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Western Press Review: Commentaries Struggle For Perspective In Kosovo

  • Don Hill
  • Dora Slaba



Prague, 15 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the moral, political and military complexities of the conflict over Kosovo grow more chaotic, Western commentators today struggle to find greater perspective.

Their task is made more difficult by reports yesterday of dozens of Kosovar refugees being killed -- possibly by NATO aircraft -- during an attack on a Serbian military convoy.

Editorials in Britain's Daily Telegraph and The Washington Post seek to extract sense from the disaster.

The Daily Telegraph says: "We do not know whether the refugees were being used as human shields to protect Serb military facilities, or whether they somehow were mistaken by NATO pilots for enemy forces, or indeed whether NATO was responsible at all. But whatever happened, it is (Yugoslav President) Slobodan Milosevic who is entirely responsible for creating the circumstances that led to their deaths."

The editorial says: "The growing civilian death toll is certain to increase the allure of the latest peace plan for Kosovo proposed yesterday by Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister. (If the plan) were accepted in its entirety, it would amount to a capitulation on Western terms. The risk, however, is that the peace initiative could start a slide towards a shoddy diplomatic compromise."

In its editorial, The Washington Post says: "One more horrifying image from the war in Kosovo: civilians attacked yesterday as they made their painful way, on tractor and cart, along a rural road. Serbian officials, whose record leaves them without credibility, say they were bombed by NATO planes; NATO says they may have been attacked by Serbian troops after a NATO bombardment. In either case, they illustrate NATO's dilemma. It can bomb Serbia's military infrastructure, slowly eroding Slobodan Milosevic's aggressive capability but doing little in the short term to protect the people of Kosovo from Mr. Milosevic's atrocities. Or it can attack the tanks and other forces directly threatening those people, thereby putting at risk not only its pilots but also the civilians whom Serbian troops are cynically using as shields."

The Post concludes: "In the wake of Serbian atrocities, there can be no retreat from NATO's basic demands that all Serbian forces withdraw from Kosovo and that all expellees return under international protection. But there can be no satisfaction as long as so many people inside Kosovo remain threatened. NATO must show patience and urgency both; not an easy combination."

Three influential European publications criticize the various responses made to the continuing crisis by Russian, European and NATO leaders:

The Netherlands' Algemeen Dagblad , published in The Hague, takes aim at Russia. The newspaper says: "The Russians continue to be reluctant to exert pressure on Milosevic. Not a word passes their lips about the crimes committed by the Serbs in Kosovo. As long as Milosevic does not agree, they are also not pressing for the refugees' return under the protection of a peace force. By turning a blind eye to Serb terror, they are supporting Milosevic in his arrogant acts."

In Strasbourg, France, the daily Les Dernieres Nouvelles dAlsace faults Europe's leadership for remaining too weak to oppose Milosevic' Serbs. The Alsatian regional newspaper says: "The Balkan war is forcing the European elections into the background. And yet there are only two months left until June 13. In normal circumstances it would be time for verbosity about some national interests. Unfortunately, the horror that is taking place in Kosovo is forcing discussion of the real issue -- either Europe is going to be strong in the future with a common policy and a joint defense, capable of preventing criminal national excesses, or Europe will remain forever a political and military dwarf only in a position to call big brother America to its assistance, as it fails to have the means and the political will."

The French Liberation has a slap for NATO's military leadership. Liberation editorializes: "The NATO commander's request for 300 additional planes gives the impression of a retreat rather than of confidence. For Belgrade is betting on the time factor. Every day, every night of this war has the effect of exhausting the NATO countries. The gap between the political reasons for the air strike and the actual results widens. Since this can only be endured for a limited time, it is resulting in desperate rather than convincing calls for a political settlement. The military's time has limits."

A New York Times editorial and a commentary by editorial director Josef Joffe in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung examine budding diplomatic forays into the Kosovo maelstrom:

The New York Times says: "Wednesday, for the first time since the combat began, the diplomats were as active as the generals, with Germany leading the way. The most difficult challenge for the United States and NATO is to blend force and diplomacy to bring Slobodan Milosevic into negotiations without sacrificing the alliance's objectives."

