Report / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Inventory of Windfall

When on 15 May 1998 Slobodan Milosevic met with Ibrahim Rugova it was the first time that the Yugoslav president had met with an Albanian leader from Kosovo in close to a decade.

Executive Summary

When on 15 May 1998 Slobodan Milosevic met with Ibrahim Rugova it was the first time that the Yugoslav president had met with an Albanian leader from Kosovo in close to a decade.  The event, heralding weekly talks between Kosovo’s Albanians and the Serbian government, has thus been hailed as a "dramatic turn-about" and "a first step toward peace in Kosovo".  However, the fact that, after so many years of stale-mate, some kind of negotiations have begun, should not in itself be a reason for euphoria.  Key to the success of any talks is the framework within which they take place.  Negotiations concerning the future status of Kosovo may, as a result of the concessions offered to the Yugoslav president, have got off to an inauspicious start.

The Milosevic-Rugova meeting took place in the aftermath of six months of escalating violence in Kosovo between Serbian police and a separatist Albanian militia, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).  It also followed intense US shuttle diplomacy under the auspices of Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Bosnian peace settlement.

For Milosevic, the US diplomatic mission has proved a godsend.  By agreeing to meet Rugova and apparently nothing else, Milosevic has parried a half-hearted threat by the Contact Group countries -- the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia -- to impose new economic sanctions on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  These sanctions, depending on how they were engineered and targeted, had the potential to threaten Milosevic's hold on power and thereby pressure him to strike an agreement that would define a new modus vivendi for Kosovo's Serbs and Albanians.  Now the pressure on Milosevic to make a deal has dissipated, and Milosevic has worked the Contact Group countries into a position where they could be compelled in the near term to acquiesce to, and perhaps even assist, a Serbian police crackdown on the KLA.

Milosevic has positioned himself to continue exploiting the Kosovo dispute for his own political benefit by blaming the KLA for the on-going violence in the region, even as his police take steps to goad the KLA to carry out more attacks.  By working to focus the eyes of the world on Kosovo, Milosevic has also diverted them from the conflict between Serbia and tiny Montenegro, Serbia's partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  Without a peep of public criticism from the Contact Group, Milosevic has applied Stalinist-style "salami tactics" in a bid to destroy the freedom of Serbia's independent broadcast media and quash the autonomy of its universities.  Milosevic has also laid the groundwork for a new political offensive to re-extend his authority over Montenegro.

The end of the sanctions’ threat and Rugova's agreement to drop his demand for foreign mediation in the talks have weakened the Albanian negotiating position and split the Albanian leadership between advocates of a pacifist approach and supporters of a violent independence struggle.  Rugova has also worked himself into a position where he might either have to abandon his demand for Kosovo's independence or openly throw his support behind the KLA.  Thus, the Milosevic-Rugova meeting has deepened the rift between Rugova and the militant separatists and presented Rugova and his supporters with the challenge of convincing their more extreme compatriots to abandon the armed struggle.

Given his track record, anything which appears to shore up Milosevic’s position is almost certainly bad for peace and stability in both Kosovo and the wider region.  Finding a political settlement which balances legitimate Serb and Albanian interests in Kosovo and heads off further bloodshed, will require far more robust and engaged international intervention including both preventive NATO deployment and foreign mediation.

Belgrade, 28 May 1998

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