28 November 2011

What Worth Kosovo?

Army of Yugoslavia in orderly withdrawal from Kosovo, 1999

In Serbia there is a thesis that Kosovo was lost in 1999. The point of the thesis being the province should be written under losses and forgotten about so that Serbia may turn to transforming itself according to the wishes of Brussels and Washington in the territory it still controls.

It is not an openly stated thesis of the government, which claims to be in pursuit of mutually exclusive goals of defending Kosovo and moving towards Euro-Atlantic integrations simultaneously. It is a thesis of a junior government party, the NGO crowd and a coterie of commentators who are tasked with moving the dialectic and tend to say what the government only thinks.

It is a curious thesis considering that the Kosovo War ended with Washington legally binding itself to respect Serbia's sovereignty in Kosovo by voting in UNSCR 1244. It is true that the Americans could not be expected to intend to abide by the 1999 settlement, but then it was up to Belgrade to do all it it could to nonetheless preserve as much of it as possible. This is exactly what the current regime in power in Serbia never intended. If Kosovo should be lost for Serbia it will not be because it was lost in 1999, but because after 2000 Serbia was largely run by people who wished it had been lost then.

It is plausible that just remaining a state capable of autonomous action may have proved sufficient for Serbia to deter the occupiers from assaulting the original settlement, as this would have carried a risk of unwanted incidents with potential for escalation. Certainly KFOR would be more reluctant to undertake actions like the current assault against the four municipalities in the north of Kosovo if Serbia were known to be ready to issue a demand for KFOR to desist and to dispatch hundreds of Serbian police (something envisioned by the UNSCR 1244) to the north if its calls were not heeded. Particularly if it had not dismantled and purged away much of its army after 2000 so that it still had something to potentially back the police with.

Counter-intuitively as this may sound in one critical aspect the NATO occupation of Kosovo actually enhanced Serbian position vis-a-vis the alliance. During the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 NATO faced a problem of how to hurt an enemy whose army was camouflaged, had dug in, and had no need to conduct large scale troop movements or concentrate its forces. It resolved the problem by going after civilian targets instead. Serbian forces faced the opposite problem of how to hurt an enemy that is content to bomb civilian infrastructure and will not drop bellow 15,000 feet. After it was conclusively shown that the Army of Yugoslavia would not be able to protect the civilian population from a redoubled effort of NATO against their livelihoods, or even to exact a price on NATO for conducting it, Yugoslavia negotiated an armistice. NATO occupation of Kosovo that followed, however, gifted Serbia the capacity to inflict damage on NATO and should have resolved the basic strategic problem Serbia had faced in 1999.

With NATO troops on the ground in Kosovo any potential future conflict would be certain to involve the one thing the alliance proved in 1999 it could not afford — casualties. Certainly NATO valued its objectives in Kosovo highly enough that it was willing to bomb civilians from the air, but did it ever consider them worth chancing own losses? On the basis of evidence from the 1990s the answer is a resounding no. It was clear since its onset that Western interventionism in the Balkans was conducted under political constraints that ruled out land combat and accompanying casualties. The point is not that Serbia should have engaged NATO in a land war, but that the value scale of Western occupiers meant that Serbia had the levers needed to make sure the former would not stray too far from the settlement that ended the war in 1999.  

This would have involved nothing terribly original, but only applying pressure on the internationals of much the same kind that had been applied against them by the Kosovo Albanians. On March 2004 Albanians tested the commitment of NATO to its stated goal of protecting the remaining Serbs in Kosovo. Facing aggressive Albanian mobs KFOR troops fled (with a handful of notable exceptions like the Czech and the Irish contingents) leaving the Serbs unprotected. Once its commitment was put to the test NATO quickly discovered that it valued its own safety much more than its stated goal of protecting Kosovo Serbs from homicidal mobs. Later when the internationals proclaimed the policy-line of "standards before status" Kosovo Albanians responded with the "Vetëvendosje" movement and tested this stated goal of the internationals. In the end the internationals 'resolve' to see through cosmetic changes in the way Priština institutions conducted themselves before enabling Kosovo Albanian proclamation of independence from Serbia did not show itself strong enough to brave menacing Vetëvendosje graffiti and youths pelting UN vehicles with stones.

The parallel is not fully applicable because, for one, Kosovo Albanians had it easy in that they were merely forcing the internationals to chose between two objectives of their own. Part of the reason why KFOR failed to protect the Serbs against the 2004 pogrom is that it at some level wished to see them gone itself. Part of the reason why any thought of conditioning independence from Belgrade on the much touted "standards" was so quickly put aside was that the internationals too saw furthering detachment of Kosovo from Serbia as a victory for themselves. Furthermore, seeing that Kosovo Albanians are dependent on the presence of internationals for their own goals, Albanian resentment over a semblance of restraint placed on them was never going to actually result in a full on campaign to expel the internationals. The implied threat was of only limited disturbances against the internationals, coupled with far nastier ones against the remaining Serbs south of the Ibar river. Nonetheless but for the odious notion of using defenseless civilians in your midst as hostages the same method of pointing out the contradiction between continued adherence to a policy and a guarantee of total safety and forcing a choice between the two, could have conceivably produced results for Serbia as well.

As it was, every time the occupiers proceeded with taking the realities on the ground further away from those envisioned by the 1999 armistice they could do so with the luxury of knowing for certain that any development that may lead to losses on its side would be avoided. Serbia stood by as four thousand Serbs were burned out from their homes in the March 2004 pogrom, stood by as the Empire proclaimed Kosovo detached from it, approved of UN administration delegating its most important tasks to the EU, and stands by right now as NATO assaults the four solidly-Serb northern municipalities without even as much as a verbal condemnation. If the state of affairs in Kosovo today is so unfavorable for the Serb side it is because official Serbia never tested the commitment of Westerners to their goals in a region that they probably do not consider worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier.

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