In Kosovo, indecision feeds the Dogs of WarBy STEVEN ERLANGER
February 20, 2000
PRAGUE -- Kosovska Mitrovica is the divided town in northern Kosovo where Serbia effectively begins. In the last three weeks, long-festering tensions between Serbs to the north of the Ibar River and Albanians to the south have burst into violence that international peacekeepers have only slowly managed to control -- after they, too, became targets.
Mitrovica, as the town is more familiarly known, is a mess, but the reasons go deeper than any tactical mistake by civilian or military authorities. Mitrovica marks the effective political and ethnic partition of Kosovo, and its problems explain why true peace looks so far away, even eight months after NATO took control of the province.
The biggest problem is that so much was left unresolved when NATO troops arrived. The troops were on the ground, but their governments squabbled over how Kosovo would be run, over how it would be financed and even over the ideals that would shape the new protectorate: Would it be a safe harbor for Albanians, heading toward independence, or a multiethnic, autonomous province that would stay in Yugoslavia?
With much in the air, facts on the ground tended to define everything. And those facts included the persistence of organized Albanian revenge to drive out the Serbs; the Serb flight out of the province or into small ethnic enclaves; the emergence of Mitrovica as the largest Serb enclave, the real border between Serbian and Albanian control; and the presence of French troops, who are historically sympathetic to the Serbs, in charge of Mitrovica and northern Kosovo.
If Mitrovica was some form of wake-up call, it rang long ago. In November, senior United Nations and Western officials said Mitrovica was unstable and marked the effective partition of Kosovo, proof that the NATO-led peacekeeping troops known as KFOR had not extended their authority throughout the province. They said Mitrovica's division would allow Serbia to destabilize Kosovo, served as a touchstone for organized Albanian rage and risked formalizing an ethnic separation similar to Bosnia's.
In December, senior American officials talked of the urgent need to get more police in, to break the ethnic barrier and to internationalize the KFOR unit. Soon KFOR would be seen as the enemy, they said.
But the warnings were not heeded and the good intentions proved impossible to carry out, given the haphazardly built United Nations administration of Kosovo, the national pride of the KFOR members and the failure of the victors to provide the money and trained personnel to win the peace.
The problems began at the beginning. The war with Serbia lasted longer than Western officials thought it would and then, paradoxically, it ended sooner than they had imagined it could. Washington and NATO were not, at first, prepared to fight the war. Then the winners were not ready to rule Kosovo.
The result has been an administration that has had little chance of securing noble but contradictory goals of a multiethnic, stable, secure, democratic, self-governing but not-quite-independent Kosovo.
After a bitter debate about who should rule Kosovo, the United Nations was extremely slow to set up shop. Worse, the very countries that fought to make this protectorate possible still have not provided the trained police and funding they promised.
There were plenty of KFOR troops to occupy Kosovo in June, but policing it was among their last priorities. They were interested first in their own protection, making sure all Mr. Milosevic's troops and security forces left on schedule. They were worried, second, about attacks on themselves by angry, armed Serb civilians. They were enraptured by the reception they received from grateful ethnic Albanians who had lived through murder, rape and expulsion.
But they were not prepared for any discussion of Albanian revenge organized by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The protection of Serb civilians and holy places was not high on KFOR's list of priorities.
Some senior United Nations officials suggested that Gen. Mike Jackson of Britain, KFOR's first commander, judged that if fewer Serbs stayed, Kosovo would be easier to secure.
KFOR did nothing to stop the exodus of Serbs -- not even to look for possible war criminals among them. The general attitude was captured in a British headline: "Serbs you right."
So when early violence broke out in Mitrovica between Serbs who had seized the areas north of the Ibar River and Albanians to the south, outnumbered French troops stopped their own advance and held the bridges, sealing the town's division.
General Jackson and the French commanders did nothing to break the stalemate, and the ethnic separation became nearly complete this month when at least 1,000 ethnic Albanians were driven from northern Mitrovica. Now the remaining Albanian families in the north have KFOR guards, just like the few Serbs left in Pristina.
The Albanians are furious because KFOR has not given them freedom of movement. They fear they will never control the area in and around the Trepca mine complex; both sides believe this is the richest part of Kosovo, the heart of any future state, and the Serbs intend to hold it.
Meanwhile, Belgrade helps to organize the Serb resistance in Mitrovica. And as soon as Serb leaders in Kosovo began to talk seriously about joining the United Nations administrator Bernard Kouchner and Albanian politicians on an executive council for Kosovo, Mitrovica exploded. At least 11 people died, most of them Albanian.
However manipulated, it is also true that this round of violence began with an attack on a United Nations bus ferrying Serbs and guarded front and back by KFOR, followed by a bombing in a Serb cafe in Mitrovica.
The attacks set off the exact results desired by extremists on both sides.
General Jackson's successor, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, has given KFOR more police duties and has used the violence to add German, Italian and British forces to the French. More attention is being paid to the fomenting of violence by Albanians.
But military fatigue is becoming obvious. Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained to Congress last week that KFOR is "marking time" waiting for the civilians to catch up.
Mr. Kouchner has found words to describe the Kosovo dilemma: "Give security a chance, then we'll give peace a chance. Eventually, we'll give reconciliation a chance." That's a far cry from the lofty goals of the West when it entered Kosovo eight months ago. And it means Western troops there for a very long time to come.