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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Balkan Tightrope




In the recent history of conflict regulation in the Balkans, threats of NATO air strikes are not new. This time, however, they are directed not at one of the warring factions in an "all against all" civil conflict tearing apart a failed and fragile country, but at a sovereign UN-member state with a fully-functioning elected government that has by and large managed to stay in control of events. Carried out with or without a United Nations mandate, proposed NATO air strikes against Serbia would inevitably create a controversial precedent for the post-Cold War world.


It should be stressed that NATO countries are considering the use of air power against Serbia in a situation that is characterized by a conspicuous lack of credible information on the ongoing crisis in the Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo. Recently, it has been highly problematic to distinguish between the declared pullback of the Serbian special police/Yugoslav Army forces and the continuing lower-level violence in the province. It is equally difficult to accurately estimate the overall number of refugees and the casualty toll.


Under these circumstances it has not been possible to verify the claims of an "escalation of violence" in the province that are being offered as the main justification for NATO air strikes.


The most recent accusations center on brutal atrocities allegedly committed by the Serbian special police f but also on "the worsening humanitarian situation," which is somehow expected to be radically improved by air strikes on Serbian military targets.


While proposed air strikes are to be explicitly directed at Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav Army, Kosovo Albanians are at least as much to blame as the Serbian government for the lack of progress in negotiating the status of the separatist province, since they have been unable to come forward with a united political agenda and determined leadership representing both moderates and militants.


The new round of NATO threats comes precisely at a time when the latest Serbian offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army is almost over (if only temporarily) and new initiatives, such as the new provisional government and the interim autonomy plan for Kosovo, have emerged. According to this plan Kosovo is entitled to a sovereign parliament, executive, police force and judicial system. Although Kosovo would have its representatives in the Serbian government and the Yugoslav parliament, federal officials would not be able to interfere in the province's internal affairs. Kosovo's final status would not be decided until three years after a preliminary agreement is reached.


This option, though already rejected by radical ethnic Albanian secessionists in Kosovo, is by all means a good start for searching for a compromise solution. The "canceled status" model has already been more or less successfully tested in other regions of the world: A similar interim peace plan didn't solve all the problems in Chechnya but it did stop the war.


There is no need to reiterate the often pronounced concern that air strikes could have a reverse effect by aggravating the crisis and sending the wrong signal to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Besides, as journalist Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernhard Trainor noted in their account of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, "air strikes do not change governments."


In fact, nothing could justify Milosevic's nationalist stance and his marriage of convenience with radicals better than NATO combat aircraft (and especially German Tornadoes) in the Serbian sky.


If the international community's ultimate goal is to foster stability in the Balkans then it should be recognized that the main destabilizing force in the region has not been "the Serbian factor" but rather the political uncertainty in neighboring Albania. The situation in that "failed state," which is constantly teetering on the brink of the civil war, has a clear potential for spinning out of control. Among other things, it is political turmoil in Albania proper and the inability of the government in Tirana f dominated by southerners (Tosks) f to control the northern Gheg-dominated part of the country that makes all peace efforts in Kosovo virtually meaningless.


Last but not the least, NATO air strikes could potentially radicalize the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina f a gloomy prospect, especially in the light of the outcome of the Sept. 12-13 general elections. Despite claims by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe of "continued erosion" of support for nationalist parties at the parliamentary level, nationalist candidates (especially those running for executive posts) received far more votes than most Western observers had expected. The long-awaited results of the Bosnian general elections demonstrated that the international community's efforts aimed at marginalizing nationalist parties have suffered a serious setback.


The question remains: How could NATO's planned air campaign against Serbia f at best described as ambiguous in nature f contribute to resolving the complex centuries-old dispute over Kosovo? Particularly when even the most committed, sustained, large-scale and civil-oriented international involvement in a regional crisis undertaken so far f the process of Dayton accords implementation f is obviously failing to achieve its objectives.


Yekaterina Stepanova is a research associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.