Kosovo: A Real Geopolitical Precedent     Print Email
Thursday, 14 February 2008

At the time of the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the premise of Western governments was that confronting ethnic cleansing was more important than respecting the international borders.

The message was that would-be tyrants in future needed to know – and be deterred by – the cost that would be imposed on them by the international community if they sought to inflict such atrocities. The U.S. decision to throw its full political-military weight into Kosovo reflected eagerness to make up for perceived moral failures in the 1990s (notably Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia). President Bill Clinton was eager to restore America’s image as the global policeman backing up the recently proclaimed new world order. And he wanted to restore the strategic authority of the United States.

The Western view was that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, after being checked in Bosnia, was purging yet another population on behalf of “Greater Serbia” and had to be stopped. At the time, the main concern about a backlash focused on Russia: Clinton’s advisors feared that Moscow might later use NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as a precedent to threaten or to justify and legitimize Russian trans-national exploits in parts of the former Soviet Union. (As had been the custom for the half-century-long cold war, Washington was worried about the big dogs manipulating the little dogs, not vice-versa.) Few were worried about the long-term impact of coming to the rescue of violent separatists. When some specialists did focus on this risk, it was simply an afterthought, not a realization that the Western actions might actually have the effect of fueling violence there and later perhaps elsewhere among groups that have studied the Kosovo experience.

In the years since the intervention, American and European policy in Kosovo has been running almost entirely on autopilot. Western officials seemed to take the view that factors apparently beyond their control had taken charge of momentum-building events in and around Kosovo. A sense of inevitability was coalescing: Kosovo was heading towards independence, and justification was needed for this policy. Despite significant reservations in European capitals, Washington was driving NATO’s Kosovo policies. Some Europeans anticipated the contagion of separatism. Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly noted that there are nearly fifty separatist conflicts throughout the world, many in Europe. Critics warned that Kosovo’s self-determination, in the wrong circumstances, could invigorate other separatist efforts and put the entire nation-state system at risk of disintegration. But these reservations were overridden and most European capitals acquiesced in the argument that Kosovo would not set a precedent. The decisive reason for this was that Europeans had little influence over the policy to begin with: Washington was running the show. Given these diplomatic realities, the argument ran, acknowledging the possibility of precedent could prove counter-productive by serving to energize separatists and lead them to emulate radical Kosovar Albanians in other countries. Instead of deterring separatists, acknowledging vulnerability will frequently accentuate it. Better to appear shortsighted and powerful than prophetic and weak. Given this reasoning, it is unclear that Western policies would have been any different even if the agenda had been in European hands.

The wars in ex-Yugoslavia, which ended after NATO’s campaign in Kosovo, played into this view: Western governments agreed on the need to rebuild a stable and functioning Kosovo, but, with Milosevic still in power, no one felt that Belgrade could be entrusted with the safety of Kosovar Albanians. Governments had insisted on how dangerous this leader was. Everyone – even critics of NATO’s original intervention – insisted that leaving Kosovo to an unknown fate after Belgrade’s capitulation would be worse for Kosovars and for America’s reputation than never having intervened at all.

Despite the near consensus that the Serbian and Albanian populations in Kosovo needed protection long after the NATO air strikes ended, American and European governments had to take a stand on the controversial issue of independence as part of their exit strategy. The resulting paradigm was this: to safeguard the humanitarian image of President Clinton and his allies, NATO could not leave until Kosovo became independent.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the Clinton administration set their post-war policy in Kosovo with so little long-term planning that policy-making became a process of elimination. As a result, Kosovar Albanians refused to take any substitute for independence even after Milosevic was ousted in October 2000 for corruption and vote-rigging. After all, they had been nurtured on Western assurance that they would determine their own fate. In the end, the Clinton White House left this problem unsolved for the next administration.

European leaders, closer to the potential problems, concluded that U.S. policy was irreversible and made a virtue of necessity, hoping to mitigate the risk of lessons other separatists might take away from Kosovo’s independence. The easiest way to avoid setting (or appearing to set) a precedent was – and is – to insist that Kosovo’s situation is unique and would therefore not apply to any other separatist efforts. The Bush administration, too, sought to limit the potential fallout of separatism by insisting that Kosovo has no parallels anywhere in the world. It is as if Washington and Brussels could remove the danger of precedent by merely declaring that it will not be a precedent.

Practically speaking, Washington and Brussels recognized that compared to the possible fallout of Kosovo’s independence, a violent eruption in the wake of a NATO withdrawal is a near-certainty. At this point, it seems that, short of independence, there is simply no other way to protect Kosovars.

