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Serbia: Commentary -- Elephant's Graveyard

By Charles Crawford Protesters in front of the burning U.S. Embassy on February 21 (AFP) As we look aghast at the pictures of the flames coming from the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, how to make sense of the Kosovo independence issue?

Kosovo is diplomacy's elephant's graveyard, a bleak place where our best hopes and strategies and principles forlornly creep away to die.

There has been nothing uniquely special or principled or even self-evidently fair about the Kosovar Albanian majority's demand that a new independent state dominated by them be set up in Europe within Kosovo's current borders. What is undoubtedly remarkable is the single-minded way that community has focused on this ambition in recent decades, and how stunningly and consistently inept the Serbs have been in dealing with the problem.

The ethnic mix of the Kosovo population has ebbed and flowed down the centuries with different empires and wars and consequent rounds of ethnic cleansing. Nor has there been a consistent delineation of the territory defining Kosovo. But at least for most of the past 100 years most of Kosovo has been recognized by the rest of the planet as part of Serbia, albeit with an ethnic-Albanian majority. Numerous historic Serbian monasteries and other sites are there, attesting to long earlier periods of Serbian rule and Slavic civilization. So history does not suggest that a "winner takes all" Albanian victory now is obviously the right one.

I came on the case in February 1981 a few months after the death of Marshall Tito himself when I walked into HM Embassy Belgrade as the squeaky clean new second secretary political/information, to be told that there had been "disturbances" in Kosovo -- a startling development in the harmonious communist world. Kosovo at that stage was (like Vojvodina) an "autonomous province" within Serbia but with most of the attributes of a full republic within communist Yugoslavia, including, for example, a Kosovo representative in the convoluted eight-person collective Yugoslav Presidency.

These student-led disturbances were mobilized under the slogan "Kosovo -- Republic." Not a claim to independence as such, but an obviously handy step in that general direction. If ever Yugoslavia broke up, a republic was better placed to gain full independence than a mere province.

Some months after the disturbances, I was one of the first foreign diplomats allowed back in Kosovo. I picked up a genial local Albanian hitchhiker, who explained it all succinctly. "There are far more Albanians than Montenegrins. They have their republic. Why can't we have ours too? Our policy is simple. We are going to have lots more babies than the Serbs until they have to give us a republic!"

The local demographic trends did of course strongly favor the Albanians. A fact not lost on Serbia's leading writer and philosopher Dobrica Cosic, who back in 1984 told me that Serbia should aim for a painful deal on Kosovo: "better to cut off a cancerous leg to save the body."

The official Serbian default position, alas, was not to think. Instead crass oppression, partly in the form of an extended series of communist show trials. After farcical hearings lasting only a couple of days, sizeable groups of Albanians young and old would be sent to long terms of imprisonment for their part in the disturbances. Such blatant injustice in this human rights black hole in Europe not far from Rome helped create the radicalized Albanian militants of the late 1990s.

Not that anyone other than the inordinately freedom-loving Great Leader of Albania Enver Hohxa and the Kosovar Albanians objected. Everyone from Western conservatives through European social democrats and Marxist pseuds to Chinese/Soviet communist hard-liners and on to "nonaligned" Third World dictators (albeit for quite different reasons) wanted "stability in the Balkans," featuring above all the "territorial integrity of post-Tito Yugoslavia." If that meant the uppity Albanians (and their nasty calls for an "ethnically pure Kosovo") getting a severe thrashing (again), so be it.

But the Cold War ended. Yugoslavia ceased to be what my senior colleagues at the early 1980s embassy had claimed it was, a "pillar of stability in the Balkans."

Now the Kosovar Albanians could point to the unrelieved ghastliness of Slobodan Milosevic and start to turn parts of world opinion in their favor. However, let's remember that through their successive electoral boycotts they helped both create and sustain Milosevic's power, deliberately following a hard-core painful policy of "the worse, the better."

This explains why the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) have little if any sympathy for the Kosovo independence cause -- they suffered horrible losses from the Kosovar Albanians' studious passivity in the early 1990s, which allowed Milosevic and his villainous allies to hammer away at Bosnia without fearing a "second flank" against him in the south.

When Albanian insurgents/rebels/militants/terrorists (pick your epithet) did open that front in 1998, they knew they could count on a violent and excessive reaction from Milosevic. It happened.

And lo!, thanks to Milosevic it came about that for the first time in a thousand years the prospect of Albanians winning and Serbs losing in Kosovo started to gain some international approval. NATO intervened militarily against Serbia in 1999 to stop Serbian forces achieving a knockout victory.

This opened the way to the placing of the province under UN control but effectively on Albanian terms, thereby giving a de facto green light to Kosovo independence claims. Which now in part have been fulfilled, even if the international wrangling on Kosovo's status (and its ability to join international organizations) is set to drag on for a very long time to come. If not indefinitely.

Kosovo's independence in part builds on a strikingly ruthless and "un-European" single-mindedness. Serbia's former Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic in 2000 told me how an elderly Albanian in southern Serbia had put it to him straight: "Mr. Covic, you have two children. I have six. I am prepared to sacrifice two of my children to the cause. How many of yours are you prepared to sacrifice?"

