Kosovo Tempts the Meddlesome to Incite Another Ethnic War

January 9, 1998 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

With attention transfixed by Asia’s economic travails, it is easy to forget yesterday’s foreign policy fixations. Bosnia, for example. Having talked a big game of resistance, Congress has acquiesced in the administration’s decision to extend the U.S. mission there with barely a murmur of protest.

Such moments of inattention can be exceedingly dangerous. Especially when, as is happening today, America’s friends are launching policy initiatives that may reignite a Balkan shooting war–this time with U.S. forces at the center.

The issue is a new German and French plan for Kosovo.

Kosovo is a small, economically backward region inside Serbia populated by a large majority of ethnic Albanian Muslims. The trouble is that Serbs regard it as the cradle of their civilization. All the makings of tragedy are present. The Kosovo Albanian leaders demand instant independence, a demand backed up by assassinations carried out by a shadowy “liberation army.” On Sunday they announced that the “armed struggle” had begun.

On the Serbian side, extremists like Vojislav Seselj are exploiting patriotic passions over Kosovo to outflank political moderates inside Serbia proper. Communal violence is already erupting. Arms are plentiful, with 12 Kalashnikov rifles available for a pair of Nike sneakers.

In 1991, secessionist pressures paved the way for the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the resultant Bosnian tragedy. With this lesson still fresh, it might be expected that Western policy would adopt a conciliatory, cautious posture by allowing existing regional initiatives time to take root. One such is the agreement reached on Nov. 4 by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano to consult closely about Kosovo’s future. This is an encouraging development, fueled by a new Greek political and economic interest in the Balkans. A successful Balkan summit in Crete in November promised closer regional economic integration, a development that might ease Kosovo’s dire economic problems.

This is too simple for Germany. And U.S. actions threaten to make the situation even more volatile.

Having apparently learned nothing from their ill‐​judged intervention in 1991, the German and French foreign ministers sent a crisply worded letter to Serbia and Kosovo leaders at the end of November exhorting them to start a dialogue about Kosovo’s future. Not surprisingly, those actions hardened Kosovo’s demands for independence and promoted a walkout by Serbian leaders at an early December conference reviewing the Dayton peace accords.

The circumstances are hauntingly familiar. In 1991, Germany’s partners were aghast at Germany’s premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia but were powerless to protest. Both Britain and France needed German assistance with the about‐​to‐​be‐​finalized Maastricht treaty on European union. Today, similar conditions apply. With European monetary union on the horizon, Britain and France are once again in thrall to Germany. Their stake in the evolving EU financial architecture is more important than Kosovo. So they are content to go along with Germany over this apparently peripheral issue.

In 1991, Germany thought it was being helpful. By involving the international community in the Balkan dispute, it expected to deflect the tide of war. The opposite happened. The same risk from well‐​meaning but fundamentally ill‐​conceived outside intervention is present today with potentially more serious consequences.

Ethnic Albanians are spread widely throughout the Balkans, in Montenegro, in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, in Bulgaria, Greece and, of course, Albania. If they conclude that they have Western backing for secession from Serbia, they may act rashly. Ethnic violence in Kosovo might well spill over to involve all of the Balkans.

This is an extraordinarily unattractive scenario with special negatives for the U.S.: War in Kosovo could prolong the Bosnian deployment indefinitely.

The Clinton administration needs to take immediate action. Its first target must be the self‐​appointed nation‐​builders on the U.S. team who are itching to put their pet theories to the test. The State Department’s Bosnia supremo, Robert Gelbard, for example, has brought prominent Kosovo Albanians to Washington to showcase their demands.

With U.S. troops on the line, the administration and Congress should put all of America’s efforts into establishing a peace in Bosnia that is durable enough to influence peace in Kosovo.