Yet in the end, Washington’s insistence on Kosovo’s uniqueness is paper thin and brimming with contradictions on the issue of self-determination. Specifically, in the rare instances when Western officials make a developed argument about Kosovo’s uniqueness, they usually cite characteristics of Kosovo that completely contradict the basis of NATO’s original intervention. In other cases, they note unique features of Kosovo that are incidental and irrelevant to the independence question.

In mid-2006, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said that Kosovo’s independence should have no bearing on “difficult problems elsewhere.” After all, he said, a major international war was fought there. Some of the worst war crimes in Europe occurred there. The United Nations took Kosovo into its own hands in June of 1999 in passing a Security Council Resolution that effectively said Kosovo’s sovereignty will be determined at a later date.

Only a day earlier, when asked about Belgrade’s assertion that Kosovo would always be a part of Serbia, Burns replied, “Not after 1997, 1998 and 1999, after what took place in those years in Kosovo. Not after the period of the last seven years when we’ve tried to right the balance.”

Likewise, Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2007 that “Kosovo is a unique situation because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized…Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations, not by Serbia.”

Indeed, what makes Kosovo “unique” was the NATO intervention – which was not a UN action. So, arguing in favor of independence on the basis of NATO’s protection would leave the world wondering why NATO suddenly had the power to grant nations independence. Since World War II, the UN Security Council has been regarded as the only legitimate arbiter of internationally recognized borders. So in order to justify Kosovo’s bid for independence, Western leaders and institutions have had to link it to some principal with the international legal clout that was lacking in NATO’s intervention.

For this reason, Western governments, led by Washington, have insisted that what makes Kosovo unique is the UN Security Council resolution that set up the peacekeeping mission immediately following the war – i.e., the only internationally legitimate part of this conflict. Logically, however, the case and the entire momentum for Kosovo’s independence are founded on a technically illegal intervention. The subsequent UN mandate indeed is unique, mainly because it is rooted in solving an earlier problem that arose from the illegality of the NATO assault on a nation-state’s territorial integrity. That intervention might in retrospect have qualified for UN approval under the terms of a still-tenuous doctrine about governments’ forfeiting their sovereignty if they fail in their obligation to protect their populations. But at the time of the Kosovo intervention, this “right to intervene” had not been adopted in any form by the UN.

When pressed, Burns has also suggested that Kosovo’s ambitions are also founded on the Albanian suffering at the hands of the Milosevic regime before NATO intervened. This view can be assimilated to the notion of “Belgrade had no claim to the land “after 1997, 1998 and 1999, after what took place in those years in Kosovo,” according to Burns. In other words, Belgrade forfeited all claims to its Albanian province when it “failed to protect” (in UN language) the population and (in plain talk) in fact tortured, terrorized, expelled and/or killed some of it.This moral justification for Kosovo’s independence is not a new rationale: it dates back to the war itself, before the West embraced the idea of Kosovo’s independence. Only a week into NATO’s air campaign, Clinton floated the argument that it would set the stage for a push toward independence. After referring to the official U.S. policy favoring restored autonomy over independence, he then went on to open the door to radically new interpretations of sovereignty by saying that Milosevic’s continuing resistance would lead to the destruction of Belgrade’s military structure and also increasingly jeopardize the prospect for international support, he said, for Serbia’s “claim” to Kosovo.

This statement – that a government’s misbehaving could justify a punitive dissolution of a UN-recognized state – debunks the idea that Kosovo is unique because of the UN’s mandate and nation-building. Before an endgame was discussed among allies or more broadly, Clinton’s statement implied that a state’s territorial integrity was now deemed to be founded on its behavior. This departure constitutes the truly dangerous precedent. It unleashed the prospect that Moscow might emulate NATO. This U.S. departure from international law was also the major diplomatic event of the war – empowering the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The KLA is a textbook example of a terrorist group. In the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia’s republics were violently asserting their independence from Belgrade’s authority, most of Kosovo was actually engaged in a campaign of non-violent separatism behind the Albanian Kosovars’ revered leader, Ibrahim Rugova.

By the mid-1990s, however, the KLA had embraced the classic tactic of a faction lacking popular support – provocation designed to trigger painful repression, which in turn would push grass-roots opinion toward revolt that put an end to the more passive, slower Rugova strategy of gradualism. Kosovar Albanians, after being ignored for six years by the international community, concluded that non-violent resistance never paid off and that it was time to move toward the KLA. By getting Belgrade to heavy-handedly over-react – in protecting their fellow-Serbs and their Serbian heritage in Kosovo, the KLA leadership did succeed in pushing the Kosovar Albanian (once-silent) majority toward violent revolution. Ultimtely, the KLA was able to launch an uprising calculated to last until every Albanian Kosovar would be either killed or liberated.

