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Keeping an Uneasy Peace in Kosovo

February 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: 3,000 ethnic Albanians turned out Monday to mourn one of their own: A 35-year-old man who died in a gunfire exchange with peacekeeping troops Sunday. At least ten have been killed in the last two weeks. It’s the worst outbreak of violence in Kosovo since the war ended in June. The casualties have come in the mining town of Mitrovica.

It’s one of the few places left in Kosovo where both Serbs and ethnic Albanians still live together. But there have been seen so many flare-ups between the groups in the last nine months that residents call this town the last battlefield of the war. In June, thousands of ethnic Albanians returned to the town that they’d been driven out of by the Serbs. They proceeded to loot and burn Serb and gypsy homes.

Two months later, hundreds of ethnic Albanians clashed with members of the international peacekeeping force known as K-FOR, demanding to return to their homes in the Serb part of town. K-FOR troops have been in Kosovo since June. The NATO alliance split the province into five regions, assigning 2,000 French troops to the northern sector. That’s home to 50,000 Serbs, about half of all the Serbs left in Kosovo.

Now K-FOR soldiers stand watch over this bridge where the Ibar River below divides the city both geographically and ethnically. Mostly ethnic Albanians live to the South; Serbs to the North. The latest round of clashes began February 2 when two elderly Serbs were killed in a grenade attack on a U.N. bus. Two days later, K-FOR troops took more aggressive measures after an apparent counter-attack killed seven Kosovo Albanian.

For the next several days, hundreds of Albanians vented their anger toward K-FOR troops, claiming they were biased in favor of the Serbs. The violence intensified Sunday during the shooting exchange that claimed the life of the 35- year-old Albanian. One of the wounded in that incident described the scene.

BAHRI OSMANI, Wounded Albanian: (Translated) I was on my way to buy some bread. I saw seven Serbs on the street but just across the road there were French K-FOR troops. Suddenly, I heard a bomb exploding and lost consciousness.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, about 1,000 ethnic Albanians fled their homes in northern Mitrovica. They crossed the bridge over the Ibar into the South, saying they were threatened by the Serbs in the North.

ABIDE BESELI, Albanian Woman: (Translated) They broke the windows of the houses yesterday. They tried to get in the house all day, then we received some letters saying that the deadline is today at noon to leave otherwise we will be killed.

RAY SUAREZ: For its part, K-FOR has sent British, Greek, and other reinforcements to Mitrovica to supplement the French troops there.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on keeping the order in Kosovo, we turn to Daniel Serwer, Balkans director at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former Special U.S. Envoy to the Bosnian Federation; Jeffrey Gedmin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, a nonprofit organization to promote democracy; and Ivo Daalder, European affairs analyst on the National Security Council from 1995 to 1996 and now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution. He’s the author of the recently released book “Getting to Dayton.” Daniel Serwer, Kosovo has not been on the front pages in the last couple of months and the last time a lot of Americans looked, NATO troops were going in there to help Albanians go home and to protect them from Serbs. Now it sounds like different people need protection at different times and in different places, not quite so clear-cut a story is it?

DANIEL SERWER: No, it’s not. There are extremists on both sides who would like to do in the other side. And that’s what you’re seeing in Mitrovica. You Serb extremists strongly supported by the Milosevic regime. The northern part of Kosovo is not really under the control of the NATO troops or of the U.N.. It’s really under the control of paramilitaries and police that have been infiltrated there by Milosevic. And you’re seeing Albanian extremists clashing with them. Both sets of extremists have similar objectives. They want to polarize the situation as much as possible. The Serbs, because the U.N. mission to collapse; the Albanians, in order to chase the Serbs out of Kosovo.

RAY SUAREZ: But when you say Serbs infiltrated in, Kosovo is still part of Yugoslavia, isn’t it? Aren’t they just in another part of their own country?

DANIEL SERWER: It is but the U.N. Is supposed to be exercising sovereignty there and there aren’t supposed to be any Serb security forces commanded by Belgrade in Kosovo at the moment. Can’t make peace there if the warring parties are still present especially if they’re present in a way that is disruptive of what the U.N. is trying to achieve.

