Kosovo: Conflict-mismanagement in-the-making

By Jan Oberg

August 10, 2005

By spring 2004 it became obvious that slowly, surely and sadly the efforts of the international community to create peace in Kosovo/a would come to an end rather soon. The reasons are simple: mediation and conflict-resolution in complex conflicts cannot be done the way it was between 1989 and 1999. And you won’t succeed with peace-making the way it was done by the bombings in 1999 and the efforts since then.

Had anyone in the EU and the U.S. had the intellectual will and the political courage to draw conflict-management lessons from the Balkans, we would hardly have experienced the succeeding quagmires called Afghanistan and Iraq where the opportunities for peace and reconciliation are also decaying by the day.

The community’s self-appointed conflict-managers and mediators probably hope that their “condemnations” of the most recent bout of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in March 2004 will do the trick, prevent Albanian extremists from further attacks and keep the Kosovo calamity away from the headlines. If so, there is a high probability that they are in for nasty surprises 2005-2006.

The international community doesn’t seem to have any solid and realistic idea about what to do with Kosovo. There are no solutions anymore that will be fair in the eyes of the parties, the Albanians, the Serbs, the Romas and other, smaller group. Any imaginable future status will create serious problems in the region and possibly for the international community. To put it crudely – if the international conflict-managers are doctors, their patient is dying because of a bad diagnosis and a seriously failed surgery.

Embarrassing as they are, the reasons are quite simple but remain virtually untold:  they would require an ounce of self-criticism in a series of European ministries of foreign affairs, in Washington and Brussels. For the decade 1989-1999 the international community operated on a standardised, one-truth, black-and-white explanation of what this conflict was about. They blamed the Serbs in general and Slobodan Milosevic in particular for the Kosovo conflict. They conveniently ignored the complex framework in space and time of which Kosovo was a part: the dissolution mechanisms of former Yugoslavia, the wider context of the Balkans and the restructuring of the world order as well as the  transition from the Cold War paradigm to something  different.

Like we see in today’s Iraq, there were no limits to the political hubris-cum-ignorance. Both Albanian and Serb citizens were treated as pawns in much larger games and they are realising it now.

Below follows a list of some of the conflict mismanagement and long-term root causes that explain the unfolding dissolution of the peace-making efforts in Kosovo that we are now witnessing. (Numbers do not indicate priority or relative importance.)

Some root causes of the failed peace-making effort in  Kosovo

1.  Not understanding that the former Yugoslavia fell apart – also – because of a series of structural changes such as the oil crisis of the 1970s, European immigration policies and the end of the Cold War with lost neutrality between two blocks. Multinational corporations’ exploitation of low-wage labour in South-East Asia which destroyed Yugoslavia’s industrial base and brought huge unemployment – followed by IMF structural adjustment programmes that further devastated the fragile economy and welfare. The international community itself was a co-producer of the Yugoslav crisis and provided the outer conditions that made ethnic scapegoating possible.

2.  Not understanding that the autonomy of Kosovo and Voivodina presupposed the existence of Yugoslavia; Serbia proper could be overruled by the two provinces in its own parliament if and when the other Yugoslav republics had left the larger balancing act. Thus, the Western policy of advocating and promoting the partition of Yugoslavia could not but create terrible problems, in Kosovo as well as elsewhere.

3.  Turning a blind eye to the strong Kosovo-Albanian nationalism and exclusivity; they profited politically from having an arrogant strongman in Belgrade who repressed their basic human rights – for which reason they never supported the opposition in Serbia. When the international community talked about human rights, Kosovo-Albanian leaders meant independence. Ask yourself why what happened in Kosovo did not happen in Voivodina, the other autonomous province.

4.  The short-sightedness of teasing Milosevic by supporting an independent Kosovo – like supporting the independence of Montenegro – and dropping that policy as soon as Milosevic left the stage. Go to Podgorica today and you will be overwhelmed by the disappointment with the EU and the Americans; the Montenegrin too have realised how they were treated only as pawns.

5.  The policy of treating equally repressed minorities differently depending on their nationality; the Serb minority in Croatia never got any serious attention from the West; politically the EU and militarily the U.S. helped Tudjman drive a quarter of a million Croatian Serbs out in 1995. With few exceptions, they are still refugees in Serbia.

6.  Instead of providing real support to the pragmatic non-violent policies of Dr. Rugova – the only one of its kind in former Yugoslavia – Western countries, Germany  and the US in particular, armed Kosovo-Albanian extremists from 1993 and created the Kosovo Liberation  Army, KLA/UCK of about 20,000 well-equipped soldiers. This was what, in 1998, turned the Kosovo situation into a real war. For a short while the US had formally defined KLA as a terror organisation but later used it as NATO’s  ally on the ground during the bombing. Thus a conflict that stood a good chance (due to its non-violent character) to have been mediated years before with diplomatic means, became militarised.

