Kosovo looms yet again

Those who assumed that the NATO aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999 over Kosovo had somehow solved that latest Balkan problem and removed it from a crowded international agenda have another think coming.  We are now threatened not only with an imminent illegal and unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia by the Kosovo Albanians, but also with the prospect that it will promptly be recognised by the United States and some other western governments, perhaps even including that of the UK, with potentially disastrous consequences throughout the Balkans and beyond.  

The (London) Times today (23 November) published this letter from me, written in the forlorn hope of getting at least a few readers to question some of the dangerous myths and misconceptions about what really happened in 1999 when NATO, of all supposedly defensive alliances, committed an unconcealed act of aggression against the then sovereign state of Yugoslavia:

From The Times, November 23, 2007

Kosovo crisis

We should remember NATO's mistakes when dealing with Serbia

Sir, As another crisis looms (“Fears grow for Kosovo as poll victor demands independence”, Nov 20), we should remember the blunders and myths that led to this impasse.

In 1998-99 violence in Kosovo, then as now legally part of Serbia, stemmed from Serbian repression of the Kosovo Albanians, but also from the Albanian terrorist “Kosovo Liberation Army”, to whose attacks the Serbs reacted with inexcusable brutality. The pretext for the three-month Nato bombing of Yugoslavia was Serbian rejection of the ultimatum deliberately crafted at Rambouillet by Madeleine Albright (then US Secretary of State) to ensure Serbian rejection and Albanian acceptance.

To secure the latter, Ms Albright, without Nato, UN or legal authority, promised the Albanians what amounted to independence. Nato bombing did not halt the Serbs’ expulsion of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo: it precipitated it. Nato bombing never achieved the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo: American, Russian and Finnish diplomacy negotiated a settlement differing radically from Nato’s demands. Everyone knew that NATO would never agree to a costly and dangerous land invasion.

Nato’s misguided attempt to exclude Russia and the UN from the eventual settlement failed completely, and the illegal use of force without UN authority created a catastrophic precedent for the Iraq fiasco four years later. Subsequent Serbian elections, not Nato bombing, ridded Serbia of Milosevic.

Now Russia, Serbia and most of its neighbours understandably fear that a unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians would have disastrous regional consequences, inevitably aggravated by recognition by America and others. A solution short of full independence, with safeguards for the beleaguered Serbian minority in Kosovo, should remain the objective, even if it takes another eight years for the Kosovo Albanians to accept it. Otherwise “Balkanisation” may take on a new and yet more tragic connotation.

Sir Brian Barder
HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-94
London SW18

I mentally gave four loud cheers for Simon Jenkins's column on Kosovo in Wednesday's Guardian (21 November), which deftly disposed of several deep-rooted fallacies, apart from one that he actually seemed to endorse.  He wrote:

While most countries, including America, tut-tutted and for three months dropped bombs, probably hastening the carnage in Kosovo, Tony Blair rightly divined that only a ground invasion could reverse a humanitarian outrage. In this he was successful. [Emphasis added.]

This seems to imply that a NATO ground invasion took place at Blair's instigation and that it succeeded in forcing the Serbs to surrender and to accept the extraordinary demands made by NATO at the Rambouillet conference.  In fact of course there was no such land invasion and indeed, as Milosevic (like everyone else except Blair) must have known, there was never the smallest possibility of one, since it would have required unanimous NATO agreement (and Greece among others was adamantly opposed), and approval by the US Congress, which would never have given it.  Clinton had previously given an assurance to the Congress that he would not ask for authority to use ground troops in a combat role in Kosovo and this was a necessary condition of Congressional approval for the NATO bombing.  It's true that in response to constant nagging by Blair for a ground invasion, Clinton eventually said publicly that all options were open, and that this was widely interpreted as an American green light for sending in ground troops, but this was obvious bluff and the Serbs must have known it.

Click to see full size map As Simon Jenkins rightly said, the bombing actually worsened the carnage in Kosovo, and indeed precipitated the mass expulsion of Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo (which began only after the start of the bombing campaign and was advertised as a response to it), causing extensive human suffering and creating a terrible refugee problem in neighbouring countries.  Growing numbers of NATO countries were becoming increasingly anxious about the continued bombing, which was achieving nothing in terms of Serbian willingness to bow to NATO's extraordinarily extreme demands: predictably, it was actually helping to solidify Serbian support for Milosevic. 

