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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON KOSOVO

Support of Rebels Was a Mistake

We must own up to our responsibility concerning the conflict that is raging in the Balkans.

April 11, 1999|ALAN J. KUPERMAN | Alan J. Kuperman, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a doctoral candidate at MIT

To limit the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo and its destabilizing consequences for the Balkans and beyond, the Clinton administration needs to acknowledge its own culpability--and that of the Kosovo Liberation Army--for today's disastrous situation.

The administration claims that it was Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic who last year shattered Kosovo's peace, that he always planned to eliminate the Albanian population and that his recent campaign of ethnic cleansing was not caused or exacerbated by U.S. threats and attacks. Such propaganda may sometimes be justified in time of war, but in Kosovo it obscures lessons vital to an exit strategy.

Honest history is revealing. In 1989, Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy on grounds that majority ethnic Albanians were oppressing Serbs. The charges were genuine, but his reaction was excessive and politically motivated. Ethnic Albanians were dismissed from government jobs, subjected to police harassment and forced to speak Serbo-Croatian in state schools--a nadir for Kosovo's autonomy.

By 1991, however, Albanians began to recapture de facto political and cultural autonomy through an ingenious strategy of parallel institutions: private schools teaching in Albanian, an elected shadow government, separate tax and health care systems. Eschewing violence, Kosovo's Albanians declared independence and ignored Belgrade's sovereignty, boycotting state elections, taxes and schools.

Such passive resistance was the brainchild of President Ibrahim Rugova, who sought to avoid the ethnic cleansing endured by Croatia and Bosnia when those republics militantly seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991-92. Remarkably, Milosevic tolerated the Kosovo Albanians' recrudescent autonomy and their vibrant media critical of his rule. From 1989 to 1997, Milosevic made no move toward ethnic cleansing, genocide or civil war in Kosovo.

What changed was the emergence of radical fringe Albanians frustrated by Rugova's peaceful, evolutionary approach to independence. The KLA acquired arms loosed by Albania's 1997 civil war and began shooting Serbian police. Morally equivalent to Palestinian Hamas or the Kurdish PKK, these extremists used deadly violence against not just the discriminatory government and civilian Serbs but also against moderate ethnic Albanians who dared to pursue peaceful solutions. Milosevic responded, as have our allies Israel and Turkey in their cases, with disproportionate retaliation that hurt the rebels but also terrified the population.

Had the U.S. stood aside, the KLA could have been contained with limited displacement and killing of civilians--an imperfect but acceptable solution. Instead, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced: "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia." Building on this inappropriate analogy, U.S. policy emboldened the rebels, radicalized the Albanian populace, marginalized Rugova and prompted Milosevic to escalate his crackdown.

Albright compounded the mistake by siding with the rebels in peace negotiations, threatening to bomb Serbia unless it accepted NATO ground troops, which would ensure Kosovo's unilateral secession in three years. Milosevic responded with preparations to maintain Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo through ethnic cleansing. A chance remained for President Clinton to avert tragedy by withdrawing the ultimatum in return for Serbian restraint, but he insisted on bombing, forcing Milosevic's hand.

Now in the endgame, the administration must acknowledge its past errors to avoid compounding them. It should understand that Milosevic was tolerating large elements of Kosovo Albanian autonomy and probably would again if the threat of militant secession were removed. Through quiet diplomacy, the U.S. should offer to suspend bombing if Milosevic will take back unarmed refugees, accept a non-NATO peacekeeping force and constrain his own forces to patrolling Kosovo's international borders. This would be "defeat," but only for an ill-advised policy, not NATO itself.

The KLA is an obstacle to peace and must be marginalized. Arming the rebels would only perpetuate war and spread instability. Finally, because the U.S. spearheaded the policy that provoked Kosovo's ethnic cleansing, we primarily should bear the refugee burden--financing repatriation and rebuilding, and providing asylum for leaders vulnerable to reprisal.

Milosevic might reject this generous compromise. NATO then would have to weigh the merits of absorbing the refugees versus a ground offensive that could produce thousands of casualties and entail a decades-long occupation. But Milosevic knows that the West's aversion to accepting refugees is the one thing that might drive us to accept the costs and risks of a ground war, so he probably is willing to settle for peace. Are we?

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