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Rambouillet and Aftermath: Kosovo Fudge

In the end, fudge won. After an intensive two-week session enduring ‘chateau fever’, and some serious last-minute tension, Serbian and Albanian negotiating parties at the Kosovo talks in France came to a "provisional understanding" on the outlines of a de
By Anthony Borden

The framework for the disputed Yugoslav province remains the same as a month ago. But despite threats of NATO air strikes, nothing has been sealed. Neither did the process collapse, however, and the details are to be confirmed, in expectation of a signing ceremony in the coming weeks. So the drama of war or peace in the southern Balkans will linger.

Such a deal over Kosovo was always going to be a patched-up affair at best, however, and renewed conflict was destined to remain a serious possibility regardless. The Rambouillet talks are expected to deliver some kind of increased autonomy for Kosovo Albanians, confirmation of Yugoslavia’s sovereign borders, and deployment of up to 30,000 NATO troops within the province.

But this leaves the fundamental issues of the conflict unresolved. Thus like the Dayton agreement for Bosnia, a complex formula for western involvement to stabilize the conflict masks fundamental contradictions in the approach which will bedevil the peace process, and the West, for a considerable time to come.

Like Bosnia, too, the contradictions have in many ways been a trap the West set for itself. The main problem has been simple lack of resolve. Kosovo has been the most foretold conflict of the decade, yet throughout the long period of Yugoslav crises, it was given only the most minimal attention.

A subcommittee in a peace conference here, a rider to an accord there, an occasional public statement, or State Department meeting there. But little else. In particular, the opportunity to encourage alternative political approaches, within Serbia generally and also among Kosovo Albanians, was squandered. Many observers cite the Albanians’ complete exclusion from the Dayton peace talks as the trigger for their new violent radicalism.

The lack of any serious mediation effort over this time allowed the political positions and emotions of the Albanian and Serbian communities to harden, and this has made negotiations particularly difficult. Roughly 90 per cent of the province’s two million population are ethnic Albanians. But since Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia, violently revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1988, it has been controlled through heavy-handed police and military control, with systematic human-rights violations and the closure of Albanian-language media and schools.

The Albanian population, both moderate and radical wings, unanimously supported independence, while Serbs elected radical extremist Vojislav Seselj to represent the province, and Milosevic continued to play Kosovo as a core nationalist rallying card.

This noxious mixture was bound to blow, and as violence erupted in spring 1998, the West continued to dither, sometimes making firm threats, other times seeming to condone Serbian attacks on the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In a sense it is only fitting that the explosion has all-but coincided with NATO’s fiftieth anniversary this spring.

The second problem has been conceptual and legal - and in its own way as damaging. With the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, the West granted independence to all those republics within the federation which requested it: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Montenegro (pop. 600,000), the remaining republic linked to Serbia within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is cautiously setting out its case for independence now, and is being quietly encouraged. The status of the republics was determined by the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

Under the same constitution, Kosovo had almost identical rights as the others. But as a concession at the time to Serbian feelings, it – and a second region, Vojvodina - was deemed a "province", mainly lacking only the theoretical right to secede. The West has fully accepted this distinction, and thus conceived of Kosovo independence not as converting an old internal Yugoslav border into an international one - as occurred with the republics - but rather "redrawing" international borders themselves.

This, of course, is universally opposed by other states, and state-based organisations such as the UN and EU, many of whom face similar issues.

In this way, Kosovo become tied up in the Bosnian quagmire too: if Kosovo can have independence, hard realists ask, why not the Serbian and Croatian territories within Bosnia? This argument neglects the fact that such ‘ethnic territories’ there never had any administrative borders and were formed in the 1992-95 war through genocide.

But it is primarily used only as a negative case, to buttress the case against Kosovo’s independence. Concerns over a potential ‘spillover’ of conflict to neighbouring Macedonia - which also has a large Albanian population - and potential serious follow-on consequences for Albania, Greece and the entire region, also convinced Washington and London not to back the Albanians’ full demand.

The central contradition in Western policy is thus to support the Albanians’ humanitarian aims but at the same time firmly to back Milosevic’s political aims of maintaining Yugoslav sovereignty. This approach in itself encouraged further violence among both sides. And it meant that throughout most of 1998, Western policy was seriously stuck - again as in Bosnia, often lamely blaming the violence on "both sides" while the killings continued. And both have been violent, with the Serb tally of a fundamentally different order.

Whatever the final result, the failure of Rambouillet is in many ways its plain crudeness. Western policy got so stuck, fears of escalated violence so severe, and embarrassment so acute over the prospect of European bloodshed during the very days of NATO’s anniversary celebrations, that the great powers had no other choice but to threaten peace or bombs.

After Dayton and Northern Ireland, such deadlined ‘proximity talks’ are obviously the international mediators mechanism of choice. But the effort to ram home pre-determined agreements under threat (apparently to both sides) of bombing campaigns has been inelegant to say the least.

Much of the jockeying over the two weeks of talks was in fact little more than posturing among all three sides - Serbians, Albanians and the internationals - in order to be able to blame someone else for their failure. If the Serbs could maneurvre the Albanians into an untenable position and make them balk at a deal, then it would have been impossible for the West then to bomb the Serbs.

The Serbian position has primarily been to reject a NATO deployment on Yugoslav soil and rule out any mention of a future referendum on independence. For the Albanians’ part, they have sought to maintain their key demands for a referendum after a three-year transitional period. They have also pressed for the withdrawal of Serbian police and army forces from the province while refusing to disarm the KLA.

In the long-term, Serbia is all but certain to lose Kosovo, and the recent steps taken, while explicitly ruling out independence, still allow the Kosovo Albanians to take a big first step in that direction. While the details of Serbian, Albanian and international force deployments are haggled over, the likely reduction of Serbian control and limitation on movement withon the province is fundamental.

The details of Albanian control over economic and other key governmental matters are also important, but the establishment of a Kosovo administration, including an Albanian-dominated Constitutional Court, is also a fundamental shift.

Among the specifics, most worrying may be the confirmation of Bosnian-style commune-based administrations, which could allow for the establishment of local rival Albanain and Serb power-bases and fuel conflict and division at least on a local level.

Ironically, local Serbs may be winners, as they would seem to do better under international protection than either Albanians or a Milosevic-based regime they also have come to resent. Sadly, by this point the conflict has just gone too far and the cultures are just too different so that any serious concept of multi-cultural co-existince seems utterly unavailable. This could hardly have positive implications for regional democracy.

But prediction is a worthless trade in the Balkans. KLA spokesmen have sworn to continue fighting if independence is not clearly on the cards. The US and NATO are certain to refuse any deployment without a firm agreement. The wildcard as ever remains Milosevic, who probably doesn’t quite know what he wants. Cynical Belgrade observers believe he has long been reconcilied to getting rid of Kosovo - and those annoying Albanians - and is only trying to extract the highest price, including re-entry into the UN and other international institutions.

Enduring a few NATO bombs along the way would only further enhance his patriotic credentials. But if he can string out the process still longer - some see the NATO anniversary as a key deadline after which Western interest will expire - then he is almost certain to try it on. Exhausted and broke as his regime now is, he still plays a pretty fair hand against the distracted West.

Anthony Borden is the executive director of IWPR.

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