Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Risks of Talk

KLA fighters have little faith in the Rambouillet negotiations. Convinced that the differences are too great, they expect the process to collapse, and fresh hostilities to erupt.
By Fron Nazi

At a packed café in the centre of Tirana, two representatives of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) are seated quietly at a corner table. Dressed casually in dark slacks and long coats, and puffing habitually on cigarettes, there is little to distinguish them from the crowd. But while other patrons, Albanians from Albania proper, discuss the daily hardships of Albania--continuous blackouts, lack of running water, government corruption--only the KLA men heatedly discuss the outcome of the Rambouillet negotiations on Kosovo.

In Albania, the Yugoslav province is simply not a burning issue. People do not spend too much time debating it, even though it gains a heavy dose of media coverage. Off the record, most Albanian political leaders even admit that there is not much that they can do about it. Tirana can and does push for self-determination for Kosovo Albanians before international organisations such as the UN and the EU, and senior political figures make occasional statements about the right of Albanians to defend themselves. But otherwise, it has had very limited direct political influence over either the KLA or even, for that matter, Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo.

Given the difficult circumstances in Albania, the local KLA representatives insist that the best form of assistance is the one that Tirana has been providing: non-involvement. This has allowed both Tirana and the KLA to attend to their own affairs, without too many complications arising between them. Potential problems could include international concern over supposed "Greater Albania" designs or domestic discontent if Tirana was seen to pay more attention to Albanians in Yugoslavia than those at home. Tirana’s discretion, combined with the low profile of the KLA within Albania, appears to have helped win the moral support for Kosovo from many local Albanians. This is also reflected in pro-KLA articles and programmes that have appeared in both the political-party and independent media.

KLA representatives express particular satisfaction at the appointment of Hashim Thaci, a KLA commander in Kosovo, as the head of the Kosovo Albanian delegation at Rambouillet along with Rugova and Rexhep Qosje, chairman of the United Democratic League. According to one field officer, "the nomination of Thaci was a clear sign to the Kosovars and to the West that the KLA shall determine the future of Kosova."

The appointment might prove to be something of a Trojan Horse for the KLA, however. Both Western Europe and the US have made it abundantly clear that independence for Kosovo is not up for discussion. Consequently, the acceptance of anything short of independence by the Thaci-led delegation will directly implicate the KLA in "selling out" over Kosovo.

Indeed, many observers were surprised by the KLA’s decision to participate in the talks. It seems that the KLA could only emerge as the losers from a process predicated on ruling out independence and deploying NATO forces in support of a political structure likely to be headed by Rugova. But according to the two representatives in Tirana, the KLA agreed to take part in the talks for two main reasons. First, by demonstrating a willingness to engage in dialogue, it wished once and for all to end comparisons with the Serb forces, whom they consider to be a criminal entity. Second, by demonstrating a willingness to work with the Western powers, the KLA hoped to illustrate the reasonableness (and ultimately win the acceptance) of its main position, namely that the only solution to the Kosovo problem is full independence.

Whatever the immediate strategizing, the KLA representatives are convinced that the Rambouillet meetings will not produce a long-term solution. They believe the fundamental differences between Serbs and Albanians over control of the province are too great to be papered over by some complex American-drafted formulas.

In fact, their main immediate concern seems to be over what they consider to be the likely outcome of the talks breaking down, and the West then trying to decide whom to blame. The West has threatened Belgrade with NATO air strikes if it refuses to comply with commitments to end the fighting. But even if NATO does attack, the worst Milosevic would suffer would be the loss of a few military targets, while in return rallying fresh support from the nationalists. If the KLA is seen as the obstacle, however, the West could retaliate by freezing KLA bank accounts, stopping the flow of weapons through Albania or, in an extreme, giving Belgrade a green light to attack KLA positions in Kosovo.

In the end, the key problem for the KLA may be the classical dilemma of any "liberation army" agreeing to a compromise. Sitting later in one of the private houses in Tirana converted into a hospital ward, a KLA commander noted, "Too much Albanian blood has already been spilled for anything less that independence."

The 20 young KLA fighters in the ward have all lost at least one family member at the hand of Serbian forces. Most of the wounded have injuries below the waist, sustained from landmines, sniper fire and shelling. They give the commander self-assessments of their recovery, and when they think they can return to the front. The commander explains that a leave of absence is granted first, and that those with only one male remaining in the family are not allowed back. But he says 90 per cent cut their leave in half and ask to be returned to the field.

The discussion in the hospital ward is constantly interrupted by the ringing of the commander’s mobile phone, alternately taking calls from France and from field troops in Kosovo. He provides one sentence briefings: "The delegation [in Rambouillet] has made it clear they will not accept anything less than independence." "Serbian forces continue to attack civilians, and we have exchanged gunfire." The KLA soldiers do not expect the Rambouillet negotiations to end the fighting, and in reality are anticipating an increase in hostilities after the talks collapse.

Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.