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Balkan futures

Nearing the anniversary of the Kosovo war, it is time to consider winners and losers. Things are not as clear as they were a year ago. President Slobodan Milosevic has survived his defeat and the territorial integrity of the rest of Belgrade's domain appears intact. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is eager to establish an Albanian state in Kosovo but is blocked by NATO. And the alliance - unable to suppress the guerrillas, unable to withdraw and unwilling to negotiate with Milosevic - is devoid of options. A year later, Milosevic seems both secure and hopeful that events are moving his way. In an odd parallel to Saddam Hussein's experience, being defeated by the West may open doors rather than close them.

It's been almost a year since the beginning of the Kosovo war and it is time to take stock. In many ways, it is easier to understand what has happened than what is going to happen, not only because the future is inherently unknowable, but because the future of the Balkans is particularly opaque. It is made opaque by three facts. First, NATO has enabled the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to come close to its goal of creating an Albanian state in Kosovo. Second, NATO has failed to break the Serbian nation and to deprive it of the means to influence events in Kosovo. Third, NATO does not want to see an Albanian state in Kosovo nor does it want to see Serbian power re-emerge.

In short, the two national competitors, Serbs and Albanians, remain in place while NATO stands opposed to both of their national aspirations. To further complicate matters, since it lacks the necessary military power NATO is neither in a position to impose its will, should it actually redefine its policy, nor is NATO in a position to withdraw. Thus, we are in a three-player game in Kosovo in which none of the parties will or wishes to abandon the field and none can prevail. NATO has maneuvered itself into a position where it threatens the national aspirations of both Serbs and Albanians simultaneously, yet lacks the force to govern directly. This is a prescription for chaos.

To fully appreciate the danger of the situation, we need to understand that both the Albanians and Serbs find themselves in very similar strategic positions. Both sides have achieved the underlying preconditions necessary to move from a defensive to offensive position. Each side is probing the others' (and NATO's) weaknesses. Thus, each side is daily becoming more aggressive.

A year ago, the Albanians as a whole and the KLA took advantage of what Serbia was providing, an image of an ethnic population undergoing massive violations of human rights. The goal of this campaign was to trigger a NATO intervention against Yugoslavia. The Albanians had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the consequences of NATO intervention. NATO's actions would expel Serbian armed forces from Kosovo, which in turn would force at least a partial withdrawal of the Serbian population, who would make one of two assumptions:

1. That NATO was in favor of a Kosovo cleansed of Serbs and that it was, in effect, a full ally of Albanian national aspirations. 2. That NATO, whatever its intentions, was ineffective in defending the Serbian population from KLA attacks.

The KLA took advantage of Serbian actions, Western perceptions and political realities within NATO capitals. NATO intervention allowed the KLA to lay the foundation for an effective strategy toward some clear goals.

Let's consider the KLA's strategic goals:

1. Becoming the preeminent political force among Albanians in Kosovo. 2. The creation of a KLA-dominated government in Kosovo. 3. The unification of Kosovo with Albania proper under a government dominated by the KLA and its allies. 4. The extension of Albania to all areas populated by Albanians. 5. The creation of an Albanian entity that is secure, regionally dominant and that controls the primary trade routes from Turkey to central Europe.

The KLA achieved its first goal when the United States and NATO were forced to rely on it to enable ground operations in Kosovo. NATO depended on the KLA for intelligence, to pin Serb ground forces down during the bombing operation and to enable NATO's special forces to carry out operations in the region. This dependency gave the KLA three advantages. First, as a primary intelligence source for NATO, the KLA was able to shape NATO's understanding of what was happening on the ground. This, in turn, shaped NATO operations in favor of the KLA not only in relation to the Serbs, but also in relation to other, non-KLA Albanian political forces. Second, by supplying and supporting KLA forces during the conflict, NATO strengthened the KLA in relation to other Albanian factions, while providing the KLA with a political imprimatur as NATO's anointed. Finally, in relying on the KLA for civil administration after the war, NATO made the KLA the de facto government of Kosovo.

Having achieved its first goal, the KLA is now engaged in pursuing its second: the creation of a KLA-dominated government in Kosovo. This has led to an interesting reversal. NATO, the KLA's enabler in its first phase, is now the KLA's primary block in achieving its second goal. NATO cannot tolerate the KLA achieving its second strategic goal for domestic political and geopolitical reasons. Domestically, an Albanian state in Kosovo, with the inevitable ethnic cleansing of Serbs, would provide armed political opponents of NATO governments. Some of these countries, like the United States, are currently in the midst of elections that are devoid of international content. The triumph of the KLA would give George Bush a weapon that Clinton must deny him.

There is also a deeper geopolitical reason. The creation of an Albanian Kosovo would inevitably lead to its integration with Albania proper. It would create the demand for border rectifications with countries like Macedonia that have Albanian populations, making Albania a dominant regional power. Although Albania is one of the most impoverished areas of Europe it must be remembered that there is a massive throughput of narcotics that could provide resources for improving Albanian military capability, if not standards of living. This is not something that other countries in the region want to see. In particular, Greece and Italy, both NATO members with important national interests in the Balkans, would be upset with this evolution. Therefore, NATO, having helped the KLA achieve its first strategic goal, must now act to block its second strategic goal.

