Kosovo Revisited

Nearing the anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the world is reassessing what, if any, progress has been made in Kosovo. So far, the conclusions are not good.

The U.N. was given the job of setting up a transitional civilian government in Kosovo and preparing the province for elections by the end of this year. Several big obstacles have arisen.

For one thing, the peace agreement specified autonomy for the Kosovo government, not independence from the rest of Yugoslavia (which consists of the provinces of Serbia and Montenegro). While the U.S. continues to pursue the goal of overthrowing Milosevic, the U.N. is caught in a quandary of how to set up a new government that is “autonomous,” but not fully independent–in other words, one that still affirms the rule of Milosevic’s government over Kosovo. A large number of Albanian Kosovars, however, are insisting on independence and are willing to push until they get it.

The U.N. also continues to affirm its desire to see a multi-ethnic Kosovo–something that is impossible now. Aside from the Albanian/Serb fighting that has occurred as refugees are slowly being repatriated, there is a lack of adequate social services and infrastructure to provide for them, and what services exist often discriminate and serve only one ethnic group, usually Albanians. Kosovo, which once had a population of over 150,000 Roma (gypsy) people, now has only 30,000 Roma left living in isolated ghettos without food and frequently without water, lacking supplies, clothing, and even access to nearby hospitals. Although the Roma in Kosovo are muslim, they still suffer mistreatment by both Serbs and muslim Albanians based on their ethnicity, not their religion. Jews have suffered similar discrimination in Kosovo.

The nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army officially demilitarized in September of last year, but its leader, Hashim Thaci, continues to wield enormous political power. As recently as two weeks ago, Thaci addressed a crowd of 20,000 people, including over 1,000 former KLA fighters; he pledged to “liberate” Kosovska Mitrovica, a town near the northeastern border with Serbia. Mitrovica is divided by a river whose bridges are guarded by U.N. troops. On one side of the river lives most of the Albanian population, and on the other side is the Serbian population. It has been the site of several recent ethnic clashes. Thaci exclaimed: “Mitrovica, like all the other parts of Kosovo, will be liberated. Kosovo will be ruled by Kosovars.” He ended his speech with a rousing call of “Long live the KLA!” and was cheered on with prolonged bursts of automatic weapons fire from his supporters.

There are signs that large-scale fighting could erupt again. Former KLA fighters have formed a paramilitary group (the UCPMB) inside southwestern Serbia near the Kosovo border, where some 75,000 ethnic Albanians live. This group has already clashed once with Serbian police who routinely patrol villages in the area and search houses for weapons. The UCPMB’s goal is to liberate this portion of Serbia and make it part of an independent Kosovo state.

In the meantime, the U.N. transitional government in Kosovo is fighting insolvency. The coffers were nearly empty at the end of January, but an emergency infusion of cash from France and the U.S. have kept the show going until March 23, when Bernard Kouchner, the head of the transitional government, will have to fly around the world again and beg for more cash. It costs $325 million per year to pay doctors, school teachers, police, judges, utility workers, and government staff in Kosovo. Kouchner, who helped found the group Doctors Without Borders, is livid about the situation: “It’s like being on a drip, a resuscitation bottle for the whole society. It keeps us barely alive month to month, but only if we reduce the dosage to the minimum for survival, so we don’t collapse.” Why the lack of support? For one thing, the U.S. and Britain originally insisted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should run Kosovo and not the U.N.; both countries have a stake in seeing the U.N. fail in Kosovo. But other nations are also at fault; a lot of money and help has been pledged for Kosovo, but very little has been delivered.

Meanwhile, General Klaus Reinhardt, the head of the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, has been begging for more troops to deal with the continuing outbreaks of crime and ethnic violence. Without enough money for the transitional government to set up a police force and a judiciary, unarmed K-FOR troops have had to be both cop-on-the-beat and judge and jury–and they usually fail. Robbery, kidnapping, beatings, theft, extortion, and murder are becoming more frequent. More K-FOR troops, however, are not the answer. Yet that’s exactly what the Clinton administration’s proposed foreign aid package would do: send more U.S. troops to Kosovo.

A year ago NATO sought to make Kosovo an example of why Europe needs an enormous military machine. Today, a year later, the NATO bombing and occupation of Kosovo can clearly be seen as a disaster. Ethnic tensions are worse than ever, the infrastructure of both Kosovo and Serbia has been destroyed, the environment is a mess, and the political situation is the same as before the bombing–only this time, as the situation deteriorates, the KLA will be fighting NATO and the U.N., instead of Serbia.