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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- Is Kosovo A Precedent?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more political leaders and commentators are discussing the Kosovo crisis and the way NATO has responded less in terms of the events themselves than as possible precedents for the future of the international system.

Such discussions, themselves very much part of the policy debate about what to do next, often distract attention from the current events themselves. Indeed, in some cases, that seems to be the intent of those proposing Kosovo as a precedent. But all such suggestions have the effect of highlighting just how important Kosovo and NATO's response may be in changing the world.

So far, most of the suggested precedents fall into one of three categories.

First, many suggest that Kosovo is likely to serve as a precedent for other ethnic minorities seeking to escape from the domination of central political elites. Second, many now argue that NATO's response points either to an effective means of dealing with such challenges or highlights the inability of the international community to cope.

And third, many suggest often in apocalyptic terms that the Kosovo crisis and NATO's response to it not only mark the end of the post-Cold War period of East-West cooperation but are likely to define how both the West and Moscow will deal with one another in the future.

One of the reasons that the international community in general and NATO in particular were leery of getting involved in any military defense of the Kosovars was a very real concern that such intervention might create a precedent that other ethnic minorities might seek to exploit by engaging in violence in order to attract outside support.

These concerns were not misplaced. Some Armenians, for example, have asked why the international community should not intervene in defense of their co-ethnics in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some overseas Chinese and some ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet states have asked the same question, as have some in both China and Russia who see themselves as possible protectors of such communities.

And such questions, even when they have not been accompanied by any real action, nonetheless have the effect of suggesting that the West or at least NATO is being hypocritical in its justifications of intervention in Kosovo, a suggestion that majority nationalists in a number of countries have sought to exploit.

A second precedent, cited by some with hope and by others with concern, is that NATO's involvement represents a model for international responses to future ethnic conflicts within countries.

Some leaders have argued that by taking a tough position against Serbian atrocities, NATO has upheld its moral commitments to human rights, and they have noted that the international community has few other options in the face of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's intransigence.

But far more people who have sought to find a precedent in the Kosovo crisis in this regard have evaluated NATO's actions in an entirely different spirit. They have suggested that military intervention in defense of an ethnic minority not only violates the sovereignty of a particular state but calls into question the current international order based on sovereign states.

And others have suggested that the Kosovo crisis points to the need for earlier, non-military intervention in ethnic conflicts before they become so large that no other options except military force are available. One person making that argument is Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

In his weekly address last week, the Georgian leader suggested that Kosovo demonstrates the danger of neglecting what he called "frozen" ethnic conflicts, disputes which are only simmering or which appear to outsiders to be under control. Neglecting them, Shevardnadze continued, almost inevitably means they will grow, and he appealed to Moscow and other world capitals to get more actively involved in seeking a solution to the Abkhaz dispute, one that the Georgian president said shared many of the features of Kosovo before the current explosion. Abkhazia has been seeking to secede from Georgia, and ethnic Abkhaz have frequently clashed with ethnic Georgians.

And finally the third precedent: the notion that NATO's unilateral intervention opens the way to unilateral interventions by other regional security groups without reference to the broader international community as organized in the United Nations and that NATO's actions thus destroy the possibility for cooperation between Moscow and the West.

This Kosovo precedent, invoked most often by Russian officials and those sympathetic to their views, is subject to dispute. Not only have regional security groups routinely acted without reference to others when they believed that their interests were threatened -- for what reason other than that do such groups exist, after all? -- but the use of the United Nations Security Council is possible only when all permanent members agree.

But as advocates of this point of view know well, such agreement has been relatively rare. And suggestions that no one should do anything about the kind of atrocities Serbian forces are guilty of unless all five permanent members of the Security Council agree almost certainly opens the door to an even more frightening future than the one proponents of this precedent see in the current situation.

This general debate about Kosovo precedents seems certain to continue long after this crisis has passed. Such discussions almost certainly will prove useful in thinking about the future, as long as they do not become excuses to ignore the very real problems in Kosovo that forced NATO to act.