in the Balkans

PRIZREN, Kosovo – Life in a monastery is normally a challenge. But life in the Monastery of the Holy Archangels is a particular challenge.

The original building was destroyed in the 16th century by the invading Turks. The Orthodox Church eventually built a small church, residence, and workshop amid the ancient ruins. In 2004, a mob from the nearby city of Prizren descended upon the complex.

Although the monastery was nominally guarded by German members of the international Kosovo Force (KFOR), most of them packed up when the crowd arrived, taking the monks with them. This pusillanimous behavior was repeated throughout Kosovo that day. Reported Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch: “In too many cases, NATO peacekeepers locked the gates to their bases, and watched as Serb homes burned.”

Kosovo is an unpleasant bit of unfinished business the West would prefer to forget.

Like other conflicts throughout the Balkans, the problem goes back centuries. Serbian identity is rooted in both Kosovo’s military history, particularly the 1389 defeat by the Turks in the Battle of the Blackbirds, and spiritual significance, represented by ancient churches and monasteries.

War has come often to the Balkans, topped by decades of communist rule. During the 1980s the territory (in Yugoslavia) enjoyed substantial self-rule and resulted in ethnic Albanian mistreatment of Serbs. Two decades ago Slobodan Milosevic used Serb nationalism, highlighted by a speech in Kosovo, to grab power. Then Albanians suffered, leading to an increasingly bitter guerrilla war.

There was much to criticize in Belgrade’s conduct, but the Kosovo Liberation Army was no different than the usual guerrilla force. Indeed, a U.S. diplomat labeled the KLA a “terrorist” organization.

Although the conflict was ugly, over the years most European states had combated one or another secessionist movement. Moreover, in global terms, Kosovo was minor, a tiny horror compared to, for instance, Sierra Leone, in which an estimated quarter of a million people died. But the media always gives greater attention to the killing of white Europeans than to the killing of people of color elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Washington decided to intervene, attempting to impose a settlement on Yugoslavia that would have effectively stripped Belgrade not only of effective control over Kosovo, but also of much of the government’s authority throughout the rest of the country (mandating free access to NATO forces in all of Yugoslavia). Milosevic unsurprisingly said no, so in March 1999 the Clinton administration decided on war. The world’s most powerful alliance launched an unprovoked, aggressive attack against one of Europe’s smallest and poorest nations – which had not assaulted or even threatened either the U.S. or any of its allies. After 78 days of bombing, Yugoslavia conceded Kosovo, allowing the U.S. and its allies, joined by Russia in a last-minute military charge into Pristina, to occupy Kosovo.

However, the victors left Kosovo’s final status to be decided in the future. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which provided ex post facto ratification for NATO’s war, affirmed Serbia’s authority and mandated interim international control to “facilitate a political process designed to determine Kosovo’s future status.” The process is about to come to an end.

Unfortunately, Western officials, starting with then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright, developed policy in a fantasy world. They underestimated Serbian nationalism, and therefore expected a couple of days of bombing to bring Belgrade to heel; when that didn’t happen, all they could think of doing was to continue bombing, even as meaningful targets were eliminated.

Even worse, however, Washington and its allies believed that they would be able to concoct a multi-ethnic Kosovo in which Albanians and Serbs would join hands singing “Kumbaya” around communal camp fires. In fact, having used their American-supplied air force to eject the Serb military, the victorious ethnic Albanians saw no need to compromise to preserve the ethnic Serb population. Quite the contrary, the most vocal (and violent) Albanians wanted the Serbs to leave.

Needless to say, the intervening years have not been pretty. Shortly after the war ended, Secretary Albright declared: “Another key issue is whether the new Kosovo will include its ethnic Serb, Roma, and other minorities, and whether they will be able to live safely now that Belgrade’s forces have withdrawn.” With unintended irony, she added, “We will measure our success by whether the rights of all those who choose to live in Kosovo are respected.”

