Talks between Belgrade and Prishtina on the future of Kosova finally began last month, following pressure on Kosova president Ibrahim Rugova by Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomatic ‘troubleshooter’ who mediated the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the Bosnian war in December 1995. Direct talks between the two presidents in Belgrade on May 15 were followed a week later by a meeting between the two sides’ negotiating teams in Prishtina.
However, even as Rugova met Milosevic in Belgrade, and over the next days, Serb special forces were stepping up their on-going military operations in Kosova. Kosovar sources reported on May 24 that Serb troops were moving through villages in the northern Klina area, and the Djakovica and Decani areas in the west of the country, sacking, looting and burning all before them.
The border between the countries has also been virtually sealed to civilian traffic, resulting in food and other shortages in Kosova, and movement within the country severely restricted by Serb roadblocks and patrols. Helicopter gunships and aircraft have reportedly been used, for the first time.
It has also become clear that Rugova’s own position in Kosova is coming under pressure as the harsh realities of Serb military aggression force Kosovars to abandon the pacifist approach he continues to advocate. The Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) which was little more than a Serb fiction at the beginning of the year has become a substantial reality as Kosovar villagers arm and organize themselves for their defence. The Kosovars’ training is minimal, and central command and co-ordination apparently non-existent, but the local self-defence groups have proudly adopted the label with which the Serbs tried to damn them and turned it into a badge of honour.
The change of mood in the country has been graphically demonstrated in Prishtina itself, where Kosovar civilians have been marching daily to assert their independence and determination to resist Serb nationalist ambitions. Late last month a new chant was heard: where previously the marchers had voiced support for Rugova and the Kosovar Democratic League, the new chant of choice, started by young people but adopted by virtually all, is ‘We are the Kosovar Liberation Army.’
Rugova visited Milosevic in Belgrade on May 15 following four days of mediation between the two sides by Holbrooke. However, Rugova was forced to drop two of his main demands: that the talks be chaired by a foreign mediator, and that they be held at a federal level, with representatives of both Serbia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s two remaining states. Holbrooke and other US officials attended the meeting as observers but emphasized afterwards that the talks were bilateral. Holbrooke also emphasized his personal good relationship with Milosevic, which had developed during the Dayton talks, saying that he and the Serbian leader understood each other and could work together to meet their ‘shared objectives.’
Although the Belgrade meeting lasted 90 minutes, only two decisions were announced. The first was that all sides would pursue a peaceful solution to the problem, and the second was that weekly meetings would be held between Serb and Kosovar negotiators, beginning in Prishtina on May 22 and alternating between the two countries’ capitals thereafter.
Events in the immediate aftermath of the Belgrade meeting, however, were instructive. While the Serbs’ increased military operations demonstrated Milosevic’s commitment to pursuing ‘a peaceful solution’, the meeting was greeted as a triumph by the US and other western countries, who immediately cancelled the ban on foreign investment in Serbia which they had imposed less than two weeks earlier. Meanwhile, massive pressure was put on Rugova not to ‘renege’ on the deal in response to Serb provocations.
Reaction is Kosova, understandably enough, was less enthusiastic. Holbrooke’s tactics in dealing with Rugova had been similar to those he used against Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic - isolate him from his advisers and pressure him. In the run up to the Belgrade meeting, he dealt with Rugova alone in his home rather than in his offices. The announcement of the Belgrade meeting came as a surprise even to the 15-member advisory team Rugova appointed in April to consider negotiating terms with the Serbs. Two advisers resigned before the meeting took place, others were also unhappy, saying that Rugova conceded more than he should have.
In the event, however, the first scheduled meeting between the negotiating parties took place as scheduled in Prishtina on May 22. Neither side spoke to reporters following the session, but little concrete progress appears to have been made. Certainly there was no reduction in Serb military action. The weakness of the Kosovar position was unwittingly revealed by Veton Surroi, a senior journalist and one of Rugova’s closest advisers when he said that US ambassador Christopher Hill was involved in the talks even though ‘he doesn’t necessarily need to be sitting at the table.’
Rugova, like many Muslim leaders of recent times, finds himself in an impossible situation. He has few weapons, little leverage, and no friends. His enemies are powerful, ruthless and without honour; and the only brokers available are singularly dishonest. The KLA, meanwhile, for all their claims to have made parts of Kosova into no-go areas for the Serb authorities, are able to do little when actually faced with the full force of the Serb military. In the foreseeable future, however, they are all the Kosovars have.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998