Tinderbox in flames
The Kosovo tragedy is the culmination of 10 years of international interference in the Balkans, explains Pat Roberts
According to NATO, the immediate reason for going to war was Yugoslavia's refusal to sign the political and military accords on the status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, drawn up by the Contact Group of international powers at Rambouillet, France in February. It is extraordinary that war should be declared over the refusal of a sovereign state to sign a document drawn up by foreign powers to decide the fate of a part of its territory. That the Rambouillet accords required Yugoslavia to cede control over Kosovo to NATO, which would decide the permanent status of the territory three years hence, has hardly been mentioned.
What happened at Rambouillet was a diplomatic charade. The Serbian delegation to Rambouillet criticised the organisers for allowing only 'minimal contact' between the Serbs and Albanians and refusing to allow face-to-face talks between the two sides. They described how the final hours of the conference degenerated into a 'farce', as negotiators tried desperately to secure the Albanians' agreement. The Yugoslavs were presented with a new document 18 hours before the talks were due to end, containing 56 pages of brand new text introduced by US officials, which had neither been approved by the whole Contact Group nor discussed by the two sides.
But all we have been told is that the Serbs rejected a reasonable, nice-sounding peace 'agreement' ('Interim agreement for peace and self-government in Kosovo') that would have preserved Yugoslavia's territorial integrity. 'Agreements' usually require the voluntary signature of at least two parties - impossible, surely, when the two sides are prevented from talking directly to each other. What the Serbs rejected can more properly be described as an ultimatum: sign away your sovereignty or be bombed.
The Yugoslavs said that they could not accept key provisions of the document because they gave Kosovo a status approximating independence rather than autonomy. In fact no sovereign government could realistically have been expected to sign this document. Read the 23 February version on the internet and see for yourself.
So what were the motives of the Western powers, in presenting the Yugoslavs with an 'agreement' that they could only refuse to sign? Their stated aim, of giving the ethnic Albanians substantial autonomy while maintaining the formal sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, is effectively contradicted by the insistence on the deployment of NATO forces in Kosovo. The deployment of foreign troops on the territory of Yugoslavia would necessarily remove the occupied territory from the jurisdiction of the state, possibly resulting in the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia and Yugoslavia.
There could be little doubt by the end of the Rambouillet talks that the US administration, closely supported by the British government, was hell-bent on war against Yugoslavia. And once NATO started dropping its bombs, existing tensions were transformed into disaster.
This war is the culmination of a decade of creeping intervention. When NATO launched air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro) on 24 March, it was almost 10 years to the day since the West first began meddling in the internal affairs of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY, then consisting of the six republics of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Slovenia). In April 1989, the new US ambassador to the SFRY, Warren Zimmerman, arrived in Belgrade with a brief to pay attention to human rights issues. Zimmerman came straight from a post as US ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), where the USA was pushing 'Basket Three' issues (human rights) - which were fast becoming a surrogate for the loss of anti-communism as a unifying theme in Western foreign policy.
The repression of Albanian civil rights in Kosovo quickly became the focus of US policy in Yugoslavia. Together with members of the US Congress and its Helsinki Committee, Zimmerman castigated the government of Serbia for its violation of human rights in Kosovo. By November 1990 congressional outrage over human rights abuses, led by Senator Robert Dole, led to an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act offered by Senator Don Nickles, that threatened the withdrawal of US economic assistance if improvements in Kosovo did not occur within six months (by 5 May 1991).
By now the issues of human rights and territorial jurisdiction had become inextricably intertwined. The US intervention in Kosovo gave encouragement both to the secessionists among the Kosovo Albanians and to Slovene and Croat nationalists seeking independence. It also had the effect of strengthening Milosevic's claim to be the protector of Serbian national interests, in Kosovo and elsewhere, and helped his election as president of Serbia by popular referendum in December 1989. So at the same time as US policy still formally favoured the continuing integrity of Yugoslavia, Washington's actions served to hasten the end of the country.
