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Despite constant promises not to “repeat Bosnia,” the international community has failed to take any meaningful steps to stop the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the wanton destruction of their property in Kosovo. Over the past eight months, the international community has repeatedly failed to develop a unified position to resolve the conflict. Slobodan Miloševic has used this divisiveness to his advantage, appearing to deal with one state, and then another, meanwhile buying himself time to advance his campaign in Kosovo. Members of the international community have taken advantage of the disunity as well: pointing to each other as the excuse for inaction.

In the instances in which the international community has sent a strong message of condemnation to the parties to the conflict, words and symbolic action have proven meaningless, with deadlines postponed, conditions abandoned, and sanctions poorly enforced and even withdrawn, notwithstanding continued violence. The international paralysis is driven by the twin fears of endorsing Kosovo independence and of committing international resources to preserve a peaceful Kosovo within FRY. The international community is left with a policy of containment—merely guarding that the conflict does not spill over into neighboring Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia. Human rights abuses in Kosovo have been tolerated for the sake of territorial integrity.

Disunity within the International Community

The international response to the crisis has been considerably weakened by persistent disunity within the international community. In the Security Council, China and Russia, both permanent members with veto power, have maintained that the conflict is an internal matter for resolution by the Yugoslav authorities. This position has effectively blocked a forceful Security Council response to the conflict. Prior to September, the only measure adopted by the Security Council having any bite had been its March 31 resolution imposing an arms embargo on FRY, a position reached with China abstaining and only after repeated warnings by the Contact Group had been ignored.207 Resolution 1199, passed on September 23 (with China abstaining again), condemned acts of violence committed in Kosovo, reaffirmed the arms embargo and, under authority of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities. It called upon FRY and the Kosovo Albanian leadership to enter into immediate and meaningful dialogue and demanded that FRY implement immediately the measures contained in the June 12 statement of the Contact Group. The resolution called on the president of FRY to implement his own commitments from the joint statement with the president of the Russian Federation of June 16, 1998, among other things, not to carry out any repressive actions against the peaceful population, to facilitate refugee return, and to ensure full access for ICRC and UNHCR. The resolution called on the government of FRY, the Kosovo Albanian leadership, and all others to cooperate fully with the prosecutor of the ICTY, and it underlined the need for FRY authorities to bring to justice members of security forces involved in mistreatment of civilians and deliberate destruction of property. It stated that the Council would consider "further action and additional measures" if the measures demanded in its two resolutions are not taken. Porous borders and a well established Balkan arms market have kept the embargo from having any substantial impact on the ground.

A similar degree of disunity has emerged in the Contact Group of states dealing with matters in the Balkans—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia—where Russia in particular has again played the role of spoiler, although Russia’s resistance was at times used by Western states as an excuse for their own inaction. In its first statement after the February 28 escalation of the conflict, on March 9 the Contact Group called for Security Council consideration of a comprehensive arms embargo on FRY; refusal to supply to FRY equipment that might be used for internal repression or terrorism; denial of visas for senior FRY and Serbian representatives responsible for the repression; and a moratorium on government-financed export credit support for trade and investment in Serbia. Russia refused to support the last two measures, but committed to discuss additional measures if FRY failed to make progress toward fulfillment of the Contact Group's conditions. When the Contact Group met again on April 29, it noted the on-going violence and the limited progress on conditions it had previously set, and in response, the Group decided to freeze funds held abroad by the FRY and Serbian governments; and it warned if Belgrade continued to block dialogue, by May 9 the Group would impose an investment ban on Serbia. Russia refused to endorse these sanctions. At a May 9 meeting of the G-8 (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia), the gathered states agreed to implement the asset freeze and impose the investment ban, and once again Russia declared that it did not associate itself with the new sanctions.

Empty Threats of International Action

Disunity within the international community means that its statements and actions are weak, watered down to the lowest common denominator. As Slobodan Miloševic knows and exploits, it also means that international condemnations, sanctions, and threats are often empty. Deadlines can be broken, conditions only partially, cynically fulfilled, and there will be only limited repercussions.

At the March 25 meeting of the Contact Group, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned her colleagues:

During the Bosnian war, how many times did one party or another appear to accept our proposals, only to walk away? We say that in the former Yugoslavia, promises mean little until they are implemented with safeguards. Incentives tend to be pocketed; warnings tend not to be believed. Leaders respond not to the distant threat of sanctions, but to the reality of sanctions.

