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268. Spillover Effect: Aftershocks in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia

On 24 March 1999, NATO went to war against Yugoslavia. Ten weeks later, President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated to Alliance demands. In retrospect then, the NATO intervention against Yugoslavia, during which the Alliance suffered no casualties, may prove to be a pivotal event in European security. Yet, much of former Yugoslavia seems to hover in tenuous uncertainty, Kosovo remains an international protectorate, and Macedonia's fate is uncertain. Furthermore, aftershock events of the post-Kosovo intervention led to a security degradation in Macedonia in 2001, and seriously hampered Serbian recovery efforts after the "October Revolution" of 2000.

This essay challenges the conventional wisdom that there are definite "lessons" to be drawn from NATO's war over Kosovo. To the contrary, the Kosovo intervention offers a number of compelling (and often contradictory) implications that should concern — and may even confound — serious analysts and policymakers. At best, the most reasonable conclusion in the after-math of the war is that the lessons of Kosovo are terminally ambiguous. While the intent here is not to promote a specific solution or set of policy recommendations, there does exist a broad problem-set of dynamics that were, and are, driving forces in the shaping, analysis and future direction of the European security architecture. Attempts to explain conflict that focus too narrowly on ethnic differences, or too broadly evoke human justice as grounds for intervention, will consistently miss the strategic mark.
Listed below are five of the compelling but often contradictory "truths" of the Kosovo intervention:

  • The divisions between Serbs and Kosovars will continue long into the future.

  • The arguments for humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while articulate and often reasoned, do not establish a solid precedent for future violations of sovereignty on behalf of human rights.

  • If Kosovo is to have any chance of survival, international peacekeeping forces and personnel committed to infrastructure and administrative oversight should remain — probably indefinitely. (This suggestion directly contradicts the focus of the current Bush administration, which would like to "get out" of the Balkans specifically, and Europe generally, as fast as possible.)

  • Kosovo and aftermath events in Macedonia and Serbia underscore the dangerous precedent that ethnic communities that use violence are, thereby, able to solidify their internal identity and are more likely to obtain external support than those that do not adopt violent methods.

  • Despite the bleak implications of the four preceding propositions, the prospects for Kosovo and the Southern Balkans are not hopeless.

While doubtless frustrating to the reader searching for specific and predictable explanations, the dynamics listed above will continue, often in mutual conflict, to pressure the region and its people. Essentially, both are caught in a vicious cycle: Serbs resent how Kosovo has prevented Yugoslavia from returning to the European fold, yet are reluctant to let go; Kosovo's Albanians long for independence from Serbia and now see its as a possibility; the international community (especially the United Nations) oversees Kosovo as a protectorate, but is unwilling to support its too rapid independence from Serbia. Individually and collectively, these dynamics will distress and continue to prevent clear or definable outcomes. Further, while some progress — however slow — has been achieved in Kosovo, there are indeed spillover effects in Macedonia and in Serbia that have direct relations to the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo intervention.

There are two clear policy failures that led to Kosovo and the military intervention. The first occurred when American negotiators excluded the Kosovar Albanians and any discussion of Kosovo from the Dayton peace talks in order to get Milosevic to agree to a solution to the Bosnian dilemma. In effect, this helped the Kosovo Liberation Army, which had been in existence since 1993, to gain legitimacy.

The second, which led directly to the outbreak of violence, resulted from the refusal of the "West" to support legitimate democratic opposition movements in Serbia and Kosovo. While Rugova's avowed pacifism seemed an attractive alternative to the standards of violence and power that dominated the Balkans in the 1990s, many Kosovars rightly concluded that the reward for non-violence was international neglect — particularly by the United States, which is arguably the only power that mattered in bringing about a Balkan settlement.

Daniel Byman argues that the traditional governmental responses to ethnic terrorism are almost always counterproductive and only further the aims of the terrorists. In the case of Kosovo, numerous examples show how the KLA, having secured the power of NATO's military force during the March–June 1999 intervention, became the political, as well as security, seat of authority in the post-conflict environment. Thus violence affirms identity in ethnic communities. The KLA's violent methods produced internal cohesion in Kosovo and helped secure international support. In contrast, as Byman notes, the sense of identity in communal groups that do not use violence is comparatively weak. Moreover, some ethnic activists argue that the refusal to use violence actually degrades and damages the cause for which a non-violent ethnic group was pro-moting activism.

