Powerless in Kosovo

For the west, saber-rattling is cheap, but action is unlikely.

Published June 12, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

With evidence mounting by the hour that another tragic chapter in the Balkans' long history of violence is under way in Kosovo, world concern over the Serbian repression of its southernmost province has reached a fever pitch.

As with Bosnia, fever pitch means a maximum of oratory combined with a minimum of concrete action. And, as with the Bosnian Muslims, the response out of Washington and other Western capitals does not bode well for the plight of Kosovo's Albanian ethnic majority.

First, the oratory. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has termed the crackdown by Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic an act of "barbarism." President Clinton, more politely, called what is happening "unacceptable." Pope John Paul II has weighed in between prayers to speak sorrowfully of "repression and the flights of people" in Kosovo in urging world powers not to remain "inert."

Papal urging and secular saber-rattling notwithstanding, inertia on Kosovo remains the order of the day. Ever since Milosevic's crackdown in Kosovo began three months ago, the West has responded with hand-wringing meetings by NATO foreign ministers, the six-nation Balkan "Contact Group" (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States), the European Union in Luxembourg, the White House and the National Security Council. The upshot of those meetings has been a mantra-like recitation of demands for Milosevic to desist and get down to talking to Kosovo's civilian leaders, or face possible military wrath.

The latest round of meetings this week in London and Brussels were no different. The Contact Group discussed a plan to give Milosevic yet another ultimatum to resume talks with Kosovo's moderate civilian leader, Ibrahim Rugova. Thursday, NATO defense ministers warned of possible military options, though they were only able to agree on the dispatch of NATO planes to conduct air maneuvers over Albania and Macedonia, beyond Kosovo's borders.

Milosevic has heard it all before. As far back as 1992, when Yugoslavia first started to fragment, President George Bush warned the Serbian leader to keep his hands off Kosovo militarily or face American intervention, even bombing. Milosevic dodged that threat by refocusing his holy crusade for Serbian dominion on the breakaway republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It took four years of vicious civil war and genocidal "ethnic cleansing" campaigns before Western fulminations were translated into military intervention and the flawed peace accords negotiated by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.

By then, Milosevic had accomplished his goal. He expanded Serbian power into Bosnia while solidifying his own political dominance over the fragmenting Yugoslavia. He is now gambling he can do the same in Kosovo, the small, impoverished province worshipped as the historic cradle of Serbian nationalism, despite the fact that 90 percent of its current population of 2 million is ethnically Albanian.

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Guilt about their inaction in Bosnia while hundreds of thousands died haunts Western policymakers. Almost every statement put forth by President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger or Britain's increasingly shrill Tony Blair is prefaced by the promise that Kosovo will not be allowed to degenerate into another Bosnia.

Unfortunately, Kosovo already is another Bosnia. Since March, Milosevic's police and special forces have been waging war against the ethnic Albanians who have had the temerity to call for a return to the provincial autonomy that Milosevic stripped from them in 1989, when he launched his messianic campaign
to reassert Serbian hegemony over all of Yugoslavia's multiethnic lands.

Milosevic's refusal to consider the Kosovars' demands has undermined the influence of Rugova, a Gandhian moderate who favors negotiations. Rugova's impotence has strengthened the more militant Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which advocates independence, not autonomy.

In the past weeks, Milosevic's campaign against the small, disorganized armed groups of the KLA in the rugged mountains bordering Albania has blossomed into full-scale warfare, using artillery, helicopter gunships and scorched-earth shock troops to raze all Kosovo villages along the mountainous Albanian border through which the KLA is supplied.

Lest there be any doubts that history was repeating itself, Wolfgang Ischinger, the political director of the German Foreign Ministry who visited the Kosovo capital of Pristina, said the Serbian operations that have left hundreds dead and sent tens
of thousands of refugees into neighboring Albania were
nothing short of a new campaign "of ethnic cleansing."

As with Bosnia, Milosevic seems unmoved by Western consternation about Kosovo. He knows from past experience how hard it is for the West to come to a consensus on action in the Balkans. He also knows that Russia, long an ally of the Serbs, will not agree to any military action in Kosovo, even if there were a Western
agreement to launch it. Since the United Nations Security Council would ultimately have to approve such action, a Russian veto will stop it. To make sure, Milosevic goes to Moscow next week to meet with Boris Yeltsin.

If military action was hard enough for the West to decide on in Bosnia -- an internationally recognized independent nation -- it will prove 10 times more difficult in Kosovo, which is recognized as an integral region of the
Yugoslav state. So long as Milosevic's actions there don't spill over to incite war with neighboring Albania and Macedonia,
what the Serbian leader does in Kosovo remains a domestic affair.

The much-discussed plans for NATO to send troops to Albania and Macedonia (where a U.S.-NATO observer force is already in place) as a means of containing the problem to Kosovo is something Milosevic would, in fact, welcome, as it might help isolate the KLA's cross-border operations and arms smuggling. Nor can sanctions, which the European Union and
the United States so belatedly imposed this week, be expected to have a dramatic effect on Milosevic's behavior. He has weathered such economic punishment before and no doubt feels he can again.

In addition to the typical divisions among Western councils about what to do, there is also division of opinion in Clinton's cabinet. Secretary of State Albright, as is her wont, has
taken a hawkish position in favor of intervention while Secretary of Defense William Cohen and National Security Advisor Berger have been counseling against military commitments that Congress or the American people might not support.

Milosevic may be a brute and a thug, but he is not dumb. He has proven time and again that he understand the dynamics and limits of Western power, perhaps better than people in the West itself. The Serbian leader knows that ultimately, unless the U.S. can agree to a concrete plan of action, no one else will. And with a scandal-weakened presidency, with its
own internal divisions and bureaucratic rivalries, Milosevic is clearly betting on continued inaction from the world's only superpower.

The prognosis for Kosovo, therefore, is grim. The U.S. and its allies will continue to protest -- loudly -- Milosevic's latest bout of savagery, and they will bluster about military retaliation to come. Meanwhile, more villages will be razed, more civilians will die, more refugees will flee. In the
near term, before the Albanian majority in the province can organize its own effective resistance, Milosevic, once again, will likely get away with the ethnic cleansing of yet another Balkan land.

By Loren Jenkins

Loren Jenkins is the foreign editor of National Public Radio. He last wrote for Salon on the new relations between the United States and Iran.

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