Peace at any price? Kosovo deal costs Milosevic little, is unlikely to resolve crisis

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

October 18, 1998

After more than nine days and fifty hours of intense discussions, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke reached agreement on Kosovo with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that for now forestalls NATO air strikes.

The agreement has three parts.

First, Milosevic accepted the demands of the United Nations Security Council that Yugoslavia end the fighting in Kosovo, pull back security forces deployed there since last February, provide unimpeded access to international relief agencies, cooperate with the Hague war crimes tribunal, and commence a serious dialogue on Kosovo’s autonomy on a tight time line.

Second, in a unilateral statement, Milosevic pledged to restore self-government to Kosovo and to hold elections within nine months.

Third, Milosevic accepted an unarmed international ground and air presence to verify compliance.

At first glance, the Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement appears to contain major concessions by the Yugoslav president that are the result of NATO’s last-minute threat to launch devastating air strikes against Serbia. Closer inspection of the details, however, suggests that the wily Milosevic may have outfoxed America’s most seasoned diplomat during the marathon negotiating sessions in Belgrade.

While Milosevic has for now acceded to the international community’s demands, doing so costs him little in the short run. Moreover, the lack of a viable political framework to resolve the Kosovo crisis renders Milosevic’s long-term acceptance of these demands highly uncertain. Finally, NATO’s ability to enforce compliance is seriously compromised by the decision to send 2,000 unarmed monitors into Kosovo.

Milosevic’s acceptance of the U.N.’s demands has been hailed as a major concession. But there is little in this agreement to suggest that the Yugoslav president intends to do anything more than he had planned all along. By the time the U.N. Security Council passed its resolution late last month, Milosevic’s security forces had achieved their major objectives. The Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) had been routed from the strategic strongholds it had captured earlier in the summer.

With the KLA in apparent disarray, Milosevic should be able to maintain control over the province with the 12,500 Yugoslav army and 6,500 interior police troops that can remain under the agreement, especially since fighting is unlikely during winter. As for cooperating with international relief agencies and enabling the return of refugees, Milosevic should have no problem with the international community picking up the bill to feed and shelter the many hundreds of thousands of Kosovars forced from their homes as a result of Serb attacks. Finally, Holbrooke apparently failed to secure Milosevic’s agreement to accept the jurisdiction of the war crimes tribunal, although the tribunal’s investigative staff will be doubled in size—from two to four people.

Even if Milosevic fully implements these provisions in the next few weeks, however, his willingness to continue to do so in the long term will depend on whether a viable political solution to the Kosovo crisis can be found.

On this point, there are reasons to be skeptical. The limited political concessions on the province’s interim status are insufficient to return Kosovo to the degree of autonomy it enjoyed until 1989. Before Milosevic made his career by stripping away Kosovo’s autonomy, the province was represented at the federal level with a status equal to that of the former Yugoslavia’s six other republics (four of which are now independent states). Under the unilateral principles for Kosovo’s autonomy enunciated by the Milosevic government on Oct. 13, Kosovars will only enjoy limited self-government over local matters. This includes municipal police, which will operate under the watchful eye of 6,500 heavily armed Serb interior security forces.

These are commitments no politician in Kosovo—let alone those Kosovars who possess the guns—is likely to endorse. It would have been difficult to accept what Milosevic is now offering at the outset of the conflict. With more than 1,000 people killed, 200 villages razed, and a quarter million refugees, anything less than real self-determination (immediately or after a short interim period) will prove unacceptable to even the most moderate of Kosovo’s politicians.

Equally important, while Milosevic has agreed to finalize an accord on “the fundamental elements for finding a peaceful solution” to Kosovo by Nov. 2, there is nothing to ensure he will fulfill this unilateral pledge. In recent days key Clinton administration spokesmen from the president on down have belatedly recognized that Milosevic is a man who breaks his promises and who, in Secretary Madeleine Albright’s words is “a congenital liar.” And, yet, on the crucial political issue of Kosovo’s future status, we are now to take him at his word.