When it first got involved in the Yugoslav crisis back in 1989 the West became involved in a process whose final outcome was highly uncertain, since intervention always tends to have unintended consequences. The one thing that was entirely predictable, however, was that Western involvement would make things worse rather than better.
Yugoslavia is the example par excellence of the destructive impact of foreign interference, and the way in which outside intervention creates a self-perpetuating dynamic towards more of the same. Intervention generates greater instability and conflict, which in turn invites more intervention. In Yugoslavia a symbiotic relationship between external intervention and internal conflict has been the pattern of the past 10 years. The image of the Western powers as firefighters, dousing fires started by local Serbian arsonists, is misleading. In Yugoslavia, the supposed firefighters are in fact the arsonists.
Yugoslavia in 1989/90 was as combustible as a tinderbox. The collapse of communism across the former Soviet bloc had led to the demise of centralised control and competing claims for self-determination from the republics within the shaky federation. Once the old system was called into question the process of fragmentation acquired a momentum of its own. The process of economic and political reform brought to the surface nationalist divisions and demands for autonomy. But it took the intervention of outside powers to provide the spark that lit the fire.
The USA's effective refusal to support the integrity of the Yugoslav state hastened the disintegration of the federation and sent positive signals to the secessionists. Germany's role in encouraging independence aspirations among the republics in 1990/91 was also a catalyst for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Without outside backing from such powerful states, Slovenia and Croatia would have been wary of embarking on a unilateral secession, and without the signals from the USA that it would do nothing to oppose secession, they would not have seceded in June 1991. Outside intervention removed the possibility of a local solution and pushed Yugoslavia over the precipice.
International recognition for Slovenia and Croatia encouraged other claims for independence, in Kosovo and Macedonia, and made war in Bosnia inevitable, given the inter-ethnic mix there. The USA and the EU recognised Bosnian independence, creating an unviable state, and through their intervention kept the war going in Bosnia for three long years. Western involvement in Bosnia led to dashed peace deals, broken ceasefires, intensified fighting and a rising body count. US involvement created local clients, institutionalised in the Croat-Muslim federation created by Washington, and prolonged the war by encouraging the Bosnian Muslims to fight on in the hope that eventually the USA would intervene decisively on their behalf.
In Kosovo, meanwhile, intervention by outside powers since 1989 has scuppered the possibility of a local solution by encouraging ethnic Albanian secessionists and feeding Serbian nationalism. Western intervention has encouraged aspirations for independence among the ethnic Albanians and the belief that the West would eventually intervene to make it happen - especially since the end of the war in Bosnia in 1995, when Washington made concessions on autonomy in Kosovo a condition of Yugoslavia's reintegration into the international community. With the intensification of US and European involvement, since the military campaign launched by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1997/98, any possibility of a compromise solution based on autonomy for the Albanians in a sovereign Yugoslavia has receded.
The history of the past 10 years in the Balkans is above all a history of the ever-expanding role of international powers. Western intervention has included a whole gamut of activity, ranging from the political to the diplomatic to the economic to the military. The West has used a panoply of interventionist measures in the Balkans: diplomatic pressure and démarches; political pressure; propaganda warfare; economic threats, withdrawal of aid and trade preferences; influence on IMF; sanctions/embargoes; military threats; naval blockades; no-fly zones; bombing campaigns; ground troops; and protectorates. Bombing usually comes at the end of a long trail of other sorts of intervention.
Bombing Yugoslavia over Kosovo is unlikely to be the endgame of Western intervention. As long as outside powers are intervening, there is the potential for further unravelling. Autonomy or independence for Kosovo imposed by Western Cruise missiles will start a chain reaction in Montenegro, Vojvodina, Sandak, Bosnia and Macedonia, with catastrophic consequences for the entire Balkans.
All of this could have been - and was, by some - foreseen in 1989/90. But then, Western intervention in the region was never driven by a concern for the fate of the peoples of the Balkans.
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999