bosnia report
New Series No. 4 June - July 1998
Days of Colonialism Are Over
by Jonathan Steele

Nato is facing a dilemma over whether to intervene in the war-torn Serbian province of Kosovo. It knows there is an overwhelming moral and humanitarian case for stepping in to halt the excessive use of force and the unwarranted repression of civilians by Serbian police and Yugoslav troops. It knows that the diplomatic arguments in favour of giving the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, yet more time to clean up his act are weak. What seems to be holding Nato back, after all the brave talk of recent weeks, is a combination of two factors. The first is concern over the legal basis of intervention and the difficulty of getting support from the United Nations Security Council in the face of potential Russian and Chinese vetoes. The second, which comes from the military planners, is doubt over how easy it would be to take on the Yugoslav air force and its defences in the case of Nato air strikes, or the Serb ground forces in the case of Nato airborne landings.

Military planners are bound to be cautious, and similar arguments were heard before the multinational coalition's intervention against Iraq seven years ago. The inventory of the Iraqi forces looked formidable. They had had recent combat experience during the long air and ground war with Iran. Yet, when faced with the might of Western power, the Iraqi army and air force turned out to be paper tigers. They folded up within days. Young conscripts were not ready to die for a cause which they did not fully believe in. The officer corps was less professional than it was thought to be. And, of course, the technological superiority of the allied forces was vast.

The same factors are even more likely to hold true for the forces of Yugoslavia. They have had no real experience of contested war, let alone of successfully defending positions. In the operations against Croatia in 1991-92 they had the advantage of surprise and superior force. With war in Kosovo already under way, there are reports of desertions. Several hundred Serbian mothers demonstrated this week to have their conscript sons brought home. The parliament of Montenegro, the second republic of Yugoslavia after Serbia, has voted to withdraw its conscripts because it cannot support Mr Milosevic's reckless use of force in Kosovo. Faced with air strikes or ground landings, the chances are that the Yugoslav forces and Serbian police would crumble.

The more difficult issue is the legality of outside intervention. Under chapter six of the United Nations charter, foreign powers can move in when an individual state's actions threaten regional peace and security. A strong argument can be made to justify this, as Britain has been trying to do with the resolution it is canvassing before the Security Council. This calls for 'all necessary measures' to be taken against Yugoslavia.

Will Russia and China accept it? A key reason why Moscow objects is its lingering anger over the decision to exclude Russia from equal partnership in Europe's post-cold-war security set-up by expanding Nato. Those in the West who argued against Nato's expansion now have further evidence to support the warnings they gave before it happened. The Russians would inevitably see it as directed against them. But the milk has been spilt, and life must go on. One way round Russia's objections to action in Kosovo could be to stop describing the operation as a Nato force. Robin Cook has taken the moral and political lead in pressing for intervention, with the vital support of Tony Blair. France, too, seems firmly of the view that only superior force will stop the humanitarian disaster caused by the Yugoslav strategy of relying on force to crush the Kosovo Albanians' aspirations.

Why not, therefore, create a European Intervention Force, an ad hoc coalition of the kind which fought in the Gulf rather than a full Nato operation? It would need United States participation, whether in terms of logistics, aircraft, satellite intelligence, or the loan of command-and-control facilities. But it would be clearly under joint Anglo-French command. Its legal and political mandate could derive from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is formally linked to the United Nations as a regional assembly of Eurasian states. No one has a formal veto in the OSCE and the Russians are full members of it, unlike with Nato. Indeed, the Russians have been trying to build up the OSCE's security role, and this could be a chance for them to strengthen it.

What is certain is that, without some form of intervention in Kosovo, today's low-intensity war will continue to escalate. The Serb and Yugoslav police and military forces are likely to go on attacking villages with excessive force. The Albanian majority in Kosovo will increasingly turn to the Kosovo Liberation Army to protect it. In a matter of months a small group of armed men has grown into a nationwide insurgency. Some of the KLA's initial activities in 1996 and 1997, such as assassinating alleged collaborators, could be described as terrorism. But now, as peasants seek arms to defend their land and homes, like an earlier generation in Yugoslavia they have become partisans.

The Serbs claim not to be occupiers. But as long as they insist that 10 per cent of the population should govern the remaining 90 per cent and deny them the right to self-rule or self-determination, Kosovo's Albanians as well as the outside world will rightly define them as a colonial power.

In Europe the days of colonialism are over. Mr Milosevic could end the war swiftly enough by accepting that. By his actions of the past nine years and especially of the past nine weeks he has thrown away the chance of keeping Kosovo within Serbia. If he is genuine about negotiating a political solution, the issue of Kosovo's future status must be a legitimate subject for the talks, whether as a third republic of Yugoslavia, or, if its people so decide in a referendum, as an independent state with full guarantees for its Serb and other minorities. The dissolution of Yugoslavia has seen several new states emerge in Europe, and the birth of a state of Kosovo would not be a radical departure. Mr Milosevic and those Serbs who support him (many do not) have only themselves to blame for pushing the majority of Kosovars to the wall.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 June 1998


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