At that very moment America’s allies, the Albanian majority, were conducting ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, kicking out most Serbs, Jews, Roma, and even non-Albanian Muslims. As upwards of 200,000 people were fleeing Kosovo, Albright was telling the Council on Foreign Relations in America that the allied occupation force “takes seriously its mandate to protect Kosovars, including Serbs. And its effectiveness will increase as deployment continues, and demilitarization gains steam.”

But Western rule did little to stem endemic violence, crime, and instability. Isolated Serbs were regularly killed, beaten, and kidnapped. Even Serbian enclaves were vulnerable to drive-by shootings. All told, some 900 Serbs are believed to have been killed since 1999. Attacks eventually diminished, largely because most of the Serbs had fled. Just 120 of 40,000 Serbs remain in the capital of Pristina, for instance. Almost all ethnic Serbs live in enclaves, many isolated within majority Albanian areas.

However, any Serb who travels outside an enclave does so at his own risk. At the quasi-border between Serbia and Kosovo, most drivers replace their Serbian license plates with ones marked Kosovo. Otherwise, they would risk not only their cars but their lives. (Some clueless British tourists recently were roughed up and their car was destroyed because the vehicle had been rented in Belgrade.)

Persistent low-level violence exploded into brutal anti-Serb riots in March 2004. A series of coordinated assaults, staged by as many as 50,000 people, killed 19, injured about 1,000 more, displaced 4,000 Serbs, destroyed 36 churches and monasteries, torched numerous homes and farms, and vandalized cemeteries. Today, many Serbs driven from their homes remain in small camps, unemployed and living in shipping containers.

With only slight overstatement, many Serbs called the series of attacks an Albanian Kristallnacht, mimicking the infamous Nazi assault on Jews. Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber said, “This was the biggest security test for NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo since 1999, when minorities were forced from their homes as the international community looked on. But they failed the test.”

No surprise, the violence did not encourage ethnic reconciliation. Derek Chappell, spokesman for the UN military force, UNMIK, observed, “[S]ome in the Kosovo Albanian leadership believe that by cleansing all remaining Serbs from the area … and destroying Serbian cultural sites, they can present the international community with a fait accompli.” Even the International Crisis Group (ICG), which believes in a multilateral response to every problem, acknowledged that the rampage “shattered international confidence that the Albanians were committed to a tolerant society,” confidence that obviously was never justified.

So many violent incidents should yield a prosecution-rich environment, but not so. Despite occasional international hand-wringing, few of those responsible even for murder have been prosecuted. Marek Antoni Nowicki, former international ombudsman for Kosovo, acknowledged last month that “in Kosovo police can find information on who committed a crime, but they can’t get evidence and witnesses. No one wants to testify, because testifying in Kosovo, not just about ethnically motivated crimes, is very dangerous.”

Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has conceded, “This relatively weak response … not only contributes to the impression of impunity among the population for such kinds of ethnically motivated crimes but may also be considered inadequate to prevent similar acts of public disorder in the future.” Similarly, the ICG warns that “the possibility of a repeat lurks in the background of all players’ final status calculations.”

While the Albanian political leadership did not publicly support the attacks, its complicity seems probable: former guerrilla leaders, some accused of wartime atrocities, run the government. And their goals likely remain unchanged from 1999. Acknowledges the ICG, “With no vision for the future of Serbs in Kosovo, one might suspect that the latent Albanian hope is that they will all eventually sell out and leave.” The Washington Post captured this attitude when it quoted an 18-year-old ethnic Albanian cigarette vendor: “Really, the Serbs ought to go back to Serbia.”

The ethnic Albanian leadership also has been implicated in the explosion of organized crime, including drug dealing, money laundering, and sex trafficking. Maria Kalavis, UNICEF’s regional director for Southeast Europe, recently warned, “We know that child trafficking within Kosovo’s borders is on the rise.” Some have referred to Kosovo as the “black hole” of Europe.

Although Islam was never much of a factor in the past, radical Islam appears to be on the rise. There has been an influx of Saudi money, which has underwritten many of the 200 mosques constructed since 1999; on a recent trip, I saw a Saudi flag flying over a mosque. Christian converts have been threatened, and some analysts believe that terrorists have infiltrated the Balkans through Kosovo as well as Bosnia. Thomas Gambill, a onetime OSCE security official, has observed, “My biggest concern has always been the incursion of radical Islam into the area.”

