bosnia report
New Series No. 9/10 April - July 1999
Western policy and Kosova's future
by Noel Malcolm

If war is the continuation of policy by other means, then it helps to know what the policy is and whether it makes sense. Most of the debate about Kosova until last week concentrated on military and moral issues - the need for ground troops, the justifiability of bombing, and so on. Even during the now stalled peace talks, questions about the long-term political future of Kosova have received little attention. Yet these are the most important questions of all.

The official line of the NATO governments goes something like this: Under the protection of an international force, Kosova will develop its own autonomous ad ministration, while remaining within the federal Yugoslav state. This means that the Kosovars will have Yugoslav passports, be liable for call-up to the Yugoslav army, pay Yugoslav taxes and pass through Yugoslav controls at the borders (the same borders where the Yugoslav police robbed them and drove them through mine fields a few weeks ago).

Meanwhile, say the NATO politicians, Slobodan Milosevic will have fallen from power and a new, democratic leadership in Belgrade will recognize the rights of the Kosova Albanians, no longer regarding them as second-class Yugoslav citizens.

Unfortunately, no one has yet told us which of the available political leaders will take on this enlightened task. Certainly not Vojislav Seselj, the fanatical Serb nationalist who has publicly advocated infecting Kosova Albanians with the AIDS virus. Not Vuk Draskovic, whose political career arose from his notoriety as a mouthpiece of anti-Muslim prejudice. And probably not Zoran Dindic, the Democratic Party leader, who gave unstinting support to the Bosnian Serb extremists during the Bosnian war.

As we know, most Serbs do not wish to see the Kosovars as equal partners in a Yugoslav state; they would rather not have them in their country at all. The sad truth is that Milosevic's overall policy on Kosova - keeping the territory and getting rid of the people - continues to be genuinely popular in Serbia.

Once it finally becomes clear that this policy has been thwarted, Serbian politicians will start working toward a scaled-down version of the same goal: a partition of Kosova, whereby Serbia will keep the northern half of the province and eject all the Albanians from it. If the deployment of an international force involves creating a special zone for Russian troops in the north, de facto partition will quickly follow, as few Albanians will be willing to return to their homes under the `protection' of Belgrade's closest allies.

Some Western commentators are already advocating partition as the best long-term solution. The argument is usually dressed up with assertions about the northern half of Kosova's being more of an ethnically Serb area anyway, or with refer ences to the Serbs' `holy places'. But in fact the northern half of Kosova was just as much an Albanian-majority area as the south: in the last reliable census (in 1981) the large northern municipalities of Vucitrn and Podujevo, for exam ple, had Albanian majorities of 88 and 96 percent.

As for the use of churches and monasteries to justify partition, this is merely a pious fiction: Milosevic's real interest in northern Kosova is economic, not monastic. He wants the rich mines of the Trepca district and their associated factories and power plants - the essential assets without which any independent southern rump of Kosova would not be economically viable at all.

Of course the monasteries and churches should be cared for, and the rights of those who worship in them (a small minority of the Serbs, whom all surveys be fore the war showed to be the most non-religious population in the former Yu goslavia) should be respected. But it is hard to believe that, in the late 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Kosovar citizens might be told that they must permanently abandon their homes in cities like Vucitrn and Mitrovica simply be cause of the physical presence of a monastery building 20 miles down the road.

If partition is unjustifiable, and if the reintegration of Kosova into Yugoslavia unworkable, what long-term options remain? There are only two possi bilities. Either the situation stays frozen after the deployment of tens of thousands of NATO troops, who are then committed to exercising a permanent de facto protectorate over Kosova, or Kosova is allowed, eventually, to become independent and to guard its own borders with its own army.

In the long term, the second option is more in the interests of the West. It is certainly the strong preference of the Kosova Albanians themselves, who voted overwhelmingly for independence as long ago as 1991. It is what the volunteer soldiers of the Kosova Liberation Army were fighting for; without some assurance on eventual self-determination, they will be very reluctant to give up their weapons, and their leaders will become more radical, not less.

