History shows that partition and population exchange is often the least bad answer to ethnic conflict. Western reluctance to accept this fact prolonged the Bosnian war and could complicate the exodus from Kosovo. The alternative to partition in the Balkans is the presence of a large outside force-indefinitely.by Anatol Lieven / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the run-up to the Nato intervention in the Kosovo conflict, I was told by several Nato advisers: “The only question is whether Milosevic will give in just before or just after the start of air strikes.” It is easy to be wise after the event, but this phrase illuminates the multiple errors which led Nato into war. To begin with, in the whole lexicon of international relations, there is no such thing as “air strikes.” Even a limited armed attack on another country constitutes an act of war. And in war, the enemy can be expected to hit back with every means at his disposal. Furthermore, a war over Kosovo was never going to be with “Milosevic.” This war is with the Yugoslav state and the Serbian nation; like so many wars, it began between the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians over control of a particular territory, and Nato has now ended up on the side of the Albanians. As in any war, a Nato victory will require a partial or even complete Serbian defeat.
The question now facing Nato leaders is the extent of the defeat they can or wish to inflict on the Serbs; what this comes down to, in the end, is how Kosovo is going to be divided or whether Nato means to give the whole province to the Albanians, leading to a voluntary or forced exodus of the Serb minority.
In other words, this means the terms of an ethnic partition. No significant number of Albanians will be able to live safely under Serbian rule in the future-and the much smaller, but deeply-rooted, Serbian population will also not be able to live under Albanian rule. This has become obvious in recent weeks, but the breakdown of ethnic relations in the province was evident in the 1980s; it has roots in territorial conflict going back 1,300 years, exacerbated by the Albanian role in the crushing of Serb revolts against the Ottomans and the atrocities committed by both sides in the wars since the Ottoman empire’s collapse.
War is a school of realism, a solvent of established beliefs and an impetus to harsh, but clear decisions. The fact that, in going to war, Nato has stepped outside the usual bounds of international legality (such as it is), should help us to take a hard look at some of the shibboleths on which western policy towards ethnic conflicts have been founded. Having gone to war to prevent the violent suppression of an ethnic rebellion, and having-as will surely be the case-gone on to divide up a state, it would be strange now to return to a rigid adherence to the principles of territorial integrity. The fact that our servicemen are risking their lives in a conflict in which Britain’s interests are hardly at stake, should make us focus on what history can tell us about achieving lasting ethnic settlements.