Imagine the possibilities: Kosovo, the newest tourist donation! “Sex, crime, terrorism, it’s all there,” one U.S. diplomat recently told me.

All told, even the most optimistic assessment of Kosovo’s progress suggests a disappointing record after years of tutelage in democracy by the “international community.” At a congressional hearing in May, Charles English of the State Department stated, “Discrimination remains a serious problem. Access to public services is uneven. Incidents of harassment still occur. Freedom of movement is limited. And too many minorities still feel unsafe in Kosovo.” Similarly, Joseph Griebowski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy argues that “the present record of rule of law, protection of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and the return/resettlement of internally displaced people by the Provisional Authority of Kosovo – all of which are indispensable for democratic governance – have been gravely unsatisfactory.”

Even Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy head, and Kai Eide, the UN’s special envoy, last year criticized Kosovo’s failure to meet the political benchmarks necessary for gaining independence. Earlier this year, the ICG, which continues to push for an independent Kosovo, warned, “The international community’s immediate priority is to avert a new exodus of Serbs, new Albanian-Serb clashes, or a new wave of burning houses and churches.” Kosovo hardly sounds ready for primetime.

But the facts on the ground appear to have little impact on allied policy. The Western powers are now preparing to declare victory and leave – with a planned celebratory lap for good measure. They once advanced a policy of standards before status. More recently, however, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, advocated “standards and status.”

The subtle shift reflects the fact that the allies, which privately recognize the insoluble mess that they created, desperately want out, and that means giving Kosovo what it wants. The Contact Group (U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia) in January 2006 stated that there should be “no return of Kosovo to the pre-1999 situation, no partition of Kosovo, and no union of Kosovo with any or part of another country.”

Kofi Annan selected former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari as UN special envoy to oversee talks on Kosovo’s future, and the latter is thought by many to have promised ethnic Albanians independence. Along the way, he made his bias known, suggesting that the Serbs were collectively guilty for Milosevic’s misbehavior. And Ahtisaari, along with other allied leaders, have continually browbeat Serbia to accept Kosovo’s independence.

Western journalists and analysts have provided a background drumbeat. Typical was Tod Lindberg of Policy Review, who contended that “Serbia needs to decide whether its future is Western integration or instead a return to dead-end nationalist politics.” Daniel Serwer of the U.S.-funded United States Institute of Peace cheerfully opined, “Serbs will resent the loss of Kosovo, but it is not a vital national interest and they will get over it, as they have quickly got over the loss of Montenegro.”

In short, the recent negotiations have been a pious fraud, intended to offer a veneer of legitimacy for a decision made long ago.

But Belgrade has not been willing to play along. The latest round of UN-sponsored talks on Kosovo recently ended with no agreement. Deadlock impends. Observes Albert Rohan, in charge of the Vienna negotiations, “We could talk for another 10 years and not change anything.” Ahtisaari says that an agreement is not in the cards, “at least not in my lifetime.”

The official villain is obvious. For instance, the Contact Group has denounced Serbia’s “obstruction.” Morton Abramowitz and Mark L. Schneider, both associated with the ICG, argue that even if Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica “continues to stonewall,” independence should be granted. The reason? The Serbs are being intransigent in offering everything short of independence. (Even Ahtisaari admits that the Serbs “would agree to anything but independence.”) In contrast, the Albanians are demonstrating flexibility in demanding nothing but independence. (Kosovo “President” Fatmir Sejdiu declared independence “the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of our position.”) It is like living in a Star Trek parallel universe.

All through this international farce the Western allies cheerfully retained the pretense of objectivity. Even as it denounced Belgrade, the Contact Group called for “a negotiated settlement.” Undersecretary Burns stated, “One of the primary factors that concerns us going into these negotiations is that, at the end of them, neither side emerges as a loser in the process.” But he fooled no one. The ethnic Albanians know the West is desperate to get out. They have no reason to make any concessions beyond formalistic promises to respect the Serb minority, promises that are unlikely to be kept by the Albanians or enforced by the allies.

