The US admitted on December 3 that its troops in Kosova are helping the Serbs to maintain control of the region and to prevent local people from returning to their homes. That is the upshot of the US confirmation that they are providing armoured escorts to Serb police patrols in the Malisheva region, and a telling reflection of their true role in Kosova.
According to the published terms of the October 12 Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement, the Serbs were to reduce their police presence to the level it was before armed conflict began in March, at which time Malisheva, perhaps the poorest area of Kosova, did not have so much as a single policeman. However, the Serb forces have maintained ‘police stations’ in Malisheva town and other parts of the region, and the US is helping them to provide support and provisions to these outposts.
The US explain their position by saying that they do not want the KLA to take advantage of US intervention to make military gains. However, as the KLA consists largely of local people fighting to defend their homes and families, keeping them out of Serb-controlled areas effectively prevents local people from returning, thus confirming the success of the Serb efforts to drive Kosovars out of the region. Malisheva and surrounding villages remain ruined ghost towns, while over 400,000 Kosovars remain displaced within their own country.
One US diplomat’s comment on the KLA was indicative of the US’s attitude and the Kosovars’ problem: ‘The Albanians mustn’t think they can take advantage of the deal to gain political or military ground,’ he said. ‘We can’t have the KLA going around like they own the place.’ The problem is, of course, that the Kosovars do own the place, and that is precisely what the Serbs refuse to accept.
The supposed withdrawal of Serb forces in return for the suspension of the threat of NATO air strikes was only part of the deal of course; the other part was that the Serbs would accept US mediation in negotiations with the Kosovars, something the Kosovars had been demanding and the Serbs refusing, insisting that the issue was an internal Serbian affair. It is now clear, however, that the US had assured them that their key objective, maintaining their control over Kosova despite the wishes at least 90 percent of the country’s people, would be assured.
Richard Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia who is also Washington’s special envoy on Kosova, presented a fourth draft political settlement to Belgrade on December 3, and to Pristina the next day. They were quickly dismissed by both sides. The Serbs’ comment, made off-record to the Associated Press on December 6, was that the changes were cosmetic and did not go far enough to please Belgrade. Fehmi Agani, head of the negotiating team appointed by Kosovar president Ibrahim Rugova, was more blunt. ‘We had some objections to the previous version too, but this is totally unacceptable... it is obvious that Hill offers one solution to us and then another after talking to [Serbian president Milan] Milutinovic.’
Both comments make it clear that Hill’s political plans, like the US forces on the ground in Kosova, are increasingly favouring Serb demands, albeit not yet sufficiently to satisfy them. The Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) has responded to this latest US plan, understandably, by withdrawing its stated willingness to defer the question of Kosovar independence, and restoring its demand for an immediate referendum.
US partiality towards the Serb position has been obvious from the outset. Hill’s initial plan suggested that Kosova should remain a province of Serbia, but with ‘substantial’ control over its internal affairs and directly elected representatives to Yugoslavia’s federal Parliament. This was generally understood to mean that Kosova would have its own ‘provincial’ president, laws, police and courts, effectively integrating president Ibrahim Rugova’s ‘shadow state’ into the Yugoslav system.
These latter points were clearly a sop to Rugova’s aspirations, but were no more than cosmetic. Kosova might have more local autonomy, in theory, than ever before, but constitutionally it would remain a subordinate entity to Serbia, and its status would still be a function of the Serbian constitution, which the Serb parliament could change it at any time. In fact, its position would still be substantially weaker than it was under Tito’s Yugoslav constitution of 1974 which gave Kosova ‘autonomous province status’ within Serbia, with its own Parliament, equal footing with Yugoslavia’s federal Republics, and the tacit right to secede. It was this status which was unilaterally withdrawn by Milosevic in 1989.
During the long years of stalemate, while Kosova was effectively run by Kosovar shadow-state under Rugova while Serbia - distracted by its war in Bosnia - turned a blind eye, a return to the pre-1989 situation was the Kosovars’ minimum demand. Now, after almost a year of brutal Serbian war against them, few Kosovars are willing to accept less than an immediate referendum on independence. This has been the KLA’s demand from the outset. Under pressure from the US, however, the KLA accepted a deferment of this referendum last month, suggesting that they would accept an interim political settlement provided a referendum after 3-5 years was guaranteed, and indicating their willingness to compromise to end the fighting.
The Serbs, however, instead of moving towards a compromise, have been increasing their demands and trying to take advantage of the delay both militarily and politically. While the US was mediating last month, the Serbs tried to change the political realities on the ground by imposing a settlement of their own, based on municipal level autonomous institutions rather than all-Kosova institutions, thus fragmenting the country. They also tried to reach agreements with other ethnic groups in Kosova - local Serbs and gypsies - for communal institutions in which the different groups would have equal weight regardless of their numbers. However, with the Kosovars so numerically dominant, this was bound to fail.
While this politicking continues, the Serbs are also continuing their military operations, albeit at a more discreet level, and with a degree of US co-operation. Twelve Kosovars, some of them members of the KLA, were killed in separate incidents in just two days at the beginning of the month. They included a military commander, a student leader, and a journalist shot dead in the streets of Pristina. Meanwhile, the US continues to blame the KLA for the continued fighting, saying they are trying to exploit the deal to ‘seize territory.’ This is a gross misrepresentation of the attempts by Kosovars - many of them armed to defend themselves, as the KLA remains primarily a people’s army - to return to their homes.
The gap between the Serbs and the Kosovars remains massive, and the US is proving unwilling to force the Serbs to compromise as the Kosovars have tried to do. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 Kosovars remain displaced within their country. Over 60 percent of houses in war-effected regions have been destroyed, and the dreaded Balkan winter is setting in. Despite the west’s emphasis on humanitarian aid when it was needed to justify its military inaction, little assistance is entering the country. And few of the 2,000 observers from the Organisatoin for Security and Cooperation in Europe who are supposed to be guaranteeing the peace are likely to be in place until the new year.
With NATO massing troops in Macedonia to withdraw the observers if necessary, the suspicion is growing that the west is preparing to blame the Kosovars for the breakdown of the deal, shrug its shoulder, saying, ‘Well, we tried’, and leave them to their fate.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1998