From Kosovo to Bosnia and Back

Balkans warprints
From Kosovo to Bosnia and Back - Pierre Hassner

Since 1991, a saying has repeatedly come up in conversations in the former Yugoslavia: "The war has started in Kosovo and will end in Kosovo." It is indeed true that the immediate source of the war was Milosevic's pledge to the Serbs in 1987 and his suppression of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. While war and ethnic cleansing were raging first in Croatia, then in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo has remained deceptively quiet. The time was bound to come, however, when the Albanian population would no longer accept the immobile strategy of its leader, Ibrahim Rugova, based on non-violence and the building of an alternative society, but also on an intransigent demand for independence under a temporary international protectorate. Now the time of both violent confrontation and negotiation has come. The adversarial parties, as well as the outside powers, look to the lessons of Bosnia.

Indeed, there are obvious differences, namely, the much greater homogeneity of Kosovo, where the Albanians are an overwhelming majority, their even greater weakness vis-a-vis the Serbs, and the greater difficulty of finding military help and diplomatic support from outside. Yet, there are also many similarities: the contradiction between the principles of self-determination and of the inviolability of borders, the impossibility of clearly separating civil and inter-state war, and negotiation and military force (meaningful negotiations took place in Bosnia only when the balance was re-established by the Croatian and Bosnian offensive, the American bombing and the Franco-British Rapid Reaction Force). Similarly, the logic of escalation and that of negotiation are both at work between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. Student demonstrations and violent actions of the mysterious "Kosovo Liberation Army" have done more in a few weeks to hasten negotiations than Rugova' s policy of relying exclusively on the good will of the International Community during the last nine years. But, they may also, by leading to Serb repression and Albanian popular mobilizations make the same negotiation impossible for a long time if outside powers are unable to stop the violence and pressure both sides into meaningful talks.

In this limited space, I would like to stress only two slightly less obvious lessons from Bosnia: the problem of different time-scales and the uses and abuses of ambiguity. In Bosnia, the outside world was extremely slow in. responding meaningfully, but, once it did, its main preoccupation was with deadlines and exit strategies. The slow timing of international decision-making and action contrasted with the quick timing of escalation on the ground. But after the peace was signed, the reality of supposed domestic pressures for a quick pull-out of American forces contrasted with the slow timing of economic, social, political and moral reconstruction and reconciliation on the ground. In Kosovo the international community has waited far too long (nine interminable years) before intervening. Once violence erupted it has been much quicker to react than in Bosnia; but, like there, the international community must realize that a real solution must take years and years of presence and pressure.

The same paradox applies to ambiguity. The lack of clarity and credibility of the declaratory policy of Europe, the United States and the United Nations has led to illusions on the Bosnian side about international intervention and to parallel illusions of omnipotence and impunity on the part of the Serbs. Yet the main virtue of the Dayton Agreement is its ambiguity: today Bosnia-Herzegovina is living under a contradictory regime which can be characterized as "half-partition" (prompted by local elites) and "half-protectorate" (prompted by the High Representative Mr. Westendorf and the United States). Similarly, in Kosovo, the ambiguity of international declarations that violence and ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated is extremely harmful; but the future status of Kosovo can only be based on ambiguity (for instance an independent Kosovo republic but within the Yugoslav federation), which is the only way of reconciling, at least for a time, the opposite claims and interpretations of the parties in the conflict.

Pierre Hassner is Senior Professorial Lecturer in European Politics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Research Director at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Fondation National des Sciences Politiques, Paris, and Professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, also in Paris.