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Kosovo: Was It Worth It?

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Tim Judah says the Kosovar Albanians managed to persuade many Westerners that Kosovo was an issue of “human rights,” when at bottom it was a struggle between two peoples for control of the same piece of land. Of course it was both; most violations of human rights have political causes. But the reminder is salutary. The deepest cause of the Kosovo war was that, since the emergence of modern Serbian and Albanian nationalisms from amid the crumbling Ottoman Empire, political and intellectual leaders of both nations had repeatedly told their peoples that they could only be fully themselves if they had this territory as part of their own national state. After conquering Kosovo in 1912, the Serbs oppressed the Albanians. The Albanians took revenge when they briefly had the upper hand in World War II.

Tito—“the last Habsburg”—was the great exception to this nationalist rule, but the conflict reemerged with the end of his Yugoslavia. In fact, Milosevic’s imposition of Serbian direct rule over Kosovo in 1989 was a major catalyst of that end. At the beginning of the 1990s, Western specialists cautioned that the situation in Kosovo was potentially explosive, and that an explosion there might spill over into Macedonia, with its large Albanian population, and hence possibly involve Bulgaria and NATO members Greece and Turkey in a “third Balkan war.” So on Christmas 1992 the US, in the last days of the Bush presidency, warned Milosevic that “in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the US will be prepared to employ military force against Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper.” But then the Clinton administration arrived, attention turned to Bosnia, and the West did almost nothing more about Kosovo.

It was able to ignore it because the resistance movement of the Kosovar Albanians, led by Ibrahim Rugova, was consistently nonviolent. The 1995 Dayton agreement on Bosnia shocked the Kosovars, because it brought them no relief from Serbian oppression. Instead, the West seemed now to be relying on Milosevic to make the peace work in Bosnia. Since Dayton largely accepted territorial divisions achieved by force, a small but growing number of Kosovars concluded that only violence would bring them freedom.

In 1997, armed with guns from the plundered arsenals of Albania, a tiny group styling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army launched a pin-prick guerrilla campaign against Serb security forces. Judah shows that several of its key members had started out in the 1970s as “Enverists”—that is, Marxist-Leninist supporters of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian communist leader. They also drew on local traditions of patriotic banditry, which were particularly strong in the Drenica region of central Kosovo. These men and women were national freedom-fighters; they could also be described as terrorists. In February 1998, US special envoy Robert Gelbard characterized the KLA as “without any questions, a terrorist group.”

From the outset, the more far-sighted among them realized they could only win by drawing in the West, especially the United States, and they set out to do exactly that—even if the price was Serb reprisals against Kosovar civilians. Their strategy would spectacularly succeed. Of the many remarkable stories from the Kosovo crisis, perhaps the most remarkable of all is how a bunch of farmyard Albanian ex-Marxist-Leninist terrorists managed to enlist the United States to win their battle for them. With some reason, Judah calls the KLA “the most successful guerrilla movement in modern history.”

Of course this was only possible because of the way Milosevic’s Serbia had behaved over the preceding decade and then, in early 1998, responded to the KLA challenge with disproportionate violence. Entire extended families were killed. Village after village was torched and plundered. Some 300,000 Kosovar Albanians were driven out of their homes by the late summer of 1998. This was one of the five largest refugee crises in the world—the others being in Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Sierra Leone, and Colombia.

The West huffed and it puffed. “I hope Milosevic is listening,” said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on June 8, 1998. “This is the last warning.” But Milosevic had survived so many last warnings. NATO’s planes flew threateningly along Kosovo’s borders. Looking back after the war, General Klaus Naumann, NATO’s senior Eur-opean officer, said frankly: “[Milosevic] rightly concluded that the NATO threat was a bluff…and finished his summer offensive.” A Serbian diplomat was said to have joked at the time that a “village a day keeps NATO away.”

The blame for this fiasco must be shared among the leading European powers and the Clinton administration. It continued the great tradition of its Balkan policy: talk loudly and carry a small stick. Moreover, the President’s attention was now consumed with the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the unfolding drama of impeachment. It would, no doubt, be an exaggeration to say that if a buxom intern had not flashed her underwear at the President of the United States one evening in the White House, then a million people in a faraway corner of Europe might never have been driven from their homes. That is an interpretation from the “Cleopatra’s nose” school of history. But the trouble with Monica certainly meant that Clinton was even less inclined to try Congress’s patience on another Balkan intervention.

When Richard Holbrooke went to make a deal with Milosevic in October 1998 he was at last backed by the threat of NATO bombing, but he was explicitly told by his superiors not even to suggest putting US troops on the ground in Kosovo. The cease-fire agreement he negotiated was to be “verified” by an unarmed Kosovo Verifying Mission while the US envoy, Christopher Hill, tried to negotiate a political settlement. The Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement had one glaring flaw: even if the Serbs kept their word (a mighty “if”), the KLA was never party to it. So their units repeatedly violated the cease-fire, while using the breathing space to regroup and rearm. “The cease-fire was very useful for us,” says one of their key commanders, Agim Ceku, on the BBC’s “Moral Combat.”