What did eventually bring about the Serbs' acceptance of a settlement (shorn of its most extreme and obviously unacceptable features), under which they withdrew their forces from Kosovo and handed the province over to an international (but now not exclusively NATO) force and administration, was quiet diplomacy, presumably conducted behind Blair's back, by Strobe Talbot as Clinton's representative, Viktor Chernomyrdin as Yeltsin's, and Martti Ahtisaari, then President of Finland and experienced UN mediator.  Serbian acceptance of a radically amended settlement plan was achieved by flexible diplomacy, not by bombing, not by land invasion and not by any credible threat of land invasion.  Tony Blair had no part in it.  The whole thing could probably have been achieved at Rambouillet without a single bomb being dropped if the Americans, apparently supported by Robin Cook and Tony Blair (at any rate certainly not opposed or exposed by them), had not been determined (a) to find a pretext for bombing the Serbs as atonement for western failure in Bosnia, and (b) to exclude Russia and the UN from any eventual settlement.  Clinton eventually admitted to Yeltsin that Russian involvement was essential for any settlement, and so it proved.  Now we and the Americans seem to be poised to make that same mistake again.

There's a good piece about all this by a former US diplomat who seems to know the area, here.  Some of the evidence for my assertions in this post is here.

As long as so many fallacies about what happened in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in 1999 persist, western policy in the Balkans is going to continue to be built on sand.  All credit to Simon Jenkins for laying some of them to rest.  I hope he will find an early opportunity to slay the ground war threat fallacy to rest, too.  Meanwhile the top priority must be to try to head off the reckless folly of an illegal and unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians, followed by United States government 'recognition' which will simply make matters worse.  If the worst happens, the UK should on no account tamely follow the Americans into unconditional recognition either of Kosovo as an independent state, or of whatever government the Albanians may set up in it.  We should stick to our established policy of recognising states, not governments:  of bestowing recognition on states by reference to objective criteria:  and eschewing the use of recognition as a political act which could be seen as bestowing some sort of approval.  One such criterion in the case of Kosovo should surely be a successful application for membership of the UN.  We should also seek to encourage a common EU position on recognition before rushing into action unilaterally.  And we should avoid being influenced by any hard feelings about past misbehaviour by previous Serbian régimes.  Best of all would be a common EU-US-UN-Russian effort to impose further delay in which to get the Kosovo Albanian majority to see that full sovereign independence is not an option for the foreseeable future and that they can achieve everything they want in practical terms by accepting virtually full internal autonomy under UN or EU supervision, with internationally recognised guarantees for the safety of the Serbian minority in Kosovo and with measures to protect the Kosovo Serbs (those who have survived systematic ethnic cleansing by the Albanians during the period of international administration) against unfair discrimination.  As I said in my letter in the Times, if it takes another eight years to persuade them to accept this, so be it.  We shouldn't encourage a rush to disaster.


2 Responses

  1. Rodney Priest says:

    Dear Brian,

    Thanks for your cogent common sense about Kosovo. How can any of us exert influence on HM Government to prevent the loomimg madness of recognition of  Kosovo-Albanian UDI/CDI?

    What can you, a bald ex-ambassador and I, a bald ex-chemistry teacher who has never even visited the Balkans, do? Do letters to MPs or even PMs make any diference?

    Meanwhile, please pull all the levers of power and influence still within your grasp and receive my gratitude for your clarity and forthrightness.

    Yours truly


    Brian writes:  Many thanks for this, Rodney.  Sadly (or otherwise), I have no strings to pull on this or any other public issue, and no way of suggesting how to exercise an influence on these events.  A letter to your MP (depending a little on who he or she is, back or front bench, government or opposition, power-house or nonentity) can do no harm and will probably be passed on by the MP to the relevant minister, who will need to reply (to the MP), and will take it seriously in proportion to the number of such messages received.  There's not much point in writing direct to the Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary or to a junior FCO minister:  the minister probably won't see it, it will be referred to a junior official, and you'll get a stock draft reply from the official "on behalf of the minister" — largely a waste of time.   A short, pithy letter to the Times, Guardian or Independent, if published, will be read by the relevant ministers and senior officials in their daily press cuttings: again, much depends on volume (ie the number of such letters and articles, not the length of the letter).  I spoke recently at a public meeting on the subject, to an audience of around 60 or 70 people, but opportunities for that are rare and the likely effects negligible.  Still, every little helps!  (Even we eminent retired baldies can't easily influence events such as these, which will be decided at stratospheric level in the EU and with — or by — the Americans.)

  1. 22 February, 2008

    […] There is some well reasoned opinion out there why independence for Kosovo is a bad move. It has been ignored and will continue to be ignored. And let’s not even go into the issue of the unilateral and illegal bombing of then-Yugoslavia back in the spring of 1999. No, we definitely don’t want to go THERE. What a short memory the U.S. has. Well, I don’t. Tags: Kosovo, ex-Yu, FRY, NATO  Share This • […]