The editorial concludes: "Russia, in its own fashion, seems ready to help mediate. Wednesday, President Boris Yeltsin named his former prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, as a special envoy for the Balkan crisis. Chernomyrdin is a pragmatic negotiator who appreciates the importance of maintaining Russia's economic and political ties with Europe and the United States. With Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations also prepared to serve as an intermediary, Milosevic cannot complain about a shortage of potential peacemakers."

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung's Joffe writes: "A club of nations is neither a world government which does what is right and good completely without prejudice, nor a democracy in which the vote of Papua, New Guinea, carries as much weight as that of the United States or China. The U.N. is no more impartial than its majority political ideology, and it has only as much power as the powerful states want to give it. Kofi Annan is not a head of government who has just stepped out of the wings in the Kosovo war, but the U.N. secretary general. That said, it is obvious how useful the combine he heads can be -- as a forum, a fig-leaf and a test-bed."

The commentator concludes: "After an astonishing phase of unity among Western nations, an old problem is rearing its head: that of too many cooks taking a hand, each one cooking up his own broth -- a dish that Milosevic may savor more than anyone else."

Writers in the Frankfurter Rundschau and The Washington Post and an editorial in the U.S. regional newspaper the Arizona Republic stand back today for the historical view:

Martin Winter writes in the Frankfurter Rundschau: "At the start of the war with Kosovo, there was a misunderstanding. Both the United States and the Europeans believed that if strong words did not bring Slobodan Milosevic to reason, weak blows certainly would. The end of the war now depends in no small degree on whether the ruler in Belgrade abandons the illusion of all dictators, namely that democracies are weak by their very nature, and that their basic instinct is to run away when confronted by a highly determined force."

Barry S. Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University and, currently, Rockefeller visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Human Values. In an essay published in The Washington Post, he holds that, while the immediate issue in the Kosovo conflict is about maintaining borders, the longer term concern is about overcoming borders.

He writes: "Ever since human beings began to give up the nomadic life for the settled condition of farmers around 10,000 years ago, every community has demarcated and defended its territory. So the border was invented."

Strauss asks if the Kosovo war will advance Europe "toward the Enlightenment ideal of a borderless world or (send it) back toward the nationalist depths?" Strauss concludes his essay by saying: "Nothing less is at stake in Kosovo. If NATO allies defeat Serbia and restore the Kosovo Albanians to Serbia's Kosovo province, then the ideals of justice and freedom will have a chance to prevail. (If, however,) the Milosevic regime wins, if it gets away with not merely denying Kosovo autonomy but with driving some Kosovo Albanians from their land and killing others, then the future is a question mark. The path of progress will be most at risk in Eastern Europe, that fragile area of transition. But (it will be threatened additionally) in every country on the continent where, West or East, minority rights are in dispute. The ideals of freedom and equal rights are the foundation of a world of peace and of open borders. If these ideals are not worth fighting for, then nothing is."

The Arizona Republic -- published in the southwestern United States -- editorializes: "So far, if anything positive can be extracted from the war in Kosovo, it may be a resurgence in examination of America's military history." The newspaper says: "At this stage in the Kosovo conflict, the most talked about historical parallel has been between the American armed forces of today and the nation's army just prior to the two World Wars. Then, the U.S. Army essentially did not exist. The dread today is that, in terms of readiness to go to war, history is repeating itself."

The editorial concludes: "It is bad enough that the stated strategic goals of the Kosovo incursion -- bringing Milosevic quickly to his knees and protecting the Kosovars -- have proved foolishly optimistic. NATO's utter lack of a relief plan for the half-million Kosovo Albanians routed from their homes belies claims that the Allies were prepared for anything like that social catastrophe. But if the intention was to wage war, logic would dictate that they at least would have prepared for that
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