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1998 In Review: No Sure Solution In Sight In Kosovo

Prague, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - Kosovo still awaits a political settlement that will guarantee its more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian population the basic rights of self-determination and majority rule.

The key to solving the problem lies in Serbia, where the difficulties began with the rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic more than a decade ago.

The Serbian leader built his initial political success on an anti-Kosovar platform, which he finished constructing in 1989, when he abolished the broad autonomy the province had enjoyed under the 1974 constitution. The Kosovars responded by setting up a shadow state headed by a moderate, Ibrahim Rugova. Milosevic turned his attention first toward trying to take control of Yugoslavia and - after the Slovenes, Croats and others prevented that - toward establishing a greater Serbia at the expense of Croatia and Bosnia.

Nine years later, Milosevic's plans for a greater Serbia lay in ruins and tens of thousands of Serbs from Krajina and Bosnia had become impoverished refugees. But in February 1998, he launched a new campaign aimed at destroying the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which had grown increasingly bold in the scope and nature of its guerrilla activities in the course of the previous year.

Milosevic used in Kosovo the same techniques Serbian forces had sharpened in Croatia and Bosnia. Led by his paramilitary police with support from the army and irregular forces, the crackdown involved the shelling, burning and looting of Kosovar villages and towns. Some 250,000 people - including ethnic Serbian and Montenegrin victims of the UCK - became displaced persons in Kosovo or refugees in Albania, Montenegro, or elsewhere.

Humanitarian concerns led to growing international pressure on Belgrade, including a threat of NATO airstrikes. By mid-October, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke succeeded in brokering a deal that led to a cease-fire and held the door open for a political settlement.

Holbrooke announced the agreement in Belgrade:

"We hope that it will mark a turning point in the tortured and tragic relationship between the peoples -- Albanians, Serbs, others -- in Kosovo."

Soon thereafter, some 2,000 unarmed civilians began arriving in Kosovo under a mandate from the OSCE to monitor the uneasy truce. In neighboring Macedonia, a 1,700-strong French-led NATO rapid reaction force began assembling in order to evacuate the monitors if they ran into danger.

The difficulty in achieving a settlement stems from the fact that Serbian and Kosovar goals are essentially incompatible. Although few Serbs actually visit Kosovo, most have a sentimental attachment to it as the cradle of medieval Serbian civilization. They oppose independence or even broad autonomy for the ethnic Albanian majority. Following the agreement with Holbrooke, the Milosevic government produced a plan that offered autonomy but at the local - rather than at the provincial - level, and accorded equal political representation to all ethnic groups regardless of their size. The plan firmly anchored Kosovo in the Serbian legal structure and gave the Serbian parliament the last word in the province's affairs.

This was clearly unacceptable to moderate Kosovars loyal to Rugova and more hardline supporters of the UCK. The Kosovars insisted on provincial self-determination based on the principle of majority rule. At the very least, they would accept the status of a third republic - along with Serbia and Montenegro - within federal Yugoslavia, and only as part of an interim solution that would include a referendum on independence at the end of two to three years.

By the end of 1998, Washington began to reassess its view of Milosevic. Instead of regarding him, as Holbrooke had done, as the only man in Serbia who could make any agreement stick, State Department spokesman James Rubin described Milosevic in early December as "the problem." Washington increasingly came to believe the solution to the problem in Kosovo would come not in any new deals with Milosevic but rather from the democratization of Serbia.

That view was shared by others, including the president of Serbia's partner in federal Yugoslavia, Montenegro's Milo Djukanovic:

"The central problem is that we have no democracy in this country. The second is that Albanians in Kosovo are afraid because they have no autonomy."

Several U.S. officials and commentators suggested that one could support democratization by supporting Serbia's harried independent media and promoting a civil society. Moreover, U.S. officials and commentators added that strong political and economic support could be given to Djukanovic and the independent-minded leadership of Montenegro.

Some observers argued in the international and regional media that Serbia is ready for change because of its growing isolation and poverty. They noted Milosevic recently fired key advisors and top military commanders. The observers argued that the firings suggest Milosevic has become increasingly nervous and unsure of what to do.

But other observers pointed out that there is no readily discernible alternative to Milosevic among opposition politicians, who are given to infighting and opportunism. Some of these observers suggested that the most likely effective opposition to Milosevic might come from within the governing elite or the army, such as General Momcilo Perisic, whom Milosevic recently sacked as army chief of staff. But it is not clear whether such individuals would prove to be significantly better democrats than Milosevic.