Lessons Learned from Kosovo?

Posted in Other | 09-Oct-05 | Author: Rafael Biermann

Kosovo is once again looming on the horizon. Finally, the international community is willing to cut through this Gordian knot, tackling the issue that it has eluded and negated for too long: The issue of the future legal status of Kosovo in relation to Serbia-Montenegro and Albania. This issue really is at the bottom of the whole Kosovo story since the bloody occupation by Serb forces during the first Balkan War in 1913. Since then, Serb and Yugoslav politicians tried all means – ranging from constitutional concessions and positive discrimination to colonization programs, overt expulsion and bloody oppression – to win the loyalty of the Albanian clans in Kosovo. It was in vain. Since Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, which started already with the Drenica massacre in Febuary 1998 and NATO’s response in March 1999, there is no way to restore to the status quo ante. A new formula will have to be found.

However, the international negotiation team under former Finish President Matti Ahtisaari, nominated by the UN Secretary General, would be wise to look closely at the record of the past – not only because history is a powerful moving force in the Balkans, but also because conflict management in Kosovo is such a sad story of missed opportunities and lessons unlearned, with international mediators once and again unwillingly even instigating conflict they claimed to prevent.

There were five attempts to strike a compromise between Serb occupational rule and Albanian secessionism and irredentism. The first, very skillful attempt was made already by Tito with the constitution of 1974 and failed dramatically because it stirred up the Serb nationalism and revisionism that brought Milosevic to power twelve years later. The cycle of conflict that started as a result led to the abolishment of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989/90, to street violence and martial law. At that time, the international community, shrinking back from interfering in “internal affairs” and sympathetic to any recentralization of Yugoslavia, hardly criticized this coup d’état publicly or privately, thus motivating Milosevic in his pan-Serbian agenda. In hindsight, a crucial moment for early prevention had elapsed.

Then there were three mediation efforts by the international “community:” The EU-sponsored Conference on Yugoslavia tabled a plan for far-reaching autonomy for Kosovo and Krajina. However, when Milosevic rejected the plan and the US was aloof, the EU did not back the Carrington Plan with coercive diplomacy and force but instead shied away. The deep crisis on recognition less than half a year later was a direct consequence, signaling fundamental differences on such issues as Serb nationalism and self-determination. The International Conference on Yugoslavia (1992-1995) then institutionalized for the first time a separate “Kosovo group” – but it failed mainly because it had a questionable and inflexible negotiation strategy (concentrating on education far too long), because the mediator (Ambassador Ahrens) was tasked with far too many issues (he had to negotiate all the controversial minority issues of the Western Balkans except for Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina) and because he lacked significant backing by his superiors and the international community at critical stages of the negotiations.

Dayton and the aftermath, far from a success from Kosovo's perspective, was probably the major impetus for the Kosovo Albanian Liberation Army (KLA) to start its military campaign in earnest. Completely sidelining the legitimate concerns of the Kosovo Albanians once again, allowing Milosevic (already named a war criminal in 1992 by U.S. Secretary of State Eagleburger) to rise as the “hero of Dayton”, lifting the sanctions and even “normalizing” relations with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) (the Europeans, not the Americans!) was a strong signal for all Albanians that Rugova’s peaceful resistance did not pay off – the time for taking up arms had come. Finally, probably the most interesting lessons can be drawn from the last-ditch crisis prevention efforts by U.S. Special Envoy Bob Gelbard in late 1997 and early 1998 when finally the Clinton Administration began to realize it had obviously missed crucial signals of escalation in Kosovo. However, it was too late to compensate for almost ten years of neglect. Indeed, relaxing the “outer wall of sanctions” at this moment, calling the KLA “terrorists” and not repeating publicly the “Christmas warning” of George Bush the senior (1992) proved disastrous.

What can be learned from this ambiguous record of crisis prevention and mediation in Kosovo? Just to name a few: First, be aware of the danger of complacency in chronic, low-intensity conflicts – analysts as well as policymakers again and again miss the crucial early warning signals of escalation and are thus unprepared when escalation occurs and the media turn up. Second, be aware of the dangers of misperception – the international community, often through mirror imaging, fatally misperceived the intentions of Milosevic, but also of the Albanians who skillfully echoed the international pleas and at the same time pursued their own, incompatible agenda. Finally, confront both conflicting parties with a negotiation team that has the full backing of all major international actors. Throughout the negotiation record of the last ten years, Americans and Europeans were deeply divided on major issues of strategy and substance; this was fully registered and skillfully exploited by Serbs and Albanians.

If you want to read more about this topic, have a look at my book “Lehrjahre im Kosovo: Das Scheitern der internationalen Krisenprävention vor Kriegsausbruch“ (Years of Apprenticeship in Kosovo: Failed International Crisis Prevention Before the Outbreak of War), Schöningh Publishers, Paderborn, 2005. The book will be published shortly. It is based on four years of research and interviews in Washington, D.C., Berlin, Pristina and Belgrade as well as on the author’s experience in the Policy Planning Staff of the German DoD.