Home / Articles / NATO and Kosovo: After the ‘Victory,’ What?
What is NATO doing in Yugoslavia? First, it said it was bombing the Serbs to make them give up their own territory, as called for in the Rambouillet “accords.” Instead, it made all Serbs mad, and Slobodan Milosevic stronger than ever.
Then, it was bombing the Serbs to “protect the Albanians in Kosovo”— half a million of whom have now fled the province.
NATO also bombed the Serbs to “degrade” their military apparatus, but the loss of heavy weapons made little difference to the counterinsurgency being conducted in Kosovo by lightly armed forces and paramilitary organizations. What the destruction of the relatively disciplined and professional army did degrade was the one major threat to Milosevic’s power.
Finally, we are told, NATO dropped bombs to “prevent” a spillover of the Kosovo conflict into the entire Balkan region. Instead, the influx of refugees and Serbian cross-border attacks on the KLA have increased internal pressures in Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. And because bombed-out bridges now obstruct the Danube, serious economic damage awaits Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and lands beyond.
NATO Should Be Careful What It Wishes For
But suspend both logic and disbelief for a moment, and suppose that NATO somehow succeeds in breaking the Serbian will to retain Kosovo, that Milosevic is dragged in front of a war crimes tribunal (as he should be), and that Kosovo is brought under NATO occupation. Then what? NATO will have “won” for itself nothing but the obligation to oversee an intractable quagmire.
First, there is the problem of refugees. Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro cannot afford the political risks of accepting radicalized Kosovar Albanians within their borders. Western Europeans, already beset by Albanian organized crime, will hardly want to grant permanent asylum to more Albanians. At some point, therefore, many Kosovo Albanian refugees will come “back,” not to a province but to a NATO protectorate— and they will confront razed villages, decimated infrastructure, and empty pantries. NATO troops (who else?) will have to serve as police, border patrols, and even social workers, all funded, of course, by NATO taxpayers.
If the alliance seeks to hand the various tasks over to Kosovar political leaders, it will have to find them among the KLA because, simply put, there is no one else. The extraordinary system of peaceful Albanian parallel statehood in Kosovo, established and led by Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosova (DLK) since 1991, would have been far more palatable, but was destroyed by the totalitarian KLA’s drive to eliminate competitors for power.
But NATO should be more than reluctant to associate itself with the KLA. Notwithstanding the western alliance’s promised protection of “minority” (i.e., non-Muslim, non-Albanian) rights, KLA leadership would likely be a nightmare for the 20 percent non-Albanian population — Serbs, Montenegrins, Gypsies, and others. When communist Albanians had the run of Kosovo as an autonomous province of Serbia within Yugoslavia (1974-89), they were not known for tolerance. The KLA also has ties to supporters of the late Enver Hoxha— Europe’s closest friend to Pol Pot.
For its part, the KLA has little interest in Kosovar autonomy, but rather in a “Greater Albania” to be carved from Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece. Internationally recognized borders matter little to the KLA, which has no qualms about launching attacks from Albanian territory. Albania’s feeble government already protests Serbian pursuit of insurgents across the international border. If the KLA has a NATO-protected base in Kosovo from which to work, its neighbors should be justifiably worried about their own frontiers, and about the imminence of “Greater Albania.” The irony is that not even many Albanians share that goal, and NATO could find itself responsible for intensifying the Albanian civil war.
To be sure, the Rambouillet texts call for NATO to disarm the KLA, but that is sheer fantasy, and Western leaders must realize the impossibility of the task. Moreover, after the alliance’s demonization of the Serbs and denigration of their religious and historical claims to sovereignty over Kosovo, KLA fighters will probably think themselves well within rights to retain their weapons.
An Untenable Occupation
NATO’s military challenges by no means stop there, however. Serbian irregulars, incited by that same NATO dismissiveness, will surely take up the fight where the army leaves off — and they are long familiar with guerrilla tactics. In fact, since the Tito-Stalin break in the late 1940s, Serb-dominated Yugoslavian military doctrine was centered on irregular warfare — what Tito and his successors called a “protracted people’s war.” Casual suggestions that NATO should occupy Kosovo, let alone Serbia itself, display far more than ignorance of looming bloodshed.
Are Americans, Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks and Icelanders ready to accept the price of “victory” in Kosovo? Did anyone think through the aftermath of Serbian capitulation? It is time to go beyond cheap slogans (“Arm the KLA”) and ask the real question: what if we “win”? The answers, so far, have been devoid of any sense of consequences and realistic prospects. Americans, our European allies, Albanians, and Serbs deserve better.
Setting aside the vague and emotional responses that have dominated so much of the media to date, we are able to discern one unmistakable conclusion: long-term NATO occupation of an autonomous Kosovo is untenable. First, as already discussed, the alliance would find itself in the middle of an armed struggle between the KLA and Serbian irregulars, a position made more awkward by the inevitable perception that NATO would be protecting the Albanian side.
Second, the growing reticence among Italians, Hungarians, Czechs, and Greeks makes the resolute continuation of NATO operations highly questionable. Leftist opposition in Western Europe threatens popular support in France and Germany as well.
Third, NATO will never be able to overcome the reality of ethnic intolerance in the region. The Albanian Muslim leader in Pristina admits that ethnic coexistence between his people and the Serbs is impossible— and, reluctantly, so does Serbian Orthodox bishop Artemije of Metojia, the custodian of Serbia’s historic and religious grounds in the province.