RAY SUAREZ: Ivo Daalder, why the violence now? Have there been periods of quiet and then a sudden convulsive flare-up or has it been all along problematic?

IVO DAALDER: Metrovica has been problematic right from the start of the KFOR entry back to last June. It’s basically the last battle of the Kosovo war. We’ve had since June the massive return of Albanian refugees, the fleeing of some hundred, 120,000 Serbs as a result of the return of the refugees. Since then a trickle of Serbs have left and some, in fact, have come back. But in Mitrovica and the river, at the Ibar River, the stand-off has continued almost from day one between Serbs and Albanians both because there are extremists as Dan said but also because this is the one place, the one city, in which Serbs and Albanians still live — in fact, which Albanians still live in quite large numbers in the Serb part. That is what both sides want to end, violently if necessary.

RAY SUAREZ: Do Serbs who complain that NATO hasn’t recognized enough that they need to be protected from the Albanians have a point?

IVO DAALDER: They have a point, and the Albanians have a point when they’re not being protected from the Serbs. I mean, what we see is a basic conflict between Serbs and Albanians that has been going on violently now for a year, almost two years, and in Mitrovica in which they’re still living in apartments and streets in which there are Albanians in one apartment and Serbs in other apartments. That has been a problem here and it hasn’t been really solved. It’s very difficult to solve unless we put a soldier in every single apartment to protect these people.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gedmin, you heard Mr. Serwer talk about infiltration of security forces back into the northern part of Kosovo. Why would the Milosevic government want so badly to hold on to this part of the province in particular? Is there something valuable about Mitrovica?

JEFFREY GEDMIN: Well, First of all he wants to control whatever he can control, and he wants to destabilize whatever he can destabilize, and it also happens that if there’s a valuable part in terms of minerals and resources, and it’s all relative, it is the northern part. So this is what he’s after, absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, what about the NATO mission? Where does that stand? Are we looking… Are the nations involved looking at a limitless involvement there, a commitment that may go on for many, many years to come?

JEFFREY GEDMIN: Yes. I don’t think there’s any question. The honest answer is yes. It was a very ugly war. And we shouldn’t be shocked that it’s a very ugly peace. In some ways, Ray, I don’t think it’s unlike Somalia. An intervention to feed hungry people or to stop killing is one thing, but what we’re trying to do now is immeasurably more difficult. We’re trying to build a multi-ethnic democracy and civil society in conditions where many– maybe not all– but many of the Kosovar Albanians and many of the Serbs do not want to live together. This is a tough situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Daniel Serwer, can we even call them peacekeepers? Is there a peace to keep?

DANIEL SERWER: Well, there is some peace to keep and the situation is clearly better than it was a few months ago, but the challenges are big. I wanted to note that the violence in Mitrovica was spurred in part by a desire of some moderate Serbs, democratically oriented Serbs, to enter the U.N. administration. And this is something that Milosevic particularly wants to avoid because it would legitimize the U.N. administration and make it possible or make it look like it might be the first step towards a multi-ethic society in Kosovo. Actually, the violence in Mitrovica, I think, the timing of it, has to do with this desire of moderate Serbs to move to an accommodation with the U.N. administration.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve all been talking so much about police action. Part of the NATO mission, as it was spelled out as KFOR went in, was to help set up things like local municipal courts, registrars of deeds, local assemblies and city councils. Has that part of the mission worked, Ivo Daalder?

IVO DAALDER: Not yet. We’ve been there for eight months. In those eight months, some very basic things had to happen. 800,000 Albanians were living in squalor in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albanian. They had to come back. A basic infrastructure had to be built to transport 55,000 troops into the region. They had to find ways to live and places to live. People had to have housing. Many didn’t. In fact, the U.N. standard was one warm room with a roof over your head per family. Those had to be built. It’s only now, as we’ve approached the spring, that you can start moving on the political and on the judicial side.

RAY SUAREZ: But with the current problems, could that work even begin? When you’re still keeping people from killing each other, it’s hard to ask them to vote for a local sheriff.

