Back to the Brink In the Balkans - 2007

It's brewing again. Whether Kosovo gains its independence or not, it will be a win-win situation for Moscow. Moscow has made it clear that independence for Kosovo will ultimately translate as independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I believe this will also have a positive effect on the political status of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh Republic) as well. Also, with Kosovo independent, I believe Serbia will be further pushed into the Russian camp. And more-and-more nations will wake up to the hard reality of Western style politics. Nonetheless, if Moscow succeeds somehow in blocking Kosovo's independence it will reap immense geopolitical benefits as well. I see how an independent Kosovo and a weak Serbia (and of course a weak Russia) will in the long-term serve western interests in Europe. However at what expense is the West willing to attempt this? I can't figure out the real reasons behind why the West is strongly pushing this volatile issue at such a volatile time. Are they seeking armed conflict in Europe again? Are they attempting to force Russia to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Are they attempting to make Moscow more hard-line in its dealings with the West? Why not just leave Kosovo's status as is? I just can't figure out their end game. Why are they doing this, and why now?



Back to the Brink In the Balkans


At a most inopportune time, the Balkans are back. On Dec. 10, the U.S.-E.U.-Russian negotiating team tasked with getting the Serbs and Albanians to agree on Kosovo's future status will report to the United Nations that it has failed. A few weeks later Kosovo's government will proclaim that Kosovo is an independent nation -- a long overdue event. The United States and most of the European Union (led by Britain, France and Germany) will recognize Kosovo quickly. Russia and its allies will not. Kosovo's eight-year run as the biggest-ever U.N. project will end with great tension and a threat of violence that could spread to Bosnia. Because security in Kosovo is NATO's responsibility, there is an urgent need to beef up the NATO presence before this diplomatic train wreck. Just the thought of sending additional American troops into the region must horrify the Bush administration. Yet its hesitations and neglect helped create this dilemma -- which Russia has exploited.

There is more bad news, virtually unnoticed, from nearby Bosnia. Exactly 12 years after the Dayton peace agreement ended the war in Bosnia, Serb politicians, egged on by Moscow and Belgrade, are threatening that if Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia, then the Serb portion of Bosnia will declare its independence. Such unilateral secession, strictly forbidden under Dayton, would endanger the more than 150,000 Muslims who have returned there. Recent American diplomacy led by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and special envoy Frank Wisner, working closely with E.U. negotiator Wolfgang Ischinger, has largely succeeded in persuading most of our European allies to recognize Kosovo rapidly. But NATO has not yet faced the need to reinforce its presence in Kosovo. Nor has serious transatlantic discussion begun on Bosnia, even though Charles English, the American ambassador in Sarajevo, and Raffi Gregorian, the deputy high representative in Bosnia, have warned of the danger. "Bosnia's very survival could be determined in the next few months if not the next few weeks," Gregorian told Congress this month. Virtually no one paid any attention.

The icing on the cake? Russia has threatened to link the Kosovo issue to the claims of two rebellious areas of far-away Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These issues had seemed largely resolved in the late 1990s. For such extensive backsliding to occur took a poisonous combination of bad American decisions, European neglect and Russian aggressiveness. When Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in September 2000 and a reformist government took over, the road seemed open to a reasonably rapid resolution of Kosovo's final status. But the new Bush team hated anything it had inherited from Bill Clinton -- even (perhaps especially) his greatest successes -- and made no effort to advance policy in Kosovo until 2005 and ignored Bosnia. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even sought to pull American troops out of the NATO command in Kosovo, which Secretary of State Colin Powell prevented. (However, the State Department did not prevent Rumsfeld from prematurely turning the NATO command in Bosnia over to a weak E.U. Force, a terrible mistake.)

By the time meaningful diplomatic efforts started in 2006, the reformist prime minister in Belgrade had been assassinated by ultranationalists. And Vladimir Putin decided to reenter the Balkans with a dramatic policy shift: No longer would Russia cooperate with Washington and Brussels in the search for a peaceful compromise, as it had in 1995 when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin sat on the hillside at Hyde Park and reached a historic agreement to put Russian troops under NATO command. Today, Putin seeks to reassert Russia's role as a regional hegemon. He is not trying to start another Cold War, but he craves international respect, and the Balkans, neglected by a Bush administration retreating from its European security responsibilities, are a tempting target.

Putin was hardly quiet about this; I watched him bluntly warn German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and delegates to the Munich security conference in February that Russia would not agree to any Kosovo settlement that Belgrade opposed. There was a vague feeling in Washington and Brussels that Putin was bluffing -- and no real planning in case Putin meant it. Not only did he mean it, Putin upped the ante by extending his reach into the Serb portion of Bosnia. Using some of his petrodollars, Putin turned its mildly pro-Western leader, Milorad Dodik, into a nasty nationalist who began threatening secession. The vaunted Atlantic alliance has yet to address this problem at a serious policy level-- even though, as Gregorian warned, it could explode soon after Kosovo declares independence. The window of opportunity for a soft landing in Kosovo closed in 2004. Still, Bush should make one last, personal effort with Putin. His efforts must be backed by temporary additional troop deployments in the region. It is not too late to prevent violence, but it will take American-led action and time is running out.


