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Kosovo: Analysis From Washington - The Wrong Analogy

Washington, 19 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more political leaders and commentators in Europe and the United States are insisting that Kosovo must not become "another Bosnia."

But that is the wrong analogy in terms of the challenge the situation there presents, the likely response of the international community to it, and the probable course of developments within that region and beyond.

On all three of these grounds, a much better analogy is to be found in the case of Chechnya, its struggle for independence and recognition, and its evolving relationship with the Russian government in Moscow.

Like Chechnya, but unlike Bosnia, Kosovo is recognized by the international community as part of Yugoslavia. Many people both in that region and abroad may wish it were otherwise, but that is a basic fact of life from which all analysis must proceed.

Like Chechnya but unlike Bosnia, the international community is reluctant to intervene in ways that call into question Yugoslavia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the Bosnian case, the government in Sarajevo called for international intervention. In the case of Kosovo, the Yugoslav authorities have indicated that they would resist with armed force any military intervention by the international community. And also like Chechnya but again unlike Bosnia, the reluctance of the international community to intervene has led many in Belgrade to assume they can act with impunity against the Kosovars, even as it has led many Kosovars to become ever more radical in their resistance.

When the international community made it clear that it would do little or nothing to stop Moscow's actions against the Chechens, the Russian government decided that it could proceed with its assault that ultimately cost more than 100,000 lives.

But the issue here is less the discovery of the correct analogy than the role such analogies are playing in the calculations of those who are making policy in Western capitals.

By reminding everyone of the horrors of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the relative slowness of the international community in taking steps to stop it, those drawing the Bosnian analogy today are clearly hoping to prompt the West to act more quickly in this case.

But at the same time, those who draw this analogy are inevitably distracting attention from the specific features of the situation in Kosovo. And a neglect of those features in the calculations of the policy community could entail some extremely serious consequences.

On the one hand, a policy driven by a common revulsion at the actions of the Serbian authorities against the Bosnians in the past and the Kosovars today could lead the international community to take actions that could make the situation worse.

Not only could it lead to a situation in which there would be a direct clash between Yugoslav military formations and any armed force dispatched by the international community, but it could prompt Serbian forces to behave even worse toward the Kosovars.

And on the other, a policy driven by this analogy might lead the international community to create a precedent relatively few are likely to examine if the current situation is analyzed by analogy but even fewer are likely to be prepared to live with should it come to pass.

If one country or group of countries can use military force to intervene in what most agree are the internal affairs of another state, then other countries or groups could invoke that precedent to do the same.

That would almost certainly make the world a more dangerous place, something all who want to end the violence in Kosovo certainly do not want and something that deserves a kind of debate not always well-served by the easy invocation of analogies good and bad.