The Fletcher School - Tufts University
Academic paper: Kosovo 2001
original text

The Ever-Chaniging Features of the Kosovo Issue

Thanos Veremis

When the West decided to intervene in Kosovo its NATO protagonists were drawing from their Bosnian experience. They believed that a limited bombardment of Serb military targets would freeze the crisis and disentangle Milosevic’s forces from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels. With the two adversaries back to their benches, NATO could then begin to supervise an agreement modelled on the Dayton Accord precedent. The bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), however, altered the situation on the ground. The KLA was established in the Albanian political scene as a new powerful variable while an old one, the Serb presence in Kosovo, was being hounded out of the equation. The West failed to acknowledge this change of variables and continued to treat the future of the region as though its military intervention had merely restored the status quo ante in the Serb-Albanian antagonism.

The outcome of the intervention was therefore unexpected and perplexing. New developments had narrowed the options of future solutions to either a continuation of the present protectorate indefinitely or the granting to Kosovo of independence from Serb sovereignty.[1]

The Serb government that ensued from the December 2000 elections may feel constrained by its public opinion in negotiating the future of its virtual province, but does not have to worry about providing food and order to Kosovo’s inhabitants. As of June 1999 these tasks have been responsibilities of the United Nations.

Would an independent Kosovo constitute the beginning of stabilisation of the western Balkans and the end of Western worries in the region? Anyone who is remotely aware of the Prizren Declaration of 1878 and the subsequent attempts of the Kosovo Albanians to prevent Montenegro from acquiring its Adriatic outlet and later the march of Albanian forces into Skopje in 1912, will desist from the optimism of considering Kosovar independence the end of history and therefore of irredentism in the region.

A cost-benefit analysis of policy choices presupposes a view of the West’s regional priorities. Western agendas have varied before and after the bombing. Before, the EU had lent moral support to LDK leader Ibrahim Rugova and his non-violent protestations and the United States had issued warnings to Slobodan Milosevic to desist from unleashing his army against the Kosovo Albanian parallel state. There was, however, a consensus among Western interlocutors that the FRY’s external borders were not to be altered and that therefore autonomy appeared to be the only possibility the Albanians could expect from their Western friends.

There was a time before the bombing when a ‘special regime’, as opposed to the discredited ‘autonomy’, might still have gone a long way in negotiations between the two sides.[2] Although Rugova had declared he would not consider anything short of independence, the main procedural problem for Western mediators was how to overcome his reluctance to talk with Milosevic without the presence of a third party, while the latter insisted that outsiders had no business in the domestic affairs of Serbia. In the tug-of-war between the two, the West had opted for a version of autonomy that would significantly improve the rights of the Kosovo Albanians.

The bombing changed all that. The West committed itself to the underdog with an extraordinary use of force that surpassed all predictions.[3] The Kosovo Albanians, after suffering atrocities and dislocation, were granted, in fact, their old dream of emancipation from Serb rule. Although in theory still a part of Serbia, the UN-NATO protectorate will not return to the status quo ante. Along with an 86-year-old dream came an even older Albanian vision of irredentism which included Tetovo, parts of Montenegro, Presevo valley, and, of course, Albania.

From the outset of the protectorate, this author argued against the mainstream, in favour of a rapid granting of independence to Kosovo especially while the prestige and popularity of KFOR were still considerable. An independence granted by the benefactors of Kosovo rather than one to come as the inevitable result of a messy KLA struggle, would spare the neighbourhood a lot of grief, a future democratic Serb regime the cost of recognising a fait accompli, and the Kosovars the hardship of political cohabitation with their armed patriots. It would also allow western mediators to impose strict conditions and guarantees on the constitution of the new state prohibiting an alteration of borders at the expense of its neighbours’ territorial integrity.

Much has since changed. The political structure of the former parallel state has been eroded by the administration of the protectorate, and the objective of the KLA has been to keep the irredentist appetite of its followers alive. What is more important is that the new democratic regime in Belgrade has brought the FRY back into international focus.