Such an assurance on self-determination (albeit in ambiguous phrasing) was in cluded in the Rambouillet accord; otherwise the Albanians would never have signed that document. Their acceptance of the Rambouillet plan is taken for granted today. And yet that key assurance clause was dropped from the plan put forward last week by the Russian envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland.

Western governments have always said that they are against the idea of independ ence for Kosova. Why are they so keen to rule out the one long-term option that offers a genuine, and just, solution? Although I have discussed this question with many politicians, diplomats and academics over the last few years, I have never heard a convincing (or even a well-informed) answer to that question.

One standard response is that granting independence to Kosova would encourage the Albanians of Macedonia to demand a territorial carve-up of that state, too. This is to misrepresent the aims of the Macedonian Albanian politicians, who have always campaigned for greater political rights within Macedonia, not separation from it. And in any case, the biggest threat to Macedonia's stability today is the sheer presence of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees - people who will not return to Kosova if they think they will eventually be sub jected, once again, to Yugoslav rule.

The other standard reply is that an independent Kosova would set a precedent for all kinds of other breakaway ethnic groups: Basques, Kurds or whatever. This is to misunderstand the basis of Kosova's legal claim to independence. In the old Yugoslavia, Kosova functioned as a federal unit and was formally defined not just as a province of Serbia but also, and more importantly, as a component of the federation.

When that federation dissolved in 1991 and '92, each unit had a legal right to self-determination. Independence for Kosova would thus follow an old precedent: the one set by Slovenia and Croatia. And no other places could follow this prec edent unless they were federations in a process of complete dissolution - a rar ity in modern political history. The only dangerous new precedent here is the one the West is actually planning to create: the permanent NATO occupation of one part of a `sovereign' state. Such an outcome is not in the interests of the West, and will certainly never satisfy the Kosovars, whose interests this entire Western policy was designed, allegedly, to protect.

Noel Malcolm is the author of Kosovo: a short history, a new edition of which has just been published. This article appeared in The New York Times, 9 June 1999

` Western promises to re-integrate the two halves of [Bosnia] have not been fulfilled. The American commander who took over after Dayton, Admiral Leighton Smith, publicly declared that he would not seek to arrest war criminals: the military doctrine which forbids any risk to any American prevailed there, as it did more recently in the skies over Kosova. The old power-structures in the Serb-ruled half of Bosnia have not been dismantled, and the political leadership there has alternated between Milosevic's proxies and those of his rival-cum- deputy, Vojislav Seselj.

Milosevic's long-term strategy now must be to make the occupation of Kosova as troublesome as possible for the NATO powers; to use the presence of Russian forces to prepare a de facto partition on the ground; and then to offer to the West, as a way out of all its difficulties, a grand exchange, in which the Koso va Albanians get the southern half of their territory and Serbia gets a large part of eastern Bosnia.

From the tough-talking comments of Robin Cook and Tony Blair, it appears that NATO leaders are well aware of the dangers of creeping partition in Kosova (though they have not yet mentioned the obvious solution, which is to disperse the Russian troops in the south). It would indeed be an act of grotesque cruelty to tell the Albanians that they were free to return to their homes, and then ac cept that in practice half of them would be permanently prevented from doing so.

And yet that is exactly what has happened in Bosnia. If the West really wants to close off Milosevic's strategic options, it should seize the opportunity now to clear out the extremist politicians and police chiefs in Republika Srpska, the Serb-ruled half of Bosnia, who have obstructed the return of refugees. The big gest source of confidence in Milosevic's mind today, as he contemplates the de velopments of the next few years in Kosova, must be his knowledge of what has happened during the last few years in Bosnia. The final remnants of his strategy will crumble into dust only when the West shows that it really is committed to the integrity (and, ultimately, the self-determination) of every one of the former federal units of Yugoslavia - Bosnia and Kosova included'.

Noel Malcolm
From an article in The Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1999


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