Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Kosovo: The Revenge of CNN and the Politics of Emotion

Kosovo: The Revenge of CNN and the Politics of Emotion

To paraphrase Talleyrand, the invention and recognition of a “state” called Kosovo by the United States and Brussels in February was worse than gross ignorance, it was a mistake. Every Western political delusion since the end of the Cold War was at the root of the disaster, and, to make matters worse, those delusions have been shared by otherwise unlikely partners: the Clinton administration and George Bush, the usually anti-American Europeans, the “human rights” establishment and “progressive” media here and in Europe. A brief analysis makes it clear that there is and should not be a state named “Kosovo.”

  • The initial motivation for NATO’s (read America’s) 1999 intervention in Kosovo, stopping “genocide,” was based on false premises and images, largely created by CNN and similar media outlets, and vocally supported by the “human rights” chorus led by Amnesty International and the like. There was no genocide in any serious definition. There was a massive, disproportionate Serbian military response to the sporadic and often indiscriminate attacks against authorities and civilians by a ragtag combination of Leninists, Maoists, thugs, drug runners and misguided members of the Albanian diaspora, going under the grand name of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It took a combination of overexcited CNN sympathizers of the Albanian secessionist cause, a mass exodus of scared Albanians, and a skilled Albanian lobby in Washington to convince a human rights obsessed Clinton administration that a new Auschwitz was in the making.
  • Most Europeans at the time, even more influenced by their human rights lobbies and put off by the Serbs’ old-fashioned use of religious and historic arguments for their claim on Kosovo, supported the military intervention—mostly by holding our coat.

Kosovo, a bit larger than Delaware but, with 2.4 million people (in 2001), three times the population, has proclaimed its statehood, the newest and so far the latest “country” created on the ruins of the former Yugoslavia. Other than the stubborn support of the majority Albanians, it has none of the basic necessary qualifications of statehood—functioning institutions, human or natural resources, ethnic and historic arguments.

Nonetheless, Washington and most European countries are prepared to take the bet that somehow Kosovo will be something else—say, a Luxembourg or Monaco. Is this serious? And if not, as common sense and experience suggest, why the pressure to take the bet, indeed why the decade-long encouragement of such development?

To begin with, as far as Washington is concerned, the blame is clearly bipartisan, with Democrats like Richard Holbrooke being and remaining staunchly and indiscriminately pro-Albanian for more than a decade, and the Bush administration mysteriously following the same misguided path. True enough, some Republican veterans of foreign affairs, such as former Secretary of State and former ambassador to Belgrade Lawrence Eagleburger, do know better and have made their opposition clear, but they remain a minority.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to have much sympathy for the Serbs, now claiming the role of victims in Kosovo after years of overreacting to excessive Albanian demands there; it is even harder to do so now, after an opportunistic Russia decided to support Belgrade’s position and to suddenly become a stalwart defender of “national integrity.” That, after more than a decade of supporting illegal, indeed Mafioso-type secessionist regions of Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. It is clear that Russia supports Serbia’s hopeless claim to Kosovo out of sheer hypocrisy—and a more general policy of showing the West that Moscow is to be taken seriously again, after its internationally weak presence since the end of the Soviet Union. Simply put, Moscow is right on Kosovo for all the wrong and dishonest reasons—but correct nonetheless. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Washington is politically, ideologically and strategically mistaken on Kosovo for all the “right” reasons. The Albanian lobby in the U.S. managed to convince enough members of Congress of their “right” cause ever since the late 1990s, to earn uncritical sympathy for Albanian “victimhood” at Serb hands, to convince them of their alleged “right,” historically unheard of, to independence; so that Washington is now the main engine behind the international bandwagon to recognize Kosovo’s statehood. The Europeans—Spain, Slovakia, Romania, all knowledgeable of or threatened by separatism and reluctant subscribers to a “common” policy of recognition for Kosovo’s independence aside – are ready to be bullied by larger Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The Serbs’ lack of an organized (or large) diaspora in the West and their steady preference for unsavory politicians, like Milosevic, did not help their cause either.

Now that things seem to be decided—in the West as much as in the capital of Pristina, and in a Moscow determined to oppose independence, including at the United Nations—what next? The answers are disturbingly negative.

