NATO's New Balkan Solution: Bring in the Serbs

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U.S. KFOR soldiers detain an ethnic-Albanian near the Kosovo-Macedonia border

Remember Kosovo? According to Clinton administration spin during the 1999 bombing campaign, NATO was rallying to the defense of helpless ethnic Albanians and their brave champions in the Kosovo Liberation Army who were fighting a David-vs.-Goliath struggle against Belgrade's genocidal army. Well, guess what? Not only has NATO now declared armed Albanian nationalists of the KLA stripe to be the primary security problem in the region, the Western alliance is also considering asking the selfsame Yugoslav army to help NATO troops police the border between Kosovo and the neighboring former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia. NATO secretary general Lord Robertson, who is to meet with President Bush on Thursday, announced Tuesday that he hoped a decision would be taken this week on the proposal, which has alarmed Albanian nationalist politicians in Kosovo.

But the sensibilities of Kosovo's Albanian leaders may have diminished in importance in NATO eyes as the territory has become a launching pad for Albanian nationalist insurgencies inside Serbia proper and in Macedonia. Those developments have put Western troops, who are charged with controlling Kosovo's borders, on a collision course with elements of their erstwhile allies in the KLA who are now seeking new targets. U.S. troops on Wednesday wounded two ethnic Albanian guerrillas in a firefight near the Macedonian village of Tanusevci, marking a dangerous new escalation of the risk to NATO forces in the region. With Yugoslavia now ruled by a democratic nationalist regime more acceptable to the West, many in NATO would plainly be more comfortable having Yugoslav troops facing off against the insurgents than with putting Western troops in harm's way.

If the proposal to invite Yugoslav troops to help rein in Albanian nationalists appears to be a 180-degree turnabout for the Western alliance, that may be because NATO's original Kosovo intervention has failed to resolve the region's fundamental political problem. Nobody in the Balkans took particularly seriously the idea of a democratic multiethnic Kosovo championed by President Clinton and others, and no sooner had those Albanians driven out by Serb ethnic cleansing returned to the territory than KLA elements were launching their own ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo's remaining Serbs and other minorities as NATO for the most part stood passively by. Still, most of NATO remained strongly opposed to the nationalist demand for independence for Kosovo, on the grounds that this would destabilize the region by provoking new Albanian-Slav wars in Macedonia and other parts of the region.

The most dramatic setback suffered by Kosovo's Albanian nationalists was probably the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. Once Yugoslavia had elected a president with whom the West could do business, prospects for winning NATO support for formal independence for Kosovo dimmed even further. That, and President George W. Bush's campaign promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans, may have prompted Albanian nationalists across the region to step up their campaign for a Greater Albania, by launching new insurgencies in Serbia's Presevo Valley (which falls in a demilitarized buffer zone adjacent to Kosovo) and in northern Macedonia. But in the absence of Serb abuse and ethnic cleansing, NATO has shown little tolerance for the new Albanian adventurism.

Ironies aside, the demise of Milosevic has strengthened the tendency in NATO to discourage any redrawing of sovereign borders in the Balkans. And Western enthusiasm for policing the region's tribal wars will inevitably wane in proportion to any increase in direct danger to their troops. For some, that appears to make a compelling case for bringing back the Yugoslav army to police the borders NATO is now committed to upholding. Who knows, at this rate they may yet find themselves pining for the former Yugoslavia.