The Balkan endgame
by Sonja Biserko
Belgrade still believes it is on the verge of a historic victory. In response,
the West needs a comprehensive regional strategy: April 1999.
Even at this late stage, the Serbian regime - not just President Slobodan
Milosevic, but a substantial proportion of the establishment - believes it has a
chance not only to survive the NATO campaign but indeed to emerge victorious
with a new Greater Serbia.
Under scenarios seriously discussed in Belgrade, officials hope that fatigue
and splits within the NATO alliance, and concerns for the regional ramifica
tions, will cause the West to call a conference and negotiate peace. This would
be a major historical event, along the lines of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, in
volving all the regional players. And, if Serbian negotiators have their way, it
would be a time for territorial swapping and fresh map-making. The key deal
would be to partition Kosovo, hiving off a southern strip from Yugoslavia in ex
change for some of Bosnia.
It is crucial for Western planners charting the course of the war to understand
the implications of this. Far from in retreat, the Belgrade regime - while los
ing important military and economic assets - feels itself to be well positioned
for a historic victory against the world's largest military alliance and its
To most Western observers, this may seem astounding. But a proper understanding
of the Serbian power structure reveals why - from Belgrade's perspective - it is
quite logical. And it makes clear that the West must adopt a comprehensive
strategy and a region-wide approach for long-term peace and stability.
The destruction caused by NATO will cost Serbia dearly. It will annul the ef
forts of several generations in developing its infrastructure. But it is also
destroying the rudimentary institutions of democracy. As a result, contrary to
expectations both in the West and in the region, an uprising against Milosevic
is hard to imagine. Thus the likely outcomes within Serbia are: Milosevic's sur
vival and a personal dictatorship, a coup d'etat and a military dictatorship, or
rivalry among competing warlords and total chaos. None of these would be likely
to bring a positive policy change from Belgrade.
The negotiations, at Rambouillet and then Paris, also suggested a flawed strat
egy. The delayed and inadequate response by the European powers leading up to
the talks gave ample time for Milosevic's expansionist and repressive policies
to be put in place. Resisting a leading US role in Kosovo for so long, the Euro
peans allowed Belgrade to launch the war unopposed. The negotiating posture
tended to equalize all sides and inevitably led to concessions to the `stronger
side' - i.e. the Serbs. Confusion over the ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
response to the Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA), without any effort to analyse the roots of the crisis and the rea
sons for the emergence of the KLA, gave a green light to Serbia to launch its
attacks on villages, under the guise of `exterminating terrorists'. The
Europeans' anxiety over refugees also contributed to a negative stereotype about
The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement of October 1998 was probably the last chance
for a peaceful resolution. Understanding that the international community did
not expect conflict until spring, and believing that there would probably be no
intervention anyway, Milosevic initiated his build-up in Kosovo and, once again,
confronted the international community with a fait accompli.
But by taking Kosovo and the whole Kosovo Albanian community hostage, Milosevic
triggered a reaction he did not expect and has no answer for. Milosevic's deci
sion to reject the Rambouillet accords finally forced the NATO powers to define
the nature of the conflicts that have plagued southeastern Europe for the past
decade. For the first time, the West recognized them clearly as a series of Ser-
bian wars of aggression and conquest.
This posture incensed the regime in Belgrade, which then fully revealed its war
aims: the complete cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo. The possible loss of
Kosovo was first mentioned in the infamous Serbian Academy Memorandum, which
laid out the Greater Serbia national project back in 1986. Dobrica Âosic, the
nationalist writer and one-time president of the country, has predicted many
times that `the 20th century will end for the Serbian people with the loss of
Kosovo and Metohia'. Yet by unleashing a full war against its own Albanian citi
zens, the regime displayed its complete inability to adapt to the shift in West
ern policy towards such regional conflicts, and the Balkans in particular. In
stead it has sought to create `new realities on the ground' in Kosovo - and so
far succeeded - in pursuit of its maximalist aims.
The beginning of the bombing campaign was treated in Belgrade as another of NA
TO's simulations. Belgrade simply did not believe it was real. Accordingly, the
first reactions by the regime and the public were defiance and derision. Offi
cially, this remains the stance, as evidenced for example by the daily rock con
certs throughout Serbia.
Yet in fact only a few days of air strikes sufficed to strip the Serbian politi
cal scenery of its false covering. The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians dem
onstrated once again the utmost cruelty and barbarity of the Serbian war machin
ery. The concerts and other demonstrations actually reveal a refusal of the
population to confront the atrocities being committed in Kosovo in their name.
People in Serbia are undergoing a mass denial which is itself commensurate to
the crime taking place before the eyes of the whole world.
Unfortunately, the developments have also demonstrated that the democratic
alternative is almost negligible. The media became the first victim of the bomb
ing, and all information has been put under direct state control. The declara
tion of a state of emergency, as well as the introduction of capital punishment,
martial law, a partial mobilization, a pardoning of criminals and the drafting
of volunteers - such measures have closed all avenues of possible resistance.
Fuelled by wild propaganda and increasing criminal banditry, Serbia is heading
down the path of no return. Displaying, indeed glorifying Serbian obstinacy, the
regime is on the verge of self-destruction, rejecting all prospects of mediation
and causing damage throughout the region.
Rather than strengthening, the structure in Serbia is in fact crumbling and
heading towards chaos. Serbia faces an inevitable moral collapse and historic
debacle. It refuses to confront the policies of the past, and even the crimes
for which it is responsible day by day. Indeed, while Milosevic bears primary
responsibility for disasters caused by the regime, ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia
and now Kosovo, he has only followed and expressed the collective consciousness
of much of the Serbian elite - especially within the security forces.
As such, Serbia cannot hope for integration into the mainstream of European
structures without massive assistance from the international community. This
means that the expected NATO presence in Kosovo will not be enough. A protec
torate in the province will enable the deportees to return in safety and prevent
the spreading of the refugee wave to Europe.
But after a decade of failed policies in the Balkans, it is essential that the
US and the European democracies articulate a long-term vision for the whole re
gion. This must start with the de-Nazification of Serbia. A mini-Marshall plan
for economic recovery will be essential. And a long-term security structure is a
prerequisite for continued peace and stability. The West may debate ground
troops in Kosovo. But the reality is that, in the long term, an international
force will be required in Serbia, too.
Sonja Biserko is director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.
She is now living outside the country. This article appeared on the IWPR