignificant war that nobody will notice. NATO is occupying the potential battlefield with over 16,000 troops, backed by air power, and is poised, it says, to “avoid violence.” The overwhelming military advantage of NATO may indeed prevent any eventual violence from reaching the status of a “war.” The confidence that comes of wielding decisive military force has allowed the United States and its NATO allies to pursue a policy that normally would be a sure-fire formula for war. 

War results when the opposing parties have totally conflicting views of reality. The Albanians and Serbs have totally opposing views of the very history of the disputed province of Kosovo. The role of diplomacy is to take such conflicting views of reality into account. It means avoiding pushing one party to a dispute into a humiliating corner. It involves seeking to promote mutual respect and understanding, at least enough to accept compromise. 

Instead, the United States, followed by its irresponsible European allies, has from the start endorsed the extreme Albanian nationalist view, treating Serbia as a “rogue state” that does not deserve the normal protection of international law. Washington has orchestrated two rounds of sham “negotiations,” whose conclusions it dictated from the start, on behalf of its Albanian clients. The first round took place at Rambouillet, leading to the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and the occupation of Kosovo. The second round took place in 2007, leading to what could be another unpredictable conflict. 

Sham Negotiations 

At the end of the 1990s, the Clinton administration was not really concerned with solving the Kosovo problem. It wanted to solve its own NATO problem. Its NATO problem was this: What is the use of this military alliance, now that the Communist bloc, which it was created to deter, no longer exists? To preserve NATO, a new raison d’être had to be found. This was “humanitarian intervention.” From now on, NATO would exist in order to rescue oppressed minorities in foreign countries—especially those with some geostrategic or economic value, of course. The deep-rooted Kosovo conflict between the Serbian state and an Albanian secessionist movement, marked by spasmodic violence on both sides, provided the experimental terrain for this new policy. The Kosovo problem was proclaimed to be a crisis, requiring international intervention, only weeks before NATO’s 50th anniversary meeting, when this U.S.-designed policy was officially adopted. 

To provide a pretext, the Clinton administration orchestrated sham negotiations at the French château in Rambouillet. The U.S. abruptly promoted Hashim Thaqi, the head of the armed Kosovo Liberation Army, to head the Kosovo Albanian delegation, shoving aside more reputable Albanian leaders such as Ibrahim Rugova. No direct encounters between the Serbian and Albanian delegations were even allowed. Both were ordered to accept a comprehensive plan drafted by the United States, allowing for the NATO occupation of Kosovo. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright bullied Thaqi into reluctantly accepting the ultimatum, with back-stage assurances that he would eventually get his own “independent Kosovo.” The Serbs had agreed to the principle of autonomy of Kosovo, and their parliament had drafted a proposal—totally ignored at Rambouillet. But the Serbian delegation rejected the ultimatum, which included an annex that would have allowed NATO occupation of the whole of Serbia. This rejection was the result Albright sought. On the pretext that Serbia had “refused to negotiate,” NATO could wage its victorious little “humanitarian” war. 

In 2007 the world was provided with the spectacle of much more prolonged sham negotiations. For weeks and months, the West’s semi-official media put out “news” reports that the negotiations to settle the Kosovo problem were not getting anywhere. This was not news because the negotiations were framed in such a way that they could not possibly succeed. 

“The Serbian and Albanian sides can’t agree,” the pseudo-diplomats said of their pseudo-diplomacy. They meant that the Serbian side had not agreed to the Albanian demand for an independent Kosovo. This was the only proposal with U.S. support. It amounted to yet another ultimatum to the Serbs. The Albanians knew they had the support of the United States and NATO, who are occupying Kosovo militarily. They had no incentive to bargain. They could just wait for the negotiations to fail, sure they would be given what they wanted by occupying Great Powers. 

Russia Supports Diplomacy 

The West is putting the blame for this failure on Vladimir Putin, puffing up Putin’s status as the latest world class bad guy, motivated by “power” and a perverse desire to annoy the “virtuous” Americans. Since the Americans back the Albanian demand for independence, says the West, the Russians, out of contrariness, back the Serbian position. 

This is not exactly accurate. The Serbian position is to offer very comprehensive autonomy to Kosovo, a self-government just short of formal independence. The Russian position is to be ready to support any agreement reached between the two sides. 

