Questions before bombing Serbia

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 47 – October 1, 1998

Originally published here

 

“What on earth would be the POLITICAL AIM of bombing Serbia now? Violence has been used by both parties for almost a year. Some 250.000 people may already be displaced, homes and towns torched and destroyed. KLA is defeated and Serbia’s government has declared that the war is over, provided KLA’s military struggle does not resume.

Before the UN Security Council, NATO or other actors in the international ‘community’ decides to carry out air strikes throughout Serbia, it would be wise to ponder a few questions, problems and risks and come up with some answers. I offer some of both in what follows,” says Jan Oberg who, with his TFF colleagues, has conducted analyses and served as a citizen diplomat in the region since 1992.

 

• IF WE BELIEVE NATO MILITARY INTERVENTIONS WOULD STOP THE KILLING, ETHNIC CLEANSING AND MASSACRES, WHY HAS IT NOT HAPPENED LONG AGO?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) The international “community” is not a community when it comes to managing conflicts. There are too many solid national interests and the EU is divided internally with Germany and the UK being more interventionist than the rest. And they cannot act without the United States. 2) Bombings of Serb facilities will unavoidably be interpreted as a support to (violent) secessionism. Thus, Kurds, Palestinians, Turk Cypriots, people in the Basque province and in Chechenya, to mention some, may be encouraged – and the West doesn’t exactly want that. 3) It can’t be done without ignoring the Russians – but they are on their heels anyhow. 4) Perhaps no bombings is really contemplated; it’s all a game. But then there is a public relation problem vis-a-vis citizens: why do statesmen solemnly declare their moral outrage, threaten tough measures and thereby create expectations worldwide about resolute action – fully well knowing that they won’t do anything? 5) Powerful actors may see it fit to wait and “fail” with preventive diplomacy in order to present military options as “necessary.”

 

• IS THIS COMPATIBLE WITH INTERNATIONAL LAW?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) It is probably the first time NATO bombs a sovereign, recognised state in support of a movement whose stated aims are complete independence and integration with a neighbouring state. 2) Bombings would destroy (parts of) Yugoslavia’s self-defence capacity (capacity on its own territory) which it has a right to have according to Article 51 of the UN Charter. 3) Yugoslavia has not invaded another country. 4) Ironically, the United States recently conducted bombings with some 70 cruise missiles against three countries thousands of kilometres beyond it own borders and justified it with reference to the same Article 51. No international organisation has taken steps to investigate the legality of this unilateral action. Thus, the international “community” seems to judge that this is acceptable behaviour, although the only appropriate term for it would be ‘state terrorism’ – terrorism defined as violent action involving or targeting people who are innocent or otherwise not party to a conflict. 5) No NATO country is threatened, so there is no justification for a NATO response. The involvement of peaceful countries with no international power ambitions, such as Norway and Denmark, ought to be ruled out. Alas, they have already made fighter planes available! 6) Whether legal or not, bombings would contrast the international community’s policies elsewhere: when in 1995 Croatia drove out 250.000-300.000 legitimate Croatian citizens of Serb origin who lived in the self-proclaimed state of Republika Srpska Krajina, it was HELPED by the international community, especially the United States, to do so. Such lack of principled policies undermines any attempts to develop a universal normativity towards global governance.

 

• WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN SERBIA?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) Increased sense of once again being treated in an unfair manner by the world, leading to increased support for Yugoslav President Milosevic, no matter how destructive his Kosovo policies have been to the country as a whole. This means strengthening of a hardline, self-isolationist policy and a further weakening of every decent opposition. 2) Milosevic may decide to say: “Fellow Serbs, the whole world is against us, I can do no more in the face of NATO bombs. We have to divide or give away parts of the Kosovo province.” Remember, Milosevic is not a nationalist; he has given up major national issues and the welfare of Serbs both in the Croatian Krajina conflict and in Dayton. 3) As he is the only politician the West and Russia deals with for real, he will be offered a good deal for throwing in the glove concerning (parts of) Kosovo, perhaps even lifting of the present sanctions and re-integration into the international community – and a guarantee that he himself will never be indicted for war crimes.

 

• WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN KOSOVO?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS:
 1) Psychologically, every Kosovo-Albanian will see bombings of Serb installations as the long-awaited support for their struggle from the West. 2) Militarily, with Serbian defence installations destroyed, the Kosovo-Albanian military wing(s) is likely to contemplate re-starting the military activity, alternatively switch to more systematic hit-and-run terror actions. In such a situation, what will NATO/UN do? Deploy troops on the ground? Ask for UN peacekeepers? Permit Serbia/FRY to counteract it again? 3) Dr. Rugova will remain the leader chosen by the West, at least until some other figure turns up. It is difficult to know whether the defeat of the KLA will place him in the centre again, among the elites as well as the Kosovars in general. Be this as it may, bombings can only serve a purpose as part of a long-term strategy. So far, Kosovar politicians have shown little interest in Western proposals that offer less than total independence. Has the US or the EU a secret guarantee that they will be more flexible after NATO air strikes? Do they have a Kosovo-Albanian politician to install who can both negotiate without preconditions AND have the loyalty of the majority of Albanians? And who will represent the Serb minority in Kosovo?

