An "Idealist" Formula for Kosovo
By Sabrina P. Ramet

The war in Kosovo has once again divided liberal-realists and liberal-idealists and, as is ever the case, the would-be "realists" offer unrealistic and dangerous advice.

"Realists", who would be more accurately called "materialistic isolationists", want to avoid any entanglement in foreign lands except where the flow of vital commodities is directly threatened (oil and chrome being the commodities most frequently cited by "realists"). Under the slogan: "we are not the world's policeman", they advocate the abnegation of any U.S. responsibilities within NATO, or even the abolition of NATO altogether. Other "realists" look to volatile Russia to rescue NATO from its conflict with Yugoslavia, though it is Yugoslavia, not NATO, which is sliding down to defeat. Almost all "realists" dismiss morality as an irrelevant criterion for political action.

Liberal-idealists, however, emphasize the universality of the liberal dream, the universality of human rights and duties, and the danger which tyrannical systems pose not only to their own populations, but also to the international community more broadly. For liberal-idealists, thus, the moral imperative to fight tyranny is clear and ineluctable. Unless we are prepared to shrug off our 200-year-old commitment to the liberal-democratic order and embrace the dubious notion that repression is a matter of indifference, the imperative to press the campaign until Miloševic falls from power is clear.

The West has indulged, for too long, in illusions that Miloševic is the "key" to peace in the Balkans. The truth is exactly the reverse: Miloševic and his nationalist collaborators are the reason for the never-ending crisis. Only their removal and the establishment of a liberal order in Belgrade can bring genuine peace to the region. Nor should we imagine that all Serbs are somehow rallying to Miloševic. His critics may be quiet for now, but they are still there, and at least some of them are anti-nationalist liberals at heart.

Three and a half years ago, when the Dayton Peace Accords were being drawn up, there might still have been time to "save" Kosovo for Serbia. But that time has passed. The atrocities committed by Serbian forces since the spring 1998, and intensifying in December (three months before the NATO strikes began) have been so brutal, so cruel, so widespread that it will take at least two generations to heal the psychological wounds that have been inflicted. In the meantime, however much we may want to encourage multiculturalism, the continued subordination of Albanians to a Serb national state must be considered at best a dangerous idea. An independent Kosovo has become, at this point, a practical and moral necessity. One may hope, of course, that non-nationalist Serbs wishing to live in peace in an independent Republic of Kosovo will be welcomed by local Albanians, but the Rambouillet formula of restoring Kosovo's autonomy within a tyrannical Serbia, was a bad idea to begin with.

The Rambouillet formula was, in fact, a typical "realist" formula, tinkering with the problems, rather than solving them. The very formula of an autonomous zone within a tyrannical system involves at least two self-contradictions. First, the notion that a group of people enjoys a right to autonomy within a tyrannical system entails the absurd notion that people may have a "right" even a "duty" to live under a tyranny, a notion that flies in the face of classical liberalism. Second, any autonomous arrangement can only be founded upon the mutual goodwill and mutual trust between the parties to the arrangement; yet these dispositions are most obviously lacking between Albanians and Serbs.

NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade has, without question, complicated the diplomatic context. It is essential that the NATO powers enter into a dialogue with Beijing on this matter, and that the U.S. offers financial compensation to the Chinese for damages. At the same time it would be ill advised for NATO to allow this incident to deflect it from the imperative of removing the nationalists from power in Belgrade.

There are several miscalculations which NATO ministers need to avoid in the coming months:

  1. Do not rely exclusively on NATO ground troops to clear Kosovo of Serbian forces. It is imperative that the KLA forces be trained and supplied with appropriate weaponry so that they might play a role in this. KLA troops are highly motivated, and know the terrain all too well.
  2. Do not trust any peace offers from Miloševic. Miloševic's regime has been tyrannical in nature, and only the collapse of his regime can be counted as a satisfactory outcome.
  3. Do not allow nationalists to sit in a post-Miloševic government. The problem which has bedeviled the region for more than a decade is Serbian nationalism. Only the replacement of the nationalists by local liberals can offer the prospect of real peace.
  4. Do not be misled by Serb talk about the medieval Serbian State being centered in Kosovo or about historic monasteries. Greece has learned to live without Constantinople and western Anatolia (in spite of Prime Minister Venizelos' efforts to annex those regions after World War One). Russia has learned to live without Kiev (the capital of the medieval Kievan Russian State). Germany has learned to live without Breslau (Wroclaw), Danzig (Gdansk), and Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad). Democracy should respect the wishes of the living, not the preferences of by-gone generations.

Sabrina P. Ramet is a Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington and the author of seven books, including Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the War for Kosovo, third edition. (Westview Press, forthcoming in August 1999) and the editor of a dozen books including, Gender Politics in the Western Balkans: Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States (Penn State Press, 1999).