It is nevertheless possible that the Western arbiters of Kosovo will submit to inertia – and that the region will revert to the state of benign neglect which powers reserve for the least pressing issues on their agendas. Despite the admonitions of the former Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) of the United Nations in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, in the 24 November 2000 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb, the Final Declaration of the Summit (adopted by EU heads of state and some of their Balkan counterparts) did not mention Kosovo at all.

The September 2000 elections for the FRY President and the December parliamentary elections in Serbia were a set-back for Montenegrin and Kosovo bids for independence. Wary of losing Western attention, an offshoot of the KLA, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB), holding a few square kilometres inside the south-eastern corner of Serbia, around the village of Dobrosin since mid-1999, began to resume violence against the Serb police units in the district. Inhabited by an ethnic Albanian minority, the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac are situated on Serbia’s border with both Kosovo and FYROM. If this passage is denied to Serbia, FYROM will be deprived of territorial contact with its Yugoslav neighbours.[4]

British and US soldiers responsible for patrolling the porous south-eastern border of Kosovo with Serbia had been unable to prevent UCPMB infiltration and random killings of Serbs in the demilitarised zone.[5] This area, within Serb territory, was demilitarised in accordance with the Military Technical Agreement (MTA) of 9 June 1999. The MTA banned the Yugoslav Army from the 5 km-wide ground separation zone and only police units of the Serb Interior Ministry (MUP) were allowed to maintain order there. The inability, at least of the US unit, to prevent infiltration is attributed by one analyst to a patent American position, ‘. . . while European NATO members are willing to accept some risk as inherent in peacekeeping, the US Army puts force protection first. Critics say the US approach comes at the expense of the operational aims.’[6]

Following UCPMB attacks against the MUP police early in 2000, KFOR engaged the political leader of the ‘disbanded’ KLA, Hashim Thaci, to counsel restraint. The change of regime in Belgrade and the disintegration of the MUP command structure[7] gave the UCPMB the opportunity to step up its attacks against the Serbs in the region. On 22 November the UCPMB leader, Shefket Myslui, ordered an attack on MUP forces, killing four policemen and sparking off an official Serb ultimatum to KFOR to remove the insurgents from the demilitarised zone or the Yugoslav Army would be deployed in breach of the MTA. Prudence, however, prevailed in the Yugoslav government and the ultimatum was quietly revoked. The FRY President, Vojislav Kostunica, however, pressed by the Serb population of Presevo valley, insisted that the demilitarised zone be narrowed to just 1 km, allowing the Yugoslav Army to dislodge the rebels. NATO initially showed little readiness to renegotiate the treaty, but on 27 February 2001, US Secretary of State Colin Powell with the Secretary-General of NATO standing beside him, said that NATO was prepared to carry out a ‘phased and continued reduction of the ground safety zone’ and return the area to Serbian authorities. The significance of this revision of the original demilitarised zone was that it allowed Serbian soldiers back into the three-mile (5 km) wide buffer zone along the Kosovo border.[8]

All sides to the conflict appeared to be drawing lessons from the last war. The Albanian UCPMB attempted a repetition of the KLA’s successful strategy that had made the Kosovo war possible, by provoking the Serbs into excessive countermeasures that would trigger another Western intervention. The Serbs appear to have learned from past blunders and have showed unusual restraint. The Serb government produced a peace plan that ruled out autonomy for the Presevo valley but proposed demilitarisation of the region and reinstatement of civil rights for the ethnic Albanians that had been stripped away by the Milosevic regime. The Serb Deputy Prime Minister, Nebojsa Covic, included the integration of Albanians into the Serbian police forces of the Presevo region.[9] The UCPMB initially appeared unwilling to give up its goal of ‘liberating’ the Presevo region and uniting it with Kosovo. For a while the rebels controlled the buffer zone along Serbia’s border with Kosovo and held positions within a mile of the town of Bujanovac and Serbia’s main highway to the south. The ball was in NATO’s court and its Secretary-General took the opportunity to initiate a policy that might contribute to the organisation’s transition from a military alliance into a crisis-management institution.