  • Even today, after the sad examples of artificially created and failed postcolonial countries (mostly in Africa), it remains unfashionable to admit that there are unviable states. Nevertheless, if there is a case study of such an unpromising future “state,” Kosovo is the one. Perhaps, with Kosovo being in Europe, the usual obstacle to a serious assessment of political dysfunctionality and economic backwardness elsewhere—the Pavlovian accusation of “racism”—may finally be purged from serious public debate. That would be good news.
  • Ethnically, after the massive expulsion of most non-Albanians following the 1999 NATO intervention (which, ironically, was conducted to prevent “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians by Serbs), the population is now 95 percent or more ethnic Albanian. Worse still, the large Macedonian ethnic Albanian areas and the smaller Albanian majority regions of Montenegro and Serbia’s Presevo, Bujanovac and Medveda are all already infiltrated by irredentists from or supported by Kosovo Albanians. It does not require much imagination to see a collapsing Kosovo “state’ seek a diversion in demanding “human rights” for ethnic kin—i.e. encouraging secessionism in those areas.
  • Ethnic homogeneity may be helpful, but only when complete, and that is not the case, not with Serbian enclaves around Pristina, the second-largest town, Prizren and, especially in the northern border region of Mitrovica—on the Serbian border and functioning as a de facto province of Serbia, complete with common currency, communication and economic ties. All of this, notwithstanding NATO’s dubious promise of protection for the Serbs outside Mitrovica, amounts to certain trouble, and it came on March 17.
  • By itself, Kosovo, always the poorest area, despite massive subsidies from the rest of the former Yugoslavia, is an economic basket case. Its few and now mostly closed mines remain the only possible source of income, other than European and American economic aid. The Trepka mining complex of lignite, lead, zinc, and nickel happens to be of dubious economic value now and, on top of that, is located in the Serbian majority area of Northern Kosovo.
  • In theory, of course, the extraordinary Serbian 14th-century monasteries of Peć, Decani and Gracani, with their valuable interior and exterior late-Byzantine frescoes, could be major tourist attractions—for Serbs and the Orthodox, all unlikely visitors to an Albanian Muslim-majority site—not to mention their possible destruction by local Albanians.
  • The rest of the would-be state’s revenues come from the diaspora’s remittances and, even more, from the only flourishing “industry”—organized crime. That is mostly centered on international prostitution rings, narcotics (heroin), and smuggling of arms, cigarettes and other items, bring the Kosovars into competition, often deadly, with their Albanian kin and explain the latter’s reluctance to accept Kosovo as a normal part of their country. All these realities should also be seen on the background of Europe’s largest population growth rate by far!
  • Kosovo Albanians have consistently demonstrated their allegiance to the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), even though that organization never amounted to anything but a glorified armed mafia, inept and ineffective against the Serbian military prior to 1999, but very good at public relations (at home, in Europe, and in Washington) and nationalist propaganda. The latest elections, in November 2007, in fact brought the KLA and its leader Hashim Thaçi to power in Pristina. Thaçi was a founder of the 1993 People’s Movement of Kosovo (LPK), a Switzerland-based “political party” seeking a greater Albania. A very probably dysfunctional Kosovo state would naturally seek a greater cause—by supporting irredentist causes in neighboring countries, or unification with the mother country, Albania. We have seen that movie before—dysfunctional Somalia still seeking annexation of regions of Ethiopia or, worse still, Chechnya during its de facto independence in 1996–99 seeking an Islamist Northern Caucasus and thus provoking another war.
  • In a nutshell, this is the likely future of Kosovo—a resentful, poor and well armed area with a population 90 percent Muslim. And that is the trouble, as we have seen, in part, in neighboring Bosnia and Chechnya—poverty, an international criminal established link, a sense of victimhood (real or imagined) and transnational connections inevitably attract, like moths to a lamp, international jihadis. Of course, we are told, Albanians are pro-American, a rare case in today’s Europe. But that could change. Indeed, Albanians were pro-Ottoman when it fit their interests, pro-Nazis during the Second World War, without being Nazis, Maoists during the Tito years of old Yugoslavia, and so on. Now they are pro-American because the GIs and Secretary Condoleezza Rice seem to offer them more than anybody else—but all that could, indeed will, change once circumstances change. Albanians are no different from anyone else, especially in the Balkans.
  • Finally, there is the cost. Many Americans complain about the cost of the Iraq war, but few even mention the cost of the U.S. presence in and aid to Kosovo, an area of no strategic interest, running in the hundreds of millions of dollars since 1999. As for the Europeans, they paid much more and promise more still. NATO, i.e. Europe with some U.S. military presence, pretends to offer protection for the isolated Serb enclaves, for the vocal Albanians against a possible Serb threat, and promises to prevent a likely secession by the Mitrovica Serbs—none with much credibility.

