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End the 'Dance of Appeasement'

June 21, 1998|Susan Blaustein | Susan Blaustein, who just returned from Bosnia, has written for the New Yorker, the New Republic and the Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON — Once again, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has bought time with promises he is unlikely to keep. Even as he agreed last week, in a meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, to stop all repressive actions against civilians in Kosovo, Milosevic defied the international community's fifth ultimatum to stop the killing there.

Having stood aside and allowed Milosevic to perpetrate a reign of mass murder in Bosnia from 1991-95, the United States and its allies finally seem to be saying that enough is enough. Unfortunately, last week's NATO air show of resolve took place while Contact Group members--the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia--were still trying to puzzle out the political strategy all this firepower was supposed to support. This was not encouraging. The United States and its allies missed a chance in the Balkans before, with lethal consequences; this time, all southern Europe could hang in the balance if they fail again.

Last week in Moscow, Milosevic professed his "adherence to a peaceful resolution," insisting that "there was no kind of ethnic cleansing" going on in Kosovo, indeed, that Serb forces were responsible for "no civilian victims at all." He blames Albanian "terrorist groups" for the deaths of some 350 ethnic Albanian civilians. Even as he spoke, hundreds more Kosovars joined the 80,000 refugees already flooding northern Albania and Macedonia.

Milosevic has refused to withdraw Yugoslav army and security forces from Kosovo, the Contact Group's primary demand. His refusal renders virtually meaningless his other commitments to Yeltsin: to assist refugees in returning home and to permit international monitors and humanitarian missions to enter Kosovo. Although he promised to resume peace talks with Kosovar moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova, Milosevic is well aware that Rugova, who is desperate to staunch his hemorrhaging credibility, has refused to negotiate as long as Yugoslav forces remain in his province. Moreover, Milosevic will not negotiate either with an international mediator present or representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the mushrooming but ill-equipped separatist group resisting Milosevic's offensive.

Milosevic insists on keeping his troops in Kosovo to defend Serbia's rightful claim of sovereignty over its southern province, an area Serbs hold dear as their Jerusalem but have not chosen to live in. The Contact Group, wary of triggering a pro-Milosevic Serbian backlash or emboldening the KLA and ethnic Albanians throughout the southern Balkans to press for some sort of Greater Albania, consistently has opposed independence for Kosovo. Other than that, it's unclear just what the group wants.

In fact, the international community, like its adversary, is buying time. NATO plans for military intervention have not been finalized. The lack of consensus within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Contact Group on how to stop Milosevic has created a kind of "Catch-22": For every proposed action, there is a real fear that blocks implementation. Some European countries simply are reluctant to embark on a series of military initiatives that will cost millions of dollars and risk thousands of lives; others, led by European Union chairman Tony Blair, have insisted on first creating a legal basis for taking military action against a sovereign nation by securing a U.N. Security Council resolution. The Clinton administration has made noises about acting alone if necessary, but nobody believes it will--certainly not Milosevic, who knows an idle threat when he hears one.

In the early 1990s, two U.S. administrations, worried about the potential threat to Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus of a Serb-Kosovar conflagration, warned the Yugoslav president that they would respond with force in Kosovo should he instigate any further conflict there. But that commitment, first expressed by President George Bush in a Dec. 25, 1992, cable and reiterated by Secretary of State Warren Christopher within weeks of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, has not been mentioned since this spring's Serb offensive began, because the Clinton administration made a conscious decision several years ago to allow the warning to erode. Last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who has made the administration's toughest statements on Kosovo, finally erased Bush's "line in the sand" when she told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that, "the Christmas warning has never been made public specifically."

The Clinton administration's approach to the rapidly escalating crisis in Kosovo has been an exercise in compulsive self-delusion, as diplomats have repeatedly dithered, dawdled and pandered to Milosevic by imposing, then removing, wrist-slapping sanctions and rewarding him merely for promising to cut back on his criminal behavior.

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