Lord Robertson named his own peace emissary to southern Serbia, in a clear departure from NATO’s Cold War insouciance for human and civil rights violations, committed even by its own members in the past, (Portugal, Greece and Turkey). The emissary, Pieter Fieth, held the first round of talks with Albanian and Serb leaders in a bid to bring the two together over the border incidents and perhaps to a future arrangement of wider scope. Although Fieth could not moderate a deal on NATO’s behalf, he was trying to facilitate talks between the two sides. The Secretary-General also dispatched a NATO delegation to FYROM, a state that had begun to suffer repeated attacks by the National Liberation Army (NLA), another KLA offshoot, since January 2001. Clashes with KLA forces that find a safe haven in the Albanian border villages in the north of FYROM have cost the lives of several Slav-Macedonian soldiers. The constant traffic of rebels and weapons into FYROM forced the Government to close its borders with Kosovo. FYROM President Boris Trajkovski met with the KFOR Commander and the new head of UNMIK, Hans Haekkerup, to discuss the danger that continued KLA provocations posed to the fragile ethnic relations of his state.

Although KFOR has a back-up logistical mission in Skopje, it has no authorisation to take any military action there. It was KFOR troops in Kosovo that opened fire on rebel gunmen infiltrating FYROM territory in early March. The predicament that US troops found themselves facing, however, was that to carry out their mission as peacekeepers regardless of cost would have meant disobeying orders from Washington not to expose themselves to danger. Their solution in the Presevo instance was to leave the mopping-up operations to Serb forces by dismantling most of the demilitarised zone that the rebels had used for cover.[10]

The signing of a border demarcation agreement between FRY and FYROM, which was pending for years, is perhaps indicative of Serbian concern over its Presevo valley dispute. Albania’s Foreign Minister Pascal Milo, who praised the agreement, added his hopes for a representation of the Albanian minority in South Serbia in future negotiations. Such influential figures in Kosovo politics as Ramush Haradinaj expressed their irritation for not being consulted on this agreement.

Another ongoing flash-point has been the town of Mitrovica (40 km north of Pristina), one of the few that maintain significant Albanian and Serb populations. Each ethnic group has its own sector, divided by the river Ibar. The segregation of the two communities has been safeguarded by KFOR troops whose daily task is to prevent bloodshed. What makes the domination of Mitrovica important are the Strepce mines that lie beneath the town. Dr Rugova has placed high hopes on the reopening of the mines, and presents his visitors with pieces of Strepce ore as souvenirs. Although the value of the mines has been questioned by Western experts, the Kosovo Albanians consider them an important national asset. Mitrovica and its Serb hinterland were, according to Serb sources, given by Tito to Kosovo as part of an ethnic gerrymandering technique that would discourage future secessionist tendencies. Their return to Serbia may be the only condition that would make Kosovo’s independence palatable to the Serbs. This, however, does not appear to be an Albanian option, as French riot troops have struggled to maintain the status quo in the town.[11]

After a year of Albanian-instigated violence in the region, the independence option receded in Western calculations. Western policy planners were faced with the possible repercussions of a radical change in Kosovo’s status on the entire neighbourhood, and were less willing to contemplate independence. In the 4th Balkan Summit that took place in Skopje on 24 February 2001, Balkan leaders reiterated their support for UN Security Council Resolution 1244 which mandated that Kosovo should remain within the FRY. An old hand in Balkan issues, Evangelos Kofos streamlined his proposal of a Western ‘Trusteeship’ which could replace the Protectorate as an internationally recognised institution that would acculturate Kosovo to the ways of the EU. ‘Many of the provisions and practical applications of Resolution 1244 could be incorporated into the new text. UNMIK and KFOR could continue to operate under a different name. States granted mandate could include European Union or UN Security Council member states . . . By joining the “Trusteeship” Kosovo could move gradually toward self-government or independence, according to article 76b of the Charter. A “Cyprus clause” banning unification with third countries without the consent of the signatories of the Kosovo Trusteeship Accord, could be a moderating factor.’[12] On 15 May 2001 Hans Haekkerup announced the ‘Constitutional Framework for the Provisional Self-Government of Kosovo’ and announced national elections for the 17 November 2001, to determine the 120 seats of Kosovo’s Assembly. Although Kosovo Albanians will be given a front seat in their country’s administration, Haekkerup will maintain his right to exercise his veto, and full independence has therefore been postponed to another day. Most Albanians, including Rugova, Thaci and former KLA warrior-turned-politician and businessman, Haradinaj, have complained that the ‘Framework’ ignored the Rambouillet provision for a revision of the interim government after three years. Yet no Albanians threatened to abstain from the future elections – a position adopted by the Serb representatives who consider the ‘Framework’ an official expulsion of the Serb element from Kosovo.[13]

UNSC Resolution 1244 called for the withdrawal of all FRY military, police and paramilitary forces from the province and the deployment of an international civil and security presence under the command of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led KFOR. The Resolution also envisaged the appointment of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to administer Kosovo and to ensure that UNMIK and KFOR would work towards the same goals. Regulation No. 1 of 25 July 1999 stated that ‘all legislative and executive authority with respect to Kosovo, including the administration of the judiciary, is vested in UNMIK and is exercised by the SRSG.’ The UN was to become the interim government of Kosovo and the SRSG its interim international administrator.

Resolution 1244 mandated UNMIK to establish a functioning interim administration, to develop provisional institutions for democratic and autonomous self-government and to facilitate a political process designed to determine Kosovo’s future status. UNMIK advocates of freezing the status of Kosovo, point to the victory of anti-Milosevic forces in Serbia and the success of moderate Albanians in Kosovo’s municipal elections as favourable developments towards a mutually acceptable solution. ‘What are needed now’, according to Alexander Yannis, a former UNMIK official, ‘are time, a local consensus for the implementation of Resolution 1244 that provides a road map to meet the minimum objectives of both Kosovar Albanians and Serbs and the maximum of neither, and a long-term commitment by the international community.’[14] Are there, however, strong indications that, despite favourable electoral developments in Serbia and Kosovo, time is on the side of the angels? Is there any sign that a local consensus over implementation of Resolution 1244 is building up between Albanians and the remnants of the Serb community?

UNMIK’s everyday mundane considerations have relegated building a civil society to a more opportune moment. In the meantime, Kosovo and its adjacent zones of anomy, are emerging as the new Barbary coast of Europe. Those engaged in the illegal traffic of drugs, people, weapons and violence aspire to make this region a crossroads of crime that will eventually link up with the criminal multinationals in the Balkans and beyond. A new form of irredentism inspires and is inspired by the prospect of spreading this lucrative, anomic regime in the territories of collapsed or failed states where lawlessness is rife. Albania, FYROM, Montenegro, the Presevo valley and even Bosnia-Herzegovina, are on the agenda of mafias waging their operations with impunity. Still lacking a set of legal rules, a detached judicial system and an arm of the law to implement justice, Kosovo relies on KFOR in these areas. KFOR is, however, ill-equipped to perform the task of policing Kosovo for infringements of the penal code. It has been busy protecting the diminishing Serb and Roma elements under its authority and appears to be fighting a losing battle against terrorist technology and clandestine killings.

Western intervention may have liberated the Albanians from Serb rule but at a high cost for the population of Kosovo. Among the consequences of the military fallout is the presence of the KLA in politics and society. At the time of liberation, KLA leader Hashim Thaci was presented by US media as an Andrew Jackson type of democrat-warrior. Now his image is being reversed in the Western mass media. He appears, in the light of subsequent information, as a young man ill-prepared for the responsibilities of leadership that his sudden advent in Kosovar politics created.

There is little doubt that independence and irredentism have gone hand in hand for most Kosovo Albanians, and that the image of the armed patriot is still popular among a younger segment of the population. Yet Rugova’s peaceful resistance to Serb rule in the 1990s and the experiment of the Albanian ‘parallel state’ provided the foundations for the construction of a future civil society. The municipal elections of October 2000 proved that Rugova is still the most popular political figure, and public perceptions of Thaci’s involvement in corruption, diminished his party’s returns to 27 per cent of the votes cast. The best hope for a Kosovo free of strongmen and mafias lies perhaps with journalists, activists and academics, but without the rule of law and public security such figures will never survive the rough and tumble introduced by the war to local politics. Veton Surroi’s, three-step approach to the problem is certainly the most insightful. ‘The first would be to an internationally agreed self rule that would give democratic content to the Kosovar shell. The second would be an inclusive decision making on the permanent status of Kosova . . . the day after needs to include the third step, relations with the EU.’[15] Yet Surroi and his peers will not be involved in the party politics of Kosovo until present ambiguities are cleared. UNMIK and KFOR are unwittingly sustaining the inertia of this vicious circle.

Another consequence of the war was that the UNMIK administration employed some of the better qualified people of the parallel state with high (by Kosovar standards) salaries. The further demand for such people by the plethora of NGOs and international organisations dismantled the apparatus of the Albanian authorities and deprived public agencies of their most experienced employees.

What is to be done in this mercurial part of the western Balkans? The diagnosis above might suggest certain remedies. The first is for UNMIK to engage the local elites in the management of Kosovo, not as highly paid second-class employees, but as future masters of their region’s fate. When UNMIK is called upon to reduce its presence, it should not leave Kosovo to the mercy of a parallel, mafia-driven state. This brings us to the imperative of establishing the rule of law with all its instruments of implementation and enforcement. Civil society cannot take root in a state of anomy, and collapsed states will only breed mafias and (to use Ernest Gellner’s concept) will encourage the ‘segmentary’ society to prevail.

Once the domestic forces of modernisation are at the helm, then Serbia and its virtual province must sit together in an honest effort to solve the ambiguities of status and territory. By doing so they will have set a precedent for the entire western Balkans. Surroi’s concept of ‘polycentrism’ (Albanian communities in the Balkans will communicate freely between states where Albanians traditionally live) would certainly offer the best remedy to irredentism if the concept is systematically promoted by elites and politicians of these communities. But is it possible to speak of flexible and non-rigid borders if armed incursions occur daily? NATO’s responsibility is to ensure the inviolability of these borders before they revert to the flexible regime of a polycentric world.[16]

Another approach would be a solution that views the western Balkans as an economic unit whose long-standing social and political ills will not improve if they are not addressed in unison. So far this has not happened. The resolve of the international community after Dayton to set the Balkans on the road to recovery waned only to be revived by the war in Kosovo. Some innovative remedies that will gradually replace the defunct irredentist agendas with a project of regional reconstruction and development that will make an EU membership prospect possible are necessary.[17]

The West is saddled with many responsibilities that spring from its humanitarian intervention. In the ongoing discussion of whether NATO’s action has created a precedent for the future, opinions vary. There are those however, who believe that regardless of the soundness of the decision to bomb FRY, the deed has established a strong precedent for responding to all similar, or worse violations of human rights committed by sovereign states against their own citizens. If NATO fails to make humanitarian intervention a concept of universal application, the war against the FRY will become an act of summary justice against a target with little cost to Western economic and political interests.[18]

The prudence displayed by the post-Milosevic Serbian leadership in the Presevo valley conflict deprived the KLA of its ability to bait the Serbs into a repetition of 1999. On 21 May, the Albanian guerrillas came to terms with this reality and agreed to disarm under KFOR supervision.[19] A new KLA incarnation, the NLA, made FYROM the target of its baiting strategy. Throughout April and May 2001 the Albanian rebels launched their operations against the north-west of FYROM with the agenda of alleviating the alleged hardships of their kin under Slav rule.

On 2 May, FYROM President Boris Trajkovski secured backing by US President George Bush for a plan to resolve ethnic grievances in his country through dialogue. Soon after the meeting of the two presidents, however, NLA rebels shot more FYROM soldiers. On 3 May the Government unleashed helicopter and artillery fire against Albanian villages suspected of complicity with the rebels. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski was admonished by Western sources not to fall into the NLA trap by answering rebel provocations with undue violence, and on 11 May he announced that the country’s four main political parties had agreed to form a broader coalition that would address ethnic problems. On 13 August delegates from the Macedonian Slav majority and the Macedonian Albanian minority concluded an agreement on Ohrid which provided for significant constitutional amendments and reform that improve the status of Albanians in FYROM. The document requires ratification by the parliament, with a two-thirds majority, within 45 days of signature. Whether the agreement will restore peace in a badly divided country remains to be seen, as the views of the inhabitants diverge on this question.

