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Resolving the Balkan Conflict after the Fall of Milosevic

While the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic is profoundly important to the future of the Balkans and the whole of Europe, the West’s premature euphoria about the birth of democracy in Serbia is disturbing. “We believe we have a duty to welcome a democratic Serbia with open arms,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in Berlin on October 6. “Kostunica is a democrat. He believes in the people,” asserted U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger about Serbia’s newly elected president on national television on October 5. While the rush to embrace the new government is understandable, it is too early to speak of a democracy in a country that has been a brutal Communist dictatorship for thirteen years. The United States and Europe appear to be resorting once again to the kind of “quick fix” approach that has prevented a just and lasting resolution of the Balkan conflict for more than a decade.

History has shown us that as long as Slobodan Milosevic remains at large, he represents a threat to peace in the Balkans. Even his former spokesman, Aleksandar Tijanic, warned after Milosevic’s concession speech that, “as long as he remains on the Serbian political scene, Milosevic poses a threat.” The fact remains that, as long as Milosevic is free and intent on running the Serbian Socialist Party, with a significant number of paramilitary troops and an array of para-financial institutions and corporations still under his control, the victory of the opposition is not final.

The world cannot afford Serbian or Western amnesia about what has transpired over the past decade. We cannot paper over the atrocities, the mass extermination, and mass expulsion of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians at the hands of Milosevic and his henchmen. And we must not forget that many Serbian civilians were complicit in this history. For every Serb who opposed Milosevic’s genocidal wars abroad and his repression of dissent at home, many more opposed Milosevic because he failed to achieve the dream of a Greater Serbia, because he lost Kosova and did not expel or exterminate its Albanian majority, because he ruined the Serbian economy, and because he isolated the nation from the rest of the world. We also should not forget that the United States and Western Europe appeased Milosevic as he rose to power on a platform of anti-Albanian racism, occupied Kosova for ten years, and waged four wars of conquest and aggression in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova. There will be no stability in the Balkans until Serbia and the West come to grips with their respective roles in sustaining Milosevic’s despotic rule and until there is justice for his victims.

President Vojislav Kostunica must take responsibility for his nation’s history. Although he is a constitutional lawyer and scholar who has made some promising statements about refashioning Serbia into a modern, multiparty democracy, he is nevertheless a self-avowed nationalist who in the past has endorsed Milosevic’s quest for a Greater Serbia. Although Kostunica has condemned ethnic cleansing, he is a friend of Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic and, as reported by the Western media, was photographed

brandishing an AK-47 on a visit with masked paramilitaries in Kosova. Although he

professes a commitment to the rule of law, he has repeatedly stated his refusal to recognize the authority of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and to deliver Milosevic to it. In his inauguration speech on October 8, Kostunica vowed to bring Kosova back under Serbian sovereignty. These are early warning signals of future trouble for Albanians in the Balkans, and so, too, they should be for the United States and Europe.

If Kostunica is truly a democrat, then he must demonstrate this by taking actions that will guide Serbia in transforming a political culture that subjugated Kosova for a decade and led more than 350,000 people to their deaths in Bosnia and Kosova. Unless Kostunica is willing to grapple with the root causes of the Balkan conflict in Serbian politics and culture, the international community cannot speak meaningfully of a movement toward democracy in Serbia, but only of a change in the individuals at the top of the power structure. Only if Kostunica commits Serbia to a genuine peace process, can the West expect the long hoped for reintegration of Serbia into the Balkans and into the political and economic structures of Europe.

The West stands at a strategic crossroads. If we do not want to lose the prospects for resolving the Balkan conflict and unifying Europe, then the lifting of economic sanctions on Serbia and its renewed access to international financial and political institutions should be gradual and contingent on meeting the following conditions:

  • All Albanian prisoners of war must be released immediately from Serbian jails and their safe return to Kosova guaranteed. Serbian journalist Miroslav Filipovic,who was convicted and imprisoned for reporting on Serbian war crimes in Kosova, along with lesser known Serbian dissidents who opposed genocide in Bosnia and Kosova, should also be freed. At the same time, Serbia must begin the investigative work necessary to giving a full accounting of the missing Kosovar Albanians. America’s oft-lamented “lack of leverage” over Belgrade is at an end, and so now is the time to rectify its mistake in dropping the provision in the war-ending agreement that would have guaranteed the release of all Kosovar Albanian POWs.

  • There can be no shelter for war criminals. If the international community is serious about reinforcing the rule of law, then indicted war criminals, from Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Milutinovic to Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, must be apprehended and extradited to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The West’s decision in this matter will reveal the level of our commitment to opposing genocide and dramatically impact our ability to prevent future conflicts and to build democracy and respect for human rights around the world.

  • There must be an immediate cessation of repression and violence against the

Albanians of Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanovc and a recognition of their civil and human rights.

  • Serbia must begin a “denazification” campaign to end a century of anti-Albanian and anti-Muslim racism. The Kostunica regime could constructively initiate such a campaign by acknowledging Serbia’s responsibility for war crimes and by apologizing to the victims in Bosnia and Kosova.

  • Serbia must honor its stated commitments in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and help bring democracy and reconciliation to this fragile nation.

  • Serbia must come to understand, and the Kostunica government must accept, the new reality of Kosova.

The new reality of Kosova is that it is on an irrevocable path to independence. In this regard, the United States and Western Europe have an historic opportunity to bring peace to the Balkans once and for all. Perhaps the most pernicious assumption driving U.S. and European foreign policy since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia began in 1991 has been that an independent Kosova will threaten peace and stability in Europe, when in fact, the reverse is true. As Croatian scholar Branka Magas stated in a speech to the Bosnian Institute in London on May 10, 1999, “Unless the process of dissolution of Yugoslavia is allowed to be completed and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia dissolved into its component parts, thus setting Kosova on a path to independence, it will be impossible to build a peaceful and democratic state system in southeastern Europe.” If the international community wants to bring peace to the Balkans, then it should seize this moment to recognize the independence of Kosova and Montenegro under international law.

As Balkan expert Noel Malcolm has explained, when the Yugoslav federation started dissolving, each constituent unit had a legal right to self-determination under international law. The world recognized the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. Hence, independence for Kosova and Monetengro would have followed an established precedent. Instead, the West allowed Serbia, in the name of “keeping Yugoslavia together,” to wage wars, and it embargoed Bosnia’s access to arms. In this way, the Europe and the United States unwittingly and unfortunately aided Milosevic’s strategy of ethnic cleansing and destabilization.

Equally important is the body of international law that has evolved from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals to the modern-day establishment of the International War Crimes Tribunal, which maintains that respect for state sovereignty goes hand in hand with respect for human rights. Kosova can never again be brought under Serbia, which forfeited any claims it might have to Kosova by waging a genocidal war against the Albanian majority. Kosovar Albanians have earned the right to determine their own future. If the West does not send a signal to Serbia that there can be no return to the old formula of a Yugoslav federation, we will risk a whole new chapter of strife and march to war.

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