What it's all about in Kosovo

April 29, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Serbs, with some honorable exceptions, seem unable to concede that the cause of their war with NATO is not the goals they have for the Serbian nation, but how they have gone about getting what they want.

The Western powers have defended Kosovo autonomy, not its independence. They have now set peace terms that logically imply independence -- withdrawal of all Serb forces and installation of a foreign troop presence -- because President Slobodan Milosevic's program to expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo has left them no alternative.

Serbia revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. When that inevitably produced demands for national independence and the creation of a "liberation army," Serbia made the infamous decision to terrorize, expel or murder a sufficient number of Kosovar Albanians to rectify the demographic balance.

Serb problems

The West also acknowledged Serbia's earlier problem with Croatian and Slovenian secession from Tito's Yugoslavia. Serbia's position was comprehensible, and the problems were potentially negotiable. The United States firmly backed Belgrade's position on maintaining the federation. Although Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991, the U.S. and the European Union did not recognize them until the beginning of 1992.

The urgent Serb concern was what would happen to the long-established Serb community in eastern Croatia. Once the Slovenes had successfully resisted federal military intervention, the Milosevic government let Slovenia go. There were no Serbs there.

In Croatia, there were more than 500,000 Serbs. Once again, the problems were potentially solvable. The European Union intervened, but with measures that failed to stop the drift toward war. Croatia's leaders, like Serbia's, had whipped up ethnic passions and resurrected ancient hatreds.

Belgrade backed the Krajina Serbs' campaign to intimidate and "ethnically cleanse" Croatians from the region of Croatia, where Serbs were in the majority. They laid siege to the ancient city of Vulkovar and eventually destroyed it. The Belgrade authorities had created and backed a secessionist movement that succeeded through terrorism and atrocities against civilians.

The same thing followed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When Sarajevo declared Bosnian independence, Serb forces seized two-thirds of the country, expelling the Moslem population.

Once again the Serbs had a tenable argument: They said that the Serbs in Bosnia who did not want to live in a predominantly Moslem state should be free to join Serbia. But the methods by which they attempted to achieve this goal were atrocious.

This is why the democracies condemned the Serbs and defended the Bosnians. The Serbs practiced systematic ethnic persecution while the Muslim majority in Bosnia was defending, at least in principle, a secular and non-ethnic state -- a Western democracy.

The West has become the enemy of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia because his government's response to each of the challenges presented it since 1991 has been atrocious violence against civilians.

If Belgrade had sought Western support in searching for peaceful solutions to its problems, it would have found it. The Western reproach to the Serbs is that in their failed attempt to unite the Serbian people in a single country, they have murdered their ethnic rivals, or humiliated them through rape and expulsion.

Serbia is hated today for what it has done, not for what it has wanted. Serbs must grasp this if they are to emerge from this crisis successfully.

After the West's experience in the world wars, it can no longer tolerate murder, terrorism, rape, pillage and deportation as instruments of government.

That is why NATO must not negotiate any settlement with the present Serbian government that falls short of the demands made when the NATO intervention began: withdrawal of all Serb forces from Kosovo, return of all the refugees, installation of a foreign armed force in Kosovo to guarantee the Kosovars' security (as well as the security of those Serbs who may wish to remain in Kosovo).

Anything less would ratify the methods by which Serbia has waged its wars against its fellow members of the old Yugoslavia.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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