The NATO Council, which is co-ordinating American and European policy towards Kosova, agreed in Brussels on January 6 that Serbia and the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) were equally to blame for the month of increased troubles in the country from mid-December onwards. At least 100 Kosovars were killed and thousands forced to flee their homes in repeated Serbian military operations following both sides’ rejection of US envoy Chris Hill’s final proposed settlement in early December.
This compromise conclusion was a travesty in view of the actual events in Kosova, and reflected the political interests of the parties in Brussels rather than the situation on the ground. It seems increasingly likely that the French government, which tends to favour the Serbs and blames the recent troubles entirely on the KLA, will be asked to take over main responsibility for negotiations in Kosova from the US. This would almost certainly result in the Serbs being given a free hand in the country.
Blaming KLA for the failure of the October agreement between US special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is an essential precursor to this step, even though most observers are unanimous that the failure is mainly due to Serbian intransigence and a lack of political will on the part of the west.
The KLA, for their part, have denied responsibility for the occasional killings of Serbian civilians, which the Yugoslavs have used to justify their attacks. The KLA says that its operations are limited to attacks on Serbian troops or police in direct retaliation for Serb military operations against Kosovars, although it admits that it is preparing for the ‘inevitable necessity’ of having to defend Kosovars again in the future. Many observers believe that the attacks on Serb civilians, which Belgrade is using as a pretext for labelling the KLA as a terrorist organization, are actually carried out by Serbian secret police or other agents provocateurs. This would be in line with Belgrade’s known tactics in Bosnia and Croatia.
The extent of the Serbian breaches of the October agreement can be gauged from the fact that at least 100 Yugoslav army tanks were involved in operations near Podujeva, in the Llap region close to the Serbian border, between December 24 and December 27. These operations, apparently timed to take advantage of western pre-occupation with the US attacks on Iraq, were supposedly in retaliation for KLA operations against Serb forces, though there was no independent confirmation of any KLA activities. However, at least 20 people were killed, over 5,000 people forced to flee their homes, and three villages almost totally destroyed.
These operations followed closely after the killing of 36 Kosovars, both fighters and civilians, in the south east of the country a few days earlier. This was reported by Serb authorities as an operation against KLA fighters smuggling arms in from Albania. This excuse has previously been used as a cover for Serb operations against Kosovar villages in the region.
According to the October agreement, the Serbian military presence in Kosova was supposed to be reduced to pre-war levels, at which time there were no armoured units in the country. The operations were also in breach of UN security council resolutions. However, no comment was made on the operations until the January 6 statement blaming both sides equally.
The hollowness of this political position was inadvertently highlighted by Nato’s own supreme commander in Europe, US general Wesley Clarke. In an interview with the International Herald Tribune on January 6, he directly contradicted the politicians’ conclusion later in the day. He explicitly stated that the Serbs were to blame for the violence, saying that they had repeatedly breached the October agreement by deploying additional troops and heavy weaponry. He also said that the Kosovars ‘have to continue their struggle because they cannot risk another catastrophe of falling under political repression from Belgrade.’
The west’s lack of political will is also highlighted by the fact that only about 600 of the 2,000 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ‘observers’ who are supposed to be guaranteeing the cease-fire in Kosova are yet in place. This is in sharp contrast to the extensive plans made for evacuating the observers when necessary. A three-tier military structure for this was reported to be completed and in place on January 8, consisting of 1,900 troops in Macedonia under French leadership, about 1,000 special forces commandos on standby in Britain and France under British leadership, and a 3,000-strong international rapid reaction force on standby at their bases in other European countries.
It seems unlikely, therefore, that Chris Hill’s return to the region on January 5, when he met Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova in Pristina in the first stage of a new round of shuttle talks, will yield any results. His previous draft political settlement had been rejected by both sides early in December. Then, the Serbs complained that he had not given them enough of what they demanded, while the Kosovars complained that his already inadequate guarantees of their rights had been further watered down.
Both statements indicated that Hill was favouring the Serbs. Following this rejection, he had reportedly decided to end shuttle diplomacy, in favour of seeking face-to-face talks. This position has evidently been reversed; his role now may be to prepare the ground for the western imposition of a pro-Serbian settlement on the Kosovars, whether that dirty work is done by the US or the Europeans.
The Serbs, for their part, would like to reach some sort of political settlement as it would legitimise their position in Kosova. At the same time, they are determined that the Kosovar position should be weakened. Their demands are designed to ensure this, for example by offering local level autonomy within Serbia for different parts of Kosova instead of autonomy for the country as a whole. They have also demanded a communal arrangement by which all ‘ethnic groups’ in Kosova would have equal status regardless of their numbers. Thus there would have to be one Serb and one Gypsy on each public body for each Kosovar, even though the Kosovars constitute over 90 percent of the population.
The fact Hill met with Kosovars first was also significant. If a plan weighted in favour of the Serbs is to be forced on them, the west needs the support of a substantial Kosovar leader to give it credibility. While the KLA are now the most popular political force in Kosova, and Rugova’s traditionally pacifist style has been largely discredited despite his good personal standing, the west prefers dealing with Rugova as they consider him the most likely Kosovar leader to compromise.
Building Rugova up for this purpose has been a central plank of western policy since October, which was seen most recently in the European Parliament’s December 16 decision to award him its 1998 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. He is, ironically, the second Kosovar to win this award; it was awarded to Adem Demaci in 1991, shortly after his release from 28 years in a Yugoslav jail. Demaci, of course, is now the political spokesman for the KLA.
Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1999