Imposing harmony when they can't all get along

International | However powerful, NATO forces are no match for the force of opinion in Kosovo

Issue: "School-to-Work debate," Sept. 5, 1998

in Grabovac, Kosovo - We sat nervously in our taxi at the side of a dirt road near the village of Grabovac. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) surrounded us. Here, barely six miles outside the provincial capital of Pristina, Yugoslav government authority has vanished. It took 45 minutes for members of the KLA militia to decide what to do about the photo one of my colleagues took shortly before the checkpoint. At least a dozen insurgents wandered down the road and up the nearby hill, obviously unconcerned about government patrols. Local inhabitants regularly drove by, entering what our KLA guardians called "the free zone." The rebels eventually seized the offending film and turned us around. Ethnic Albanians, who form the majority in Kosovo, and the Serbian-controlled government in Belgrade confront long-simmering tensions over autonomy in the region. The tensions exploded into crisis in March. KLA-led Albanian guerrillas, who once undertook little more than random acts of terror, quickly took control of nearly 40 percent of the countryside. A sustained campaign by Serbia's special police-who deal brutally with ethnic Albanians-has recaptured some ground lost by the Yugoslav forces. In Pristina, the provincial capital, life proceeds normally. Children play in the street, friends drink in sidewalk cafes, and pedestrians stroll by open shops. But KLA activity has blocked major roads leading out of the city, to Pec in the west and Prizren in the southwest. Most Kosovars only use the main road north to Belgrade during the day. Travel is not recommended at night. KLA gains have been surprising, and even the continued dominance of Serb forces is spurring KLA recruitment. Resistance is also growing within Serbia: In recent weeks, 600 policemen have reportedly refused to accept duty in Kosovo. Belgrade's last resort is the military. Capable and well-equipped, Serb forces can roll through any KLA barricade. Gen. Nbojsa Pavkovic, the provincial Serb commander, says there are constitutional limitations on the employment of the military for anything other than border defense. "[That] doesn't mean we aren't capable of solving the problem," he hastily adds. But Serb forces will only intervene on Belgrade's order "when the vital interests of the state are involved, and that hasn't happened yet." Serbian Minister of Information Aleksandar Vucic said, "We have adequate power to protect our territory." If Serb leaders are confident about their power and control over the region, Belgrade has nonetheless lost the hearts and minds of Kosovars. Nine of 10 Kosovo residents are ethnic Albanians, and it is hard to find one who is willing to tolerate, let alone support, Serbian rule. Religious differences underscore the conflict, too. Serbs are lockstep with an entrenched, Soviet-era Orthodox Church. Government officials still have a say in naming church leaders. Ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, are mostly Muslim. A small minority are Roman Catholic. Some Albanians forthrightly advocate violence. The only solution to recent fighting, said a 27-year-old refugee: "The radical one. War." Many Albanians in Kosovo would like to see peaceful negotiations, but when caught between the KLA and Serbian government, there is little doubt where they will stand. There is also little doubt that most ethnic Albanians hope for NATO intervention. The West, however, has no solution to impose. Although both sides call for negotiations, they have taken irreconcilable positions. The KLA demands independence. Its surge is causing a tectonic shift in the attitudes of other Albanian leaders in Kosovo. Ibrahim Rugova, elected Kosovo's unofficial president and head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), increasingly under attack as a "defeatist," has shifted from a moderate position to unequivocally advocating independence. A Rugova adviser, Alush Gashi, says, "Any transition plan that does not lead to independence is not a matter of discussion." The LDK is calling for the establishment of village defense forces against the Serb police, and Mr. Gashi praises KLA guerrillas who are "willing to give their lives" for the Albanian people. In contrast, most Yugoslavs reject independence for what is historically Serb territory. Mr. Vucic, the information minister, says, "There is no chance that we are going to give up Kosovo, no matter what pressure is applied." He points to what he calls "the international law principle that state borders are unchangeable." Instead, he suggests some form of limited autonomy for Kosovo. Ironically, the West backs Belgrade's position. NATO endorses autonomy, not independence. Having intervened militarily to prevent the break-up of Bosnia under the Dayton Accords, NATO cannot easily threaten military intervention to spur the break-up of what remains of former Yugoslavia. Still, Kosovars believe the West is on their side. A medical student spoke for many when he told WORLD, "Clinton has met with Rugova and supports him." That appeared to be the case when White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Yugoslavia "must immediately withdraw security units involved in civilian repression without linkage to ... 