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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EUROFILE: West's Policy On Kosovo Falls Short




A recent embarrassing incident illustrates how difficult it will be for Western countries to construct a negotiated settlement of the Serbian-ruled, mainly Albanian-populated province of Kosovo.


Amid much secrecy, the special U.S. envoy for the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, held talks with a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the mysterious rebel force that is spearheading the Kosovo Albanians' drive for independence.


Few details emerged in public from these talks, but at the time it was generally thought to have been useful that the U.S. had made its first direct contact with the KLA. Alas, a few weeks later a man identifying himself to Western reporters as the KLA's official spokesman said that "the person who talked to Gelbard was not an authorized representative of our movement."


Clearly, the Kosovo conflict is not going to end quickly as long as the West has no idea who it is talking with and the Kosovo Albanians have no idea who should be talking with the West. It would be farcical if it were not tragic: In the weeks since Gelbard's meaningless conversation, the death toll this year in Kosovo has risen to almost 500, and tens of thousands more ethnic Albanians have been driven by Serbian military action from their homes.


Slobodan Milosevic is doubtlessly delighted at the confusion in the ranks of the Kosovo Albanians and Western policy makers. Back in March, the West was threatening him with far-reaching economic sanctions and the use of military force if he extended his crackdown in Kosovo. Now it appears that the West, frightened at the prospect of an independent Kosovo, is willing to let the KLA, and by implication the ethnic Albanian civilian population, learn a harsh lesson or two.


The newest diplomatic buzzword in the Kosovo crisis is proportionality. Western governments support Serbia's territorial integrity and, therefore, the right of Milosevic's forces to fight the KLA. Only if they use too much force do the Serbian actions become unacceptable.


There are about 150,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in Kosovo who would suggest that the Serbian actions have long ago passed the point of acceptability. But as in the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic is pulling all the stops to diagnose the degree of Serbian violence.


Yet so far, say some Western officials, the conflict remains "low-intensity." The number of casualties is relatively small and relatively few refugees have poured across Kosovo's borders, a development that could easily destabilize neighboring Albania and Macedonia and suck them into a war. According to this argument, what Milosevic is doing is bad, but not intolerably bad.


I find this line of thinking sickening. It was put forward for a while during the Croatian and Bosnian wars: As long as the fighting does not spill beyond the frontiers of former Yugoslavia, the West need not intervene. Eventually, the atrocities taking place within those frontiers became too appalling for the West to ignore any longer.


In the case of Kosovo, the West has had years to prepare a strategy. The conflict there has come as a surprise to nobody.


The West's goal -- an autonomous Kosovo inside Serbia -- is, for the moment, the correct one. But the more errors the West commits, the harder it will be to achieve that goal without more bloodshed.