This sort of thing is not what today's European leaders supported by foppish naifs who inhabit EU working groups are able to understand, let alone confront. So instead they park on the wobbly hope that because Kosovo's Albanians doff their caps and sign every human rights commitment we serve up to them, Kosovo's independence will be another beautiful expression of European modern multiculturalism.

In short, what?

Kosovo's declaration of independence as recognized so far by the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of other countries gives some 2 million people a fair chance to run their own affairs after many decades of wretchedly incompetent and violent rule or attempted rule from Belgrade. Good.

But it also is an act of substantive ethnic partition of a democratic country in modern Europe, plus a formidable triumph for the most hard-line Kosovar Albanians and their relatives' extended organized crime networks. Above all, after we rightly plonked a Monty Python foot on Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia this looks like a victory for Greater Albania. And maybe not the last one?

This development also will represent a deeper radical change in Europe's post-Cold War logic. After having started disastrously when Yugoslavia began to collapse when the Cold War ended, Europe (or rather Western Europe) eventually lifted its game. In close and often rancorous but at least intelligent partnership with the United States and Russia, we together helped contain the crisis and then imposed a settlement on Bosnia-Herzegovina's warring communities plus Serbia and Croatia. This helped us all manage various messy situations dotted around the former Soviet Union.

Kosovo's independence by contrast has been achieved without clear EU unity (in itself a sign that something is not quite right) and in the face of strenuous if cynical opposition from Moscow. What exactly that portends for Russia's policy elsewhere and how we all react to it remains to be seen. But something important will have been lost.

It did not have to be this way.

In Bosnia we said to the three hostile communities: "Look, stop fighting! Get along with each other in a moderate way in a single state framework. No more Balkanization!" Just down the road in Kosovo we have said: "Er, oh dear, if you Albanians want to leave a democratic Serbia, who are we to stop you? Indeed, have lots of our taxpayers' money, with very few strings attached!"

Why is our former Yugoslavia policy dealing with the breakup of that modestly sized European country not based now on even minimal common-sense policy consistency?

This is more a psychological than political question.

It would have been reasonable to play this one very long -- to tell the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians that there would be no discussion of status until both had lifted their game and moderated their behavior toward significant European standards as part of a shared trajectory toward full EU membership.

Or we could have accepted reality with a small dash of fairness (sometimes a wise approach) and said that neither side wins all of Kosovo, so the territory has to be shared somehow, for example through formalized EU-supervised power-sharing. Or negotiated border changes. Or the creation of "entities" as underpinned the Dayton outcome in Bosnia. Or maybe something based on Swiss-style canonization.

The Serbs have put all these ideas and more forward, drawing on Europe's own myriad examples. These proposals have been treated with EU/U.S. disdain as a cheap trick intended to promote monoethnicity.

More importantly, the Kosovar Albanians have made clear that they would not respect any such nuanced approaches and indeed would simply brush them (i.e. us) aside. Neither Europeans nor Americans have been prepared to stand up to this. Nor have we been ready to allow Serbia to do so.

Thus it is that another notable building block from the Versailles Treaty following World War I finally falls away. Will independence settle the Kosovo Question? Yes. Exactly like that distant Versailles settlement did. Or didn't. On which timescale do we diplomats measure stability -- and success?

While we all wrestle with the fearsomely complex policy issues surrounding Kosovo, one overwhelming fact has to be faced.

It is that successive Serbian leaders, unerringly backed by stupidly populist Serbian media, have gone out of their way to offer the Kosovar Albanians, their fellow citizens, nothing but contempt.

Back in 2001-03, I tried to explain to then-President Vojislav Kostunica and his entourage that it made no sense to insist that Kosovo was part of Serbia but make no meaningful gestures toward its population. In principle they should be addressed as potential voters, not rabid sub-human enemies.

When, for example, a truck containing the bodies of Albanians massacred by Milosevic's forces was found in the Danube, I urged Kostunica's closest team to aim to win international praise by doing something such as organizing a decent high-profile ceremony in their honor and sending personal messages to all their relatives. I tried to get through to them that some sort of civilized European, human gesture would be right in itself, plus a strong sign that post-Milosevic Serbia understood the way international opinion was formed and wanted to be a nimble part of it.

Back came the appalling answer. "There are many mass graves in and around Belgrade from World War II -- what difference does another one make?"

Thus again Belgrade was not extending to the region's and their own country's Albanians a positive hand of friendship, but instead in effect another slap in the face. If Serbia's leaders really are trying to convince the international community of their moral and/or historical and/or political case to keep Kosovo, maybe this sort of thing -- as exemplified in its latest mode by trying to burn down the U.S. Embassy -- risks coming across as a bit...unpersuasive?

To sum up.

Kosovo enters a new historical phase separate from Serbia. Appropriate congratulations are due to Albanian will, expressed through steely self-sacrifice, wily use of force and bravura political marketing and manipulation.

What of the Serbs? Sometimes it happens that others get things they don't fully deserve. But when that happens you can't credibly complain much if you do get exactly what you deserve.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, having accepted and applauded a twisted and mean-spirited leadership for a very long time -- and now exulted at the burning embassy of a rather influential country that can make their situation better or worse -- our Serbian fellow-Europeans are ending up with what they deserve.


(Charles Crawford is a former U.K. ambassador in Belgrade in 2001-03. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

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