 

• WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN BOSNIA?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS:
 1) That depends somewhat on what happens in Serbia/FRY and the position of president Milosevic after bombings; he is still needed to some extent for the Dayton implementation process. 2) The flow of refugees into Bosnia could increase dramatically, and they are not welcome anywhere. 3) The Serbs in Republika Srpska will see even less reason to co-operate with the international community if that same community bombs Serbia. With the new Radical Party president of Republika Srpska, Nikola Poplasen, who has replaced Western-backed Biljana Plavsic, the international community – even though trying to deny it – is likely to face even more problems ahead. Poplasen’s party colleague in Serbia, deputy prime minister Seselj has mentioned the option of taking UN personnel hostage in Bosnia. 4) Serbs in Bosnia will ask themselves why they were bombed because they wanted an independent state while now the Albanians are rewarded for having the same wish.

 

• WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN MACEDONIA?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) The divided Albanian community will come closer to each other and interpret NATO intervention in Kosovo as a support for their long-term goal of living in one Albanian state. 2) This means new problems for Macedonia whose stability is vastly exaggerated by the West. 3) In the event of bombings, Macedonia’s willingness to place its territory and airspace at the disposal of NATO will be tested. De facto it has no choice. President Kiro Gligorov will face a very difficult dilemma, as it is not in his country’s interest to participate in something that is bound to antagonise Serbia and look like a support to Albanian separatism through violence. But Macedonia still wants weapons, military training, NATO membership and EU integration, so it won’t protest too loudly. 4) Having very limited capacity to accommodate more than 20 000 refugees, the country may collapse if refugee flows increase because of a) the approaching winter, or b) the Kosovo-Albanian military struggle and/or terror resumes under the (presumed) protection of NATO; or c) Kosovars run away from NATO bombs and Serb retaliation. 5) Serbian military or paramilitary units could strike against American soldiers in Macedonia.

 

• WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN DONE IN ORDER TO PREVENT LOCAL VIOLENCE AS WELL AS INTERNATIONAL VIOLENCE?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS:
 1) I am positive that different policies could have prevented the war in the first place. Imagine that the West had supported Serb prime minister Milan Panic and his excellent ministers in 1992-93; they wanted a peaceful settlement. Imagine that the West had established a comprehensive negotiation process just five years ago. Imagine that the international community had not suspended Yugoslavia from the OSCE but kept it there (and scolded it); then the comprehensive OSCE missions in Voivodina, Sandzak and Kosovo could have remained – and the war would have been impossible. Imagine that the US and Europe had dissociated themselves earlier from the Kosovo-Albanian idea of complete independence (they didn’t because the Kosovo problem served as a leverage on Milosevic). Imagine that the international community had facilitated a process of learning and reconciliation on the ground among ordinary Serb and Albanian citizens by introducing peace and human rights education, empowerment of mixed NGOs, support to multiethnic media etc. Imagine it had offered economic incentives for peaceful co-existence instead of introducing sanctions that have only impoverished Serbs and Albanian citizens and enriched the Mafia. That would have supported Dr. Rugova’s non-violent line AND helped the Serbs, too. Now the West ends up supporting Albanian secessionism and violent behaviour on that side – and supporting Rugova when that violent strategy has weakened him tremendously.

 

•WHAT CAN STILL BE DONE INSTEAD OF BOMBINGS?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS:
 1) The excellent UN mission in Macedonia could be expanded to do monitoring in Kosovo; Belgrade might have a direct interest in that. 2) A robust civil-military UN peacekeeping mission could be established in Kosovo, to provide order and security during a period of negotiations. 3) The parties could be offered positive incentives – economic aid, various international memberships, more intensive exchange with the international community, assistance to the schools, health and cultural system etc etc. – instead of threats and condescending words. 4) Yugoslavia could be brought back into the OSCE and the UN; but we know the US does not want that – and thus it does not happen. 5) Most effectively, establish a strong international presence in Albania, along the borders, and prevent arms, ammunition and soliders from entering Serbia; in short, help Albania’s government to control its own territory instead of serving as a base for what comes close to international aggression.