Notwithstanding Secretary Albright's cautionary words, with which most international actors would agree, by repeatedly failing to turn the distant threat of sanctions into a reality, the international community has allowed the FRY government to make a mockery of its ultimata.

On March 9, the Contact Group gave the FRY government ten days to: withdraw the special police units and cease action by the security forces affecting the civilian population; allow access to Kosovo for the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations as well as by representatives of the Contact Group and other Embassies; commit publicly to begin a process of dialogue with the leadership of the Kosovar Albanian community; and cooperate in a constructive manner with the Contact Group. The Group proclaimed that if President Miloševic took those steps, it would reconsider the sanctions imposed; if he failed to comply, they would move to further international measures, including an asset freeze on FRY and Serbian government funds abroad. Allowing ten days to slip to sixteen, the Contact Group met again on March 25. In the days prior to the March 25 meeting, the Miloševic government briefly reduced the police attacks and agreed to implement an 18- month-old agreement on Albanian education rights, a long-standing demand of the international community that had been mentioned as one of many needed confidence-building measures in the March 9 Contact Group statement. Though not enough to bring the Contact Group to lift its sanctions, the FRY gestures kept the Group from imposing new sanctions and bought Miloševic some time. The Contact Group agreed to meet again in four weeks to reassess the situation. To this date, Miloševic has refused to pull back his special police and the education agreement, much heralded as a positive first step last March, remains to be implemented.

The Contact Group meeting of April 29 set in motion a new round of maneuvering between the international community and the FRY government. Finding that the conditions set on March 9 remained unfulfilled, the Contact Group decided to take steps to impose the asset freeze. The freeze, first promised if Belgrade did not meet Contact Group conditions by March 19, was finally endorsed by the Contact Group a month and a half later, plenty of time for the Yugoslav authorities to shelter any funds that might otherwise have been affected. The Contact Group also promised to pursue an investment ban if Miloševic did not meet new conditions by May 9. Significantly, these new conditions were watered down from the March 9 ultimata, substituting a general call for “cessation of repression” for the earlier “withdraw the special police units,” and dropping the demand for access for the ICRC and humanitarian organizations altogether. As Miloševic ramped up the violence, the international community lowered the bar he needed to clear to regain international acceptance.

With the asset freeze finally being implemented and the investment ban imminent,208 Miloševic finally agreed to meet ethnic Albanian political leader Ibrahim Rugova, on May 15. The ninety minute meeting took place after five days of intense shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. In a major concession to Miloševic, the meeting took place without the presence of foreign mediators, a long-time condition set by both the international community and the Kosovo Albanians. Although far short of the “framework for dialogue and stabilization package” stipulated in the April 29 Contact Group statement, the meeting between Miloševic and Rugova caused the international community once again to ease the pressure. At the May 25 meeting of the European Union General Affairs Council, the foreign ministers of E.U. member states concluded that, in light of the Miloševic-Rugova meeting in Belgrade, “the proposed measure to stop new investment in Serbia would not be taken forward.” That week Belgrade launched a major new offensive to create a cordon sanitaire along its border with Albania that involved serious breaches of international humanitarian law. (See section Violations in the Yugoslav-Albania Border Region) Miloševic also took some oppressive measures that affected ethnic Serbs, such as introducing a highly restrictive university law and refusing licences to some Serbian language independent media. His political ally, Momir Bulatovic, was also appointed Yugoslav Prime Minister. The Serbian offensive so soon after the meeting hurt Rugova’s popularity among Albanians, but he was quickly invited for a meeting with President Clinton in Washington to bolster his public image.

By the June 9 meeting of E.U. foreign ministers, the pattern was getting old. The ministers finally adopted the investment ban on Serbia, together with a declaration that stated:

President Miloševic bears a special responsibility as head of the FRY government for promoting a peaceful settlement to the problems of Kosovo. He should not believe that the international community will be taken in by talk of peace when the reality on the ground is ever greater repression. . . . The European Union remains ready to press ahead with other measures against Belgrade if the authorities there fail to halt their excessive use of force and to take the steps needed for genuine political progress. Furthermore, the E.U. encourages international security organizations to pursue their efforts in this respect and to consider all options, including those which would require an authorization by the [United Nations Security Council] under Chapter VII.209

On June 11, NATO defense ministers directed NATO military authorities to develop a range of options for possible military action. As a demonstration of military might, they also agreed to carry out air exercises over neighboring Albania and Macedonia. These exercises, known as Operation “Determined Falcon,” were carried out on June 15 and heralded as a “serious message to Belgrade.” Planes flew over Tirana, the Albanian capital, but not over North Albania where they would have been seen by Serbian forces and the KLA alike.

