bosnia report
New Series No. 2 January - February 1998
Ominous Rumblings
by Morton Abramowitz

The Clinton administration's rejuvenated Bosnia policy has scored major gains and offers real hope that the country can be kept together. But we and our allies continue artificially to separate what happens in Bosnia from what happens in Serbia. That was a disaster six years ago, and it could be a disaster again for Bosnia and the Dayton process. The issue in Serbia is increasingly the province of Kosova, a part of Serbia but hardly only an internal Serbian problem. Since Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic erased Kosova's autonomy eight years ago, the Albanian population there has considered itself no longer part of Serbia and has acted that way. The Kosova Albanians have elected their own 'government' and maintained their own health and education systems. But Belgrade still rules - and with a strong and oppressive hand.

Every year for the past eight years, articles have been written that Kosova is about to explode - that mass violence and the expulsion of vast numbers of Alba- nians are approaching - and that the West has to do something. So far Kosova has been the dog that has not barked, despite the execrable situation that exists between the province's 1.8 million Albanians and the Belgrade regime. Neverthe- less, Kosova steadily deteriorates. Serbian repression increases, and violence in the province is rising. The Albanians agree that Western intervention is the answer for achieving independence, but more and more they disagree on tactics. The present majority headed by the elected 'president' Ibrahim Rugova, pursues a non-provocation policy. Another, more amorphous school believes the Albanians must be more assertive in publicly demonstrating their opposition to Serbian rule if they are to get more from the West than sermons on non-violence.

Most ominous has been the emergence of a little-known militant group called the Kosova Liberation Front, which believes that violence is the only way to achieve Albanian political aims. The front is apparently well armed and is responsible for a number of recent violent incidents.

Nobody knows when Kosova will 'erupt'. But it is clear that one day this will happen, and that day is drawing closer. The West knows it. Yet Western policy toward Kosova can be described as hand-wringing - i.e., rising rhetoric directed at Milosevic and much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, all signifying little. Washington's line-in-the-sand warning to Belgrade, first delivered by President Bush and repeated by President Clinton, not to use military force in Kosova came when Serbia had no need to use force. At a time of real breakdown in Kosova, that admonition may get lost in the sand.

Milosevic was a key factor in the Dayton agreement, and the United States has focused on Belgrade's role in Bosnia ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ to make Dayton work. All high-level visits have been devoted to getting Milosevic's help with the Bosnian Serbs - from forging a common automobile licence plate in Bosnia to removing indicted war criminal Radovan KaradÓiÒ from power. The US government believes Milosevic has been helpful to its efforts in Bosnia. As for Serbia, the United States did little to promote democracy, gave mostly ritualistic support to the anti-Milosevic movement of November 1996 and failed to beard him on Kosova. In short, we seem afraid to do anything that might undermine Milosevic's ability to help implement Dayton.

Who rules in Serbia, and the role of the defence and security forces, is critical to Bosnia. The leadership in Belgrade still can do much to undermine Dayton, although it would face serious penalties. Equally, a major change in Kosova - large-scale violence, a massive outflow of Albanians, a change in borders - could wreck Dayton by its impact on Serbia's leadership, on the Bosnian Serbs and on the region in general. The international management of such a disaster would be enormously difficult and costly.

There is also a longer-term factor here. The Balkans never will be stable if Serbia continues to decline and remains a pariah. Nor can Serbia ever become a democratic country or a normal state until it deals with Kosova. Serbia's isola- tion again is generating an economic crisis. The country is close to running out of foreign currency.

Given the deep feelings on both sides, the Kosova conundrum has no easy solution, which is probably another reason why the United States has not gotten involved. Any Serbian leader will have great difficulty finding a solution acceptable to Serbs and making it stick. Albanians, having sacrificed much, can be equally adamant. No solution can be delivered without outside help. Right now Milosevic is the only one in Serbia who might be able to work out some sort of agreement with the Albanians.

What is needed, nearly everyone agrees, is to start a serious negotiating process between the two parties. That will require the United States - the only external power the two sides are prepared to accept - to get deeply involved in generating such talks and participating in them. The parties themselves must be brought to some initial agreement. Almost certainly such an agreement must entail the end of an oppressive Serb regime in Kosova, Albanian self-rule and no change in borders. A negotiation on Kosova will require massive US diplomatic effort with no assurance of success.

That means a serious capability to carry out such a major initiative, a capacity that has yet to be marshalled within the US government. It means overcoming the fear that our getting deeply involved in Kosova negotiations will make Belgrade more uncooperative in Bosnia. Real progress also requires raising the pressure on Milosevic yet offering tangible benefits to Serbia. The present Serbian economic crunch makes this an opportune time to try.

Kosova threatens our massive investment in Bosnia and stability in the region. We will be courting folly if we continue to act as if Bosnia can be settled without substantial change in Serbia or without sustained US effort in Kosova. The past 10 years in the Balkans have shown the critical role of the West and the enormous cost of getting there too late.

The writer is a board member of the International Crisis Group and a Senior Fel- low at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post on 16 February 1998.


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