 

• DO WE KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT THE SITUATION TO TAKE SUCH TOUGH MEASURES?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) Hardly! Facts are difficult to come by both concerning the number of refugees, their conditions and who exactly did what when it comes to massacres and alleged mass graves. 2) The biased international media coverage has repeated itself; the Serb side (also independent sources such as human rights institutes, independent media and the NGO Serb Media Centre in Pristina) has been largely ignored by leading media such as CNN, New York Times and even BBC. How much have you heard about massacres on Serbs or about KLA attacks on Albanians who would not participate in the violent struggle? 3) It does take time to find out who has committed what crimes against whom. To hastily base a decision to bomb one party on international media who think they know who the “alleged” perpetrators are a few hours after the dead bodies have been found, would be highly irresponsible. These are tricky issues in this political culture, as should be should have learnt from similar event in Bosnia as well as Croatia. 4) Serbian Democratic Party leader Dr. Zoran Djindjic has advanced the plausible hypothesis that that those who committed these atrocities at this particular moment are likely to be interested in provoking bombings. This could mean uncontrolled, extremist, fascist Serb or Albanian groupings.

 

• CAN PEOPLE BE BOMBED TO THE NEGOTIATION TABLE?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) It should be reasonably clear to any observer on the ground over the last years and months that the Kosovo-Albanian side is even more reluctant to engage in talks or negotiations than the Serb side. They’ve said ‘no’ to every single appeal from the international community or said ‘yes’ with conditions that add up to a ‘no.’ 2) Unless there is a deal already made with the Albanians that they WILL engage seriously after bombings of Serbs facilities, it would be utterly naive to believe that bombings in this case brings either party closer to a negotiation table. 3) In addition, a minimum of trust must be built BEFORE negotiations. Trust can lead to negotiations, head-on negotiations are not likely to lead to trust.

 

• IS THE INTERIM AGREEMENT BROKERED BY US ENVOY TO KOSOVO AND AMBASSADOR TO MACEDONIA, MR. CHRISTOPHER HILL, SOLID ENOUGH TO PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK FOR POST-VIOLENCE NEGOTIATIONS?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) I don’t think so. The Kosovo-Albanians have already de facto said ‘no thanks’ to it and the recently elected political spokesperson for the KLA, Mr. Adem Demaqi, has resigned because of health problems (which he also had before accepting the offer to become spokesman) So, there is no one to talk politics with in the KLA and its three fractions. 2) The interim agreement may have many useful elements but it lacks two which are essential: a) a concept of civil society and peace ‘from below’ that invites ordinary citizens in the province to build trust, confidence and reach reconciliation either together or as good neighbours. Without such elements, no legal provisions or ‘agreements’ are likely to succeed in a conflict with such deep psychological mistrust. And b) a framework in which Kosovo is seen as part of the Balkans.

 

• WHAT WILL OTHER SECESSIONIST MOVEMENTS THINK?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) There is no way NATO countries can bomb Serbia – while for years tacitly letting Albania, which it backs in many other ways, serve as a base for the Kosovo-Albanian arms build-up and military training – and avoid being interpreted as a clear support for the Albanian side in the conflict, albeit not necessarily the KLA. 2) It may sound cynical but the number of dead and displaced human beings in this conflict is smaller than in many other conflicts – where the international community (the West/NATO etc) has done nothing, such as Chechenya, Algeria or Eastern Timor. This type of ‘selective’ humanitarian and human rights concerns is detrimental for the longterm development of a genuine global ethics and responsibility for human suffering.

 

• SHOULD THE U.N. LEND ITS GOOD NAME TO SUCH ACTIVITY?
POSSIBLE ANSWERS: 
1) No! According to its preamble, the UN shall seek to solve international disputes and face threats to world peace with peaceful means; only when everything else has been tried and proven in vain – which is not the case as is argued above – can the UN take military action (or ask somebody to do so). 2) Those who want to conduct military action that can be interpreted as violating international norms and laws should do it on their own and not be provided with the legitimacy of the UN.

“In summary,” says Jan Oberg, “I fear we shall soon see high-tech, ‘quick fix’ military action legitimised as ‘necessary’ and ‘moral’ because of three factors: a) the international community’s general lack of competence in professional conflict management, b) it’s complete failure for almost a decade in terms of preventing the predictable outbreak of violence in Kosovo, and c) the creation of a world public opinion in favour of military intervention based on a biased WAR REPORTING instead of fair, research-based CONFLICT JOURNALISM.” Oberg concludes:

“I am convinced that bombings at this point will have more negative than positive consequences with respect to the parties’ willingness to engage seriously in negotiations as well as with respect to alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe. Just think of the ‘opportunity costs’ – of how much humanitarian aid we could bring for the sheer costs of such a military operation. Are we really to believe that bombings is the most appropriate tool for conflict-management? That it is legitimate when SO MANY other initiatives could either have prevented the war in the first place or helped stop it months ago?

In short, bombing Serbia will be a moral as well as intellectual defeat. It shows that the self-appointed international ‘conflict managers’ have failed miserably long ago. I think they know it deep inside. It’s not acceptable to compensate for that weakness – or conceal it – by playing tough now.

 

October 1, 1998

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