Kosovo: Armed for independence

With both outlawed ethnic Albanian and Serbian paramilitary units armed and patrolling the borders in Kosovo and Macedonia ahead of the official end of internationally mediated talks on Kosovo's status on 10 December, renewed conflict seems inevitable. Frustrated with the stalemate over the status of Serbia's province of Kosovo, outlawed ethnic Albanian and Serbian paramilitary units have begun patrolling the area "defending borders" - not only in Kosovo, but in Macedonia as well, confirming fears of a renewal of armed conflict. With the latest round of negotiations between Kosovo Albanians and Serbia having failed and independence prolonged due never-ending disputes among western countries and Russia, it seems that Kosovo and Macedonian war veterans view another armed conflict as the best and perhaps only solution. In mid-October, the outlawed Albanian National Army (ANA) began openly patrolling towns in northern Kosovo on the Serbia border, establishing checkpoints on Kosovo's important highways, inspecting passing vehicles. They claim that patrolling the provincial towns and roads represent a preventive measure to thwart a potential Serb incursion into the area.

Meanwhile, Kosovo Serb minority representatives say that the ANA is planning attacks on their enclaves in the province. The Serb National Council (SNV) of Northern Kosovo said it had information that the ANA was planning an attack on the Serb part of the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica. A quick reaction to these claims came from the recently founded "Tsar Lazar's Guard," a group that also, according to Kosovo media, has organized patrols in Serbia, near the Kosovo border. Media quoted local residents as saying that they had seen groups of uniformed and armed men in the area. In May, the Movement of Veterans of Serbia (PVS) - a minor extremist party with a single seat in the Serbian parliament - organized the Tsar Lazar's Guard paramilitary unit, comprised of war veterans from across Serbia who fought in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the 1990s. The unit is said to have 5,000 troops. Symbolically, the group was named after a Serbian noble who fought and died at the Battle of Kosovo in1389. Dozens of veterans pledged their allegiance to the unit in the Serbian city of Krusevac, promising to fight to the death to prevent Kosovo from being handed over to ethnic Albanians.

The international community has listed both the ANA and Tsar Lazar's Guard as terrorist groups. So far, there have been no reports that two units have clashed. However, they blame each other for provocations in the form of launching border patrols. The ANA says it is certain that Serbia will invade Kosovo again, and this time they will be prepared, while Tsar Lazar's Guard" is calling for protection of the Serbian minority there. Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, following a NATO bombing campaign that drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing. Several rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Vienna since February 2006 achieved little result, with the Serbian and Kosovo delegations refusing to budge from their original positions. Some 100,000 Serbs live in separate areas guarded by NATO peacekeepers in the restive province. Serbian officials estimate that about 200,000 Serbs have left their homes over the past seven years and settled in Serbia proper and throughout the Europe.

Propensity for violence

The UN and NATO see the ANA as a loosely organized terrorist group comprised of people who have shown in the past their propensity for brutal violence that does not have the backing of the majority of local people. Serbian and Kosovo media speculate that the ANA now has over 12,000 members, including intellectuals, students, farmers and former fighters all frustrated with provincial "leadership's soft approach regarding independence talks." The group grew out of the insurgent Macedonian ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), whose former commanders are now members of the Macedonian parliament, and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA,) whose commanders are now ruling Kosovo. Neither Kosovo nor Macedonian ethnic Albanian leaders openly support the ANA's goals and have distanced themselves from the groups. The ANA, formed after the 2001 peace framework in Macedonia, calls for the unification of ethnic Albanian areas of the Western Balkans, including the western part of Macedonia and southern Serbia, and currently operates in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Only the Serbian Defense Ministry responded to the ANA's claims, saying that the Serbian Army would respond "at the speed of lightning" to any attempts of violence in the country's south. The NLA, whose political leaders have been damned as traitors by the ANA, launched a rebellion against Macedonian forces in January 2001, demanding greater rights for the republic's 25 percent ethnic Albanian minority. But the group, who controlled a swathe of territory along Macedonia's northern and western borders with Kosovo and Albania, laid down its weapons, gave up secession and signed a peace agreement with the Macedonian government. After the deal was inked, NATO in August 2001 sent in some 3,500 troops to conduct operation "Essential Harvest," with the goal of disarming the NLA and destroying its weapons. During the 30-day mission, NATO troops, with logistical support from Macedonian forces, confiscated more than 3,800 rifles, mortars, howitzers and a tank from ethnic Albanian rebels.