7.  In spite of all warnings in the 1990s, the international community never even suggested a serious, comprehensive negotiation process for Kosovo. The Rambouillet “negotiations” were a fraud; the Serbs and Albanians never met face-to-face there but sat on different floor of the castle. The introduction of the military appendix that would have allowed NATO free access to every corner of Serbia and thus represented a gross violation of its sovereignty was a Mafia-like “offer” any responsible European statesman would have refused.

8.  The international community got various missions into Kosovo. The latest, negotiated between Milosevic and Richard Holbrooke, was the OSCE  ‘Verification’ Mission of 2000 people. Unfortunately, Western governments were neither able nor willing to get enough qualified people on the ground in time, so 70% of them mysteriously had military backgrounds and about 100  were allegedly CIA – not so surprising given that the  head of mission was William Walker, a man with a somewhat dubious background in South America. Since the OSCE failed in that mission, the usual fallback argument had to be used: it was all Milosevic’ fault that it did not work. Truth is that he let them into the province at the same time as he was accused of intending to drive out every Albanian. He kept his part of the agreement. OSCE did not.

9.  By the bombing and the diplomacy surrounding it, the Albanians could not but get the impression that the international community, Washington in particular, were granting them their independent state (without consulting Belgrade, the loser). Today they have very good reasons to feel cheated. This of course does not explain Albanian ethnic cleansing or make it acceptable. We all met Americans and other foreigners in Kosovo right after the de facto occupation who did not know (or no longer perceived) Kosovo a part of Serbia and repeatedly called it “this county” with a wry smile and complete ignorance about the history of the region and its complexities.

10. Billions of dollars have poured into Kosovo since 1999; hundreds of government and non-governmental organisations have promoted courses in media, human rights, empowerment and other civil society measures. The only things nobody dared touch were history, hatred, cultural differences, reconciliation, forgiveness, truth commissions and that sort of thing. The naive belief – there and elsewhere – was that if the international community simply put up history’s largest international peace-making mission in a tiny province, the locals will greet them with flowers and those who didn’t would soon be convinced about the inherent goodness of the international mission. They made the same misjudgement four years later in Iraq.

11.  After the bombing the international community monitored – but did nothing to prevent – the reverse ethnic cleansing of non-Albanians, some 200,000 Serbs and Roma who are still in Serbia and Macedonia with no prospect of ever coming back. They were not helped to get back as were the Albanians fleeing the 13-months of war in Kosovo and the NATO’s bombs (the war and the bombings were much more important as causes for fleeing than was the de facto propaganda lie about Milosevic  already implementing a so-called “Horseshoe Plan” aiming  to get rid of no less than all 1,5 million Albanians  living in Kosovo).

This reverse ethnic cleansing happened under the very eyes of 43,000 NATO soldiers at the time and thousands of OSCE, UN and EU staff as well as Western NGOs in Kosovo. The world was told that it must be perceived as a psychological reaction to the earlier repression of their side. So, Western-endorsed ethnic cleansing continued over the years; the latest but hardly last round was seen in March 2004. This time it was  “explained” by two arguments; a story that went through the world’s media about Serbs chasing Albanian kids into a river so they drowned; no retraction was printed when the story turned out to be untrue. The other argument was that the Albanian “criminals” and “mobs” (it wasn’t political!) were “frustrated” over the status issue and the socio-economic situation in the province. No similarly generous understanding was ever granted Serbs when they did equally criminal things.

12.  The Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, was officially disarmed and closed down, being replaced by the Kosovo Protection Corps that would, we were told, have only civilian tasks. It leader was Agim Ceku, an Albanian general central in developing the KLA from 1993 while also serving under Croatian president Tudjman and being instrumental in driving out Serbs from Croatia in Operations Storm and Flash. This was yet another fraud by factors in the international community. The Serb forces did leave, but the Kosovo-Albanian army was, for all practical purposes, preserved. Only the naive could believe that the Americans, who are able to bomb Afghanistan to rubble and occupy Iraq, together with other NATO-KFOR forces would have been unable to prevent KLA from ravaging the region.

Some should wonder today how it was possible for KLA to destabilise and conduct war outside Kosovo, first in Southern Serbia and then in Macedonia. Isn’t it strange also how a disarmed people had weapons to kill Serbs and internationals as well as moderate Albanians and cause very serious destruction of homes and quite solid Orthodox churches throughout Kosovo in March 2004?

13.  Like in Iraq, the occupying powers dismissed virtually every competent person who knew how to operate and repair the infrastructure, water, electricity, the health sector, schools, even if they had not taken part in Milosevic’ repressive policies. In consequence, nothing worked at a time when the Kosovo-Albanians had good reasons to believe that things would finally begin to work properly in their republic that had been liberated with a little help from their friends.

