Building a ‘multiethnic’ tinderbox

Ethnic turmoil in Kosovo is the result of five years of UN and NATO meddling.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

Many UK liberal commentaries tell a self-flattering tale to explain the recent violence in Kosovo. According to the Guardian, ‘deep and intense’ ethnic hatreds are in danger of overturning the multiethnic peace that the international community is attempting to build (1). Journalist Ian Traynor argues that the Serb-Albanian conflict ‘differs from the other wars that tore Yugoslavia apart’ because the ‘Serbs and Albanians are ethnically distinct, barely communicate, live in separate communities, speak different languages’ (2). Apparently, of all the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, the conflict in Kosovo is the most difficult to resolve.

The minority rights provisions and multiethnic programmes being implemented and enforced by international authorities in the tiny province are seen as a solution to conflict. The international administrators from NATO and the United Nations (UN) argue that the ‘vision of a multiethnic Balkans’, which drew broad public support for international intervention in 1999, still has a long way to go, but can achieve success (3).

New NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asserts that the violence demonstrates that the internationals are necessary because the Albanians are not yet fit to govern themselves (4) – and reports suggest that the timetable for a final constitutional settlement and international withdrawal has been set back (5). Until then, the office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, headed by the former prime-minister of Finland, Harri Holkeri, holds sweeping executive powers, backed up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and NATO.

However, the truth is that after five years of international rule, the international regime has achieved little in the way of establishing a multiethnic society in Kosovo. A report published earlier in March 2004 by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global IDP Project, states that less than 10,000 of the 250,000 Serbian and Roma refugees who fled Kosovo when the Yugoslav forces withdrew have been able to return (6). An Amnesty International report published in 2003 stated that minority communities are denied freedom of movement and basic rights to employment, healthcare and education (7). Rather than building a multiethnic state, the UN and NATO have overseen the creation of one of the most ethnically homogenous regions in Europe, where ethnic Albanians make up some 95 per cent of the population.

It is not the drowning of two ethnic Albanian children (whether accidental or deliberate), nor the outbreaks of anti-Serb violence that swept across the province last week, which have undermined inter-ethnic relations in the region. Relations had degenerated long before these events.

But this isn’t due to the innate irreconcilability of the Serbs and Albanians – in fact, there was less pressure in Kosovo when the Yugoslav federal state collapsed than in other more divided republics. The fact that ethnic Albanians were not in a position to challenge Belgrade meant that compromise rather than conflict defined ethnic relations.

It was external intervention that changed the relations of power, and sparked a breakdown in Serb-Albanian relations. The international politicisation of ethnic Albanian unrest by leading Western states fed the conflict rather than ameliorating it. By delegitmising the Serbian state, and seeing the conflict in moralised terms of Serbian abusers and ethnic-Albanian victims, a negotiated settlement was seen to be illegitimate. The Rambouillet Agreement in 1999, for example, attempted to impose a US State Department solution rather than allow a compromise position to be freely negotiated by the parties. The end of a multiethnic Kosovo was assured when NATO bombs began falling on the 24 March 1999.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
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  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
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  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
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  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
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    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
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    (1) ‘Kosovo: The Latest Flames’, editorial, Guardian, 19 March 2004

    (2) Ian Traynor, ‘Chain Reaction’, Guardian, 23 March 2004

    (3) Carl Bild, ‘Why Kosovo Must Not Submit to Violence’, Financial Times, 22 March 2004

    (4) Cited in Ian Traynor, ‘Chain Reaction’, Guardian, 23 March 2004

    (5) ‘Kosovo Killings Raise the Stakes’, editorial, Financial Times, 22 March 2004

    (6) ‘As Prospects for Return to Kosovo Remain Slim, Authorities Must Increase Assistance to the Displaced’, 11 March 2004 (available from the Global IDP Project website)

    (7) Prisoners in our own Homes, Amnesty International, 29 April 2003

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    Topics Politics


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