There is no simple, fair, and just solution to Kosovo’s final status. The ethnic Albanians understandably don’t want to live under Serb rule. The ethnic Serbs understandably don’t want to live under Albanian rule. Majority rule favors ethnic Albanians, but the steady population shift from Serb to Albanian last century reflected political decisions by the communist government as well as natural demographics.

None of Kosovo’s neighbors, save Albania, favors independence. Many of them have their own ethnic Albanian populations, some of which also desire independence or incorporation into a greater Albania. Indeed, the “principle” of Kosovar independence would have widespread implications, reaching from Bosnia’s Serbs to Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia to Spain’s Basques to Taiwan and even to America – some Mexicans call southern California, grabbed by the U.S. after its victory in the Mexican-American War, “Aztl├ín,” and predict its eventual reconquest through immigration. Writes National Interest editor Nikolas Gvosdev, “there are very real concerns that the Kosovo question, if mishandled, will prove to be destabilizing not only for the region, but for the international system as a whole.”

The least satisfactory answer at the present time is independence. Establishing the precedent of international intervention to stop ongoing bloodshed is problematic enough. Establishing the precedent of international intervention to dismember another sovereign state is worrisome indeed.

It would be even worse to do so based on the illusion that the “international community” can forcibly engineer a federal state that protects minority rights. For instance, the ICG speaks of “forging an inclusive, multi-ethnic state identity for Kosovo, as a tool to engage minority communities and the European Union.” The Washington-based Alliance for a New Kosovo dreamily predicted, “At the time when the prospective ‘clash of civilizations’ between the West and Islam is widely feared, the creation of a Muslim-majority secular state, tolerant of all ethnic peoples regardless of personal creed, would be viewed as a victory for the national values espoused by the United States and the nations of the European Union.”

In fact, independence almost certainly means more ethnic cleansing. A top U.S. official in Kosovo told me on my recent visit that he figures not a Serb would remain within five or 10 years after independence. That is, granting Kosovo independence would mean the completion of the process of ethnic cleansing that began seven years ago. Worse, since the West has been in charge, granting independence would mean ratifying the very process that the allies went to war to prevent.

Perhaps worst of all, however, if the West imposes independence, it will be doing so in response to the threat of violence. Ethnic Albanian unrest is palpable. The group Self-Determination! has been organizing nonviolent protests against the UN (some demonstrators have gone to jail, unlike the killers of hapless Serbs). More ominously, a so-called Kosovo Independence Army already has begun threatening UNMIK personnel and destroying occupation vehicles. Adem Demaci, a leading ethnic Albanian politician, last year warned of “violence of such dimensions that 17 March 2004 will be forgotten” if the West does not grant independence. The speaker of Kosovo’s legislature announced in September that “if our aim of independence is not realized, then citizen’s revolts are expected.” Western officials privately acknowledge that they fear violent unrest if they don’t grant independence.

In order to get around this rather embarrassing dilemma, Western governments are talking about conditional independence, that is, independence only after ethnic Albanians meet certain standards. Proponents of this “solution” may be criminally naive; more likely, they are simply seeking the least publicly embarrassing strategy to get out of Kosovo.

However, despite all the right public promises from Albanian officials to respect the rights of minorities, there is little reason to believe popular attitudes have changed. Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) of Raska and Prizren sadly observes that “crimes happened not just seven years ago but are happening now as we speak.” One resident of a refugee camp who fled deadly mobs two years ago told me that “we see people living in our homes and sleeping in our beds talking about how good democracy is.”

And if seven years of tutelage by the allies under military occupation isn’t enough to teach the majority Albanian community democratic manners, what more can the allies do? The ICG has plaintively called on the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to use its remaining time, after seven years of failure, to “create at least a little more democratic space, limit the entrenchment of kleptocracy, and encourage incorporation into the system of new political blood.” Good luck.