But how about the other side—Serbia, most of its neighbors, and Russia? As mentioned, Moscow is only accidentally, rather than morally or legally, on the realistic side of the Kosovo issue. That is not, as many in the West believe, because of some Orthodox solidarity (Socialist, anti-Catholic Spain and mostly Catholic Slovakia are also opposed to independence for Kosovo), but for practical reasons.

  1. For the same reason Moscow sells weapons to anti-American Hugo Chávez, protects Iran’s mullahs against Western economic threats, keeps in power Europe’s only open dictator in Belarus, etc.—because it shows muscle. If that has to be done at the UN, so much publicity.
  2. Because a Moscow-dependent and thus weak Serbia is a useful bridgehead in Europe—just as the Transnistria enclave between Moldova and Ukraine keeps both countries on their toes;
  3. Third, because legal ambiguity serves Russia’s interests. If Kosovo’s situation remains unclear, manipulation opportunities are rife—just as they are in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, all areas Moscow controls and/or manipulated for years in order to dominate neighboring former Soviet colonies.

All of this suggests that Kosovo independence is a mistake, that support for it (indeed its creation) by the Europeans and the United States is a greater mistake, and that it should not have been done. But what is the alternative, considering the present reality? Clearly, the Marti Ahtisaari plan of a “supervised sovereignty” is neither horse nor donkey, nor acceptable to anyone. More honest and wiser would be direct support for the unification of Kosovo to Albania—minus the Serb enclave of Mitrovica, and permanent autonomy for historic Serb/Orthodox enclaves around historic monuments. That would give responsibility for Kosovo to an admittedly reluctant Albania—a country interested in becoming a NATO and European member—rather than create a black hole in the central Balkans; it would also create a precedent, to be sure, but a less damaging one. Instead of mini-mafia states, responsibility would be transferred to established ones.

True enough, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan would be happy with the loss of a South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh, but history and reality should force them to live with it.

On the other hand, Transnistria is “legally” part of an artificial Stalinist creation—“Moldova,” a depressed area of sad, confused people of Romanian ethnicity, with only one major export—people, mostly with Romanian passports. Transnistria never was a legitimate part of the Romanian ethnic or historic area, and Moldova’s claims to it are as self-damaging as they are artificial. As for Abkhazia, it is a Georgian territory occupied by Russia, period, where the issue is foreign occupation, rather than self-determination. Prior to the Russian-supported forced separation and associated ethnic cleansing of Georgians, the local Abkhaz were only 17 percent of the population.

So much for the precedents an independent Kosovo would create, and so much for the worries in Madrid, Bratislava, or Bucharest, if the issue is treated as a general problem rather than as it is now—a balm for the allegedly victimized Albanians.

In addition, and certainly in the long term, one has to consider the “feelings” of relevant peoples (message to Foggy Bottom!) in the Balkans rather than of the Washington lobbyists. The Serbs are, perhaps unique among Europeans, born with a chip on their collective shoulder (just as Albanians are born with a victimhood obsession), but for those who believe centuries of historical experience are worth nothing, it should be recalled that Albanians are unpopular with all their neighbors (Greeks, Macedonians, Serbs, Montenegrins) and some further away—Romanians and Bulgarians. It may not be politically correct but the general opinion of all those is that Albanians are (even more) nationalist and violent—and that in a historically violent and nationalist area.

Seen in this context, the recent violence in Mitrovica should be no surprise. Whether manipulated from Serbia (as is likely) and/or rooted in local sentiments, the fact remains that unless major force is repeatedly applied by the foreign troops—i.e. the Europeans, since the UN, especially without Russian and Chinese support, is unlikely to even remain there for long—the area will secede. Whether the Europeans have the will, or even the means, to use such force is doubtful, especially as that would only offer more opportunities for Russian involvement. At best, an ambiguous situation will develop, with Pristina complaining, Brussels pretending that nothing serious is happening and Serbia treating the area as its own.

Another possible scenario, equally hopeless, is that the Serbian area of Bosnia will use the Kosovo precedent and organize a referendum to join Serbia—especially if, as is probable, the coming parliamentary elections of May 11 in the latter country bring nationalists to power in Belgrade. Then, once again, despite Washington’s claims that Kosovo is a unique case, the options will again be heavy use of force or de facto secession, making Bosnia even less viable than is now. Ultimately, it appears that the Serbs have learned from the Albanian methods: provoke reprisals, claim victimhood and raise the cost of any solution unacceptable to them. What started a decade ago as a policy of emotions based on CNN’s lachrymose images has boomeranged into a smoldering fire in Southeastern Europe.