The tension in Kosovo has existed for centuries, dating back as far as 1389 when Serbs lost an epic battle to the Ottoman Turks in Kosovo. Not until 1912, more than 500 years later did the Serbs regain control when Kosovo became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the conclusion of World War II, as an absolute monarchy under the name Yugoslavia, the country became a communist republic. Autonomy was granted to Kosovo in 1974 in a revised constitution. Kosovo, although a Serbian province, was largely occupied by ethnic Albanians who established Albanian-language schools and institutions. In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Yugoslavia, riding the wave of Serbian nationalism with his promises of a “Greater Serbia.” Escalating tensions between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians and the fear of secession prompted Milosevic to strip Kosovo, though 90 percent Albanian, of it’s autonomy and army troops and police were deployed in battle strength to maintain order. Kosovo’s Albanian majority voted in 1992 to secede from Yugoslavia, voicing a desire to merge with Albania. President Bush warned Serbs that the United States would use force if the Serbs attacked Kosovo.
In 1997, The Kosovo Liberation Army began killing Serb policemen and others supporters of the Serbs. The conflict turned into a guerilla war after Milosevic sent troops into the areas controlled by the Kosovo Liberation Army and killed 80 Kosovars. Shortly after, talks were held for the first time advocating a peaceful path to independence for Kosovo, but the Albanian side boycotted further meetings. Later, the United Nations Security Council called for an immediate cease-fire and political negotiations, but with little support from either side. NATO allies then authorized airstrikes against Serb military targets, but were not prompted to take action because Milosevic agreed to withdraw troops and accept unarmed international monitors. Following a number of failed peace talks NATO launched airstrikes on March 24th of this year.
The involvement of NATO in this conflict is unprecedented and raises questions about why action was not taken under the auspices of the United Nations rather than NATO. The United Nations has not voted on the use of force against Yugoslavia because both Russia and China would almost certainly veto military action. Russia has a traditional alliance with the Serbs, while China (particularly because of their own political situation and human rights violations) opposes any international intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations like Yugoslavia. The crisis in Kosovo is of particular interest to Russia because it is ultimately a test of the relative weights of sovereignty and the right to self-determination. As the outlying areas of Russia are home to a myriad of ethnic groups, the settlement of the situation in Kosovo will provide a precedent (albeit perhaps a reluctant one) to which future conflicts might be resolved. Once the governments of the NATO countries decided it was necessary to intervene in Kosovo, they acted without taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council because of the certain resistance of China and Russia.
The United States and NATO objectives are to stop the killing and achieve a durable peace that prevents further repression and provides for democratic self-government for the Kosovar people. The United States and NATO have three strong interests at stake in the Kosovo conflict: averting a humanitarian catastrophe; preserving stability in a key part of Europe; and maintaining the credibility of NATO.
The Serbian’s sustained and accelerating repression in Kosovo is creating a humanitarian crisis of a staggering dimension. Serb forces have killed hundreds of ethnic Albanians in an effort Serbs call “ethnic cleansing”, and displaced an estimated 250,000 by burning and looting their homes. Currently 40,000 Serbian police and military troops are positioned in and around Kosovo poised for a military offensive.
The instability in Kosovo directly threatens peace in the Balkans and the stability of Europe, which could have viable consequences to the United States as well as the rest of the world. There is no natural boundary to this violence; World War I began in this same tinderbox. If actions are not taken now to stop the conflict, it will spread and both the cost and the risk will increase substantially. Continued fighting in Kosovo has the potential to re-ignite chaos in Albania and destabilize Macedonia. In addition the conflict could exacerbate rivalries between Greece and Turkey, two NATO allies. Greece and Turkey have different ethnic, religious, and political allegiances to the peoples living in Kosovo and the nations surrounding Yugoslavia. The conflict could draw those countries in to protect their own national interests. Lastly, so many displaced people creates a breeding ground for international criminals, drug traffickers and terrorists.
Perhaps the most decisive motive behind NATO’s involvement in Kosovo is the certain risk of losing credibility through inaction. NATO’s credible threat of force was solely responsible in originally obtaining Milosevic’s agreement to a cease-fire and the establishment of OSCE and NATO verification regimes. This agreement enabled hundreds of thousands of Kosovars to come down from the hills and temporarily return to their homes. As of today, Milosevic has not come into compliance with the October agreements and his repression continues. NATO warned Milosevic that it would respond under such circumstances. Given the situation, action is required on the part of NATO to ensure it’s continued credibility.
The preference of NATO has been to achieve these objectives through peaceful means. The international community has been actively seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomacy. The agreement produced at the Rambouillet and Paris talks keeps Kosovo in Serbia, but gives Kosovars the self-government they deserve, however Milosevic has refused to sign the agreement. Milosevic has rejected all efforts to achieve a peaceful solution.
Milosevic has been out of compliance with the solemn commitments to NATO and OSCE since October. Serb forces have consistently and blatantly violated the cease-fire, moved troops and police out of garrison in violation of his commitments, refused to cooperate with and continued to impede the work of the Kosovo Verification Mission and international relief agencies, and committed atrocities such as the Racak massacre in mid-January.
NATO has outlined three clear objectives in the Kosovo conflict. NATO intends to demonstrate its seriousness of purpose in order to make clear to Milosevic the imperative of reversing course. It also must deter Milosevic from launching an all-out offensive against helpless civilians. Finally, to seriously damage Milosevic’s military capability to take repressive action against Kosovars.
What is to be done to reconcile both the right to Yugoslav territorial integrity and the right to self-determination on the part of the Kosovars? There will need to be two policy prescriptions. Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic has warned the United States and its allies that any initiation of a ground war would result in a conflict that would make Vietnam look like nothing. But the situation would become very different to the one in Southeast Asia. After an extensive air campaign, new conditions provide an end to NATO air strikes from the outset, not completion of Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo. From there on in, armed NATO peacekeepers will administer the safe return of Kosovar refugees. In this sense, and with the knowledge of human rights violations, the international community will justly revoke Yugoslavia’s sovereignty. The second policy prescription is the most difficult. Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters must be removed from office and new, democratic institutions put in place to ensure both the maintenance of the Yugoslav state and the wider participation and self-determination of Kosovars. The second policy prescription’s success relies upon the Serbian people. A vocal minority will be hateful of the measure. It will be a matter of harnessing the anti-Milosevic sentiments present during the protests of 1991 and 1997 to remove him from office. He will not retire without a struggle. His removal by his own constituents proves the key component to the success of new democratic institutions.
Democratic institutions, in which the Kosovars, Montenegrins, and Serbians alike may be represented, seem the best (though not the perfect) solution to opposing sovereignty and self-determination rights. Much as in Bosnia, a peacekeeping force will be required for years to attempt to fortify the new constitutional government against what amounts to over 600 years of distrust between the Serbian and Kosovar parties. This solution is ideal in the respect that it is a compromise attractive to the international community. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia will be maintained. A medium for some safe exercise of self-determination rights will be provided. No clear preference will be shown between the two, and international law can continue to operate case-by-case.