Another Balkan Blunder?

July 29, 1998 • Commentary

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — The Clinton administration has just made another foreign policy blunder in its handling of the conflict in Serbia’s Kosovo province. Its first was threatening Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic with NATO intervention to end his indiscriminate crackdown on secessionist rebels. That has had the unintended consequence of convincing Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanian population that NATO is their ticket to independence from Yugoslavia. In fact, one senior adviser to moderate Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova says that “NATO is the only force that can bring democracy and independence to Kosovo,” but getting the alliance to intervene “depends on how we look on CNN.”

The administration’s latest gaffe is its demand that Milosevic withdraw his security forces from Kosovo before resuming political negotiations with Kosovar Albanians. Following a recent meeting with Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Milosevic agreed to recommence talks, but he rejected the Kosovar Albanian demand that he first withdraw his internal security forces from the embattled province. He added that if the secessionist forces in Kosovo stopped their “terrorist activities,” Yugoslav forces would spend more time in their barracks.

The Clinton administration, however, wasn’t satisfied with Milosevic’s offer. But instead of advocating a cease‐​fire or some other middle ground, the administration has embraced the Kosovar Albanian demand that Milosevic withdraw his security forces before negotiations can resume. White House spokesman Mike McCurry, for example, stated that Yugoslavia “must immediately withdraw security units involved in civilian repression, without linkage to … the ‘stopping of terrorist activities.’ ” Similarly, Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon says, “We don’t think that there should be any linkage between an immediate withdrawal of forces by the Yugoslavs, on the one hand, and stopping terrorist activities, on the other. There ought to be complete withdrawal of military forces so that negotiations can begin.”

Kosovar Albanians could become more violent in their tactics because they expect NATO intervention.

Insisting that Milosevic withdraw his security forces from Kosovo before resuming negotiations is an especially ill‐​conceived policy. The Clinton administration is demanding something Milosevic cannot possibly agree to do. In effect, it is asking Milosevic for a preemptive surrender: ceding one of Serbia’s provinces to a secessionist movement. That is a politically untenable move for Milosevic, since so many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their history and religion. In fact, Kosovo is where Serbia’s medieval Nemanjic Dynasty fell to Ottoman forces in 1389. It is home to the Pec Patriarchete, one of Serbia’s oldest and most cherished religious sites.

Moreover, demanding that Yugoslavia withdraw its internal security forces from Kosovo, while not simultaneously pressuring Kosovar Albanian rebels to stop their attacks, looks like out‐​and‐​out support for the rebels’ cause. The appearance of bias is further reinforced by Washington’s unwillingness to pressure Albania to end its complicity in providing weapons and sanctuary to Kosovo’s secessionist forces.

That one‐​sidedness has led many Kosovar Albanians to conclude that the Clinton administration — despite its official public statements to the contrary — backs the secessionists. Expressing an all‐​too‐​common sentiment, Fatos Relmendi, a medical student in Pristina, says that the Clinton administration is only telling the American people that it doesn’t support independence so that they “don’t get in the way of Clinton’s real objective” — independence for Kosovo. That kind of thinking has emboldened the local population in their drive for independence. Indeed, moderate Kosovar Albanians, believing that they have the implied backing of the United States, are becoming more inflexible in their negotiating stance.

What’s more, in leading Kosovar Albanians to believe that Washington backs their demands, the Clinton administration has unwittingly altered Kosovo’s political landscape. Nearly all political discussion is now focused on independence, not autonomy or republic status within Yugoslavia. And even if the administration were to change its tune, it would be too late. The genie of independence is out of the bottle, and there’s no way to stuff it back in now that its appeal has been discovered.

The result: the Clinton administration has forged a negotiating stalemate in Kosovo by demanding that Milosevic make an impossible concession and by unleashing a political agenda that the Kosovar Albanians cannot possibly unlearn — independence.

More worrisome than that, Kosovar Albanians could become more violent in their tactics because they expect NATO intervention. Washington could find that it has created a civil war. On the other hand, if NATO doesn’t intervene, Kosovar Albanians could feel betrayed by the Clinton administration, hate the United States, and probably suffer more casualties than if Washington hadn’t meddled in the first place. In short, the Clinton administration has made a difficult and dangerous situation even worse.

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