Milosevic plays the U.N. card

The Serbian president appears to wave the white flag, and the blue United Nations banner is set to fly again in former Yugoslavia.


Ian Williams
June 3, 1999 1:56PM (UTC)

Though it is hard to tell with someone whose credibility has fallen lower than the Yugoslav dinar, it does seem that Slobodan Milosevic is surrendering, thus disproving the skeptics (including me) who thought that an air war alone would not succeed. Milosevic has opted to cut his losses, end the bombings and pin his hopes on the United Nations.

For Milosevic, the distinction between a NATO and U.N. peacekeeping force has been one of the primary obstacles to negotiating Balkan peace. But why has Milosevic held out for an expanded U.N. role in the former Yugoslavia?

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It is not as if the United Nations is on his side. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has yet to condemn the NATO bombing. Last month, a U.N. tribunal indicted Milosevic and his associates as war criminals, while the U.N.'s World Court has thrown out Belgrade's lawsuit against NATO. Not only has the U.N. Security Council issued more than 50 resolutions against his regime in the last decade, Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also blasted the genocide in Kosovo. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator, returned from a visit there to tell the Security Council that there was a "rampage of killing, burning, looting, forced expulsion, violence, vendetta and terror." He concluded that nothing Belgrade had said "could account for, explain or justify the extent and magnitude of the brutal treatment of civilians." The U.N. Fund For Population Activities has released a report detailing extensive raping of Kosovar women by the Serbian forces. The list of condemnatory U.N. reports is as long as the refugee trails out of the devastated province.

If, despite all this, Milosevic entertains such warm feelings toward the United Nations, he is, clearly, seriously short of friends. But that is the secret. He only needs one friend on the Security Council with a veto, and he actually has two -- Russia and China. He probably entertains fond memories of his relationship with the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia and Croatia, who, almost to the end, were politely obliging to the Serbian forces. In particular, he will remember the performance of the Russian contingent in Eastern Slavonia, where Col. Victor Loginov dealt so generously with the Serbian military that he joined the indicted Serbian war criminal Arkan as an advisor.

Conversely, the Kosovars, though they appreciate the indictment, the reports and the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have only to cast their minds back to the U.N. monitors who stood next to the Serbian batteries and counted the shells as they fell on Sarajevo, year after year. They think of Srebrenica and the 7,000 men who were never seen again after the Serbs took them from under the complacent noses of the U.N. troops.

That is why debates over the number of Serbian forces to be withdrawn from Kosovo and the composition and control of the incoming international forces remain the most contentious, and vague, components of the new proposed peace plan. The first issue seems to have been settled. All the Serbian forces will leave and then "hundreds" of them will be allowed back to do some symbolic flag showing on the borders and in their "holy" sites.

As for the second issue, there will certainly be a U.N. presence among the new peacekeepers, which will allow Milosevic's powerful friends on the Security Council to do his bidding. Of course, Milosevic, a master manipulator of symbols, is sensitive to the symbolic distinction of surrendering to the world organization rather than NATO, which allows for some face-saving. But more importantly, Milosevic is sending his big brothers, Russia and China, to stand up to the schoolyard bullies -- Great Britain and the United States -- who've been picking on him. Turning control back over to the United Nations allows Russia and China to jerk the strings in the Security Council. Though the United Nations' role in controlling the new international troops will not be as prominent as it was in Bosnia, some degree of power will be taken out of NATO's hands and shifted back to the Security Council.

But the Serbs who do remain in Kosovo should be glad that NATO will not condone traditional U.N. peacekeepers in Kosovo. There will be a lot of very angry Albanians returning, with a culture only a generation removed from the blood feud as a means of settling disputes, and U.N. peacekeepers do not have a good track record of stepping into such skirmishes.

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The best the Serbs can hope for is a "franchise" operation, where the Security Council authorizes a force to take over the province. On first reports, the Serbs seem to have dropped their objections to the presence of "combatant" NATO troops in the force, hoping that they would be balanced against an independently controlled Russian contingent. That is perhaps the one element still to be finalized before the bombs stop falling.

Milosevic's ultimate goal, which Moscow shares, is a partitioned Kosovo, in which the Serbian sector -- which includes the monasteries and the mines and industry -- would be protected by Russian troops. The Serb Academy, whose poisonously nationalist ideology provided the fuel that set Yugoslavia on fire 10 years ago, proposed a similar solution several years back. But the Russians couldn't afford the bus fare to Kosovo on their own. Depending on how Russian troops are deployed under the new agreement, the international community could, in effect, be paying the bill for the de facto partition of Kosovo, guaranteeing that the Kosovars would never return to the "Serbian sector" from which they have been forced. The British have explicitly ruled out anything that looks like a Russian-policed partition and legitimization of so-called ethnic cleansing, but stay tuned.

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On the American side, President Clinton will clearly welcome any opportunity to end an air war that is rapidly losing public support. But as the primaries start rolling, the Al Gore campaign cannot afford a peace that leaves significant parts of Kosovo uninhabitable by Albanians. If the British hold the line, it will be difficult for the White House to fudge the issue.

Kofi Annan, who was in charge of peacekeeping for the tail end of the Bosnian War, is well aware of the political perils of such a large-scale operation and has shown no eagerness to have micromanagement by the U.N. secretariat. On the other hand, he has been concerned about the marginalization of the United Nations during the air war. He did not oppose military action, and indeed he said at the beginning that it had to be considered when diplomacy failed. His concern is rather that the veto is reducing the United Nations to League of Nations levels of impotence when such clear crimes against humanity take place in the future.

In the end the United Nations will almost certainly mandate the major elements of command and control to NATO, albeit with a fig leaf, in U.N. blue, draped tastefully over the parts most likely to be offensive to the Russians and Chinese. And if the Serbian military surrenders to a U.N. official rather than a NATO general, no one in Washington or Brussels will mind.

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Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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