There are certainly those among the Albanian leaders in FYROM who would rather pursue a route of modernisation and development within a multicultural state than submit to the atavistic calling of the irredentist sirens from Kosovo. Yet the rift between the youth of the two communities – Macedonian Slav and Macedonian Albanian – is growing wider with every day that passes. Having fought a successful campaign of public relations, former President Kiro Gligorov managed to prevail over Greek objections concerning the designation of his state. His party, however, failed to draw a useful lesson from success – that underdog status can prove a powerful weapon when addressing the Western media and their public.[20]

The ongoing problem in the Balkans in general could be associated with the ‘old pictures that persist in the minds’ of political elites. The delusion of Balkan leaders throughout the dissolution of Yugoslavia, that the strategic value of their states remained intact in the post-Cold War era, has been responsible for most of the blunders committed in this region. The West, on the other hand, has failed to reconsider the positive or negative significance of that least developed part of Europe after the Cold War and has relegated it to a backwater among its strategic priorities. The war in Kosovo was not necessarily an act of addressing the chronic problems of the region, but rather a disjointed reaction by Western governments that were drawing conclusions from their indecisiveness during the Bosnian crisis and a military alliance in search of a new vocation. Reconstruction and stabilisation will now require their serious involvement.



[1] Independent International Commission on Kosovo, The Kosovo Report: Conflict, International Response, Lessons Learned (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). An example of bad timing.

[2] Fehmi Agani, Rugova’s second in command who was assassinated during the Kosovo war, explained this in a 1996 Rhodes conference to this author.

[3] John R. Lampe, Yugoslavia as History, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 414.

[4] Zoran Kusovac, ‘New KFOR Alert’, Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW), 3 January 2001.

[5] JDW, 25 October 2000.

[6] JDW, 3 January 2001.

[7] JDW, 25 October 2000.

[8] Jane Perlez, ‘US and NATO Back Access for Serbia to Kosovo Buffer’, The New York Times, 28 February 2001.

[9] Carlotta Gall, ‘Serbs Offer Peace Plan in Attempt to End Albanian Rebellion’, The New York Times, 12 February 2001. Also see Perlez, op. cit.

[10] Mathew Kaminski, ‘NATO Takes on the Role of Balkan Peace Broker,’ The Wall Street Journal, 5 March 2001. Carlotta Gall, ‘NATO Soldiers Fire on Kosovo Albanians’, The New York Times, 8 March 2001.

[11] Nicholas Wood, ‘French Troops in Kosovo Clashes’, The Guardian, 31 January 2001.

[12] Evangelos Kofos, ‘Gia Mia Diaforetiki Prosengisi sto Provlima tou Kossifopediou’ (For a Different Approach to the Kosovo Problem), Kathimerini, 17 February 2001.

[13] Tim Judah, ‘Kosovo’s Foreseeable Future Decided’, Balkan Crisis Report, no. 248, 18 May 2001.

[14] Alexandros Yannis, Kosovo Under International Administration: An Unfinished Conflict (Athens: ELIAMEP and PSIS, 2001).

[15] Veton Surroi, ‘Ten Concepts that Will Define the Future of Kosova’, Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, forthcoming, 2002.

[16] Jane Perlez, ‘US Won’t Send its Kosovo G.I.’s on Peacekeeping Patrol in Serbia’, The New York Times, 9 March 2001. ‘At the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper, “there is a pretty profound disagreement between the United States and Britain”, one official said. “We have consistently said we do not see a role for KFOR troops in the sovereign territory of Serbia”.’

[17] See, in particular, Laza Kekic, ‘Aid to the Balkans: Addicts and Pushers’, Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, January 2001, pp. 20-40.

[18] Albrecht Schnabel and Ramesh Thakur (eds.) Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention: Selective Indignation, Collective Action and International Citizenship (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2000).

[19] The document of disarmament was signed by the militia’s leader, Shefket Musliu, and NATO envoy Shawn Sullivan.

[20] George Kapopoulos ‘Antistrophi Metrisi gia ta Skopia’, Kathimerini, 8 June 2001. Also see, Irena Guzelova, ‘Macedonia hits back after village ambush’, Financial Times, 4 May 2001.