Complicating the situation dramatically is the fact that the Serbs themselves now find themselves in a much more favorable strategic position than they were just a few months ago. Consider Milosevic's strategic interests:

1. Stay in power in Belgrade. 2. Prevent the further disintegration of the Yugoslavian Federation. 3. Reclaim lost territories and integrate areas that are predominantly Serbian. 4. Make Serbia the preeminent power in the Balkans.

It seems clear, a year after the war began, that like Saddam Hussein, Milosevic is not going to fall. The facile assumptions made after the war that he could not survive his humiliation by NATO have proven false. Milosevic was certainly despised by many factions for leading his country into war and being outmaneuvered by NATO, but he retained substantial support. NATO's persistent anti-Serbian policy had persuaded many Serbs that NATO, for some uncertain reason, meant to obliterate the Serbian nation. Milosevic was seen as a champion of Serbia and as NATO's victim. He presented himself as a man who had thwarted NATO's true ambitions by confining Serbia's defeat to Kosovo.

At the same time, the democratic opposition that NATO had fantasized about was neither as democratic as NATO believed, nor as united. Certainly, it was not as powerful as NATO believed. Whatever bitterness there was toward Milosevic's mishandling of the war, the opposition was perceived as being opportunists, or worse, as tools of NATO. His opponents were made to look like traitors. Therefore, in spite of intense efforts by NATO to topple Milosevic after the war, all that it achieved was to flush Milosevic's opposition out into the open, and force it to display its impotence. This substantially strengthened Milosevic's hand. As with Saddam, the mere fact that Milosevic survived helped restore his credibility.

Milosevic then was able to block the further disintegration of Serbia by outmaneuvering Montenegrin separatists until even NATO no longer had any confidence in them. Milosevic's ability to sustain the presence of Federal forces in Montenegro was the first step. When Montenegro's political evolution led to its remaining inside the Yugoslav federation, the logic of disintegration was aborted. Vague discussions of Vojvodina's seceding to Hungary, the entry of NATO forces into Serbia proper and other territorial fantasies petered out over the year. The breaking point came recently. When the KLA tried to generate anti-Serb actions among Albanians still living inside Serbia, NATO itself was forced to protect the Serb frontier. During raids carried out last week, it actually struck at KLA bases along the border. NATO is now protecting the territorial integrity of the rest of Serbia. The main threat to Serbia's territorial integrity, NATO's covert and overt operations, has dissolved. What is left of Belgrade's domain will survive.

That leaves Milosevic with his third goal: reclaiming lost territories, beginning with Kosovo. Milosevic now sees time on his side. Milosevic never understood the alliance between NATO and the KLA. He never understood that there was no deep, geopolitical community of interest between the two, but that what bound them was NATO's domestic political situation and the KLA's ambitions. He did not expect NATO and the KLA to split because he never understood how shallow the ties were. Milosevic is undoubtedly delighted by his new understanding of the situation. As the KLA pressed forward with its second strategic mission, it forced a split with NATO that directly benefited Serbia.

NATO's entire mission is now based on a rapidly dissolving foundation. Unless NATO can convince the KLA to abandon any further strategic ambitions-which is unlikely-it is going to find itself trapped between the absolutely unforgivable Milosevic and the utterly ungrateful KLA. NATO cannot withdraw without being made to look imbecilic and it can't stay without great danger.

From where Milosevic sits, this is an ideal situation. If NATO leaves, the Serbs still enjoy military superiority over the Albanians and will be in a situation to intervene. On the other hand, the longer NATO remains, the less sympathy in the West for the Albanians. If NATO stays, it will inevitably become dependent, at least covertly, on Serbs in Kosovo, and perhaps on the other side of the border as well.

The KLA cannot hold back. They have their own intense credibility problem. NATO is now clearly going to try to create a non-KLA political alternative among the Albanians. More important, NATO has a strategic card to play against the KLA. We give substantial credence to reports that not only is KLA a critical part of the global narcotics traffic system, but that it is using Kosovo as a transshipment point. NATO does not have sufficient forces in Kosovo to bring peace, but it has sufficient capability to interrupt parts of the drug trade. If the KLA hangs back it risks the emergence of new political forces under NATO sponsorship. If it strikes at NATO, NATO can strike back at a fundamental interest of the KLA. In either case, the KLA cannot pursue its other strategic interests while NATO is still there.

The KLA always wanted NATO out, but expected it to destroy the Serb Army for them. That hasn't happened and that has created a tremendous dilemma for the KLA. It cannot tolerate NATO in Kosovo and it is not yet in a position to defend against Serbia. It can no longer expect NATO to finish off the Serbs and it can no longer expect NATO to ignore KLA operations. The KLA has been trying to get NATO to strike across the border, but instead NATO struck at the KLA.

NATO is desperately signaling the KLA to rein itself in. But if the KLA complies then its dream of a KLA-dominated Kosovo must be abandoned and the narcotics trade that finances it will be vulnerable to NATO pressure. It can't make the deal that NATO has offered: temporary control over part of Kosovo at the discretion of NATO. It just isn't enough.

The winner, at this rate, is going to be Milosevic. If NATO and the KLA come to blows, then time is entirely on his side. Either NATO will increase its presence in Kosovo in order to crush or cow the KLA - unlikely - or NATO will have to open lines of communication or coordination with the Serbs. Alternatively, NATO can withdraw, in which case the correlation of forces will favor the Serbs against the Albanians.

A year after the war began, Milosevic remains in power in Belgrade and time appears to be on his side.

Source: Stratfor Kosovo Crisis Center

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