February 21, 2000

Time to end sanctions against Serbia

By Gwynne Dyer

A year ago this week, the Rambouillet conference on Kosovo was nearing its end and hopes were rising that war in the Balkans could be avoided. They were misplaced.

A decade of Serbian repression of the Albanian-speaking majority in Kosovo had led to the first flickerings of armed resistance by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), followed by massive, indiscriminate Serbian retaliation, often against innocent civilians. Many feared we were heading for another genocide of Balkan Muslims like the one the Serbs carried out in the mid-’90s in Bosnia; NATO was talking of using force to stop it, but Rambouillet broke up on an optimistic note.

NATO had demanded that Serbian troops and paramilitary forces withdraw from Kosovo and the KLA disarm, while a NATO-led peacekeeping force moved into the province for an interim period of three years, pending final settlement. Neither side liked the proposals, of course.

The ethnic Albanians were unhappy because they had not been promised a referendum on independence. The Serbs did not like the plan for NATO troops to enter Kosovo, and even to cross Serbia proper on their way to and from the province. (The famous demand for free passage through Serbia, which the Serbs and their foreign apologists later claimed was a last-minute deal-breaker, was actually received by the Serbian negotiators at Rambouillet without comment.) But both sides seemed ready to deal.

The KLA had promised to sign when the talks reconvened for a final session in Paris on March 15. As Ratko Markovic, the head Serbian negotiator, left Rambouillet, he agreed that “major progress” had been made and said Serbia was willing to discuss an “international presence” in Kosovo to implement the accord. But when he got home to Belgrade, it all fell apart. Serbian Leader Slobodan Milosevic, convinced the Kosovar Albanians would not sign (and that even if they did, NATO always only bluffed about using force) cancelled almost everything that had agreed upon.

So everybody returned to Paris in mid-March, the Kosovar Albanians did sign and the Serbs stormed out in fury. NATO bombing started on March 24. Western leaders thought it would only have to last three days before Milosevic caved in, but since they had foresworn the use of ground troops, he had no incentive to deal.

It was only after 78 days of bombing, when NATO began to talk seriously about a ground invasion of Kosovo, that Belgrade suddenly caved in — principally, one suspects, to save Milosevic’s own neck, for a ground war with major NATO casualties would have made it difficult, in terms of public opinion, for the Western alliance to leave him in power at the end. The peace terms would probably have included a demand to hand him over to the international tribunal in The Hague to face war crimes charges arising from the Serbian-directed genocide in Bosnia.

So Milosevic signed promptly, the bombing stopped, the Serbs pulled out of Kosovo and NATO troops went in, bringing the half of the ethnic Albanian population that had been driven into exile back with them.

A year later, Milosevic is still in power: His sudden surrender saved him. Another war may be brewing between Serbia and its increasingly reluctant partner in “Yugoslavia,” little Montenegro, but there is peace for the moment. A full-scale genocide was averted in Kosovo (about 7,000 ethnic Albanians were murdered by the Serbian forces before they withdrew) and almost all the surviving ethnic Albanians have at least a thick sheet of plastic where their roofs used to be. It could have been worse, but much remains to be done.

The first priority is still restoring law and order in Kosovo, where even after nine months of United Nations occupation there is still no proper civil administration, no judges, not even much in the way of police: Of the 6,000 trained foreign police promised by the U.N., only 2,000 have actually been sent. Those of the Serbian minority who chose to stay behind have suffered most from this failure. Between 400 and 700 have been killed since the end of the war, in many cases simply for the “crime” of being Serb.

This is a problem that can be solved, for the most part, by throwing money and resources at it. NATO risks bringing the entire Kosovo operation into discredit, and any future military interventions for humanitarian purposes along with it, for the want of money equivalent to the cost of a few days’ bombing. Innocent Serbs are entitled to protection just as much as innocent Albanians and they are not getting it.

It is also high time to end the economic sanctions against Serbia. It was never a NATO war aim to remove Milosevic from power (sanctions cannot achieve this) and the civilian population of Serbia should not be punished for their failure to remove him either. Besides, if you don’t end the sanctions now, you can’t threaten to reimpose them later and you have no leverage on Milosevic in the event that he turns his forces loose on Montenegro.

There is still time for NATO to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It seems determined to try.