Commentary

The Real Kosovo

By Gary Dempsey
This article appeared in the Washington Times, November 23, 1999.
Pristina, Yugoslavia: As President Clinton prepares to visit to Kosovo, it is common to see and hear things here that don’t fit with the tidy fictions proffered by NATO and White House officials. For instance, when NATO’s former top commander in Kosovo, Gen. Michael Jackson, turned over his post recently, he pronounced: “We have seen a return to normality” in Kosovo.

As two of the principal achievements of his brief tenure, Gen. Jackson cited “the successful demilitarization” of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and “the establishment of law and order.” Sadly, none of what the general said is true. Today, Kosovo is in a state of near anarchy, and that’s exactly the way the KLA wants it.

“The whole thing is a very bad joke,” explains a candid intelligence officer with the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Over our second beer at a café lighted by a gasoline-powered generator, he adds that the KLA has not demilitarized, let alone been abolished, as NATO officials and the Clinton administration claim. The KLA has an underground network and “more than enough weapons to start another war.” For five months now, the KLA has been deliberately trying to undermine, obstruct and defy the work of NATO and the UNMIK police. Although NATO and UNMIK have been careful to avoid any public insinuation that the KLA may be prevaricating and holding back a significant stockpile of weapons, a spokesman for NATO estimates that peacekeepers confiscate about 100 illegal weapons, explosives and magazines of ammunition each day. In clear violation of their agreement with NATO, KLA personnel continue to carry weapons and wear their uniforms in public, most recently at a gathering in Gornje Obrinje. The KLA is also committing random acts of violence and engaging in the insidiously clever practice of freely distributing large firecrackers to idle Albanian youths in order to keep the UNMIK police offbalance.

Indeed, with a sporadic mix of gunfire and firecrackers echoing throughout the city day and night, UNMIK police never know when and where to respond, or when they might become targets themselves. Scores of stolen Mercedes without license plates speed up and down the streets of the city, flouting both traffic laws and the UNMIK police. By actively perpetuating this unpredictable and lawless atmosphere, the KLA is able to carry out, relatively unhindered, its campaign of ethnic cleansing, political retribution and common criminality.

Yet “anyone who thinks that the violence will end once the last Serb has been driven out of Kosovo is living an illusion,” recently warned Veton Surroi, publisher of the main Albanian-language newspaper in Kosovo, Koha Ditore. “The violence will simply be redirected against other Albanians.” Already, the senior officials of the KLA, who signed the disarmament agreement with NATO, have carried out assassinations, arrests and purges within their own ranks and of potential rivals. One campaign, in which as many as six KLA commanders were murdered, was reportedly directed by the KLA’s top man, Hashim Thaci, and two of his lieutenants, Azem Syla and Xhavit Haliti.

So the KLA has not disappeared into the pages of the history books. It still lurks everywhere in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians complain that KLA henchmen regularly demand that shopkeepers pay “liberation taxes” to finance the KLA’s continued, and often illicit, activities. Even more worrisome, according to a soon-to-be-released report by the International Crisis Group, there are as many killings right now in Kosovo as there were before NATO intervened, when Yugoslav authorities were trying to smash the KLA. Present circumstances in Kosovo suggest two possible outcomes for Washington: a policy failure or a policy disaster. A policy failure will result because Washington’s goal of creating a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo is being undermined by the KLA in a multitude of ways, especially with the ethnic cleansing of not only Serbs but Gorans, Romas, Jews, Croats and even Albanians who are not strenuous enough in their intolerance of non-Albanians.

A policy disaster, on the other hand, will result if Washington decides to vigorously confront the KLA. “We are their tool,” the UNMIK intelligence officer told me, and “when we stop being useful to them, they will turn against us.” If NATO and UNMIK personnel were then to start dying at the hands of the very people Washington says it’s out to help, the entire policy would collapse.

Washington will likely choose a policy failure over a policy disaster. Unfortunately, the KLA understands this and will continue to carry out its intolerant and criminal activities without fear of serious resistance from the Clinton White House.

Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, just returned from the Balkans where he was filming a documentary on the aftermath of NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia.