December 21, 2000

Moments of Transition

As the twentieth century draws to an end, the Balkans is justifying its hard-earned reputation for being anything but peaceful. Tensions simmer in the so-called "ground safety" zone along the borders of occupied Kosovo. Serbian elections are scheduled in two days. Romanian and Bosnian elections have produced results somewhat less than palatable to the Empire. Yet, after nearly a decade of explosive developments, those currently unfolding in the Balkans appear small and insignificant. Though statements, riots, political ploys and firefights follow each other in rapid succession, there is still an overall feeling of suspense, much like in a minor storm right before a bigger one descends.


The coming election in Yugoslavia's larger federal republic is expected to result in a convincing victory of the anti-Milosevic DOS coalition. The popularity of DOS and its leader, President Vojislav Kostunica, is so great that no one seriously expects a strong showing by Milosevic's Socialists, or even the splinter parties that sought to jump ship in the disastrous aftermath of the "October revolution." Kostunica's name will be used to sweep the remnants of the Socialist party from office, in favor of his coalition partners. Most prominent among them is Zoran Djindjic, leader of the second most powerful bloc within DOS – ironically named the Democratic Party. He is certain to become the prime minister of Serbia.

The elections would mark the end of Slobodan Milosevic's direct influence in Serbian politics, and the beginning of a new age, unpredictable and highly volatile, but potentially beneficial for the people of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and possibly their neighbors as well.


Serbs in Kosovo will go to the polls this Saturday, unless prevented by NATO's occupation forces. The UN governor's office has already announced it would not help organize the elections in any way, while the Kosovo Albanians are livid that any voting is to take place at all. If there is a vote, it would prove symbolically that Kosovo is still a part of Serbia, despite its occupation by NATO and the UN protectorate. The UN has already taken steps to facilitate Kosovo's separation – from reestablishing a Communist-era "Supreme Court" to issuing identity papers to Albanians. Its departing governor, Bernard Kouchner, has vowed to do as much as possible to appease Albanian separatists, prolong the occupation and establish further independent institutions of government.


Meanwhile, bandits of the UCPMB still roam free in the "ground safety zone" around Kosovo, protected by the armistice NATO imposed on Yugoslavia in June 1999. NATO's occupation troops claim they are patrolling the border and intercepting men and munitions sent to the militants from Kosovo; one patrol even came under fire by the UCPMB Monday. Questions arise – how come that there are still weapons and militants inside Kosovo to begin with, or why the militants seem unperturbed by the supposed blockade. On the other hand, NATO's job was never to keep the peace inside Kosovo, but merely to keep the Yugoslav Army from entering the province – a perfect task for tanks, helicopters and heavily armed infantry at the end of a three-mile buffer zone. For the same force, trying to prevent infiltration of former (?) allies into the buffer zone from Kosovo  seems a mission impossible. It is a lot easier to arrest Serbs in Kosovo for traffic violations, then shoot the demonstrators protesting such behavior.

Frustrated with NATO's incompetence and foot-dragging, Kostunica has demanded the end of the Albanian insurrection immediately, and threatened the use of all legitimate means if KFOR fails to do so.

Reacting to this demand, anonymous NATO officials said that any reduction of the demilitarized zone "had to be coupled with 'confidence-building measures' for the Albanians who live there, including aid programs and efforts to recruit them for the local police," quoted Tuesday's New York Times.

That amounts to getting rid of terrorists by making them police officers.

To Kostunica, the issue is clear. The cop-killing militants will not be negotiated with, or appeased. To let them run free in the DMZ would bring into question his government and his country's sovereignty. As he told the NY Times, "We cannot let them stay."

Getting them to leave without using force is near impossible, though. The Albanian government has rejected any sort of regional talks on the future of Kosovo, while Kosovo Albanians' separatist leader Ibrahim Rugova boasts how NATO is his "private army" and will stay in Kosovo for years. (Der Spiegel, December 9).

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malich left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malich has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


Much, of course, depends on the new man in charge in Washington. During Bush I's reign, Yugoslavia's slow and bloody collapse was a secondary issue, subordinated to extending dominion over the Middle East and breaking up the USSR. Bush II is surrounding himself with his father's advisors and seems reluctant to ride the high horse of Bill Clinton's Balkans Crusade.

The Middle East seems to have a pull on the Bush cabinet, whether because of financial interests (oil), traditional concerns (Israel), or personal vengeance (Saddam Hussein's threadbare survival in Iraq). While Clinton sought to gain fame for himself and the US in the uncharted Balkans waters, the Bush Restoration – unburdened by Balkans commitments – could easily shift its focus on settling old scores further southeast.

Cynics and realists can reasonably argue that the Balkans has already served all the goals of US power-politics; the UN is now marching to NATO's tune, Russian influence in the area has been largely erased, Europe was shown to be helpless without Washington's planes and missiles, while the Balkans has been largely pacified and turned into a cluster of unstable but loyal client regimes – or at least non-hostile countries the likes of new Yugoslavia. There is nothing more to be accomplished in the Balkans. Spreading "American values" by force was always more of a Clinton line, anyway.

Even if the cynics are right and the US policy in the Balkans was partially aimed at destabilizing and retarding the creation of a European state, withdrawing US troops and funds from the region could easily do just that, all over again.


It is not likely, however, that Bush II will completely abandon America's client states in the Balkans, antiquated as their purpose may be. No one is rushing to dismantle NATO, after all. The US will want some sort of presence in the Balkans for a time to come, if nothing because getting out of the quagmire is always more difficult than getting in.

The client-states themselves are nervous. Their leaders' statements are underlined by a thread of panic. One need only remember the disastrous consequences of Nixon's decision to "bring the boys home" from Vietnam in 1973 to the regime in the pro-US south. Within two years, their troops were overrun and the country was unified under the northern, Communist regime. Will these Balkan vassals prove to be equally ephemeral as the Republic of Viet Nam was twenty-five years ago?


It is also entirely possible that Bush II and his advisors might eventually grow tired of their vassals' constant blackmailing. Threatening a new eruption of violence if the US troops leave only goes so far. Kennedy supported the assassination of South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem over much less. And Richard Nixon had no qualms about abandoning the war his Democratic predecessors had largely been associated with. Bush II has few obligations to the states Bill Clinton helped create, and even less of an obligation to put up with their whims and demands.


Historical analogies are notoriously unreliable, and Bush II may not follow the logic of those who came before him, be it Nixon, Clinton, or his father. Even though there is plenty of background to suggest otherwise, his ascendance to power may not mark a departure from Clinton's imperial policy of intervention worldwide, though it may spell an end to the insanity of "humanitarian bombing."

In the Balkans itself, there is somewhat of a backlash against the radical rearranging of the region by Clinton's money, men and missiles. Romanians just elected the man who led the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, even though he has become a Socialist since. In Bosnia, voters of all ethnicities have voiced their support to more local decision-making and less interference by the international governor. The Bosnian Serbs just formed a government despite overt US dislike for its leading members. Croatians turned out in large numbers to honor their dead dictator, snubbing their new leadership.

The forces of change are stirring in the Balkans again, no matter what the new Emperor in Washington thinks or does. And the 20th century ends much the way it had begun: with uncertainty.

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