The June 12 Contact Group meeting also reaffirmed the asset freeze and investment ban (Russia excluded) and promised additional measures unless certain steps were taken immediately. These steps were essentially the same as those that were supposed to have been implemented within ten days of March 9, except that what had once been internationally mediated dialogue and then a “framework for dialogue and a stabilization package” had become mere “rapid progress in the dialogue with the Kosovo Albanian leadership.”

Facing the possibility of NATO intervention, the FRY government once again looked for a bone to throw to the international community. Taking advantage of the division between Russia and the other Contact Group members, Miloševic agreed to meet with Russian president Boris Yeltsin on June 16. The Miloševic-Yeltsin meeting yielded Yugoslav commitments to continue talks with Kosovo Albanians, commit no repressive actions against the peaceful population, guarantee full freedom of movement on the whole territory of Kosovo, and provide unimpeded access to humanitarian organizations. The joint statement between Miloševic and Yeltsin has been honored in the breach, but it bought Miloševic time at a critical juncture, when NATO intervention appeared somewhat more likely than it has at any other time during the conflict. Beginning in mid June, the KLA enjoyed significant territorial gains, which, though temporary, dispelled any thought of immediate international military intervention as too likely to tip the balance in favor of Kosovo independence. Forceful KLA statements about “liberating Priština” and unifying with Albania made the international community even more reluctant to take any action that might be construed as supporting the insurgency.

On July 19, the KLA attempted to take its first larger city, Orahovac. Government forces quickly retook the town and then began a major offensive that was still ongoing as of September 15. Special police forces and the Yugoslav army succeeded in retaking most of the territory that had been held by the KLA, with the exception of some areas in Drenica. The offensive involved wide scale human rights and humanitarian law violations, such as attacks on civilians and the systematic destruction of civilian property. At least 300,000 civilians were forced from their homes. The international community condemned theabuses but took no action to halt the offensive. Inaction by the West left the impression that it was tolerating the abuses, and that it may have given Miloševic the green light in order to drive the Albanians to the negotiating table. As one diplomat said at the time, it was necessary to knock the KLA “down a peg.”210

This pattern of international engagement in the Kosovo crisis has continued to date, with many symbolic missions to the region and tough-sounding declarations, followed by little if any action. When the international community has taken action, it has either neglected to implement the measures swiftly and effectively, or it has rescinded them at the slightest concession from Miloševic.

At the heart of the international community’s incapacity to deal effectively with the conflict in Kosovo is its overwhelming opposition to the idea of an independent Kosovo. The international community does not want to encourage the redrawing of Yugoslav borders because of the impetus that such action might give to secessionist movements around the world and the potentially destabilizing effects an independent Kosovo might have on Bosnia and Macedonia. This is not a trivial concern. But the international community’s interest in preserving international borders should not be elevated above the imperative of halting atrocities that are leading to thousands of dead and many more displaced. If the international community is to promote territorial integrity in the Balkans, it should press for the national unity that comes from respect for the rights of all citizens—a respect that has been sorely lacking in Kosovo as well as among its neighbors. But seeking to preserve Yugoslav borders by closing their eyes to the potential death of thousands is both futile and inexcusable and could lead to the regional instability that the international community is trying to avoid.

207 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1160 (1998).

208 The European Union adopted a Common Position to freeze FRY and Serbian government funds on May 7, 1998. Common Position of 7 May 1998. The E.U. regulation formally imposing the asset freeze was not adopted until June 22, 1998. At a G-8 Foreign Ministers meeting on May 8-9, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Commission “agreed to implement the decision by members of the Contact Group to freeze funds held abroad by the FRY and Serbian Governments and to stop new investments in Serbia.” Japan, though not joining in this action, expressed its support and willingness to study possible action. Russia refused to support the new sanctions. Conclusions of G8 Foreign Ministers, London, 8-9 May 1998.

209 Declaration by the European Union on Kosovo, Brussels, June 9, 1998.

210 New York Times (late edition), July 29, 1998.

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