Effectively, the Holbrooke-Milosevic deal lasted just three months. It was overtaken by one event and one woman. The event was the massacre at Racak on January 15, 1999. The woman was Madeleine Albright. Everyone knows that the bodies of forty-five murdered Kosovar Albanians in civilian dress—forty-two men, two women, and one twelve-year old boy—were found on a hillside above Racak, after Serb security forces had visited the village. Less well known is the fact that a KLA unit had been conducting hit-and-run raids on Serb forces around Racak. A local KLA fighter is to be seen on “Moral Combat” saying: “…It was guaranteed that…they [i.e., Serb forces] would take revenge on civilians.” Well, the revenge certainly did the trick. In the Western press, this would be Kosovo’s Srebrenica; a “galvanizing event” declares Madeleine Albright on the same program.

The person most galvanized was Madeleine Albright. She had long felt the West was allowing a second Bosnia to happen. She had insisted that “Mi-losevic is the problem.” (A fairly obvious proposition, you might think—except that after Dayton he had been seen as part of the solution.) She was frustrated that the European powers were reluctant to sustain the threat of bombing. Now she went on the warpath. James Rubin recalls her booming, at one of the key diplomatic meetings in Britain, “This is London, remember, not Munich.” So the Czech-born secretary of state was determined not to be a new Neville Chamberlain, appeasing this little Serb Hitler. And it was in London, at a meeting on January 29, that the terms were set for the negotiations at the Château of Rambouillet, near Paris.

An entire book could be written just about Rambouillet, or “Château Dayton” as it was, inevitably, dubbed. I will single out just two salient points. First, while all Western participants entered the talks in the hope of reaching an agreement, the US, and specifically the State Department, had a much clearer fallback position than its European allies. This position was, as Albright herself subsequently put it, to achieve “clarity.” If the Kosovar Albanians signed, and the Serbs did not, then even the most hesitant European ally (and the Congress, and the White House) must surely be convinced of the need to bomb Milosevic into accepting autonomy for Kosovo. In Winning Ugly Daalder and O’Hanlon quote a “close aide to Secretary Albright” saying afterward that the only purpose of Rambouillet was “to get the war started with the Europeans locked in.”

Conspiracy theorists will seize on such remarks to show that the American Satan was, in Rambouillet, making Milosevic an offer that he had to refuse. Their prime evidence—Exhibit A, so to speak—is Appendix B to the “Implementation” chapter of the Rambouillet accord. Its Pentagon-drafted specifications of rights of access for NATO troops, which go further than those in the Dayton agreement from which they are often said to have been copied, include the following:

NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [i.e., the whole of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia], including associated airspace and territorial waters. This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet, and utilization of any areas or facilities, as required for support, training, and operations.

This is an extraordinary demand to make of any sovereign state, and both the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and Daalder and O’Hanlon rightly criticize it for a lack of political sensitivity. But as a matter of historical record, all the senior Western negotiators I have spoken to, including Holbrooke, Hill, and Robin Cook, agree that the Serb side at Rambouillet, and Milosevic in the final showdown with Holbrooke and Hill, did not even raise Appendix B as an obstacle to an otherwise achievable agreement. In short: Appendix B may have been arrogant and foolish, but it was not a cause of the war.

Why, then, did Milosevic remain defiant? I repeat: We don’t know. A plausible reconstruction goes something like this. The political terms of the Rambouillet agreement, however adjusted, meant the effective loss of Serbian control over Kosovo. While there is evidence that he and his wife had little genuine, emotional attachment to that “Serb Jerusalem,12 this was a price that Milosevic, who had risen to power on a promise to save Kosovo for the Serbs, could not risk paying—unless he was forced to. But he did not feel forced to.

NATO’s threat did not seem to him credible. He had called the West’s bluff so many times before. He reckoned the Americans might bomb for a few days and then give up, as they had with Iraq in December 1998. There was a good chance that the coalition of NATO member states, recently expanded to nineteen, would not stay the course. “I can stand death—lots of it—but you can’t,” he told the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, shortly before the bombing began. Surely the Greeks—Orthodox sympathizers with the Serbs—would call a halt? Or the Hungarians. Or the French.

  1. 12

    According to Judah, Mira Markovic once told the Kosovo Serb leader Momcilo Trajkovic that the Kosovo Serbs were “primitives sitting around the fire talking about their myths.” For Milosevic’s own earlier indifference to Kosovo, see the testimony of his former patron, Ivan Stambolic, in Norma Percy’s classic “Death of Yugoslavia” television documentary. (A sequel, covering Kosovo, is in preparation.)

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