War Comes to Serbia and Macedonia

The spillover from the aftermath of Kosovo to Macedonia was not inevitable, although many — in hindsight — claim now that it was clearly a certainty. Given the obvious vulnerability in Serbia's southern flanks, Albanian guerilla insurgency actions began to take place north of Macedonia, centered mostly around the Presevo Valley, in early 2000. An accompanying insurgency movement, calling itself the UCPMB (Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac), now sought to "liberate" areas in the Presevo area and to recognize the gains that had been made on behalf on Albanians as a result of the NATO intervention over Kosovo.

After the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000, the new Yugoslav administration of Vojislav Kostunica entered into negotiations with both the UCPMB and NATO. A subsequent agreement gave local Albanians greater rights, provided for the demobilization, disarmament and integration of the former fighters into local security forces, and allowed Yugoslav forces back into the Ground Security Zone (GSZ). Less than optimistic observers, including high-level diplomats with significant time and experience in the region, were not as forthcoming in suggesting that quick preventive diplomacy and action could fend off further deterioration in regional security.

But success in the Presevo Valley did not prevent the rise of the KLA (National Liberation Army) in Macedonia; to the contrary, one "success" led to the "spillover" into Macedonia. This success "spillover" phenomenon has had a number of Balkan precedents, nevertheless. For example, "success" at Dayton led to the "spillover" in Kosovo and to the legitimization of the first KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army); "success" in Kosovo led to the rise of the short-lived UCPMB; "success" in Presevo led to a new target of opportunity in Macedonia. And, while analyses clearly differ about why and how the insurgency of 1999-2001 came about in Macedonia, there are some useful observations that seem commonly overlooked:

  1. What caused the flare-up in Macedonia was due to inter-ethnic tensions and divisions between Slavic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians; an equally reasonable argument could be made that the insurgency was as much about intra-ethnic Albanian division and rivalry as it was about the fight for civil society and more equitable distribution, administration and justice within the Republic of Macedonia.

  2. Unlike the situation in Presevo, the impact and the complexity of what happened in Macedonia took on a far more serious context. In contrast to the Serbian response to the UCPMB, the government of Macedonia (with the support of Western governments) applied a classic counter-insurgency tactic — bombing and shelling villages where suspected "terrorists of the KLA" were thought to be, inevitably causing a cohesive backlash and rallying among the Albanian population.

  3. The intra-Albanian political struggle seemed to be confirmed in polls leading up to the September 2002 parliamentary elections in Macedonia. Subsequent election results proved the polling data to be accurate, resulting in the ouster of the governing coalition, consisting of the Macedonian Slav Internal Macedonian Revolutionary organization (VMRO-DPMNE) and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).

  4. Although commonly acknowledged in private, the degree to which criminality fueled the continued viability of the Macedonia state was a crucial factor of uncertainty.

In Lieu of Closure

The picture is not invariably bleak for the dismembered states of the former Yugoslavia and for the Balkans. There are a number of compelling and often contradictory themes that will define life "after Kosovo," not only for Kosovo, but for Macedonia and Serbia as well. The divisions between Serbs and Kosovars — and ethnic Albanians and Macedonians — will remain; there is still a need for peacekeeping forces and personnel committed to oversight; ethnic communities that employ violence will both solidify their internal identity and secure external support; and the final status of Kosovo is unclear. Despite all this, the prospects for the future are not hopeless.

Unlike the Dayton Agreement which literally traded space for time in attempting to give the Bosnians the ability to decide their fate, Kosovo — to date — lacks any formal agreement other than UN Resolution 1244. This resolution is hardly a mandate for security sector reform, however, and — no matter what happens — negative consequences will likely ensue. While many find it unthinkable to believe that Kosovo could, or should, remain within Serbia, few sufficiently acknowledge that an independent Kosovo would immediately become a "parastate" unable to succeed or prosper on its own. Further, the Kosovars themselves must acknowledge that, in raw terms of economic geography, they cannot survive without establishing firm linkages with not just Albania, but also with Serbia and Macedonia.

Finally, a seemingly positive event, such as Kosovo's independence, could cause the ultimate "spillover" effect, which, in turn, could lead to new fracturing in the Balkans. As such, it seems crucial to emphasize that the war over Kosovo marked the first pivotal European event of the twenty-first century. And while it may be premature to suggest that Richard Holbrooke will be remembered as his generation's Robert McNamara, it may not be as far a stretch of the imagination to recognize that Kosovo — with all its seething rage and all the necessary commitment to stem such rage — may well come to represent the Vietnam of peacekeeping. Ironically, any lesser level of commitment will lead to certain failure — for the region and for Europe.

Dr. Liotta spoke at an EES noon discussion on January 8, 2003. The above is a summary of his presentation. Not to be quoted without permission from the author. Meeting Report #268.


About the Author

Peter H. Liotta

Thomas Hawkins Johnson Visiting Scholar, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York
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