Washington's policy in the Balkans never made much sense. The U.S. wanted to keep some nations together and dismantle others. American officials deplored ethnic cleansing in some cases and ignored other instances.
The only principle which explained Washington's actions was that the Serbs always lose. With Kosovo and Serbia now shouting threats of war, it's time for the U.S. and Europe to take a more even-handed approach.
Yugoslavia was an artificial creation of the Versailles Treaty. It survived after World War II due to the repression of Communist dictator Josef Broz Tito and fear of invasion by the Soviet Union. But Tito died in 1980 and the Soviet Union collapsed a decade later, eroding the cement which held together the ethnic and religious polyglot nation.
In the ensuing political vacuum Slobodan Milosevic won power by playing the Serbian nationalist card. Other ethnic groups responded by establishing their own nations. The Balkans erupted.
The first Bush administration originally supported Yugoslavia's territorial integrity, but Germany recognized Slovenia's secession, spurring Yugoslavia's serial break-up. The U.S. and Europeans supported creation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (divided among Muslims, ethnic Serbs, and ethnic Croats) and Croatia (with a large ethnic Serb population in the Krajina region). However, after encouraging the break-up of Yugoslavia, the allies suddenly opposed secession of ethnic Croats and Serbs from Bosnia and ethnic Serbs from Croatia.
While Serb atrocities were common and noteworthy, Muslims and Croats were not innocents. Nevertheless, Washington and Brussels expected ethnic Serb minorities to politely suffer under other ethnic majorities, even when faced with ethnic cleansing. For instance, Croatia, buttressed by U.S. aid, launched a large-scale military offensive against the Krajina Serbs, causing hundreds of thousands to flee. Years later I visited the region: the rural landscape was dotted with abandoned farms and ruined Orthodox churches, while the façades of urban buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes. However, Washington refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, this episode of ruthless ethnic cleansing.
The bias persists today. Last week Washington sanctioned Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb section of tripartite Bosnia, for “obstructing” the U.S.-backed Dayton Accords, which forced ethnic Serbs to remain in Muslim-dominated Bosnia. Dodik responded by calling the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia “a proven enemy.” Certainly Washington rates that title from ethnic Serbs everywhere.
Kosovo became the next Balkan crisis. Intimately tied to Serbian history and culture, the region’s population shifted over the years with an influx of ethnic Albanians, creating a large majority. An insurgency arose in response to Belgrade's repressive rule. However, U.S. officials originally denounced the guerrillas as "terrorists." But ethnic Albanians were media savvy. In the summer of 1998 I met with a top aide to local opposition leader Ibrahim Rugova, who later became Kosovo’s first president. The former told me that ethnic Albanians needed Western military intervention, and that required getting the conflict onto CNN. Hence the sometimes dubious atrocity claims amid a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that killed civilians as well as combatants.
So the U.S. and NATO entered the war, despite the absence of any security threat to America or Europe. The Milosevic government responded by expelling thousands of ethnic Albanians. After the victorious allies ousted Serb security forces, the triumphant ethnic Albanian Kosovars launched their own campaign of ethnic cleansing, kicking out around a quarter of a million Serbs, Roma, and others. The U.S. and Europeans, though occupying the territory, did little. A few years later another round of ethnic Albanian violence drove many of the remaining ethnic Serbs into camps or to Kosovo’s north, in which a majority of residents were ethnic Serbs. Pristina acquired a dubious reputation, essentially a gangster statelet ruled by war criminals. It was a black hole for organized crime, where Saudi Arabia, in particular, underwrote efforts to radicalize heretofore moderate and secular Muslims.
There are worse places to live and Serbia has its own problems, but Kosovo has not earned the right to hold ethnic Serbs in political bondage. For instance, Freedom House’s 2016 “Freedom in the World” report rated Kosovo as only “partly free,” with middling scores for both political rights and civil liberties. Among other problems, “journalists report frequent harassment and intimidation, and occasional physical attacks.” Crimes against non-ethnic Albanians are rarely prosecuted. The courts suffer from political interference and bribery. Corruption facilitates human trafficking and more.
Human Rights Watch said “human rights protections progressed slowly” last year, with “serious abuses” remaining. For instance, there were “threats and attacks against journalists.” The U.S. State Department put together a 36-page human rights report. Among the problems: “Reported police mistreatment of detainees; substandard physical conditions in prisons; drug abuse, corruption, and favoritism in prisons; lengthy pretrial detention and judicial inefficiency resulting in mistrials.” There also were restrictions on religious liberty, intimidation of the media, and attacks on displaced people returning to their homes. A European Commission report last year found many of the same problems: “slow and inefficient” courts, “insufficient accountability of judicial officials,” and extensive corruption.