Western media have refused to grasp that this means that the Russians are insisting on genuine negotiations, between the two parties, the Serbian government and Kosovo Albanian separatists. They are not saying what the outcome of such genuine negotiations would be. They might reach some sort of compromise providing for some sort of independence. 

The point is that such an agreement, reached by both parties, would be legal under international law. Independence proclaimed unilaterally by Kosovo Albanians, without a negotiated agreement with Serbia, would constitute a clear violation of international law. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly warned that a unilateral proclamation of independence could provoke further interethnic violence in the region and set a dangerous precedent for other countries with ethnic minorities. 

In the level of principles, the contrast is not between the U.S. backing Albanian Kosovo independence and Russia backing Serbia. It is between Russia backing diplomacy and the United States backing force. 

A “NATO State” 

But how much “independence” will Kosovo really enjoy? In private, European governments know that Kosovo is not a viable independent state. This has been demonstrated during eight years of international protectorate. Kosovo’s economy is almost entirely dependent on remittances from emigrés to their families, international aid (including Saudia Arabian mosque building projects), and flourishing crime (drug and sex trafficking in particular). 

Since official international endorsement of unilateral Serbian guilt has made reconciliation between Serb and Albanian inhabitants impossible, NATO forces, under the guise of the European Union, are expected to stay on “to protect the human rights of minorities.” In terms of security, the “independent” Kosovo will be a NATO satellite. Formal independence from Serbia, following eight years of de facto independence from Serbia, will do nothing to improve the miserable state of the economy. The huge number of unemployed young Albanians hope independence will bring jobs and prosperity. But it is hard to see how closed borders with a hostile Serbia will do more for Kosovo’s economy than decades of preferential Yugoslav development funds. Some sources of income may even diminish, notably foreign aid, as “humanitarian” NGOs move elsewhere. Foreign remittances may be cut back if certain European governments decide to send their Albanian guestworkers back to their “liberated” homeland. Only organi- zed crime seems certain to prosper. 

Last August, as the long round of sham negotiations got underway, Slobodan Samardzic, the Serbian minister for Kosovo, said that a Kosovo state created with U.S. support “would only serve the interests of America and the local mafia clans.” Samardzic belongs to a younger, pro-Western generation that tends to attribute the West’s hostility to Serbia to Slobodan Milosevic. But he has been gone for years and Western policy remains unchanged. 

Samardzic said that NATO plans to make Kosovo virtually its own territory, “a satellite, an army barracks state on foreign territory.” The main source of power in Kosovo would be the huge U.S. military base, Camp Bondsteel, built immediately after NATO occupied the territory in June 1999, without asking permission from anyone. 

As the latest round of sham negotiations ended, Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica said events prove that the real reason NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 was in order to conquer Kosovo as a “NATO puppet state.”And what has Serbia been offered in return for loss of its historic territory? Merely a vague suggestion that, if it behaves, it may eventually obtain EU membership. In short, in return for losing sovereignty over Kosovo, it may be allowed to give up more of its sovereignty to the European Union. But even this is a hazy prospect. 

It is quite possible that Serbia could manage better economically without Kosovo, which was always the poorest and least developed part of Yugoslavia, despite massive development funds from the rest of the country. But Serbia’s reasons for wanting to retain Kosovo are not economic, but moral. The West has refused to take these into account, brushing them all aside with the single argument that Serbia “lost its right” to the territory because of Milosevic’s repression of Albanian separatists. Realistically, NATO “won its right” to dispose of Kosovo by bombing Serbia. The Western argument comes down to might makes right or, rather, superior might makes right. 

Serbia’s Case 

The Serbian reasons to reject Kosovo’s secession are legal and moral: (1) International law. Even after NATO bombed Serbia into allowing Kosovo to be occupied, its sovereignty over the province was officially confirmed under international law. As the one-sided war ended, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is the successor state. Resolution 1244, which remains the existing basis for the legal status of Kosovo, also speaks of “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration”—which is what Serbia has agreed to and proposed. It does not speak of independence. 

Besides, what has Serbia done since the fall of Milosevic to merit worse treatment than was prescribed in 1999? 

