bosnia report
New Series No. 3 March - May 1998
Jim Hoagland
by Jim Hoagland

The gathering rebellion against Serbian rule in Kosovo brings the political chain reaction that atomized Yugoslavia into a new yet eerily familiar stage. History should not repeat itself. Kosovo should not become a new Bosnia, despite the appalling surface similarities.

Once again the Serbs grimly position themselves as the villains and the ultimate losers of a bloody conflict that does not have to happen. Once again the United States and its allies risk taking diverging paths in a conflict that strikes at European stability. Once again the potential for misca1culation by all parties is enormous.

This month's brutal repression by Serbian police of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where at least 77 people have died, resumes Slobodan Milosevic's march toward a Lesser Serbia.

Mr Milosevic and his surrogates have lost nationalist wars against Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Now atomization strikes into Serbia itself, as 1.8 million Kosovars chafe under the discrimination and hardships that the 180,000 ruling Serbs, backed by the national army, inflict on the province. Those are not winning odds for the Serbs.

By refusing to grant the Kosovars serious autonomy in a self-governing republic within Serbia, Belgrade pushes them into rebellion for full independence. Instead of the Greater Serbia that Mr Milosevic vowed to build out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia, the Serbian ruler condemns his people to new territorial amputation if he does not radically alter course.

He can make the Kosovars and their ethnic allies in neighbouring Macedonia and Albania pay in blood and stability. He can plunge the Balkans back into the flames of war that the Dayton peace accord extinguished in Bosnia. But he cannot defy demographic laws of gravity.

The myopia that must not be repeated extends far beyond Belgrade.

In 1990 and 1991, Washington lost much of its considerable ability to influence the course of Yugoslavia's breakup by clinging to the fiction that Yugoslavia could and must survive as one unified state, long after that outcome ceased to be an option. Today, Washington aggressively supports Serbia's territorial integrity just as strongly as it supported Yugoslavia's, while criticizing the repression required to maintain Serbia's survival in existing boundaries.

Such cautious, balanced abstractions cancel each other in the grim world of the Balkans, and in the Third World.

Washington should cease paying tribute to territorial integrity maintained by brute force, whether that force is exercised in Serbia, Iraq, Indonesia or China. The United States should stop opposing in word and deed the aspirations of Kosovars, Kurds, Timorese or Tibetans willing to fight oppression visited on them by other dominant ethnic groups who have a monopoly on firepower and organized violence.

Such genÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ eralizations rooted in broad principles make diplomats nervous. But in Kosovo right now, US statements and actions should make clear that America does not put the shibboleth of territorial integrity (of a self-splitting entity) above human and civic rights.

US pressure would contribute to the Serbs doing what they need to do: open unrestricted negotiations with the Kosovars on the territory's future. The current upheaval is likely to be Mr Milosevic's last best chance to get the Kosovars to join open-ended talks formally insisting on independence and then to persuade them, through negotiation, to settle for real autonomy.

The first Serbian offer on Thursday [12 March] for talks on Kosovo was sprung without warning or consultation with any Kosovar activist. It did not pass the test of seriousness or sincerity.

The European countries that have generally supported Serbia's overreaching nationalism in the wars of ex-Yugoslavia (I have Russia, Britain and France in mind) must also recognize that the Serbs face fresh disaster over a long run that is not very long.

These powers should join Washington in emphasizing to the Serbs that clinging to historic but outmoded, and exploitative, concepts of territorial integrity is the surest route to national oblivion in the era of globalization.

Big government in the form of nation-state superstructures like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and big racial ideology in the form of pan-Slavism and pan-Arabism, have been tossed on history's ash heap in this decade. It is a time when the centre does not hold, when atomization is the dominant force in international politics.

Territorial integrity maintained by brute force is not only unjust in the modern world. It is also inefficient and ultimately untenable. World business knows this. How long will it take the politicians and diplomats in Belgrade, and Washington, to discover the obvious in Kosovo?

This comment appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 14/15 March 1998


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