Nor will tough conditions imposed as part of the independence process likely be enforced. Everyone knows that the allies will not get tough and block independence; they are even less likely to return the territory to Belgrade if the ethnic Albanian majority violates its promises. The West has done little enough to protect the Serbian community while occupying Kosovo. They won’t even have the theoretical ability to act with a minimal military presence in an independent Kosovo. Moreover, even before independence has been granted, the ICG is campaigning to create a Kosovo military (of course, “both the legacy of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army and those linked to organized crime, must be minimized” and minorities must be protected – presumably as they are today). The supposed humanitarian crusaders of 1999 simply want to withdraw their 17,000 troops and go home.

The most important barrier to the West’s cynical game is winning UN approval for Kosovo’s independence. Even as the U.S. and Europeans decided on independence, their relationship with Russia deteriorated, raising the possibility that Moscow might block independence. China, aware of the implications for Taiwan, also might oppose Serbia’s forcible dismemberment. If either power vetoes an allied UN resolution to grant independence, the Balkans will go from a regional to a global problem.

However, the allies still have time to step back from the brink. They should restart the negotiations, insisting that they really are negotiations. The ethnic Albanians should understand that intransigence does not guarantee victory.

The fact that there is no obvious plan to satisfy everyone should impel the two sides and interested outside parties to think creatively about mechanisms to meet the other side’s strongest interests and objections. For instance, one proposal would grant ethnic Albanians citizenship in an authority subject to EU governance even while living in a Kosovo administered by Serbia. A system of parallel citizenship in the same territory might be awkward, but it offers one approach that breaks free of the independence/autonomy stalemate.

Equally important, the allies should drop multiculturalism as an objective. Last year, Undersecretary Burns told Congress that “failure to secure a multi-ethnic Kosovo would be a failure” of years of effort. No, failure to achieve a solution widely accepted as legitimate that allows all Kosovars to live in peace and promotes regional stability would be a failure. The allies have no warrant to force people who hate each other to live together.

One proposal, disliked by Washington, is to leave the Serb-dominated city of Mitrovica, and adjoining territory north of the Irba River, with Belgrade while granting Kosovo independence. The idea horrifies Western officials. Joachim Rucker, head of the UN’s civil administration in Kosovo, says that it will “resolutely” prevent secession. Partition within partition may or may not be a good idea, but Western officials pushing to partition Serbia are in no position to object to it in principle.

If the allies are determined to grant independence, allowing the Serb-dominated north to join with Serbia is the only way to protect the bulk of Kosovo’s remaining Serbs. Indeed, Mitrovica Serbs have developed their own institutions, rather as the ethnic Albanians responded to Serbian rule in the 1990s. Even the ICG acknowledges that a foreign occupation would be necessary after independence, since “leaving a new Kosovo government to try to incorporate the north would invite a violent breakdown.”

Which presumably means the allies would use military force to make the Serbs submit – an ugly prospect for countries loudly and sanctimoniously proclaiming their commitment to self-determination and democracy. What’s the alternative? The ICG proposes that the occupation forces “make a more determined effort to educate Serbs and Albanians in Mitrovica about developments and conditions on the other side of the Ibar divide by supporting new public information programs and encouraging relevant news about the other in their respective media.” A PR campaign?

Well, a PR campaign might be better than sending actress Nicole Kidman. The UN’s “goodwill ambassador” recently visited Kosovo to, in her words, “learn so that I can help your country at this crucial, crucial time for the future, to meet people, hear their stories and educate myself, and I suppose be a voice for you if you need it.” Yes, let Nicole Kidman sort everything out.

Washington should never have intervened in the Balkans. The region was a minor interest to Europe and of virtually no importance to America. The allies managed to replace ethnic cleansing with ethnic cleansing and, more than seven years after their glorious victory, have no idea how to finish their international project. At this point the West’s primary goal should be to not make the problem worse, as would forcibly dismembering Kosovo and creating a potential failed state. Kosovo offers the U.S. a foreign policy model of what not to do: intervene in a distant civil war of no geopolitical concern to America.