Still a Victory

PRAGUE -- Five months after the end of World War II, under the eyes of occupying Allied forces, some 20,000 ethnic Germans, mainly from the Sudetenland, were killed by their Czech neighbors. Five months after the end of the Kosovo conflict and the introduction of KFOR, the United Nations peacekeeping force in the province, 211 Serbs had been killed. Despite this, much of the Czech--and international--media and political elite claim that Kosovo is ruled by vengeance and mafias. Nothing in our own history teaches them any lessons or causes them to exercise caution in their judgments.

The level of violent crime in Kosovo today is significantly lower per capita than in Belgrade, Moscow, or even New York. But it is Kosovo that is described as "the most dangerous place in Europe." One does not read about the amazing achievements of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who helped hundreds of thousands of returnees through winter without losing one single life due to malnutrition or cold. In a province where three quarters of all medical and school facilities were destroyed, that is close to a miracle.


The December 1995 Dayton Agreement dashed the dreams of national liberation for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and with it administered a blow to professor-turned-political leader Ibrahim Rugova's advocation of passive resistance. Milosevic not only refused to mention Kosovo during the Dayton days, but refused even to meet with a group of Kosovar Albanian-Americans, who came with an offer to mediate negotiations between Belgrade and the independence-minded Democratic League of Kosovo.

The appointment in March 1998 of Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, as deputy prime minister signaled the end of any hopes for a peaceful solution. Since 1991, his party's program had called for the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians, the imposition of 10 years of military rule in the province, and the abolition of Albanian-language media and education. To make matters worse, there was not one unified political group among the otherwise vocal, anti-Milosevic opposition in Serbia that would dare to defend human rights for ethnic Albanians--and certainly no group was prepared to champion the cause of the province's autonomy.

In summer 1998, Milosevic launched a combined military, police, and paramilitary campaign in Kosovo. Attacks on the civilian population resulted in the expulsion of more than 400,000 people from their homes; between early June and late September all Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) units were effectively uprooted in the conflict zones. According to UNHCR figures, 10 percent of the entire 2 million population of Kosovo left the province and 260,000 more were internally displaced. NATO limited itself to air maneuvers and the UN to only words. Rural areas soon responded with an uncoordinated growth of village militias. The virtual anarchy following the collapse of the pyramid schemes in Albania in February 1997 and the widespread looting of arms depots provided the firepower for ethnic-Albanian recruits.

The international community came too late, but in 1998 used almost every existing diplomatic tool available. The list of the initiatives from the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Contact Group, the European Union, Russia, and the United States is too long to think otherwise. By late 1998 military confrontation was inevitable.

The Belgrade ruler effectively consolidated his power base on the domestic front. In December 1998, Milosevic purged the Yugoslav army's general staff and senior military intelligence officials, giving jobs to his henchmen. Most notably he purged the 3rd Army, whose area of responsibility included Kosovo, putting General Nebojsa Pavkovic--his relative by marriage--in command.

By mid-December 1998 Milosevic had clearly violated the October agreement, which had reduced Yugoslav troops to pre-February 1998 levels and called for the insertion of 2,000 unarmed foreign monitors into the province. The army stationed more than 12,000 men along the Serbian border with Kosovo and in the last days of the year, units began advancing into the province. By February 1999, it was clear that despite diplomatic efforts in Rambouillet, the Yugoslav army was beginning its offensive throughout Kosovo. Subsequent talks in Rambouillet and in Paris faltered as Milosevic refused to allow armed peacekeepers within the province. NATO intervention in Yugoslavia was necessary and legitimate and has prevented the ultimate destabilization of the region.


Kosovo today--despite the teething problems of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)--is showing clear signs of improvement. The UNMIK municipal administration has begun to function throughout the province, in many cases with international administrators presiding over multiethnic councils dealing with everything from petrol station licenses to garbage collection. The speed of reconstruction is breathtaking, with attention now shifting from housing to municipal buildings and infrastructure development. Schools and medical facilities, three quarters of which were destroyed in 1999, are up-and-running.

After more than a six-month delay--caused by a senseless attempt by the UN and the Council of Europe to write flawless legislation for Kosovo instead of modifying existing Yugoslav laws--municipal courts are finally hearing cases, from traffic violations to armed robbery, and the first taxes and custom dues are being collected. A vehicle and citizen register has been compiled--the former crucial in fighting the huge trade in stolen cars, most of them from Western Europe. Citizen and voter registration, prepared by the OSCE, is probably the first in election history where digitalized pictures and thumb prints are taken and encrypted in real time. Identification cards are produced on the spot and the data stored in a database at OSCE headquarters in Pristina. The project should streamline voter registration and help avoid the nightmarish results experienced in the first post-war elections in Bosnia in 1996, where there was a 106 percent voter turnout.

Mistakes have, of course, been made. Insufficient manpower and funding curtails the functioning of an international police force. An unarmed ethnic-Albanian auxiliary police force, with international commanders--as proposed by ethnic-Albanian moderates in April 1999--could have efficiently stopped the initial spread of lawlessness. The international legitimization of the UCK dragged on for too long. Moreover, the UNHCR's on-the-ground knowledge and advice largely went unheeded by the international community.

School curricula are pathetic and still far from balanced for both ethnic Albanian and Serb children: the teaching of heroic national myths and the propagation of victimization complexes still dominates. Many Serbian schools remain closed as a sign of protest against the international presence.

That said, it is clear that international intervention in Kosovo not only prevented further chaos, but prepared the ground for progress. Slow but thorough development rarely grabs the attention of the international press. Examples of the revival of multiethnic coexistence--as in the Isok region, in western Kosovo, where the ethnic-Albanian mayor freely visits Serb villages and assists the return of the hundreds of Serb families expelled in June 1999--struggle to make it into the limelight. Theories about plans to allow the expulsion of all non-Albanians from Kosovo, or the supposed policy of treating the UCK with kid-gloves are much easier stories to sell.

It is important that the mistakes and failures of the military and civilian operations in Kosovo are vigorously studied and taken to heart. Such knowledge will benefit future humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping operations, and aid the development of conflict resolution. In soccer, a 9-1 result is considered a notable victory. In Kosovo, NATO's detractors claim that anything besides 10-0 is a defeat. Wars and real life are never like that.

Jan Urban is the former publisher of Transitions magazine.

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