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Kosovo Crisis Threatens NATO Expansion Goals

By Bruce Clark
Special to the Western Policy Center1

June 1998

The timing could hardly have been more unfortunate.

Just as the U.S. Senate was getting ready to proclaim a new era in European security, by voting to enlarge the Atlantic alliance, news came of a conflict in the Balkans that could make a mockery of NATO's claim to have turned the old continent into a broadening zone of stability.

The conflict, of course, is the one in Kosovo between that province's ethnic Albanian majority and the security forces of Serbia. The Western world's success or failure in containing the conflagration is not only crucial for the surrounding region but will also have an enormous effect on the credibility of the entire U.S.-led security system in Europe.

If Kosovo becomes the spark for a widening war, the enlargement of NATO in north-central Europe could become an embarrassing irrelevance.

In political terms, NATO's expansion was made possible, and perhaps inevitable, by the success of U.S.-led efforts to terminate the conflict in Bosnia. For much of the period from 1992 to 1995 when that war was raging, policy differences among the leading Western powers made it doubtful whether the alliance would survive, let alone expand.

But as soon as the fighting stopped, Western policy in Bosnia became a more or less happy bandwagon onto which all European countries, including the candidates for NATO membership, were eager to jump.

Some European nations may have had private qualms about the methods used to impose peace in Bosnia: essentially NATO air power plus Croatian and Bosnian land offensives that displaced hundreds of thousands more people and "tidied up the map." But all these doubts were swallowed in the face of the indisputable fact that a new state of affairs had been created in Bosnia, with which all sides could grudgingly live.

In addition to reinvigorating NATO, the settlement in Bosnia had other important side effects. It increased U.S. influence over European defense, highlighting the principle that no important project can succeed without American leadership.

Russian influence in the former Yugoslavia, which was still powerful as late as spring 1995, has receded rapidly. From the U.S. viewpoint, the Bosnian settlement was a spectacular reaffirmation of Uncle Sam's indispensability and, better still, it offered the hope of a steady reduction in the U.S. burden as peace gradually took hold.

All these developments could be reversed if the worst scenarios came to pass in Kosovo. The one that looms largest is the disintegration of the neighboring state that is still known by the United Nations, at Greek insistence, as the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

That country's ethnic Albanian community, which officially makes up 23 percent of the population but claims to account for at least 35 percent, has been radicalized by the Kosovo events. The community may soon be swollen by an influx of refugees from Kosovo, increasing the chances of a clash between ethnic Albanians and the Slav majority.

The current moderate government of Albania may be unable to restrain its well-armed population from joining the fray. Turkey, which has recently been promoting the idea of a "Bulgaria-Macedonia-Albania trade corridor" and cultivating ties with those three countries, may not remain indifferent. And the nightmare at the back of every Balkan policymaker's mind is a direct clash between NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

As the risk of a breakdown in the European security system looms for the second time in a decade, what lessons can be gleaned from the Bosnian conflict?

For those with an interest in avoiding the worst - and that must be almost everybody - perhaps the first lesson is the absolute need for unity of purpose in the international community. The participants in Balkan conflicts are highly practiced at exploiting the slightest difference between outside powers attempting to influence their region.

It may often be tempting for an individual European country to differentiate its position in the hope of gaining diplomatic or commercial advantage. But if this reduces the prospects for putting effective, concerted pressure on the parties, then any such advantage will be short-lived.

What, in this context, does unity of purpose mean? It means that NATO's 16 members, and ideally the other European states including Russia, should take a firm, identical line on the sort of outcome in Kosovo that would be acceptable. They should present the parties with an agreed list of warnings and inducements designed to bring about this outcome. In fact, the broad parameters of this outcome are being sketched out already: a form of self-rule by the Kosovo Albanians that stops short, but perhaps only marginally short, of outright secession.

Few people are saying so, but it is the second half of this formula - a solution stopping short of secession - which may be hardest to achieve. However single-minded and indifferent to international pressure it may be, Serbia's bid to regain control over Kosovo is unlikely to succeed in the medium term.

The harder Belgrade hits, the tougher the resistance will grow. For precisely this reason, the really hard challenge will be to ensure that the new Yugoslav state - Serbia (including Kosovo) plus Montenegro - retains at least a fig leaf of territorial integrity.

Many people will ask whether it is worth the effort to keep Serbia together as a legal and diplomatic entity if its Albanian community has de facto seceded. The answer, of course, is that, if the new Yugoslav state is allowed to break up, there is no reason why Bosnia - or several other of the region's rickety nations - should remain intact.

Having failed to stop or even cushion the disintegration of Tito's Yugoslavia, the Western world still has an interest in preventing the defunct communist state's constituent republics from shattering. Unless, perhaps, an exception is made for breakups on the Czechoslovak model: peacefully and by consent, through euthanasia rather than murder.

1 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.