CEOL
Kosovo to be cocooned pending better days

By Douglas Hamilton

March 23, 2000


(Rtr) - The thrill is gone and the grind starts to look endless, but NATO allies can no more afford to lose the peace in Kosovo than they could have backed down in the dramatic confrontation with Belgrade a year ago.

Nine months after their triumphant entry and euphoric reception, NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo are facing major security challenges from both sides in what at times looks alarmingly like a conflict that is only temporarily suspended.

Their adversaries, now acknowledged to include not only Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic but also ethnic Albanian extremists, hope that division, fatigue and disillusion will grind down the 19-member alliance and let them have their way.

NATO and the European Union, the main banker for Balkan reconstruction and democratisation, know that would mean more war and vow it won't happen.

Yet they are set against giving Kosovo its independence and simultaneously resigned to the impossibility of returning it any time soon to Yugoslavia. So it will remain in constitutional limbo for some time to come.

Failing a regional master-plan, and with no imminent prospect of Milosevic's departure from power, the allies are resolved to cocoon Kosovo in a blanket of stable, self-sufficient autonomy for years - if they can.

"The big idea? The big idea is to build an autonomous Kosovo and to get beyond putting out brush fires, to get beyond this day-to-day approach for what's going to be a process of years," said a senior NATO diplomat.

This was a theme common to public assessments this week by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and European Commission President Romano Prodi, marking the March 24 anniversary of the start of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign.

Robertson, in a personal report to NATO that was also aimed at the province, warned ethnic Albanian leaders that Kosovo risks losing the goodwill of the international community if its people cannot put ethnic hatred aside.

Pointing to Western allies that have not lived up to some of their promises, he also warned that "hard-won success could drift away" if Western nations did not meet their commitments in the form of money, police and justice.

Let there be no illusions, Robertson said, "the task remaining is formidable".

SEALING OFF THE BORDERS

British troops this week closed a dozen crossing points between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia to stop infiltration by Albanian extremists. Bulldozers dug tank traps across roads while engineers blasted tracks on inaccessible mountain passes.

Troops in the American-led southern sector have taken similar measures to stop armed excursions into the Presevo Valley. A military spokesman said KFOR needed "to make sure that violence and ethnic tension is neither imported nor exported".

European Commission President Prodi urged European Union leaders due to meet in Lisbon this week to redouble EU efforts to bring lasting peace to the Balkans, and without delay.

Prodi called for "radical new plans" and "heavy-duty political commitment" that will prove to the Balkans as well as concerned U.S. allies that the EU has the stamina to build peace.

"It is a Herculean task and it is nowhere near complete," Prodi said. But only Europe could offer a long-lasting solution to the Balkans and hold out the prospect of a brighter future as part of the European family.

It was not just a moral responsibility, Prodi added.

"If we fail, we face continued instability and conflict - and a fresh wave of refugees...We need to redouble our efforts and there is no time to lose."

MURMURS OF UNCERTAINTY

The West has already scaled down its goal of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo to one of peaceful coexistence, with the prospect of genuine Serb-Albanian reconciliation consigned to the distant future of untainted generations.

The concept of Kosovo's independence or partition, while irrepressible, is officially taboo.

Alliance diplomats have denied reports that Kosovo's U.N. administrator Bernard Kouchner, behind closed doors, had put his finger on the unresolved issue of Kosovo's final status as the main obstacle to a clear success strategy.

Robertson said the question of Kosovo's constitutional future was a matter for the United Nations to decide.

Regular readers of the Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug, which seizes on any hint of Western division, note a steady rise in the volume of western-datelined reports in which top Western officials voice disquiet with the apparent drift.

Russia this week called for a special U.N. Security Council mission to Kosovo because of the "worsening" situation.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned "this could lead to an aggravation in the situation not only in the province, but also in the south of Serbia and in the whole of the Balkans".

Seen through the highly artificial spectrum of the first anniversary of air strikes, the situation is unpromising. NATO, however, insists it is far too early to sum up the merits of its first military intervention against a sovereign power.

But it knows it has raised expectations - as evidenced in the upsurge of an Albanian guerrilla effort to "liberate" the Presevo Valley strip inside Serbia - that NATO can again be drawn in to rescue an outnumbered revolt from Belgrade's forces.

A NATO ambassador told reporters this week that this would never happen and Albanian leaders had been duly warned.

Asked if NATO would summon up a consensus for renewed intervention should Milosevic attack Montenegro's pro-Western government, the envoy said: "The allies won't know what to do until they stare that issue in the face".



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