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Holding the Line in Kosovo

July 19, 1998|Jane E. Holl | Jane E. Holl, executive director of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, served on the National Security Council as a director of European affairs under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, from 1991-1994

WASHINGTON — As Kosovar rebels acquire increasing amounts of weaponry, ammunition and experience through tactical triumphs against the Serbian military, Belgrade responds by shelling Kosovar cities. Hundreds of civilians are fleeing the violence. Casualties on both sides are mounting. The fighting, despite repeated efforts by the international community to end it, raises deeply vexing questions: What can be done about the situation? Who should do it?

Kosovo is at a crossroads, and a familiar one. Its situation is eerily reminiscent of the early phases of the war in Bosnia. Three paths lie ahead.

The first is one of persistent, chronic, low-level violence. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will be killed; tens of thousands will be displaced. But people will adapt. The fighting will slip in and out of the international community's consciousness. Such was the pattern in Bosnia, which lasted four years until an uneasy peace was achieved. In Kosovo, so high is the enmity that unless a breakthrough is made soon, fighting could continue for years and descend into that special hell known as generational warfare.

The second is one of dramatically expanding violence. Standard predictions of "Kosovo contagion" see the war spreading to Albania and Macedonia, potentially involving Greece and Turkey, two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization already antagonized over Cyprus and the Aegean. Also possible is the disturbing prospect that, as the NATO force in Bosnia downsizes and the Serbs are distracted in Kosovo, leaders in Bosnia might miscalculate and wrongly see an opportunity to undo Bosnia's de facto partition. Sandzak Muslims could move to secede from Serbia and join Bosnia, and Bosnian Croats could exploit the situation to break away. Thus, violence could erupt anew in Bosnia, despite the presence of some 30,000 NATO troops.

Western states will not permit this scenario to materialize, for while they may be unsure about how to deal with the violence in Kosovo, they are certain that the fighting cannot entangle NATO members or jeopardize what has been achieved in Bosnia. Here, preserving the Dayton accords and the reputation of the alliance leave little energy or sympathy for the Kosovars, whom many in the West suspect of trying to provoke a wider war to draw in outside help.

Belgrade ceasing its attacks and engaging in real dialogue with the moderate Kosovar leadership to yield limited political autonomy for Kosovo is the final path. The Kosovars will want to assure themselves that autonomy will not be as easily swept away as in 1989, when President Slobodan Milosevic engineered a change in Yugoslavia's constitution. The only acceptable assurance will likely be the presence of an international force.

As in Bosnia, steady engagement by the international community is necessary: vital now to keep Milosevic at the negotiating table; strengthen the hand of Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova and his supporters against militants who want independence, and to provide the essential economic and military elements, including a peacekeeping force, to make it possible for both parties to settle.

This path is viable because positions have not yet hardened to all-or-nothing stances and, despite the advances of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), moderate leadership is in charge in Pristina. The conflict, moreover, is a live political issue in Washington and in European capitals, chiefly because of its potential to threaten the peace in Bosnia. The United Nations also is likely to remain diligent, especially if Serb shelling of Kosovar cities continues in defiance of international demands. Sustained media interest will help keep policy-makers accountable.

At this stage, the United States must stay clearly in the lead, even in this "European" problem. For the past 50 years, the states of Western Europe have cast their security lot with America, and the United States with them through NATO. Especially now, preventing a Balkan conflagration is a burden for NATO, and leadership of NATO is a burden for the United States. The United States, furthermore, is the international player most exposed on the Kosovo problem because of its strong rhetoric, its high-profile diplomatic engagement and its decisive role at Dayton. It is most capable of mobilizing international action, including military strikes, should they prove necessary. But it can do so only from a position of leadership.

To lead, Washington should mold its policy around a preventive strategy to defuse the potential in Kosovo for open warfare. It should not require that efforts also resolve the root causes of the unrest. Outside action cannot substitute for the steps leaders in Kosovo and Serbia must take on their own behalf, but it can create the conditions to permit the necessary movement to avoid violence. What should be done?

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