Despite this poor record, which represents a significant improvement from 1999, Europe and the U.S. designed negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo to birth an independent state. No other result was considered. Ethnic Albanians obviously had no reason to accept anything less while receiving the West’s support. Serbian proposals involving federalism and autonomy were dismissed as evidence of “intransigence.” In 2008 the U.S. and most European nations dropped the pretense of diplomacy by recognizing the Republic of Kosovo. As of December 114 countries had accepted the new state. But Russia has blocked Pristina from joining the UN.
While his administration formally dismantled their nation a clueless President George W. Bush declared that “the Serbian people can know they have a friend in America.” He apparently failed to understand that he had imposed on others an outcome he would never accept for America. Demonstrators in Belgrade responded by setting fire to the U.S. embassy.
Ethnic Serbs in the city of North Mitrovica, who constituted a majority in the territory north of the Ibar River, refused to cooperate with Kosovo’s government, dominated by politicians accused of corruption, war crimes, human trafficking, and more. Although ethnic Serbs desired to remain with Serbia, the U.S. and Europeans refused to consider revising Kosovo’s boundaries lest doing so trigger regional “instability”—after having helped break Yugoslavia apart, trigger several conflicts, and create a half dozen separate states.
Belgrade long backed the Kosovo Serbs, but the EU eventually used its membership club to impose the Brussels Agreement of 2013, which led Serbia to urge Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs to participate in municipal elections the following year. In 2015 an Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities was established to give the ethnic Serb minority greater autonomy.
Still, the two governments remained far apart on bilateral relations, despite EU pressure for Serbia to accept Kosovo’s secession. In December North Mitrovica’s residents erected a concrete wall which Kosovo’s parliament voted to destroy. Earlier this month at Belgrade’s behest France briefly detained a Kosovo guerrilla commander turned prime minister (now out of office) wanted by Serbia on charges of war crimes.
Last week Kosovo blocked passage of a train, to be the first as part of a new direct service from Belgrade to North Mitrovica, painted in Serbia’s national colors and sporting signs which stated “Kosovo is Serbia.” The ethnic "Albanians showed that they wanted war," charged Serbian Prime Minister Tomislav Nikolic: “If they are killing Serbs, we will send the army, all of us will go.”
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci responded that Belgrade was “provoking” his nation to create a pretext for attacking Kosovo and annexing the north. “Serbia’s intention is to use this train, which was donated by Russia, first to help carve away the northern part of Kosovo and then … attach it to Serbia. This is the Crimea model.” Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj denounced Belgrade’s “numerous acts of provocation and aggression.” He urged the EU “to urge Serbia to remain committed to good neighborly relations and regional cooperation and not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries or take provocative actions which aim for the destabilization of the region.”
The mutual threats set off alarms in Brussels. So today the EU is holding another round of “Dialogue of Normalization of Relations” for Kosovo and Serbia. The EU’s quasi-foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, invited both parties because, she explained: “The developments over the past days underline the need for increased commitment and engagement by the two sides.” Progress toward normalized relations, she added, “remains of paramount importance for both sides, the European Union, and the Western Balkans as a whole.”
However, no amount of EU bullying is likely to satisfy Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs. Which is understandable since they, not privileged European officials based in Brussels, are the ones suffering life in hostile territory. Brussels and Washington should stop attempting to impose a de facto foreign government on the people of Kosovo’s north who would prefer to remain in Serbia. People should be able to decide their own political future, which presumably is why the allies recognized Kosovo. If the ethnic Albanian majority south of the Ibar River is entitled to choose independence, then the ethnic Serb majority north of the Ibar River should be free to choose not to leave Serbia.
This principle creates a potential deal which would serve justice as well as stability. Serbia recognizes Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo accepts the departure of its north dominated by ethnic Serbs. Neither side would be pleased by the outcome. But both governments should prefer that result to the unsettled situation today.
No one really expects another Balkan war. However, the continuing injustice inflicted on ethnic Serbs in north Kosovo creates needless instability and risk of conflict. Another round of negotiations is necessary, but one in which the U.S. and Europeans do not rig the outcome in Pristina’s favor. The only sure solution will be one which benefits both ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.