Commentary

Theater of the Absurd in Kosovo

By Gary Dempsey
August 21, 1999
As NATO’s occupation of Kosovo enters its second month, one thing has become painfully clear: NATO and the Clinton administration are willing to go to absurd lengths to deny that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is taking over Kosovo and laying the foundation for a Greater Albania. When the KLA missed NATO’s deadline for turning in its heavy weapons, for instance, NATO’s top man in Kosovo, Gen. Michael Jackson, insisted that the KLA was not defying NATO. Rather, he claimed the guerrillas were so diligently accounting for all their weapons that they were being delayed. “I do not regard this as non-compliance,” said Jackson, “but rather as an indication of the seriousness with which [the KLA]… is taking this important issue.” As of yet, the KLA hasn’t turned in all its heavy weapons, and on the day NATO’s deadline expired, German soldiers stumbled upon a secret cache of 10 tons of ammunition—probably a mere fraction of what the KLA has hidden away.

Even more alarming, the KLA has taken sweeping political control of Kosovo, establishing a network of self-appointed ministries and local councils, seizing businesses and apartments, and collecting taxes and customs payments. Moreover, each day brings new reports of KLA atrocities against Serb civilians—the drowning murder of a fully clothed, 78-year-old Serb woman in her own bathtub, made the front page of the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Lt. Cmdr. Louis Garneau, NATO’s spokesman in Kosovo, conveniently announced, “We don’t keep statistics on civilian deaths” under NATO’s watch.

We now know, however, that in the first seven weeks of NATO’s occupation there were 198 confirmed homicides, 573 confirmed arson attacks, and 840 confirmed incidents of looting. More than 40 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries have been destroyed or damaged, and 200 Serb civilians have been kidnapped. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 80 percent of the Serbs in Kosovo have left or been driven out. Most of the kidnappings and murders, adds the rights group, have been committed by members of the KLA, who believe NATO has given them expansive reign.

State Department spokesman James Rubin, however, insists that “there is no evidence of KLA involvement” in the outrages against Serb civilians. Rather, claims Rubin, there are rogue elements at work, not an organized ethnic cleansing campaign administered by the KLA leadership. Ironically, this is the same excuse Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic gave for the ethnic cleansing committed by Serb paramilitaries in Bosnia. The truth of the matter, however, is that ethnic cleansing need not be systematic, merely tolerated in limited cases. Throw a rock at one bird on a wire, and all the birds on the wire will take flight, goes an old Balkan saying. The KLA’s take on the continuing ethnic violence is even more absurd.

While paying lip-service to peace and harmony in front of the international press corps and Western diplomats, Hashim “Snake” Thaci, the KLA’s self-declared prime minister of Kosovo, has scoffed, “There might be some people who are armed who aren’t under KLA control… but there might be some people in KFOR [NATO’s Kosovo Force] who aren’t under General Jackson’s control.” Nonsense. NATO troops are not disobeying Jackson’s orders, let alone killing civilians, burning down houses, and looting stores. The United Nations says it is now moving into Kosovo to help deal with the ethnic violence, and the UN’s chief administrator, Bernard Kouchner, says he wants to pull the KLA into the exercise of power, offering it a share of executive responsibility. Other Western officials want the KLA to form the core of Kosovo’s police force. What is likely to happen is more theater of the absurd, as the KLA’s control is institutionalized while the charade that the KLA is not in control is perpetuated.

In the meantime, NATO commanders find themselves not with a peacekeeping policy in Kosovo, but a KLA management policy. That was entirely predictable. “When we entered Kosovo there was still fighting going on and without a doubt the KLA had seen NATO and the air campaign as all part of what they were doing,” concedes NATO’s Gen. Jackson, “But time’s moved on.” It certainly has. NATO served as the KLA’s unwitting errand boy, which was the KLA’s aim all along, and now the KLA is advancing on to its next goals: ruling over Kosovo and pursuing a Greater Albania. Both those goals, of course, contradict NATO’s calls for the creation of a multi-ethnic democracy in Kosovo and could bring NATO peacekeepers and the KLA into direct conflict. They also bode ill for Balkan stability—an ostensible goal of NATO’s occupation in the first place.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.