In one of history’s more recent ironies, during a June 27 meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic asked NATO to protect minority Serbs in Serbia’s increasingly autonomous Kosovo province. Jeremic said, “Regardless of political and diplomatic developments, maintaining peace and stability in Kosovo and the region must be an absolute priority” (AKI, June 27). He added, “I’m very worried by the security situation in our southern province. I asked de Hoop Scheffer and NATO to do everything to maintain public peace and order [and ensure] there is no threat to the security of Serbs and other non-Albanians in Kosovo.” NATO spokesman James Appathurai reported that de Hoop Scheffer had reassured Jeremic that NATO troops were fully capable of maintaining regional security, adding, “Any party that engages in violence will meet with a stiff response.”
NATO was not always so highly regarded in Belgrade. A 78-day NATO aerial campaign, Operation Allied Force, began on March 24, 1999, after Serb President Slobodan suddenly refused to sign the Rambouillet accord, which called for the immediate withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo. Milosevic’s government argued that under the terms of the agreement, NATO forces would not only have legal access to Kosovo but to all of Serbia, which Milosevic saw as submitting to a de facto military occupation.
Operation Allied Force was only NATO’s second major combat operation, the first being September 1995’s Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the 1999 assault was at first restricted to military targets in Kosovo, the bombing campaign was quickly extended to cover military and non-military targets throughout Serbia, including bridges, power stations, factories, broadcasting stations, and government buildings. At its height the campaign involved up to 1,000 aircraft operating primarily from Italian bases and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in the Adriatic. Cruise missiles were also used extensively. On June 9 Milosevic agreed to pull remaining Serbian forces from Kosovo, and the air campaign ended the next day.
Since that time Kosovo has been under United Nations control. Following Security Council Resolution 1244 a UN Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered the province the same month. At its height, KFOR deployments reached 50,000 and came from 39 different NATO and non-NATO countries, with current troop numbers hovering at around 16,000. Nearly 40 countries are currently contributing troops to KFOR, including Estonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine (KFOR Chronicle, May 31).
After eight years of UN-supervised autonomy Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is pressing for outright independence, a move strongly opposed by both Serbia and its ally Russia, which has threatened to veto any such measure in the Security Council. Ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbs in Kosovo’s two million-strong population 17:1, are frustrated that their independence efforts are stalled in the Security Council and have dropped veiled threats that they may use violence if the issue is not resolved soon.
Positions are hardening on both sides. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica insists that Kosovo cannot become independent unless the Serbian constitution states that it is no longer Serbian territory, telling reporters that Belgrade believes Russia will not allow the Security Council “to steal a sovereign country’s territory. This is why it would be extremely important for the countries who are ignoring Serbia’s right to maintain its territory to refrain from trying to undermine the authority of the UN Security Council. The solution for the Kosovo status issue must be found within the UN Security Council in accordance with the UN Charter and the Serbian Constitution” (Politika, June 28).
Emphasizing the heightened emotions surrounding the territory, extreme security operations were deployed for a June 28 ceremony commemorating the 618th anniversary of a battle at Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, when invading Ottoman forces defeated a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar. The UN Administrator in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker, banned a Serb paramilitary unit, the Tsar Lazar Guard, from entering Kosovo to attend the ceremony, fearing clashes with Albanian National Army (AKSH) and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militants. KFOR said it would not tolerate “paramilitary structures” in the province and would be searching buses and cars traveling from the Serb stronghold of northern Mitrovica while preparing to respond immediately to any provocation (Makedonska Radio Televizija, June 28).
As the world media focuses on the upcoming summit in Kennebunkport between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, Kosovo will undoubtedly form a major part of the discussions. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made the Bush administration’s position quite explicit, stating on June 24 that Kosovo must be “resolved in a way that will be stabilizing in the Balkans. As Bush has said, that means ultimately there will be an independent Kosovo,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the United Nations proposal ignore Serbian interests, particularly in not going far enough to protect Kosovo’s Serbian minority.
Some militant elements of Kosovo’s Albanian population are threatening violence to break the diplomatic deadlock. If that happens, then the world might again see NATO fighters in the skies over Kosovo, this time protecting the very people that they bombed eight years ago.