'the stopping of terrorist activity'." Doing so would eliminate Serb authority in Kosovo overnight, a demand for preemptive surrender Belgrade will not accept. To back its demands, the West has tried economic sanctions-a freeze on Belgrade's assets abroad, a ban on new investment in Yugoslavia, and denial of landing rights for the national airline-in order to induce it to negotiate and limit military operations. But Western nations isolated the Serbian-dominated state during the lengthy Bosnian civil war without effect. Only exhaustion, backed by threatened Western military intervention on behalf of the Muslims, led to the Dayton Accords and Serbian support for a united Bosnia now despised by all three resident ethnic groups. Opposition political figures and independent journalists in Belgrade warn that sanctions were not just ineffective; they benefited the oppressive regime of President Slobodan Milosevic. International restrictions strengthened government economic control and enriched those in power. This reinforced dependence on the regime, which, in turn, crippled the opposition. Sanctions also gave Mr. Milosevic a convenient scapegoat for his policies. "Whatever the problem-health, education, etc.-his response was that it resulted from the undeserved sanctions," explains Vesna Pesic, president of the Serbian Civic Alliance. In fact, throughout the Bosnian civil war, sanctions helped Mr. Milosevic rally support. "It seemed unpatriotic to attack Milosevic," explains one American diplomat in Belgrade. Now there is again "this feeling that he's defending Yugoslavia against outside pressure." Complains Zoran Djindjic, head of the Democratic Party: "Our only support is from people who are independent in their businesses." They are least subject to government pressure. However, the West's economic war ruined the democratic base represented by Mr. Djindjic. Many in the West would go beyond sanctions and intervene militarily. But this would mean attacking a sovereign state. NATO would prevail over the Serb forces, but not without cost. Such a conflict would also mean significant civilian casualties for Albanians and Serbs alike. Taking sides in ongoing guerrilla fighting would end up dismembering another nation. An alliance once dedicated to defending against aggression by the Soviet Union would end up launching a war of aggression against a state that had as yet threatened no NATO member. If the Serbs actually agreed to Western "peacekeeping" in return for a pledge of autonomy, the allies still could not guarantee a deal. Even Mr. Rugova and other moderate Kosovars might find themselves unable to agree to autonomy, whatever their private preferences. Said the medical student: "Rugova has to be for independence. If he was for autonomy, the Albanian people would blow him away." If Kosovar politicians accept something less than full independence, only military force-either Yugoslav or NATO-could maintain a semblance of Serbian authority implied by autonomy. Most ethnic Albanians reject this. "Every single person wants to be independent of Serbia," observes one American diplomat who asked not to be named. Western intervention in support of independence would mean establishing a dubious precedent. If Washington uses force to support the Kosovars, then why not similarly assist Basques in Spain, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan), Kurds in Turkey, Kashmiris in India, and any number of other independence movements around the world? NATO's purported concern over the fate of the Kosovars leaves Western leaders vulnerable to charges that it cares only about the fate of white Europeans-Bosnians and Kosovars-while leaving larger numbers of people elsewhere to die. What about a negotiated settlement for Kosovo that would provide for extensive autonomy and recognize Albanian freedom aspirations and historic Serbian ties? That requires a willingness to compromise that is currently absent on both sides. Western threats that tilt the balance toward the Kosovars make any accommodation less likely. NATO intervention means its members could find themselves fighting both sides in a guerrilla war in which the West has neither a stake nor an answer.

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