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Will They Accept Kosovo?

In response to:

The Troubled Birth of Kosovo from the April 3, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Simic’s article “The Troubled Birth of Kosovo” [NYR, April 3] would require more than a letter such as this one for a full discussion. Let me just add a few points based on my own observations, first as a member of the NATO Council during the 1999 campaign and afterward as NATO ambassador in Skopje, from where I made frequent visits to Kosovo, between 2002 and 2004.

Mr. Simic rightly refers to Serbia as a nation becoming “unable to look at its present.” He describes the coalitions in power there since 2003 as “either unwilling or too weak to make a clean break with the past.” Both statements could be combined to describe Serbia as “a nation unable to look at its past”; not its medieval past, which is looked at far too much, but its recent past. I feel that the tragedy of the Serbs at the present stage is that they are solidly and massively in denial about the ravages perpetrated in their name not only in Kosovo but, more importantly, in Bosnia, which culminated in the Srebrenica genocide of 1995. This makes it virtually impossible for them to realistically assess their position in the region and in Europe as a whole.

History has been catching up with them in a way they may not have expected. I vividly remember the full year of discussion and negotiation on Kosovo in the NATO Council which ultimately resulted in the bombing campaign of 1999; a grueling decision if ever there was one, which was certainly not dictated by the US. By March 1999, all NATO members felt that there was no way out but the use of force in a humanitarian intervention; the principal reason being the conviction that we could not tolerate another “Bosnia” to happen in Europe. Had we not been witness to the Serbian “ethnic cleansing”—a euphemism coined by the Serbs themselves—of large parts of Bosnia, based on massive expulsions, rape, and murder in 1992 and the following years, we would never have agreed on this decision of last resort to go ahead and start the bombing of a sovereign country. But Miloseviå«c did not deserve any more the benefit of the doubt, which he had enjoyed for too long.

If there had been no Bosnian war and no NATO campaign, the Serbian authorities, police, and army would not have been made to leave Kosovo, the province would not have been separated from Serbia and put under a UN mandate, and the Serbs might still have been able to negotiate successfully with the Kosovars on autonomy within Serbia, if they had wanted to.

All this is water under the bridge. As Serbia moves toward the EU, as, either or not after a radical interlude of a few years, it inevitably will, it will come to appreciate that the border between Serbia and Kosovo is there to stay. The tiny area in northern Kosovo inhabited by some 40,000 Serbs very much lives by money and instructions received from Belgrade. It may survive for a while as a minuscule Trans-Dniestria, but in the end the locals may very well reach the conclusion that they are better off living in Kosovo under the very generous Ahtisaari rules than forgotten, as they would very soon be, in a marginal corner of southern Serbia.

Nicolaas H. Biegman

Former Dutch Ambassador to NATO and NATO Ambassador to Macedonia

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Charles Simic replies:

Everything the ambassador says about the past is true. As for the future, I can’t imagine that the Serbs in the north will one day agree to be part of Kosovo. The ambassador must surely know how miserable are the lives of the few remaining Serbs in the south. They lack the most basic security and freedom of movement and if not for the NATO troops would have been expelled long ago. How could they possibly believe in the “very generous Ahtisaari rules” after seeing a couple hundred thousand of their compatriots ethnically cleansed, their houses either destroyed or taken? Is the ambassador aware of all the kidnappings of Serbs and the burnings of their churches and monasteries since 1999, or perhaps they don’t strike him as a serious problem? I wish I were as optimistic as he is, but one also has to take into account the Serbian nationalists who are bound to sabotage any effort to improve their lives, because that would mean dealing with Albanians as equals and admitting that Kosovo will never again be a part of Serbia.

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