Losing the peace in Kosovo

What was NATO doing in Yugoslavia, making the world safe for anarchy?

Timothy Garton Ash

Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Consider this scene, which I witnessed recently in Kosovo. Cars speed down the unlit, potholed main street of a small town. A Swedish soldier steps out into the road with an electrically illuminated red stick and a little circular sign that says "30 kph." The cars ignore him, of course. Across the street, a local man, unshaven, toothless, perhaps a little drunk, holds his sides and bends almost double with uncontrollable laughter at the wholly ineffectual efforts of the good Swede.

This is Kosovo, and it's an almighty mess. Here is the place for which -- at least, ostensibly for which -- NATO fought its first war. The place where more than 40,000 international troops, organized in a multilateral force known as KFOR, supposedly achieve security. Where the United Nations leads the most ambitious experiment in international administration in its nearly 55 years of existence. Where the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and innumerable non-governmental organizations are heavily involved. Yet, after more than seven months of being there, the combined acronymic might of the so-called international community presides over something close to anarchy.

The Serbs have fled into enclaves, which they themselves describe as "ghettos." Those that remain among the Kosovar Albanians go in fear for their lives. In Podujevo, British soldiers mount a 24-hour guard on two Serbian grannies -- "and the Albanians would shoot them if we didn't," a British officer told me. But it's not just the Serbs. Albanian women are afraid to go out at night in Pristina, for fear of being kidnapped into forced prostitution by the Albanian mafia, which has moved into the province with a vengeance. Drug consumption has soared among students, as the mafia drug pushers move in. While the reported murder rate has come down, as the result of the combined efforts of KFOR and the UN's international police, there are still repeated cases of revenge killings and summary executions. One of the 60 officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary sent from Belfast to work for the UN international police told me, with a wry smile, "It's just like home."

Along the lawless roads covered in ice and snow, cars without registration plates are driven wildly by unshaven characters dressed in black. Many of the cars are reportedly stolen, and I have never in my life seen so many traffic accidents. There are still less than 2,000 international police, and critics say many of them don't do a serious job. (Those from Third World countries, one is told, tend to sit in the cafés, while earning three or four times what they do at home.) Of local graduates from the new police academy, there are only a few hundred.

It has taken the UN administration, known as UNMIK, more than six months to secure agreement even on the law to be applied in the province, let alone to apply it. They still have to recruit sufficient local judges, who can earn much more working as interpreters or drivers for international organizations. (I was driven around by a judge, who has no intention of returning to his former profession.)

For more than six months, the place has had not only no effective police, law or judges but also no government that Thomas Hobbes would recognize as such. Last month, the head of UNMIK, Bernard Kouchner, finally secured the agreement of his international masters in New York, and of the squabbling local Kosovar politicians, for a structure of interim administration, pending elections. Whether it will work remains to be seen.

The last century ended with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others proclaiming a broader lesson from Kosovo. The international community, in certain extreme cases, should intervene to restore an essential minimum of respect for human rights, the rule of law, good government and democracy. Friends of this principle call it liberal interventionism. Critics call it liberal imperialism. Looking at Kosovo today, the critics are gloating: See what a mess you get into when you try this thing!

Those of us who believe that such intervention is an important part of the more liberal world we should be trying to build in the 21st century can only tear at our hair and plead for the international community to do more. For, like it or not, Kosovo is a test case. If things go wrong here, we'll be that much less likely to attempt it anywhere else. Yet how much do you read in the newspapers about Kosovo today? How much do you see on television? Chechnya apparently precludes Kosovo. It's as if the whole world is like that American president who allegedly couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time.

There are various reasons why this historical experiment in the local application of world government has not gone well. For a start, you could hardly think of a more difficult place to try it. More than a third of the houses in Kosovo have been destroyed or damaged. It has taken a heroic effort of the international community to get a million people back to their homes, and at least halfway prepared for the freezing winter. Then there's the social and psychological devastation wrought by 10 years of oppression, followed by war, exile and return.

It is also difficult to find partners among the Kosovar Albanians. Five years ago, there was one well-established Kosovar unofficial structure, the Democratic League of Kosovo, committed to peaceful change. But with the war has come the KLA, believing it has the legitimacy of a victorious partisan army, and now building up its own Sinn Fein to take power by political means (helped by some strong-arm stuff by night). And the planned elections -- toward which liberal imperialists, unlike earlier ones, feel impelled to work -- will inevitably polarize rather than unite.

Then there is the desperate ambiguity of the UN Security Council resolution that forms the basis for the occupation. To secure Russian and Chinese support, this promised virginity and motherhood in one. Formally, the province is still under full Yugoslav sovereignty, yet, at the same time, it is meant to have far-reaching self-government. So every step to make the protectorate work -- a budget in German marks rather than Yugoslav dinars, customs duties, separate identity papers -- has to be wrangled over in New York. Then there is the sheer complexity of the undertaking, involving endless acronymic international organizations -- KFOR, UNMIK, UNHCR, OSCE, EU -- each with its own bureaucratic styles, institutional agendas and budget pressures. And behind that, of course, there are the myriad competing national interests. It needs an administrative genius to pull this together.

While Dr. Kouchner may be many good things -- passionate, eloquent -- I did not have the impression that he is an administrative genius. Even KFOR suffers from the competing pulls of the participating nations. Klaus Reinhardt, the impressive German general who has succeeded Sir Michael Jackson in overall command, tells me he has 34 nations in his force, "and don't think they do something just because I order them to." I enjoyed one headline in the KFOR Chronicle that read, "Greeks organize the chaos." Well, exactly.

Behind all this, lies the question of the political will of the major Western governments involved, and their reluctance to put their money where their mouth is. The critical failure to build up the international police, for example, results from individual governments being unwilling to contribute those police. (Dr. Kouchner, who asked for 6,000 police in July of 1999, observes bitterly that his own French government has not sent any civilian police.) The UN administration had to go round with a begging bowl to get the $250-million that it needs for its own central budget this year.

Of course, there are many competing priorities. All Africa cries, "What about us!" Chechnya holds the headlines. But whether or not we make a success of the peacetime administration of Kosovo will determine both history's judgment on NATO's first war, and the prospects for more such interventions in the 21st century. At the moment, we are throwing it away, for the price of a few days bombing. The West won the war. We are losing the peace.

Timothy Garton Ash is a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and the author of History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s.

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