Commentary

Failed Social Engineering in the Balkans

The end of the Cold War removed the most important constraint on Washington’s tendency towards empire. Since then no country has gone to war more often than America. Yet the only conflict with any degree of necessity was Afghanistan — initially going after al Qaeda. And none of these adventures has turned out particularly well.

One of Washington’s great failures has been the Balkans. The region is of no geopolitical significance to America and should have been left to NATO’s European members. If they, like Otto von Bismarck, did not view the Balkans to be worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, then the U.S. certainly had no reason to get involved.

Yet a dozen years ago Washington bombed Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened any NATO member. Western nations which over many centuries fought bitter conflicts against the hint of secession went to war to support independence for the territory of Kosovo.

The status of Kosovo, historically Serbian but with a majority ethnic-Albanian population, remains unsettled. Belgrade refuses to accept the amputation of 15 percent of its territory, Russia has blocked Kosovo’s entry into the United Nations, and a majority of countries, including five of the European Union’s 27 members, refuses to recognize Kosovo. Violence recently erupted in Kosovo’s north, where the ethnic Serb majority remains loyal to Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the international forces, both KFOR, a NATO force under German command, and EULEX, a European police mission, have continued the West’s policy of “the Serbs always lose.” When Serb-dominated Yugoslavia broke up two decades ago, the German government accelerated the process by prematurely recognizing the breakaway nations of Slovenia and Croatia. Alas, recognition without guarantees for Croatia’s large ethnic-Serb population ensured a bloody war when the latter sought to break away in turn.

The result was a conflict in which the U.S. backed the Croat majority and trained the Croat military, which committed war crimes and large-scale ethnic cleansing. Washington also used air power to hold together Muslim-dominated Bosnia despite the desire of both Serbs and Croats to secede. That artificial country remains a European protectorate ruled by a “high representative” whose main job is to suppress any popular expression contrary to the will of his masters in Brussels.

Allied sympathy for those desiring to escape territories with Serb majorities continued for Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. That the Milosevic government was brutal is without question, but more than enough atrocities were committed to go around. And the West consistently turned a blind eye when Serbs were being murdered and displaced.

Nowhere has that been more evident than Kosovo. Although a U.S. diplomat called the Kosovo Liberation Army — since charged with selling the organs of Serb prisoners — “terrorists,” the allies suppressed any squeamishness and lent the rebels their air force, bombing for 78 days and killing hundreds or thousands Serb civilians, possibly as many as the number of Kosovars who died in two years of guerrilla war before NATO’s intervention. The Albanian majority then mirrored earlier Serb brutality by kicking out around a quarter of a million ethic Serbs, Roma, and non-Albanian Muslims. Earlier this year the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe admitted that the allied intervention had “led to numerous human rights violations and [had] not produced lasting solutions for the underlying problems.”

Then ensued years of stalemate, capped by faux negotiations in which the allies decreed that Kosovo must be independent, with only the details of Serbia’s capitulation up for discussion. Belgrade’s refusal to acquiesce was attacked as obstruction and in 2008 Kosovo declared its independence.

The would-be country has received poor international reviews and its prime minister was attacked by the Council for Europe for heading a “mafia-like” organization. No surprise, Serbs living in the city of Mitrovica north of the Ibar River wanted no part of majority ethnic-Albanian state. They created parallel institutions linked to Serbia and continue to resist rule by Pristina.

Washington and Brussels remain intransigent. The West has decided on Kosovo’s boundaries. The ethnic Serbs are supposed to do what they are told and submit to the kindness of those accused of dismembering Serbian prisoners for profit. So what if some of the people running Pristina are the same people who as guerrillas killed Serbs? And the same people who in 2004 encouraged a second round of violence against the beleaguered minority population?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently lectured Belgrade on the need to recognize Kosovo if the former wants to join the European Union. Although five EU members refuse to do so, Chancellor Merkel insisted that Serbia ratify its own dismemberment to win a place in Brussels.

Almost as emphatic was the European Commission, which issued a new report concluding that “Serbia would be in a position to take on the obligations of membership in the medium term.” There was, however, an important “but.” Belgrade needed to cooperate “actively with EULEX in order for it to exercise its functions in all parts of Kosovo.” The Commission added: “All sides need to play their part in defusing tension in northern Kosovo and allow for free movement of persons and goods.” This means turning the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo’s north over to a government which they have never accepted.

