Should NATO intervene in the war-torn province of Kosovo?
June 22, 1998
in this forum:
What is NATO trying to achieve in Kosovo? As Kosovo is a part of Yugoslavia, does Russia not see an analogy with its own problems in Chechnya? What is the difference between Kosovo and Bosnia? What are the possibilities of fighting in Kosovo leading to a greater war in the region? Do you think the NATO plan is the right plan for resolving the crisis? Aaron Gaudio of Corvallis, OR, asks: What is the difference between Kosovo and Bosnia? We've heard the similarities between the conflict in Kosovo and the conflict in Bosnia; but what are the differences?
Stephen Walker of the Balkan Institute responds:
There are two major differences between Kosovo and Bosnia. First, by May 1992 Bosnia was internationally recognized as an independent country and was a member of the U.N. and fell victim to a war of aggression directed, supplied, and financed by Slobodan Miloševic and his regime in Belgrade. The Bosnian government asked for and eventually received NATO intervention. Kosovo is a province of Serbia and the international community has opposed the notion of Kosovo becoming independent for fear of encouraging Albanians in Macedonia to attempt to secede and join Kosovo as part of a "Greater Albania," something the Kosovars themselves do not want. NATO intervention would be in response to a threat to international peace and security, as in Bosnia, but it would be in order to deter or stop attacks on part of Serbia.
Second, the threat to peace and stability in the region is much greater in Kosovo than it was in Bosnia and that threat is much more imminent in Kosovo. In Bosnia, the conflict was pretty much limited to Bosnia by 1992 and even after several years of watching the genocide the absence of Western intervention did not result in the conflict spilling over into neighboring countries. In Kosovo, however, there is a real danger that in the coming months or even weeks the conflict could spread to Albania or Macedonia, where it could then result in Greek and Bulgarian -- and maybe even Turkish -- involvement. The consequences for the region and for the U.S. and NATO on both a humanitarian and political-military dimension could be disastrous.
Susan Woodward of the Brookings Institution responds:
The differences are greater than the similarities. First is their international status. Kosovo is a recognized part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Serbia within it, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized, in April 1992, as an independent state.
Second is their respective histories. The war in Bosnia has no historical origins, even if its raw materials originate in Ottoman rule and Austrian policies between 1878 and 1914; its current conflict originates with the breakup of Yugoslavia during 1991 and a dispute over the future status of Bosnia and its three national communities.
The conflict in Kosovo begins in 1912 when a hastily-called international conference tried to end the Balkan war of 1912 with an international determination of borders and independent states carved from the carcass of a dying Ottoman empire. It created an independent Albania, and it decided that the mixed population of Kosovo (Serb and Albanian, as well as Turk and Romany), given competing historical claims over the territory, deserved to be in an independent Serbia. There has been ongoing conflict ever since, including the Kosovar Albanian decision to side with Italy in world war II (similar to the politics then of Quebec, Ukraine, and Brittany), between the two sides.
The most recent stage began in 1981 when Albanian students and political radicals demonstrated in support of turning their autonomous province into a separate republic. Because this would mean secession from Serbia, if not from then Yugoslavia, many argue that their demands sparked the end of Yugoslavia because it first raised the question politically of border changes and secession, and energized groups elsewhere either to contemplate the possibility or (as in Macedonia) to react defensively against the possibility.
Third is the nature of the current conflict. The war in Bosnia was among three political parties that had been partners in the governing coalition after November 1990, and it evolved from a quarrel over the nature of the new Bosnian state within Yugoslavia to a war for and against its independence, supported by two larger neighboring powers (Croatia and Serbia). All three communities speak the same language and share a political culture, making it possible to live together again if they wish. In Kosovo, the conflict is being waged by a large majority--nearly 90 percent by now--that speaks one language against a tiny ruling minority that represents the larger state and speaks another, to gain political recognition (autonomy, eventually independence now) for the province.
Support for that tiny minority does come from a major military power "outside" the province--Serb military and police--but in international law, that power is legitimate; support for the majority also comes from outside, but not from neighboring states but from networks of arms smugglers, drug traffickers, and mercenaries who support the insurrectionary wing of this struggle. As yet, moreover, there is little or no relationship between this guerrilla force and the Albanian political leaders of Kosovo.
In addition, while each national community in Bosnia was more or less united during the struggle, the Albanian population in Kosovo has many political parties which differ on the best approach to their political conflict with Serbia and on who should lead. Until now, they have been successful in creating a united front toward the outside, but their internal differences have been exacerbated by the actions of the KLA. Because of Kosovo Albanian tactics of boycott of all Serbian institutions since their autonomy was withdrawn in 1990, and becomes of their high birth rate, the majority of the population has grown up with almost no contact with Serbs, no longer speak the Serbian language, and, increasingly, have developed a separate political culture. Living together is ever less plausible, though extensive self-governance in Kosovo could be the precondition for improved relations and better economic prospects through Yugoslavia than if they were to become independent or even join up with Albania.
Fourth, while Bosnia was a moral tragedy, its conflict could be physically contained within an area bordered by other parts of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo is a strategic nightmare for Europe and for NATO (therefore the United States) because instability in Kosovo, refugee flows, or reactions in neighboring states to the possibility of war all threaten serious regional destabilization. This is a NATO problem first and foremost.
That said, there are many similarities between Kosovo and the Serb minority in the border areas of Croatia. American policy had the effect, if not the goal, of preventing a solution of special status and local autonomy for Serbs in Croatia--now proposed for Kosovo--and of facilitating a drastic solution of exodus and expulsion of those Serbs. I hope that we do not unwittingly have the same effect again.