Crisis in Kosovo


The apparent resolve with which NATO and the European Union vowed to treat Serb aggression against the Albanian population in Kosovo a few weeks ago, has faltered as Mr Slobodan Milosevic has ruthlessly pursued his hegemonic designs there. Over the last ten days, a major offensive, ostensibly directed against separatist guerrilla strongholds, has reportedly displaced up to 70,000 people from towns and villages, in a pattern clearly reminiscent of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. There are now, at last, some signs that western political leaders are once more alert to an outraged public opinion which demands action to prevent such a cynical rerun of the Bosnian events by the Serbian leader.

In June, the Contact Group of major western powers, NATO and leaders of the EU, spelled out four demands on Serbian Kosovo policy in forthright terms. Operations by the security forces against civilian populations must be stopped, they said, and responsible forces withdrawn. Effective and continuous international monitoring must be put in place. There must be a full return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes with unimpeded access for humanitarian organisations. And rapid progress must be made in the political dialogue with the Kosovan/Albanian leadership, based on substantial autonomy.

Effective delivery of such terms required real political determination and a readiness to work closely with the Russians and Chinese on the United Nations Security Council. In the event, Mr Milosevic went to Moscow, where he undertook to respond to some of these concerns. It was clear, however, that he did not accept the withdrawal of special forces. And access to international organisations has been very unsatisfactory. Mr Milosevic shrewdly and cynically read the divisions between the western powers and Russia over military intervention in Kosovo, creating stalemate at the Security Council, and then the developing differences between Europeans and the US within NATO about whether it makes sense to intervene effectively in support of a separatist movement in Kosovo.

The cycles of international concern over Kosovo and of events in the province, have been tragically out of step. The international involvement which developed in late spring and early summer coincided precisely with the moment at which the conflict there developed into a thoroughgoing war of independence, on the basis that autonomy within a Serbia still ruled by Mr Milosevic would be quite unrealistic or unacceptable. The leader who might have convinced the Kosovars otherwise, Mr Ibrahim Rugova, had been marginalised by his exclusion from the Dayton negotiations and then by the failure of NATO and the EU to take sufficiently early action on Kosovo, which has been stoked up by Mr Milosevic as a means of clinging on to power.

A full scale humanitarian crisis now confronts all concerned. It is imperative to respond rapidly to it, to reactivate the efforts to reach a political settlement and to weigh up possible military pressure on Serbia. So far, the political will to do so has been clearly lacking, as western powers dither and disagree about objectives and means. It would be sensible for them to work as closely as possible with the Russians in the weeks to come. They must also seek out Kosovan leaders capable of negotiating on behalf of their people.