Kosovo’s status recently took on new urgency. Belgrade put an embargo on goods to Kosovo back in 2008; this summer Kosovo’s government decided to retaliate by banning Serb products, even to the north. That required extending Pristina’s writ to the Serb-Kosovo border to block intra-Serb trade. Local Serbs responded with roadblocks, which they offered to dismantle if KFOR and EULEX stopped transporting Kosovo government customs officials northward.

It was a reasonable request. Former American diplomat Gerald Galucci noted that KFOR’s mandate is peacekeeping, not politics; the force “is supposed to prevent security problems and contain or reverse provocations such as Pristina’s police ploy.” But now NATO’s misnamed peacekeeping force has “stepped outside its UN Security Council mandate in deciding to enforce the requirements of the institutions in Pristina,” he explained.

KFOR claimed that it simply desired to promote “unconditional freedom of movement,” but what it really meant was enforcing the rule of ethnic-Albanians over ethnic-Serbs. In fact, some allied officials had hoped to solve the problem a different way. An earlier KFOR commander, Frenchman Lt. Gen. Xavier de Marnhac, pointed out that on average ethnic Albanians are younger than ethnic Serbs, so “there will be some kind of biological end to the problem here because, you know, one of the populations will simply disappear.” However, this means waiting. To speed up the process KFOR used tear gas and pepper spray on Serb protesters, turning itself into a de facto security force for Pristina.

But the Serbs refused to retreat and the barricades remain. The result is deadlock. Kosovo’s interior minister, Bajram Rexhepi, declared: “We will not step back in our legitimate efforts to control all of our territory.” Dragisa Milovic, mayor of the Serb-dominated municipality of Zvecan, said: “We want to be part of Serbia — nothing more, nothing less.”

The answer is negotiations, serious talks without a predetermined result. An obvious deal would be for Kosovo to leave the majority-Serb areas with Serbia in exchange for Belgrade’s recognition of Pristina. The benefits of ending the cold war between Kosovo and Serbia are obvious. Even if the West remains committed to Kosovo’s independence, there is no reason to back Pristina’s most extreme territorial ambitions. If self-determination is good for ethnic-Albanians, it also is good for ethnic-Serbs.

The architects of today’s geopolitical mess naturally recoil in horror at any proposal to repair their handiwork. Doing so, argued Morton Abramowitz and James Hooper, of the Century Foundation and Public International Law & Policy Group, respectively, would “tempt fate, and further violence, by opening the partition door for the ethnic groups of Serbia.” The same principle, they object, would apply to Bosnia, where both Serbs and Croats would prefer to leave the artificial nation imposed from outside.

However, it is a bit late to worry about “ethnic-based partitionism.” After all, that was America’s and Europe’s conscious policy in the 1990s: Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Kosovar Albanians all got their own nations, with attention paid to neither the larger federal state without nor the various minorities within. No one gave much thought to precedent, in Europe or elsewhere.

Moreover, years of insistence by Washington and Brussels that the ignorant locals shut up and do what they are told has failed. So long as the allies attempt to impose unrealistic settlements, preserve artificial states, and maintain divided polities, the region will be unstable. As my Cato Institute colleague Ted Galen Carpenter pointed out, the problem is that the governments and nations promoted by the West lack legitimacy with large sections of their populations. Reconciliation will remain distant so long as foreigners insist on social engineering irrespective of local sensibilities. A policy of forced cohabitation is bound to generate resentment and ultimately violence.

In any case, America has no reason to be involved in this fight. Washington need not choose among the Balkans’ competing ethnic factions. All have demonstrated xenophobic nationalism. All have brutalized minorities within their midst while insisting that their rights be respected. If Serbian forces committed more atrocities, it is largely because they had greater opportunity to do so.

The U.S. should allow Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and others to take over the problem. As Carpenter observed: “The broader message to the Europeans should be: Don’t even think about calling on Washington to help bail you out of your folly — especially after you’ve spurned the last best chance for a peaceful, equitable resolution of the Kosovo problem.”

Intervening in the Balkans always was a mistake. With the U.S. so busy elsewhere, it is time to declare this region to be a European responsibility.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.