As violence escalated on the ground, the KLA was planning a more important phase: intervention by the international community. The KLA was anomalous as a national liberation front because, instead of being locally embedded and integrated, the KLA and their Albanian brethren were completely isolated in Kosovo: This meant that any “uprising” could have been isolated by Belgrade. And, of course, an important effect of KLA terrorists was to solidify Milosevic’s support at home: the vast majority of Serbs, safe in Serbia proper, were seldom exposed directly to any blowback from the Milosevic regime’s boots in Kosovo – and thus unmotivated to voice any backlash against his tactics. In other words, even though the KLA started with only a minority of supporters among Albanian Kosovars, Belgrade’s brutality did was unopposed as a Serbian strategy and did not come back to haunt Milosevic – until foreign powers held him accountable. This process culminated in the international violation of Serbia’s sovereignty.

While appealing to sentiments in Washington, the KLA also played on worries about regional stability. If the Serbs could be brought to act brutally enough against the Kosovar Albanians, the trend would drive ethnic Albanians into neighboring countries as a restive, destabilizing element in the volatile ethnic mix. In other words, the more mayhem and collateral damage in Kosovo, the better for the KLA’s public relations. With this strategy in mind, the KLA turned up the heat by killing ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. As Belgrade cracked down – in effect, taking the KLA’s bait — Washington began to walk into the trap.

Initially, in the year of escalation preceding the NATO intervention, U.S. envoys provided Milosevic with support by repeatedly denouncing the KLA as a terrorist group. Gradually, however, Milosevic’s brutality proved too strong and a mood of outrage among interventionists in Washington pushed the Clinton administration toward support for the Kosovar Albanian cause (and by extension, the KLA). Viewed dispassionately, the U.S. policy shift seems to confirm a perhaps unpalatable reality — that violent resistance often works. This is not a value judgment on who is to blame or even an operational axiom. If Belgrade had not over-reacted, the outcome might have been different. But the fact is that outrage about Kosovo prompted an international outcry that in turn was leveraged into sanctions and ultimately into NATO air strikes on Belgrade. insisted that the status quo could hold as long as the KLA kept its forces in the mountains while the Serbs stayed in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

The process demonstrated the role of another key prerequisite for Washington’s decision to reverse its Kosovo policy when it did seems to illustrate the humanitarian rule of thumb: if people are not being slaughtered in the streets, they are not suffering enough to deserve the West’s attention. humanitarian intervention: massacres on television. In this case, CNN produced coverage about tragic events in Kosovo that paved the way for the NATO decision. Put cynically,

Can one conclude that the lives of repressed minorities will be improved by violence? Perhaps. Even if the ruling government does not cave to the separatist demands, militants can still harness the West’s power behind idealist sympathies. In this light, Kosovo’s independence is likely to energize separatist efforts and – by the process illustrated by the history of this incident – show that intervention does perhaps offer hopes for a better life but also creates a practical precedent for terrorism. Disenfranchised minorities now are more likely to turn to violence – thanks to the lesson of the KLA. Whether independence or civil rights are on the menu, inviting destruction on CNN is now a proven path to salvation. Macedonia’s revolt by its ethnic Albanians in March 2001 exemplifies this trend: The minority wanted reforms such as the right to teach the Albanian language in their schools and these goals (less ambitious than independence, or reintegration with “Greater Albania”) did not preclude them from successfully recruiting Western support through violent resistance.

Logically, by calling for Kosovo’s independence on the basis of its uniqueness, Western governments are negating the premise (and desired precedent) of its original intervention. The justification at the time stemmed from the idea that Kosovars were so similar to other repressed peoples around the globe that the intervention would even deter future autocrats. If Kosovo had actually been regarded as an isolated or unique phenomenon, the Clinton administration would not have seen intervention as a way to bolster America’s status as the global policeman. In the logic of current U.S. claims, potential tyrants need not fear other similar NATO interventions in their own countries because Kosovo’s “uniqueness” would preclude such a scenario or convention.

A problem with this stance on Kosovo is that the Clinton administration’s platform – “we will not be a spectator to genocide” – only works as long as Washington can follow through. Nowadays the West hardly seems to be in a position to rescue victims of ethnic cleansing. (Witness the genocide in Darfur.) The fate of Iraq’s Shia after the first Gulf war illustrates how risky it can be for a minority to use the tactics of exposing their people to repression in hopes of inciting international intervention, at least in the short run. And U.S. abstention in conflicts like those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur seem to “relativize” the impact of any previous Western intervention, regardless of outcome. It is an old Western dilemma: imperialism or indifference. It can only be changed if the West moves to support non-violent, minority political movements in time to avoid oscillating between idealistic interventionism and unsure isolationism, neither of which is sustainable over the long run.

See Also: “What About all the other Kosovos?”   Philip Bowring, International Herald-Tribune, 19 February 2008