IVO DAALDER: Absolutely. This is not a problem here of having a better court or a better police system and then all of a sudden we can go home. We have a basic security problem that resides in the fact that the Albanians and the Serbs don’t like each other. In fact, they hate each other. They are being stoked for political and other reasons, be it from Belgrade or be it from extremists within the Albanian community, to fight each other, to create security problems, for KFOR, for themselves and for others. That’s a fundamental problem and that is going to be preoccupying us at least through this year and well into next year before we can even start thinking about a more basic issues of creating a political administration, creating a judicial infrastructure. Even then, in my view, you’re not going to be able to see any time soon an integration of Serbs and Albanians living alongside each other deciding how to govern themselves in a peaceful way. This has been a very ugly period that we’ve gone through and it is going to take a long time before Serbs and Albanians are going to be living and walking down the same street again.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gedmin, are you optimistic about a civil society?

JEFFREY GEDMIN: I’m not optimistic but I’m not pessimistic. I think Ivo has the right tone and direction. Sorry to say, I think peace and democracy in Kosovo is like solving a crime in poverty. We’re not going to solve a crime in poverty. But you take a peace that you think you can manage and you work on it as effectively as you can. Here is something, Ray, we should be doing: The international community pledged certain levels of assistance to Kosovo after the war. In particular, our friends in Europe, the European Union, said we didn’t pull our weight during the war. We’re going to lead on this — it’s not getting there. Aid for schools, hospitals, infrastructure, police– some of the basic security. That doesn’t solve it in and of itself. Let’s move in those directions and try to move things at least in the right direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the Europeans acknowledged that they’ve come up short in this regard?

JEFFREY GEDMIN: They have. Not only so much so that Bernard Kushner, the senior civil servant in the U.N. serving in Kosovo criticized this past week his own government, France, for sticking to pledges but not delivering the actual cash. It’s important. But, yes, some Europeans are coming to that recognition and acknowledgment, but they still don’t move. That’s the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: How much do these things move in tandem? Do you have to get those things going before you can expect people to loosen the grip around each other’s necks in a sense?

DANIEL SERWER: I think you do. And one of the problems here, Ray is that while the military may plan an operation of this sort for 6 to 9 months before they go in, the civilians are hired the day after the Security Council resolution passes and they’re then asked to set up a civilian administration on two days’ notice. It’s not going to work that way. My view is that in the absence of the kind of permanent standing U.N. civil administration, which isn’t going to happen, what you need is for the military to take more responsibility in the initial phases. Now, this is a lesson that was learned in part in Bosnia. It was applied in part in Kosovo but not enough. We need to give the civilians a good nine months to a year to get their act together before they can really take over the civilian part of the administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the standing NATO theory about what Kosovo eventually becomes, I believe, is a multi-ethnic place that is not partitioned from Yugoslavia and is autonomous. Is that going to happen, Ivo Daalder?

IVO DAALDER: No, I don’t think we’re going to see a multi-ethnic, autonomous but not independent Kosovo. What we’re going to see is an international protectorate for Kosovo, which means we have an international administration, whether it’s the U.N. or some other body, and armed forces that are either from NATO or from some other organization for a very, very long time. And the de facto power, the real power in Kosovo will not be held by the local people, it won’t be held by Belgrade. It is going to be held by the international community because two things cannot happen in this place. The fundamental interests we have and that everybody else has. The Serbs cannot retake Kosovo by force. That’s why we have NATO there. And individuals have to be able to start to live in this place so they can walk down the street, whether they’re Serb, Roma, Gypsy or Albanian without fear for their lives. And that is going to take a long time and a long presence by us by the international community, including the United States, until that happens.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it necessary to reform late to say, well, let’s rethink this or can that stand, that ideal that NATO has for Kosovo, without having to rework it?

DANIEL SERWER: I don’t know how to partition Kosovo without creating the pre-conditions for the next war. The Serbs, of course, don’t want to be isolated in the northern enclave of Mitrovica. The Serb religious monuments are all over Kosovo. The Serb population was spread out all over Kosovo. Milosevic might be happy with the mines which are very important to him and with that northern bit of Kosovo but the Kosovo Serbs will not be. It seems to me that partition is another name for setting up a future conflict. That’s precisely what we don’t want to be doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.