14.  For about a decade everybody thought that sanctions was a great tool to put pressure on Milosevic but it only impoverished the people  and trading partners such as Macedonia and, worse, created or boosted a Mafia economy everywhere. That Mafia is very influential in today’s Serbia and no less in today’s Kosovo. Sanctions and the black economy, combined with imposed privatization policies, created a class society with enormous poverty among ordinary citizens.  Influential but rather non-analytical groups such as The International Crisis Group, of course, do not see the absurdity of their own argument that we must – again – understand that the Kosovo Albanians do bad things because their economic situation is so poor. They never justify Serb politics in those terms and conveniently leaves unmentioned the Albanian trafficking and prostitution, the cigarette smuggling, Kosovo’s several hundred money-laundering petrol stations, the drug trade from Afghanistan (where Western policies have brought back opium production) and Kosovo’s relation to the European underworld. To anyone who knows today’s Kosovo, the alleged lack of money would be about the last thing that could explain why Albanian extremists commit ethnic cleansing.

15.  The handover problem. The international missions in Kosovo are in the same dilemma as the US-led occupation in Baghdad. They want to hand over everything as quickly as possible to the locals – but also to secure that they do what they want them to. The buzz word in Iraq is “sovereignty,” in Kosovo “independence” before which we heard all the other hollow marketing words: liberation, democracy, human rights –  hollow because the occupiers themselves do not show even the simplest respect for the locals or for their own Western “standards.” It is not far fetched, therefore, to predict that there will soon be a resistance movement in Kosovo too.

16.  Then there is the oil, gas and military bases. Realpolitik is more about material matters and strategic positioning. This is where the huge American bases in Kosovo, Bulgaria and Romania as well as the 10+ bases in Iraq enter the picture. (See details in TFF PressInfo 195). This is where the larger strategic game emerges: the triangle between the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia with its resources, transport corridors, gas and oil pipelines – and long-term strategic battle between the over-militarised, but crumbling, West and the rest of the  world. The Albanians are waking up to the reality that the West, the US in particular, did not come to Kosovo for the sake of their human rights or their independence unless, that is, it suits larger strategic plans laid out by the Clinton administration at the time.

17. After Milosevic’s delivery to the Hague, the West never got its act together. Conveniently and as a projection, it therefore blames Serbia for not getting its act together. If you put yourself into the situation in Serbia, it’s been one long political harassment ever since. The list is indeed long if you want to see it: totally inadequate assistance for reconstruction after the devastating bombing and psycho-political humiliation; extreme conditionality on aid and loans; broken promises of aid if Milosevic was extradited; only negative views of one of the few political leaders with clean hands, Mr. Kostunica; no willingness to help set up or finance the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed by him; continuously harping on the co-operation with ICTY in the Hague in ways not required of politicians in Sarajevo, Zagreb or Pristina; ignoring the fact that Serbia has Europe’s  largest refugee problem of about 500,000 to 600,000 Serbs from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo; blatant interference in the country’s internal affairs, not the least through NGOs; no understanding that  Serbia and Serbs feels deprived of Kosovo and collectively punished because of one leader’s brutality and stupidity.

In addition, the country has all the problems of the East European societies in transition and is required to fulfill extremely demanding requirements on the way to an EU membership that may become true a decade or more into the future.

And then there are those who act surprised that right-wing, populist parties such as Seselj’s Radical Party gains are gaining increased  support! In this situation many, including The International Crisis Group, propose more of this type of misguided policy in its  March 2004 report on Serbia. Thus, the West is missing a  great opportunity to achieve reconciliation and co-operation with one of the most important countries in  that part of the world that wants to orient itself  towards the West but is constantly rebuffed and  humiliated.

Truth is that Serbia is losing Kosovo and knows it. If the West misses the opportunity to offer Serbia an attractive political and economic deal concerning Kosovo and the future of Serbia proper, it stands to lose both Serbia and Kosovo – and the people in  both places will lose even more. In the worst of cases it could lead to renewed fighting and breakdown, also in Bosnia.

18.  The make-believe that Kosovo-Albanians are seriously interested in EU integration and in joining the globalising market economy. They hardly are. Their priority is an independent Kosova and in the fate of Albanians in Montenegro, Macedonia and perhaps in developing not a greater Albania but a greater Kosova.  And why should they not? Kosovo-Albanian leaders tend to see themselves as the historical, philosophical and intellectual centre of the Albanian nation. Anything less than an independent Kosova is unacceptable; and let’s not forget that their leaders have told the young generation the last fifteen years that Kosova was already independent. The importance of the difference between de jure and de facto was lost upon themselves in the heat of the struggle and certainly among those between, say, 5  and 20 years of age.

Time is running out for the old political elites, the new ones are impatient, and fifteen years of quite self-deceptive policies by EU countries and the US are, predictably, finally catching up. There are limits to how many games can be played simultaneously, how often policies can change, how much unprincipled politics that can be amassed in one place and how long local citizens will accept to be humiliated and given false promises, be it in Iraq or Kosovo. Most likely, there will be a boomerang effect one day.

It may be painful to recognise the conflict mismanagement and the peace-making failure given all the prestige and resources devoted to Kosovo. But it will be more painful to more people if it all breaks down. Early warning does not apply to upcoming conflicts only; it should also apply to failed peace-making. But early warning and violence prevention remains a dream in this world. What we see in Kosovo now could have been avoided if dealt with in civil, political terms some 10-15 years ago by honest brokers. That is the ultimate tragedy of the Balkans in general and  Kosovo in particular.


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