The Clinton administration counters that there will be “a robust and highly intrusive” verification mechanism to determine compliance—2,000 unarmed monitors and unarmed NATO aerial surveillance flights. But this is a paltry force—not even comparable to the U.N. force in Bosnia, which despite being both armed and ten times larger, failed disastrously to avert violence or genocidal acts. Do we really expect unarmed monitors to operate effectively in a Kosovo that remains an ethnic tinderbox, in which horrible atrocities occurred as recently as three weeks ago, and where there is no agreement on the contours of a viable political solution?

We did not expect it in Bosnia. There, an agreement negotiated and signed by all the parties in 1995 was judged to be so fragile that 60,000 heavily armed NATO troops were dispatched to ensure its enforcement. In the three years since, the cease-fire has remained in effect and three nationwide elections have been held. The international community has poured billions into the country’s reconstruction. A stable military balance now exists between the parties. But 30,000 NATO troops remain deeply ensconced in Bosnia and nobody seriously suggests that an unarmed presence of 2,000—or even 30,000—monitors might now suffice.

The Belgrade talks made clear that Milosevic would not accept deployment of a large, well-armed NATO force to ensure compliance with the U.N.’s demands. And the Clinton administration was rightly concerned that the commitment of American ground troops would be open-ended and sure to face congressional and public opposition. The proposal to deploy a small, unarmed monitoring force instead suggests that negotiators believed that something was better than nothing. But in this case, nothing would have been better.

While monitors may be a more effective way to verify Milosevic’s compliance than traditional intelligence gathering capabilities, the presence of 2,000 unarmed diplomats and retired military will prove to be a significant deterrent to NATO air action in case Milosevic fails to comply. In effect, the monitors are de facto hostages. Though their presence is supposed to secure the agreement’s implementation, they may well become the instrument Milosevic uses to get away with non-compliance.

Despite its obvious flaws, we are stuck with this hastily drawn agreement that Holbrooke negotiated at the eleventh hour. With Milosevic having agreed to abide by the U.N.’s demands, it is too late to pull back. But there are ways to give the deal a better chance to work.

First, the ground monitors should not be deployed. The Organization for European Security and Cooperation under whose auspices the 2,000 monitors are supposed to operate, should decide that this is not a task the organization is willing to tackle. The ground monitoring force was designed without any input from the security organization and there is no reason for it to be responsible for implementing this folly. The administration should accept the organization’s decision and be thankful that this part of the verification system can thus be quietly discarded. At the same time, the U.S. and NATO should follow through on instituting the aerial surveillance system, which will provide a fair degree of monitoring of Serb compliance without suffering any of the drawbacks that ground monitors possess.

Second, NATO should explicitly retain the threat of air strikes to force Milosevic’s compliance with the agreement. The forces now dedicated to this operation should remain in place, ready at short notice to strike according to the plans originally agreed upon by the alliance. Without the prospect of hostages on the ground, the NATO threat of air action would remain both credible and real.

Third, the United States and its allies should begin to work actively on changing the political climate in Serbia. This latest Balkan crisis has proven beyond any doubt that in this region Milosevic is the problem, not the solution. The West’s only hope to prevent Kosovo from becoming the independent state nearly all Kosovars now fervently desire is to help establish a democratic and open Serbia within which Kosovar rights and aspirations can flourish. This will never happen—and Kosovo will continue to move inexorably toward independence—so long as Milosevic remains in power.

The bully of Belgrade must go. We must stop strengthening Milosevic’s grip on power by running to Belgrade at the first opportunity to try to resolve the latest emergency. Instead, we should condemn in the strongest possible terms recent crackdowns on independent media and throw our full weight and resources behind the feeble democratic and opposition voices that are aiming to put Serbia on the path toward a free, open, democratic, and western European society.