However, the signing of the peace agreement did not satisfy some radical ethnic Albanians, who continued with a small-scale armed rebellion. Since late 2001, the ANA has claimed responsibility for at least a dozen attacks on government infrastructure, including courts, the transportation network and former interior minister Ljube Boskoski, who is currently on trial for war crimes against Albanians committed in 2001. The clashes between Macedonian security forces and the ANA have intensified since August, when ethnic Albanians attacked a police station and police patrols near the border with Kosovo, the stronghold of Albanian guerrillas during the 2001 conflict. Then in early November, Macedonian security forces launched operation "Mountain Storm," clashing with ANA militants, though Macedonian officials said that the operation was carried out against alleged armed Albanian criminals, not insurgents.

After the operation, a until now unknown Kosovo-based "Political Advisory Body of the Kosovo Liberation Army" issued a statement taking responsibility for the shootout, claiming that its members were forced to "protect endangered Albanian nationals in the Serbia-Macedonia region." Police said eight gunmen were killed and 12 others arrested, while an impressive amount of weapons were seized. KFOR, NATO's 16,000-strong force in Kosovo, has increased its troop level on the Kosovo side of the border since the start of the Macedonian operation. However, ethnic Albanian Macedonian lawmaker Rafiz Aliti, former NLA commander and an official from the opposition Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party, told parliament earlier this month that not only Macedonian security forces were involved in the clashes, but some paramilitary units as well. He said that villagers witnessed that some involved in operation "Mountain Storm" were speaking Serbian and had uniforms that some recognized as those worn by Tsar Lazar's Guard.

Insurgency inevitable

Whichever decision is made regarding Kosovo's status, whether the province is granted independence or not, the authorities will have difficulty preventing ethnic insurgency. In interviews with western media outlets, unnamed diplomats involved in the status process admit that some level of armed conflict is inevitable, but hope that KFOR will manage to control it. If independence is granted, there is a fear that Serbian paramilitary forces could intervene under the guise of protecting the Serb minority. On the other hand, Albanians will settle for nothing less then full independence, and their frustration will be taken out on the Serb minority and the international community if their demands are not met. Tsar Lazar's Guard has threatened to attack UN and NATO forces and buildings in Kosovo if the province is granted independence from Serbia. At the same time, the ANA has already claimed responsibility for several attacks against Macedonian government institutions since 2002 and attacks on UN and Serb enclaves in Kosovo, and anything short of independence will likely result in more attacks. On 21 November, commander of Tsar Lazar's Guard, Hadzi Andrej Milic, sent invitations to Serbian lawmakers to go to the war. He informed Serbian lawmakers that "members of the unit would gather on November 28th at Merdare, the administrative border crossing to Kosovo, to set up their headquarters in order to symbolically start the new war for the liberation of Kosovo."



Serbia warns it will never accept "illegal and rogue" Kosovo before final talks round

Serbia's prime minister said Sunday the country will never recognize an "illegal and rogue" independent Kosovo, while the province's leader vowed to declare independence. The hard-line positions suggest neither side is ready to compromise during a final round of talks on the future of the province. Serb and Albanian delegations are to meet Monday in Baden, Austria, for a three-day attempt at narrowing differences. The negotiations so far have produced no agreement. Mediators from the United States, the EU and Russia are to report to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by Dec. 10 about the process. In recent meetings, leaders of the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo have rejected even considering anything short of independence, while Serbia refuses to let go of its separatist region. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said Serbia will never recognize an independent Kosovo, calling it "an illegal and rogue creation."

"Serbia will show that unilateral independence means absolutely nothing," he said. Kosovo's outgoing Prime Minister, Agim Ceku, told reporters the conclusion of the talks would lead to the province's independence, which he said should be declared before the end of the year. "This marks the end to a long and difficult process that will undoubtedly result with Kosovo's independence," Ceku said before leaving for Austria. "Big decisions await us and we need to be ready to make them."

"I can guarantee you that nobody can impose upon us anything less than independence," Ceku said.

The United States and its allies have backed independence for Kosovo, suggesting they might recognize the region as an independent nation if talks with Serbia fail altogether. Russia, however, has backed Serbia in its efforts to keep Kosovo. Kostunica said "a recognition by America or any other country cannot change anything and turn an illegal act into a normal and regular thing." Kosovo formally is part of Serbia, although Belgrade has had no authority over the region since 1999, when a NATO bombing forced Serbia to end a crackdown against the Kosovo separatists and pull its troops out. The province has been run by the United Nations and NATO since June 1999. President Boris Tadic said Belgrade believes that a compromise is possible, and will again present a proposal for what he termed "essential autonomy" for Kosovo. "We are going there fully convinced that we are right, and we will defend our position very firmly and carefully," he said.