(2) The impossibility of abandoning the Serbian minority to almost certain persecution and expulsion. Nor can Serbia abandon its historic monuments, the precious medieval monasteries of Decani, Gracanica, Pec, and many others.  

(3) The deep, truly painful sense of injustice and humiliation at the manner in which the Great Powers are orchestrating the amputation of this most cherished part of Serbia’s historic territory. Serbs are blamed for something they never did, something even Milosevic never did: the attempted “genocide” or at least “expulsion” of Albanians from Kosovo. This is no more than wartime propaganda, which by now is probably believed by most Albanians, since the Great Powers endorse it. The official line, criminalizing Serbia, echoed daily by more or less ignorant, but well-coached editorialists and commentators, heaps unbearable insult on injury. Sometimes insult is harder to take than injury. 

This last reason, which may be the strongest of all, is virtually invisible to Americans and Europeans who have swallowed whole the official line—of wicked Serbs persecuting innocent Albanians—in willful ignorance of the complexities of history and culture of the region. 

If these legitimate Serb concerns were taken into consideration, patient diplomacy could in all probability achieve a compromise settlement that would differ from the initial negotiating positions of both sides, but which, with international guarantees and incentives, could satisfy at least part of the demands of both sides. 

What Might Have Been 

Even after the disaster of NATO bombing and occupation of Kosovo made the situation far worse, by exacerbating hostility between the Albanian and Serbian communities to the boiling point, diplomacy might have been able to play a constructive role. That would require a bit of good will and constructive imagination— qualities to which current U.S. leaders do not even aspire, preferring to rely on the iron fist. 

Let us imagine that the United States had not managed to subvert the peace-making functions of international organizations such as the OSCE and the UN. Let us imagine the existence of a real “international community,” which could give serious backing to diplomatic efforts to find a compromise solution for Kosovo. Instead of uniting a “Troika” made up of the United States, the European Union, and Russia, let us suppose that India, China, and Brazil could appoint a group of diplomats, for instance former ambassadors to Yugoslavia (including, perhaps, both the former East and West German ambassadors to pre-disintegration Yugoslavia, former Canadian Ambassador James Bissett, and former British Ambassador Ivor Roberts, as well as former ambassadors from non-European countries) to facilitate open-ended negotiations between Serbs and Albanians. There would be no preconditions except one: the negotiations would last until the two parties agreed to a compromise solution. 

My personal belief is that genuine, patient negotiations could arrive at some sort of overall agreement involving border changes and partition, as well as some sort of union between the secessionist Albanian part of Kosovo and Albania itself. The arguments for such a solution are overwhelming, and have been stated most convincingly by Dobrica Cosic, Serbia’s most distinguished novelist and a former president of Yugoslavia, well before the Kosovo problem exploded into armed conflict in 1998-99. 

It is true that both the Albanian and Serbian sides reject partition, more or less vehemently. But that is natural at the start of negotiations. The Albanians adamantly demand all of Kosovo within its present borders. This demand is supported by the United States, which also insists that there be no union between Kosovo and Albania. This is the point on which some compromise could be worked out. 

Serbia’s position has been to offer a degree of autonomy that would in fact be tantamount to total internal independence. This is understandable as a bargaining position, but it is hard to see how it would be favorable to Serbia itself. Serbia would risk bearing a financial burden for a territory over which it exercises no control. 

On the other hand, the Albanians’ expectations for independence and, most of all, the hatred they foster for Serbia, makes a return to Serbian rule impossible in practical terms. 

The welfare of both Serbs and Albanians could be ensured best by an overall agreement to end the hostilities between the two populations, something that clearly has not been accomplished in eight years of UN-NATO protectorate. This should involve some territorial rearrangements, as well as economic and cultural agreements between the parties concerned. Neighboring countries should also be brought into the negotiations. Agreements should be made on the basis of practical realities, not on false presumptions of “guilt” and “innocence.” 

Finally, identity needs to be detached from particular territories and particular events. Future generations of Serbs and Albanians must be able to live their lives freed from the burdens of past resentments and ancestral vendettas. But, unfortunately, this is only a dream. 


Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, PlutoPress/Monthly Review Press.