Fourth, Serbs will never accept Albanian rule over the Metohija (“Church lands”) region, which includes the most important Serbian sites. No one in Kosovo finds credible the U.S. and NATO assurances of “protection” for the sites, because everyone understands that NATO occupation will not last indefinitely. NATO’s assumption — that protection of minorities and free access to historic and religious sites could somehow be guaranteed — confuses Kosovo with Switzerland.
Partition: Unappealing, Workable … and Inevitable
The only way to avoid all these pitfalls, and to make sure that a NATO (or European Union or United Nations) protectorate does not become as permanent as the peace-keeping forces in Cyprus or South Korea (and far less viable), is to stop tiptoeing around the crux of the matter: the future permanent status of Kosovo. Winks to Albanian separatism, la Rambouillet, won’t do; neither will dreams of Kosovo as a Swiss canton — not for the Serbs, not for the KLA.
To what conclusion, then, does all of this lead? The only hope for resolution is the permanent partition of Kosovo along newly established ethnic lines. It is a solution that will make Belgrade and the KLA equally unhappy, but it takes into account the mutually acknowledged reality of ethnic intolerance.
Partition, moreover, can be done according to lines that should be acceptable to both sides. To do so, NATO needs to consult the Serbian Orthodox Church, which it inexplicably excluded from Rambouillet. The Church has been no supporter of Milosevic, but will never sanction the detachment from Serbia of certain areas in Kosovo. In addition, it possesses— and has used — the moral authority to galvanize broad Serbian resistance to any outside threats to those areas, whether from Albanians or NATO. The key to successful partition lies in the fact that the historic lands vital to the Serbs — Pec, the medieval monasteries of Decani, Studenica, Gracanica and Mitrovica, and the field of Kosovo Polje— have no particular meaning or importance in the KLA’s grand strategy. For the KLA, the goal is not to establish an independent Kosovo — which it realizes will not be viable in any case— but a Greater Albania.
Thus, by taking into account the cultural and strategic needs of both sides, the specifics of a viable solution emerge: a partition line starting from the Albanian border south of Decani, moving in a crescent just south of the road to Pec, Prekale to Mitrovica, and then southeast to and including Gracanica. The line is not only plausible, but also defensible by both sides. Some in Serbia will, of course, object to any seizure of their territory, but at least the Church will have no grounds to use its broad influence to mobilize sentiment against the action. The KLA gets a seed that it must learn to cultivate.
Great Powers in Context
Of course, others, including many in the West, will object that partition smacks of “ethnic cleansing,” a feeling stirred by Washington’s careless language and persistent ignorance of history— especially that of the Balkans.
It is important to remember that “ethnic cleansing” has not always been shorthand for evil. Just a few decades ago the same actions were described far more benignly as “population exchanges” and seen as a natural, indeed useful long-term solution to perennial ethnic conflicts. How much worse would Indian-Pakistani relations be without the relocation of tens of millions of people following the end of the British Raj? Closer to Kosovo, some six million Germans were thrown out of their homes in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1945, despite a history of Germans in the region dating back two thousand years. In 1922 one million Greeks were pushed out of Anatolia— where, some 2,500 years ago, their ancestors in Ephesus and Miletus developed philosophy and the cultural foundations of the modern West. At the same time, half a million Turks were thrown out of Greece, despite 500 years of settlement there. The latter two instances were not just accepted, but encouraged and ultimately codified as the Treaty of Lausanne by the Great Powers— the now more reticent France, Italy, and Britain.
The question of NATO’s moral, legal, and political consistency, by comparison, is far less easily resolved. The alliance is bombing the Serbs into accepting Albanian separatism, while keeping troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina to prevent Croat and Serbian irredentism. It wants to detach Kosovo from Serbia, but has made no mention of the highly predictable, possibly violent impact in the Republika Srbska of Bosnia. Furthermore, if ethnicity is the new criterion for territorial statehood, NATO’s simultaneous support of the Macedonian government and the KLA— whose expansionism will inevitably encroach on Macedonia— makes no sense.
Consistency of principles will make it impossible to isolate Kosovo from the larger problem: redrawing borders throughout the Balkans along ethnic lines. The territorial status of Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as of Yugoslavia has to be on the table, because a Greater Serbia, including the Serb-populated areas of Bosnia, is just as “legitimate” — or “illegitimate”— as a Greater Albania. This is not something NATO wants to talk about, but it will be forced to. After the bombings and the establishment of a Kosovo protectorate, Serbian nationalism could easily become a violent and permanent factor for regional destabilization— just as in 1914.
This brings us to the final aspect of the Balkan problem. Although it may seem like political heresy, a return to the nineteenth-century method of dealing with the unruly Balkans is the only solution for the foreseeable future. Specifically, there should be an international conference (perhaps in Berlin, as an ironic twist) to redraw borders according to the newly defined ethnic criteria. The peoples of the Balkans would have little input, their behavior having largely disqualified them already. Rather, decisions should be made by the international powers: not the United Nations, European Union, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), or even NATO as such, but individual members with divergent interests in the Balkans and at least some military, political, and economic means to pursue them. Thus, the participants should include the United States, France, Britain, Italy, Germany — and Russia. The latter suggestion has nothing to do with Moscow’s pontifications about “inviolability of borders” and “sovereignty”— after all, it is Russia whose troops and machinations keep the secessionist cauldrons boiling in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan — but with common sense. Stalin could not solve the Balkan problems, and Russia cannot do so now, but it certainly can make any solution impossible.
And, in the face of a “victory” it has neither achieved nor planned for, NATO has its hands full of impossibilities.