The Dangers of Kosovo

As negotiations go nowhere fast, an independent Kosovo is widely being accepted as inevitable. But the consequences will be far-reaching, not just for the Balkans, but for the EU, the UN and relations between the West and Russia. If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, then the way to political irrelevance may well be paved with pointless negotiations that everyone knows will fail. That, at least, seems to be the lesson of the ongoing "final status" negotiations on the future of Kosovo. On the one hand, the international troika, made up of mediators from the United States, Russia and the European Union, remain outwardly committed to helping Kosovo and Serbia find a solution to their ongoing stalemate. On the other hand, with the talks set to end on December 10, nobody really believes that success is possible anymore. And posturing for what comes next has already begun.

"There is an overall atmosphere of resignation that troika-like negotiation processes are no longer going to work," Alex Anderson, Kosovo project director for the International Crisis Group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "These talks have largely been a process to enable the European Union to adapt to the coming Kosovo situation." Few have any illusions about what that situation might look like. Kosovo has remained nominally part of Serbia since the war ended in 1999, but the small, ethnic-Albanian province has long made it clear it will be happy with nothing short of independence. Both the EU and the US have been supportive of that ultimate goal. Serbia, though, refuses to give up control of Kosovo and has consistently been backed by Russia. Kosovo's potential United Nations path to independence -- as outlined by special envoy Martti Ahtisaari this spring -- has been blocked by Russia's Security Council veto.

Absolutely No Alternatives

Now, with former rebel leader Hasham Thaci winning elections in Kosovo last Saturday, it is no longer a question of whether Kosovo will declare unilateral independence. It has become a question of when. "Our vision and our stance are very clear," said Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu following the most recent meeting of the troika on Tuesday. "It's the independence of Kosovo and its recognition. There are absolutely no alternatives." So what happens next? Europe, at the moment, is frantically looking for an answer to that question.

The West has urged Thaci not to declare independence immediately following the end of talks on Dec. 10 -- and he appears to be willing to listen. Anderson, from the International Crisis Group, thinks that Thaci will only act in concert with Washington and Brussels. But Europe itself is divided on the issue. While Brussels has supported an independent Kosovo and is even helping the province build up state-like institutions, many EU members that have their own minorities, like Cyprus and Romania, are reluctant to recognize a separatist state. Still, they may not have much time to figure it out. Once the talks fail, "the Albanians in Kosovo will declare independence within a month," Richard Holbrooke, the former US envoy who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war in Bosnia, told German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday. "It is clear that Russia won't recognize them. There is great danger that violence will result."



Russia says Kosovo could trigger "chain reaction"

Russia warned the West on Monday that recognizing a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by Kosovo could set off a "chain reaction" of problems in the Balkans and beyond. Russia, which has backed its ally Serbia over the status of the breakaway Serbian province, would also demand that any unilateral declaration be rescinded. "I want to stress that UDI of Kosovo and recognition of such independence will not remain without consequences," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Nicosia. "It will create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world," he said, speaking through an interpreter after talks with Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Kosovo with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone on Monday, Russian news agencies reported, quoting the Kremlin press service. The talks came on the day mediation efforts between Serbia and Kosovo Albanian leaders officially expired and after Kosovo Albanians said they would start immediate talks with Western backers about an independence declaration. Russian mediator Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko spelt out the tougher diplomatic line from Moscow.

"Unilateral declaration of independence would constitute a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In this case Russia will demand that such a decision be cancelled, be annulled," the envoy said of the existing U.N. resolution governing international action in Kosovo. Russia, which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has already blocked one Western-backed independence plan. Washington and almost all EU member states support Kosovo's independence from Serbia as the best option for stability in the Balkans and leaders of Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority say they will declare it within months. Without approval from the UN, any decision would not be legitimate, Botsan-Kharchenko said. "There are no other legal grounds. Any interpretations of Resolution 1244 on Kosovo are preposterous."


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

To limit clutter in the comments section, I kindly ask all participants of this blog to please keep comments coherent and strictly relevant to the featured topic of discussion. Moreover, please realize that when there are several anonymous visitors posting comments simultaneously, it becomes very confusing (not to mention extremely annoying) trying to figure out who is who and who said what.Therefore, if you are here to engage in conversation, make an observation, express an idea or simply attack me, I ask you to at least use a moniker to identify yourself. Moreover, please appreciate the fact that I have put an enormous amount of information into this blog. In my opinion, most of my blog commentaries and articles, some going back ten-plus years, are in varying degrees relevant to this day and will remain so for a long time to come. Articles in this blog can therefore be revisited by longtime readers and new comers alike. I therefore ask the reader to treat this blog as a depository of important information relating to Eurasian geopolitics, Russian-Armenian relations and humanity's historic fight against the evils of Globalism and Westernization.

Thank you as always for reading.